Efficiency in Technical Information Development
We may all have experienced moments of confusion due to the complex features of an “advanced” product. Fortunately, many products come with instructions for use, either published on paper or on the Internet. After spending a couple of minutes searching and reading the instructions, you fold them up, and the product functions as expected. Since a large portion of product users actually consult this type of information,1 technical documentation seems to have become an important part of the product itself. This conclusion can also be drawn from other research on technical publications. For instance, Jansen (1994) revealed that reading instructions is preferred to asking colleagues for help, performing trial and error, or calling the help desk. Furthermore, other studies have shown that most consumers indicate that they will buy a product from the same manufacturer if the previous purchase came with a clearly written manual.2 These findings demonstrate that technical information has indeed become part of the product and that manufacturers need to acknowledge its important role in product evaluation by users.
To ensure the production of high-quality technical information, all relevant content must be conveyed in such a way that it can be used easily, properly, and effectively. Too much or too little information or ambiguous information can lead to confusion, stress, and unnecessary effort on the part of readers.3 This confusion may have potentially dangerous consequences, because it may cause human injuries as well as costly material consequences.4 However, in a world in which products are becoming more complex, it is no surprise that the accompanying technical information is becoming more complex as well. This complexity increases the risk that the content is unclear, while the liability for faulty or incomplete information is becoming a crucial factor. Nevertheless, product users still demand high-quality products and, therefore, expect technical information to be directly available and crystal clear. Moreover, product development schedules are increasingly shorter, increasing the pressure on technical publication staff even more. Despite these issues, budgets to support technical publications are shrinking. In response, organizations are focusing on creating technical information more efficiently. Figure 1 shows the top five reasons for organizations to improve their publication process.
Figure 1: Top Five Reasons to Improve the Quality of Technical Publications Within an Organization (Houlihan, 2009)
To improve the publication process, a strategy must be developed for creating and dealing with technical information. Since, to the best of our knowledge, the literature lacks a clearly defined general strategy, we reviewed the literature on developments in technical information and described the necessary steps to enhance the publication process. We created a model based on the view that writers and illustrators must work systematically, according to fixed methods and agreements derived from research in their field. Information must be properly phrased and structured according to (international) standards specifically aimed for use in technical writing and illustrating. Effective writing provides the most efficient way to produce unambiguous information in a relatively short time at low cost, enabling users to access the right information in all types of formats. In this article, we explain how we deal with the top four reasons for improving the publication process.
The Four Key Principles
In conducting our literature review, we found four general requirements for producing high-quality technical information. Obviously, the first and most evident requirement is the presence of well-trained and experienced technical writers and illustrators on the publication staff.5 Second, one must present simplified information according to uniform methods and standards that will avoid ambiguous and/or redundant text and illustrations. Imposing restrictions will create a controlled way of working for content designers, which is expected to result in an increase in quality. Third, text and illustrations have to be created according to the single-sourcing principle, and the data must be managed through a central CMS database. Single-sourcing offers the possibility to reuse data and significantly increases the efficiency with which information is created. Fourth, by applying topic-based authoring, single-sourcing and
information exchange is simplified. To meet all requirements, scholars in the field of technical information have introduced (international) standards to make the production of technical
content more uniform. For the purpose of this article, we discuss the requirements for technical information development below in more detail, together with the available standards.6
Simplifying Information Development
A significant step towards increasing the perceived quality of information is to produce content that is systematically simplified. Writers must follow rules for writing, including the use of short, simple sentences conveying accurate information. Simplified Technical English (STE) is the international specification (ASD, 2005) used for controlling language in technical publications.7 It was initially designed to create clear and understandable technical English in the aerospace and military sectors, particularly for non-native speakers. Research has shown that the use of this specification yields significant improvements in the quality of technical information while reducing its length.8 For instance, Shubert and colleagues (1995) revealed significantly better task performance for both native and non-native English speakers when reading an STE version of a manual compared to a non-STE version. Spyridakis and colleagues (1997), who investigated the quality and ease of use of translations from STE into other languages, demonstrate that STE can be accurately translated. They revealed that translations into other languages from STE were significantly better in terms of accuracy, style match, and comprehension and contained fewer mistranslations than a non-STE document. These findings explain why technical content ideally is written in STE, as it already is at many organizations in the software, telecommunications, medical, automotive, and semiconductor sectors.
As part of the design process, technical information often contains text and graphics to communicate and elucidate potentially difficult concepts and processes. Graphics (graphs, charts, pictures, and so on) are a fundamental component of technical publications, typically managed by illustrators. Through the years, graphics have increasingly gained importance in technical documents.9 Beiger (1982) argued that graphics coupled with text instructions facilitated learning of procedural assembly tasks. Stone and Glock (1981) revealed that graphics provided during the learning of such tasks decreased errors. Some companies use 3D visualization and publishing technologies to embed dynamic 3D, 2D, and 2.5D illustrations (see Figures 2 and 3) within electronic documents; these illustrations allow users to explore the product in more detail and see animations of procedures applicable to service and maintenance. Although these findings clearly reveal the value of illustrations, the decision for including them in publications is the result of careful consideration. Illustrators have to follow procedures, which we call rules for Simplified Illustrations. These rules indicate that illustrations should only be included if they simplify and/or clarify instructions and descriptions given in the text and allow ambiguity to persist if they are absent. For instance, photographs are the most realistic way of representing objects. However, photographs are not recommended as it is difficult to select the visual information you wish to present.10 Although Simplified Illustration is not a universal standard, unlike STE, Tedopres Documentation (2011) has developed the methodology of Simplified Technical Illustrations (STI), combining the objectives of simplifying illustrations and single sourcing.
Used in combination with STE and STI (see Figure 4), single sourcing is a powerful method of enhancing the quality of technical information. It promotes uniformity and simplifies and reduces the content. However, since technical information per product has increased in volume, storing and finding data becomes more complicated. As a result, many companies choose a component content management system (CCMS) to manage large amounts of single-source content. Standards, such as DITA11 and S1000D (ASD) provide consistent structure and content element codification, which are essential for the efficient compilation, identification, management, and integration of complex data in a computer environment. Further, they define a method of exchanging technical information within an organization or among multiple suppliers and customers.
Figure 4: Combining STE and STI
Combining the Four Key Principles
We have discussed the most relevant requirements for creating high-quality and future-proof technical information found in academic literature. However, to our best knowledge, the field of technical information development lacks an overview in which these requirements are discussed together. We introduce the Tedopres Model (see Figure 5), which illustrates the process of creating technical information, as well as the requirements and benefits. This “roadmap” is the key strategy to produce high-quality and future-proof content for publications.
Figure 5: The Tedopres Model, a schematic overview of how to produce high-quality and future-proof technical publications.
The first phase of the model, Information Development, represents the importance of basic requirements such as authors’ experience and knowledge in engineering, writing, illustration, and pedagogy skills.12 Subsequently, standards are required to simplify and reduce content that will result in increased safety and reduced costs (translations, printing, time to market, and so on.). However, information in the first two phases can only produce static content in documents, often published in PDF. By applying standards as shown in the third and fourth columns, dynamic content can be created that allows for many publication types based on video, animations, or speech.13 Further, these phases represent a simplified method of easily creating, integrating, and exchanging technical information. The combination of all four phases will greatly enhance the process of creating technical information.
Applying the Four Key Principles
Recent survey studies can be consulted to illustrate the consequences of applying the Tedopres Model to produce technical information.14 These studies include responses from 165 to 360 enterprises, in which the use, experiences, and intentions of the technical communication departments were examined.15 The enterprises are categorized by the quality of their technical publishing process: Best in Class (top 20 percent) Industry Average (mid 50 percent) and Laggard (bottom 30 percent). Houlihan (2009) revealed that the “Best in Class” companies were able to decrease their inbound calls to customer support by 41 percent, while the companies in the other classes were unable to decrease them (0 percent). Further, the “Best in Class” companies decreased by 42 percent the time to resolve a problem through customer support; the companies in the other classes only decreased time to resolution by 13 percent. In addition, the customer satisfaction score of the “Best in Class” companies improved by 41 percent (other companies by 17 percent), while their product revenue increased by 45 percent (other companies 8 percent). These results clearly show that enterprises in the category “Best in Class” significantly enhance the quality of their products and simultaneously reduce costs by improving the process of technical information development. To test the Tedopres Model, we analyzed Houlihan’s data and focused on the requirements in each phase of our model. In the ideal situation, enterprises in the “Best in Class” category should have adopted the requirements in the model more frequently than those in the other categories.
The analysis confirms that all requirements in our model are more frequently included in the publication process by “Best in Class” enterprises and less frequently by those in the “Laggard” category (see Figure 6). The graph shows that more top performers create content by using 3D Publishing (illustrations) and Simplified English (text), which results in simplified and reduced content. Further, a small part of this group uses general word processors (Microsoft Word), while a significantly larger part works with structured document authoring tools (Arbortext, XMetaL). Top performers more often have two or more years of experience in topic-based authoring, giving them the ability to more easily create and exchange information throughout the company and with customers/suppliers. These findings strongly indicate that applying the Tedopres Model will contribute to maximizing the quality of technical publications and minimizing costs.
Figure 6: The presence of requirements from the Tedopres Model in three categories of enterprises. The data is based on research conducted by the Aberdeen Group (Houlihan, 2006; 2008; 2009).
Information Development that is Future Proof
Developments in technology enable us to retrieve information quickly, concisely, and in a way customized to our needs. However, to produce content that meets these demands, technical information will need to be created systematically, according to fixed processes and standards derived from research in the technical communication literature. We identified four key requirements to enhance and update the publishing process: (1) trained and experienced authors, (2) simplified content, (3) single sourcing, and (4) topic-based authoring. Using data from several survey studies, we have demonstrated that these requirements all appear to contribute to enhancing the development, management, and publication process of information. Following the requirements not only creates efficiency in information development, but also makes your information accessible to your end-users whenever they need it (see Figure 7), in the most user-friendly way because it allows your information to be communicated as efficiently as possible using the latest available technologies, such as Augmented Reality, text-to-speech, voice commands, visual tracking, and much more.
Figure 7: Your Product Information Interactive on Tablets
Tedopres has been offering professional technical documentation services since 1974. We specialize in all assets that come with technical documentation, including technical translation in over 50 languages, technical illustrations as well as software development to support the creation and management of technical documentation. We have an outstanding reputation of providing our customers with cost-effective, high-quality service that meets industry-specific standards.
The author appreciates the support of Peter Sistermans (Tedopres, Manager Translation Department Intellectual Property & Standards), Mechteld Groot Bruinderink (Tedopres, Graphic Designer) and JoAnn T. Hackos, PhD (Comtech, President) for their valuable input on this article.
1 Schriver, 1997; Jansen & Balijon, 2002
2 Schriver, 1997; Jansen & Balijon, 2002
3 Pinchuck, 1955
4 Van der Eijk, 1998; Nyberg, Mitamura & Huijsen, 2003
5 More often than we think, companies initially assign the development of technical manuals to engineers who have not been trained in technical writing. Later in the process, the development may shift to professional information development as companies discover that technical publication is not an area to cut corners.
6 Since the presence of trained and experienced experts is evident, this requirement is not discussed.
7 Technical documentation is often written in English; from this language, it may be translated into other languages. Although some writers author directly in their native languages, the specification dictates that the leading document should be written in English.
8 Disborg, 2007
9 Johnson, 2007
10 White, 1996
11 Day et al., 2003; Szymanowski, Candell & Karim, 2010
12 Byrne, 2010
13 Jansen and Balijon (2002) revealed that more people with little education indicate that they never use a (text) manual in contrast with people with a middle or high level of education. We expect that dynamic visual and voice explanations combined with text may be more practical for the first group.
14 Houlihan, 2006; 2008; 2009
15 The sample included CEOs, senior vice presidents, technical communication managers, and technical communication staff from a wide range of industry sectors (telecommunications, industrial equipment, and so on) around the world.
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Brian Gajadhar is R&D Program Manager at Tedopres and an expert in digital media in the field of Human-Technology Interaction. His focus is on the development of ways to provide technical instructions through the use of innovative technologies such as text-to-speech, augmented reality, 3D animations, and online video communication. Furthermore, his research involves the implementation of international standards on information management within Tedopres and its customers (e.g., STE, S1000D, DITA, SCORM).