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August 2012

Influencing the Bottom Line: Using Information Architecture to Effect Business Success

CIDMIconNewsletterJoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

First published in Intercom in Volume 59, Issue 1 by the Society for Technical Communication

Innovative information architects are molding their designs to influence product success, from extending content collaboration across the enterprise, integrating end-users into the content development process, decreasing time to market, and creating environments in which information influences the viability of the product. In this discussion, I introduce several case studies in which information architects are pursuing innovations in information development and delivery that contribute to the profitability of their companies.

Do Innovations in Information Architecture Contribute to Profitability?

Technical communicators are often informed by engineering and marketing colleagues, as well as senior management, that technical content does not contribute to the corporate bottom line. These colleagues view technical content as a “necessary evil” that is required by customers but unimportant to product sales.

As a result, information development is poorly funded and often the first victim of outsourcing and downsizing. To combat opinions about the high cost of information development, in 1982-3 STC funded a study, conducted by Janice (Ginny) Redish and Judy Ramey, that provided case studies of situations in which innovative information development reduced costs. The study, however, did not touch on contributions to corporate profits, in part because there was little data to that effect.

With the implementation of the OASIS DITA standards in many corporate environments, managers must demonstrate that they have achieved a return on investment. Consequently, it seems, we have experienced an increased attention to measurements of productivity increases, decreases in translation costs, reduced costs of customer support, and increases in customer acceptance and sales. Each of these measurements has an effect on profitability.

Although many measurements focus on the cost side of the profitability equation, I have been most interested in evidence that superior, innovative information architecture can have a dramatic effect on revenues. The cases that I present in this article point to both decreased cost and increased revenue. However, the revenue cases provide what I believe are more vivid and persuasive examples of innovation that may be useful in changing the perceptions of senior management.

Measure the Customers’ Propensity to Buy a Product or Recommend it to Others

If you have not yet heard of the Net Promoter Score (NPS), it’s likely that you will—and soon. NPS is quickly becoming a key corporate indicator of customer satisfaction.

NPS was first promoted by Frederick F. Reichheld in his 2003 article in the Harvard Business Review. In that article, “The One Number You Need to Grow,” (Dec 01, 2003), Reichheld explained the NPS this way:

“Companies spend lots of time and money on complex tools to assess customer satisfaction. But they’re measuring the wrong thing. The best predictor of top-line growth can usually be captured in a single survey question: Would you recommend this company to a friend? This finding is based on two years of research in which a variety of survey questions were tested by linking the responses with actual customer behavior—purchasing patterns and referrals—and ultimately with company growth. Surprisingly, the most effective question wasn’t about customer satisfaction or even loyalty per se. In most of the industries studied, the percentage of customers enthusiastic enough about a company to refer it to a friend or colleague directly correlated with growth rates among competitors. Willingness to talk up a company or product to friends, family, and colleagues is one of the best indicators of loyalty because of the customer’s sacrifice in making the recommendation. When customers act as references, they do more than indicate they’ve received good economic value from a company; they put their own reputations on the line. The findings point to a new, simpler approach to customer research, one directly linked to a company’s results.”

Gathering the data and calculating your NPS is really quite simple. Customers are asked if they would recommend a product to a friend or colleague. Using a 10-point scale, from 0 for “not at all likely” to 10 for “extremely likely,” they respond. Once the survey is complete, the NPS can be calculated by dividing the results into three categories and counting the number of responses in each category:

  • Promoters are those who score you 9 or 10. They are very enthusiastic and ready to recommend your product widely
  • Passives are those who score you 7 or 8. They’re OK with your product but could easily be drawn away by the competition.
  • Detractors are those who are very unhappy with your product and likely to send negative messages. They score 6 or lower.

To determine the NPS, calculate the percentage of customers who are promoters and subtract the percentage who are detractors. For example, if 70 percent of customers think the product is useless and only 10 percent would strongly promote it, you have an NPS of 10 percent -70 percent of -60.

For more information, see <http://www.netpromoter.com/np/calculate.jsp>

With an NPS of -60, you’re not likely to be in business much longer unless you significantly change your business model. You want to turn the detractors into promoters, not just by making them less unhappy but also by actually turning them into active advocates.

To turn around the negative attitudes of existing customers, you need to embrace several key business objectives as well as reinvent your information architecture:

  • Create an atmosphere in the company that focuses on customer quality.
  • Set out a roadmap for the changes that you know must occur for you to be successful.
  • Gather data that you can trust about what your customers demand from product and service quality.
  • Get to the real causes of customer unhappiness by conducting a root-cause analysis.
  • Take action for correcting the problems uncovered and ensure that people are accountable for the solutions.
  • Embrace innovation and embark on a program that transforms your company into one that understands and cares about your customers.

What is most interesting about the NPS is that it has most to do with the quality of the product and its accompanying information, training, and support. It’s not about a list of features or how many new releases occur in one year. It’s not even about sales. It’s about the service provided to customers after they have purchased your product.

At least one company recognized the importance of its customer content after getting a really low NPS. In addition to the base question about customer loyalty, they asked how much product usability and content quality influenced the customer’s loyalty ranking. Both scored low. As a result, senior management became advocates for significantly improving content quality. That meant changing the relationship between the technical authors and the product developers, requiring that information architects establish close relationships with customer support and training, and redefining the type of content that would be delivered to customers in the future.

This organization has big goals and a challenging transformation ahead, but the executives now recognize that content quality has a dramatic affect on customer loyalty, as does the usability of the product. The key to the success of the transformation is direct support from the top executives and the enlistment of everyone else in the company in the re-architecting effort.

Consider Metrics-based Publishing

In a case study presented by Bob Lee at the 2011 Best Practices conference, we learned that the information architects at Symantec asked for measurements about the effect of content on the volume of calls coming to the support center. They were interested in support-call volume, activity on a corporate-sponsored forum, and the number of hits on a key set of topics on the website. They were looking for key areas in which topics would solve specific customer problems and help customers be self-supporting.

By studying which issues generated the most support calls, which forum threads were most active, and which topics got the most hits, they were able to make key changes to a set of how-to topics, optimizing their content and metadata. They also linked the how-to topics to the Forum threads to encourage customers to read them. Then, they measured again.

The targeted, task-oriented topics rose to become the most popular content on the website for the particular technology. Hits on these optimized topics rose by 344 percent, demonstrating that even how-to topics can be made more accessible through search-engine optimization.

A previous study had already demonstrated that how-to topics led to better accessibility than PDF-delivered content. For the Backup Exec product, how-to topics generated 3,175,815 hits in one month, while PDF documentation generated 124,027 hits in the same month, a ratio of 25.6 to 1.

Although 85 percent of the content was the same between the PDF and the how-to topics, the same content is found much more frequently in the how-to format. Despite what customers may tell you about how much they like PDFs, the evidence strongly suggests that topics are actually used more.

Bob also reported a positive increase in visits to the content and interest among customers. He explained that their “buzz score” increased from 3.1. to 7.4. The “buzz score”tracks activity on the Forum, including people who begin threads, people who add responses, and people who lurk. At 3.1, a few people posted responses and a few people lurked. At 7.4, someone started the thread, multiple people responded, and many people lurked. Thirty percent of the forum threads received more responses from customers, and 40 percent of customers reported that the enhanced content resolved their issues, which meant they had no need to call support.

The customer support organization also reported a successful outcome. Calls for the enhanced content dropped by 37 percent and what had been the number one source of calls dropped to second place. Best of all, support spent 40 percent less time on calls about basic system setup, giving them more time to support calls that required their expertise.

As a result of the newly re-architected content, Symantec has been able to promote content that customers really needed. They increased activity in the customer forums and decreased the number of calls to support on the targeted subject. No longer were the support engineers simply “reading the manual” to the customers.

Quite clearly, customer approval of the content was significantly increased by the new content architecture.

Consider Effecting the Product Development Process

In a second case study, presented by Bob Beims of Freescale Semiconductor, the information architects asked what impact improvements to the information development process would have to the quality of the product. They set about to measure that impact by asking when content development should begin.

They believed that involving authors early in the product-development life cycle, especially as the early design stages, would significantly improve product quality. They knew that product developers often do not review content until the last moment before product release or, product changes are made after final content production. They also knew that explaining product-design concepts early clarifies thinking, eliminates ambiguity, and avoids errors in product development. Customer-oriented content created early also helps developers move from the “what” of the product (features) to the “how” (user scenarios and solutions).

The information architects developed a “document first” approach, sponsored by director of research and development, starting with small wins before moving to larger projects. They communicated their new process to the senior vice presidents and the CEO, effectively inaugurating a culture change in the organization.

Critical Path Method

Central to their process change was the adoption of Critical Chain Project Management to replace the traditional Critical Path Method used. Under Critical Path, information development was not allowed into the product-development life cycle at the beginning. The content was only taken seriously by the engineers at the end of the process. Because they had to wait until the late stages for attention from engineering, information developers spent much of their time on non-value added activities. Yet, they were blamed if content was late or delayed at product launch.

For more information on the Critical Path Method, see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Critical_path_method>

Critical Chain Method

The adoption of Critical Chain methods, coupled with topic-based co-development with engineering, has resulted in greater agility, allowing information developers to provide value throughout the project life cycle.

See <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Critical_Chain_Project_Management> for more information about Critical Chain.

A better information architecture process led to higher quality information, including content that is correct, complete, and focused on procedures rather than features.

The new process improved the accuracy of the information, allowed automatic validation of the XML content, allowed for more opportunities to update the content during the process, and allowed the product to be released to testing in enough time to make design changes and correct errors in product design.

As a result of the process changes, a two- to three-month subprocess was reduced to fewer than three days, and design data in XML became available six to nine months earlier than with the previous process. In one project, the early availability of design data helped identify a problem that would have been costly to correct later on. Information development is now in a position to change the way information is developed and delivered to customers, including a change from feature-oriented to solutions-oriented information that customers want and need. The new processes, supported by new technologies, make this possible.

Consider Improving the Customer Experience

Chona Shumate of Cymer, a semiconductor company, reported on a study that showed that field service engineers were taking far too much time to find the information they needed to troubleshoot and repair customer equipment. The required content was located in multiple repositories, including some on user laptop computers. Procedures were often isolated from related and important information.

Based on their survey data, the information architects determined that they needed a single information hub where the field service engineers could find all the information they needed to do their jobs. The unified support forum would provide one place to search and find information, a One-Stop Shop.

Because the architecture team had detailed survey results, they were able to set up measurements that would demonstrate the value of the changes to senior management. The survey indicated that

  • users took on average 10 to 20 minutes to find information.
  • information needed to be found from one location.
  • users needed information on their laptops because they were often not connected to the content repositories.
  • users needed a forum to exchange information and obtain expert help.

The goal of the One-Stop Shop was determined by the metrics of time—the time it took to find the needed information, the time required to transform unstructured knowledge into structured content, and the time required to resolve a customer problem from beginning to end.

To deal with unstructured knowledge, the information architect is implementing a Technical Issues Forum to provide for bi-directional, multi-user information exchange. Information exchanged in the Forum is “captured and transformed into structured content and repurposed to deliverables as appropriate.”

The success of the project to redesign information access and exchange can be measured. For example, the architecture team’s first goal is to reduce the time to find information to five minutes or less. The second goal, transforming unstructured to structured content, can be measured because it is solely under the control of the information developers. The third goal of reducing the time to resolve a customer problem is yet a work in progress.

Information Architecture—An Essential Ingredient to Product Success

As these case studies demonstrate, information architecture has a significant role to play in the success of a product. We know that buyers, especially those who are not early adopters, rely on references from people they know and respect before they make a purchase decision. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) demonstrates that connection. If better, more timely content and improved content accessibility creates happier, more loyal customers, they are more likely to recommend products and services to friends and colleagues. Those recommendations result in more sales, especially more sales among the late majority customers who are, according to Geoffrey Moore’s model in Crossing the Chasm, reluctant to buy products that are not used by respected colleagues.

A loyal customer base, encouraged by meaningful post-sales support, is a most valuable asset. Customers who find what they need, get their questions answered quickly and accurately, and can act independently are our most loyal customers. They are most likely to define themselves as Promoters on the NPS.

Information architects can become serious contributors to product success and company profitability, but as the case studies demonstrate, they need data and measurement. Douglas Hubbard, in How to Measure Anything, Finding The Value of “Intangibles” In Business, asserts that we need effective measurements to make better decisions and reduce the uncertainty inevitably connected to our design decisions. We want to make better “bets” on the future. To do so, we need to focus on the measurements that have the highest payoff and give us the most useful information.

In each of the case studies, the information architects found ways to measure their effectiveness:

  • the value of enhanced content to customers seeking answers to their questions
  • the value of a major information-development process change to the success of product development
  • the value of content accessibility and currency to customer productivity and success

Each new design and the resulting measurements ended in more satisfied and effective customers. Information architecture innovations succeed when they can prove their value. Careful design in response to data and measurements leads to that success. CIDMIconNewsletter


Douglas W. Hubbard

How to Measure Anything, Finding The Value of “Intangibles” In Business, 2nd Edition

2010, Hoboken, NJ

John Wiley and Sons

ISBN: 0470539399

Geoffrey Moore

Crossing the Chasm

1991, New York, NY

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 0060517123

Frederick F. Reichheld

“The One Number You Need to Grow”

Harvard Business Review

December 01, 2003

Janice C. Redish and Judith Ramey

“Measuring the Value Added by Professional Technical Communicators: Introduction,’

Technical Communication

First Quarter (February) 1995

Pages 23-25

 JoannPictureJoAnn Hackos

Comtech Services, Inc.


Dr. JoAnn Hackos is President of Comtech Services Inc., a content management and information-development consultancy she founded in 1978. She is Director of The Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM), a membership organization focused on best practices in content management and information development. Dr. Hackos is a founding member with IBM of the Technical Committee for DITA at OASIS and co-editor of the DITA specification. She has been a leader in content management for technical information for more than 30 years, helping organizations move to structured authoring, minimalism, and single sourcing. She introduced content management and single sourcing to the Society for Technical Communication (STC) in 1996 and has been instrumental in developing awareness worldwide of the DITA initiative. She hosts or keynotes numerous industry conferences and workshops in the field.