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March 2019

User Assistance: From Afterthought to Valued Stakeholder

CIDMIconNewsletter Samantha Rudolph, SAP

Too often, technical communicators are made to feel like they have been relegated to the bottom of the corporate barrel. Many of us come from a background in the liberal arts, so our peers (with PhDs in Physics or master’s degrees in Computer Science, for example) assume that we will never be able to understand a complex topic enough to write something sensible about it. Scrum teams don’t invite tech writers to planning meetings because it would be “over our heads” anyway. Executives might simply say that no one reads documentation anymore, so investing in technical communicators is a waste. The list goes on.

My team is living proof that anyone can crawl out from the bottom of that corporate barrel and land at the top of the stack. For the past two years since taking over the User Assistance team (which is what we call technical writing) at SAP SuccessFactors, my team has doubled in size and is expected to grow even more. The success of some of SAP SuccessFactors’ most important innovations in 2019 relies heavily on my team and our content. We are in the spotlight, and my phone rings constantly with asks for me and my team to get involved early in new and exciting projects.

So what is the secret to our success? How did we evolve from a company with no technical communicators to one where User Assistance is growing every year in both in size and popularity? It hasn’t been easy, but my team, with a lot of passion and even more grit, has quickly become one of the most valued stakeholders at SAP SuccessFactors. It all started with an attitude and mindset change.

It’s no wonder that many technical writers I’ve spoken to have developed a bit of a complex since starting their careers. When I first began as an information developer back in 2006, on my first day on the job I was told by fellow technical writers that we were referred to in Development as “documentation mice”. At the time, wet behind the ears, I didn’t think much of it, but now, after years of being in this field and almost a decade’s worth of managing technical writing teams under my belt, I know that if we are to be taken seriously, and if management is going to invest in User Assistance, we must all evolve from “documentation mice” into fiercely large beasts akin to the Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.) from my favorite movie, The Princess Bride.

Now I’m not talking about growing actual long tails and gnarly teeth. But what technical writers need to be able to do is to stand on their own two feet, have a strong backbone, and demand the respect that we deserve as experts in writing and in our fields, whether it be in software, banking, or tractor manufacturing. The very nature of our jobs is to distil complex information into language that can be understood by anyone, and that requires deep subject matter expertise. Technical writers have a unique perspective of the products we describe and are among the greatest customer empaths in any organization. All we need to do is let everyone know just how critical we are to our customers’ success and to the success of our business.

A confident, innovative, visionary, and strategic User Assistance team can thrive and grow in any environment, no matter how hostile it may seem. The keys to success are simple:

  • Get involved: If you see a strategic project where you know that you and your team will provide value, stick your foot in the door and get a seat at the table. At first, they won’t call you. Over time, your phone will ring early and often once you’ve shown your organization and your customers how valuable User Assistance is. And shift left in the development process. Make sure you are involved in development as early as the design phase so that you can help shape the product with your empathetic eyes and vision.
  • Customer empathy is key: Find a way to get in touch with your customers, whether it’s through low-key surveys or formal customer engagement activities with Product Management or UX. And any time you have a customer event, make sure you get a ticket and have either a session of your own or tailgate on someone else’s session.
  • Bolt yourself to the latest trends and technology: As the business adopts new technology, find its connection to User Assistance and sell that message upwards and across the business. Train your team on any new technology so that they are ready to make an impact when you ask them to get involved.
  • Get data that proves your value: Reduced number of incoming support tickets, increased feature adoption, better customer satisfaction scores: these are all examples of data points that can support your business case. Analytics are your friend, so get and share data on how many people (internal and external) are accessing your deliverables, and if possible, how they are using your content to help get their jobs done. Make sure that your team and leadership are set up for success by creating tangible outcomes and measuring yourself against them.

Perhaps the most important part of gaining visibility and prowess in your organization is to ensure that you have the best team and organizational structure you can possibly have. It might sound obvious, but it’s worth repeating. Here are my main tips for ensuring that your team will be set up for success:

  • Promote and develop great talent: You must have knowledge architects in your organization who can lead the team on technical innovation and information architecture. Management needs to focus on strategy and running the business, so your manager should not be spending time in the weeds. Send your architects to conferences and workshops. Ask them to bring what they learned back to your team, and innovate based on the latest trends.
  • It’s a team, so work that way: As your managers and architects stick their foot in the door to get involved in strategic projects, make sure the right people from the team are representing User Assistance in those project teams. This will motivate the team and, most importantly, create buy-in. Also, do everything you can to ensure that each person on your team interacts with customers. Customer empathy will motivate your team as well as seriously improve the quality of their work.
  • Have a vision and sell the vision up and down: The User Assistance team should work together to create a customer-centric vision and mission statement, and make sure that everyone up the management food chain is on board. Management must also continue to inform the User Assistance team about the company’s vision and strategy. The best technical communicators understand why they are doing what is being asked of them and can incorporate company strategy into their content strategy.

Here at SAP SuccessFactors, management touted for many years that our software was so easy to implement and use that we didn’t need any product documentation. At some point down the line, that attitude thankfully changed. There is a mindset, however, that still lingers and has been difficult and slow to change, but my User Assistance team is winning our stakeholders and counterparts over, one Engineer and Product Manager and Support Engineer at a time, proving to them and to leadership how effective we are at bringing value to the business.

So, I encourage all of you technical writers out there to be bold. Don’t limit yourself to what others have done before you. Show your organization that technical writers are not mice living at the bottom of a corporate barrel. Your business will soon realize that the value you bring to the table as a technical communicator goes far beyond writing great content. CIDMIconNewsletter