Suzanne Mescan, Vasont Systems

“A first impression is a lasting one.”

When customers have an experience (good or bad) with an organization, it can determine whether they become loyal, long-term customers or turn to a competitor’s products or services. There are lots of touch points between the organization and its customers—people (sales representatives, customer service and help centers), communications (promotions, advertising, statements, invoices), corporate events (sale events, meetings, parties), as well as product packaging, and technical communications, among others. Each one of these touch points must convey a professional and superior image to the customer to ensure the first (and lasting) impression is a good one.

A poorly designed package that doesn’t adequately protect the product during shipping, or an ad that makes promises that the product doesn’t fulfill, or a user manual full of errors will turn a customer off just as fast as a rude and unhelpful customer service representative. So, it’s important that any content that touches the customer be of the utmost quality in order to maintain and grow the customer list. Content is a corporate asset if it is of high quality; it can also be a huge liability that can cost the organization lots of money in lost sales and damages if the quality is lacking.

What is quality?

When speaking of content, quality can be a very subjective thing. Different people may perceive quality in different ways. There are two broad ways to look at content quality:

  • Defects: This includes conformance to standards and guidelines, inconsistencies, outdated content, spelling errors, incorrect values, incomplete data, duplicate information, and translation errors due to writing methods.
  • Usability: This includes the accessibility of the content (is it readily available in the right formats?); the organization, navigation and design (is it easy to find the information needed?); and the clarity of the content (are there definitions, tutorials or other helpful context that make the content easy to understand?).

It’s important to pay attention to both of these aspects of quality as each one holds its own weight. If the content is free of defects, but the usability is poor, a customer can get frustrated because he can’t find the content he needs. Likewise, if the usability is excellent, but there are lots of errors in the text, the customer may perceive sloppy content to mean a sloppy organization overall.

Measuring quality

There are lots of different ways to measure the quality level of content. However, many of the measurements must be strictly controlled, as the results could indicate issues beyond content quality. For example:

  • Monitor the call volume to technical support/help desk: Ask the customer if their issue is due to confusing or incomplete documentation.
  • Analyze sales: A drop in sales may mean customers lost faith in the organization because the poor quality of the documentation gave a bad perception of the organization.
  • Research returns: A quick glance at the reason for returns may show that customers can’t figure out how to use the product because the documentation is inadequate.
  • Measure the time it takes to find information: Test a focus group of people on the usability of the content and see how long it takes them to work through it.
  • Count the number of steps it takes to find information: If the path taken to find the information needed takes too many steps, there may be a navigation problem.
  • Take a survey: Periodically, send a survey to customers and ask them to rate the quality of the documentation; results may show there is some documentation that is rarely ever used that could be reduced or eliminated.

Using a CMS to control quality

After you determine the level of quality in your documentation, it’s time to begin managing that quality. An organization that uses an XML content management system (CMS) to manage their publications has an abundance of quality control tools that are built into the CMS. These tools help to maintain the integrity of their content during the editorial, translation and publishing processes.

  • Content reuse: By reusing content within and across documents, defects can be quickly reduced or eliminated since only one copy of content exists in the CMS; therefore, this lone copy must be edited once when updates are necessary, regardless of how many times it was reused. In contrast, when content is copied and pasted in documents created in word processing or desktop publishing programs, editors must make an update multiple times to all of the copies; errors occur if they miss a copy or if they type the change incorrectly in some instances. Content reuse provides consistency in individual components and content modules, in both the base language and translations, eliminating duplication, inconsistencies and other defects.Content reuse can be measured and used as an indication of quality. In technical documentation, an average reuse rate ranges from 60-90%. If the rate is lower, evaluate the reuse opportunities that may have been missed in the content base. Some CMSs provide a content reuse report, making it easy to monitor this measure.
  • Content exceptions: Incomplete content or content that is in violation of a rule in the DTD or CMS can cause big problems when translated or published. Content exceptions may include content that is not approved, content that is still checked out to someone, missing content or misdirected cross-references. The CMS flags these errors to users through icons and reports so they can be addressed prior to translation or publishing, resulting in higher quality publications with fewer defects.
  • Normalization: How many similar pieces of content exist in the content base? Too much similar content may mean documents are not as accurate as they could be. Normalization allows users to identify similar content, compare it and replace selected versions of similar content with one approved version. This comparison often reveals hidden errors in the content and enables the content base to be cleaned up. The normalization tool is typically managed by a team leader, content librarian or reuse strategy manager. By normalizing content, the amount of similar content in the CMS is minimized and the content reuse rate increases.
  • Terminology management: Another way to improve the quality of a content base is to manage the terminology used by the writers. A CMS with a terminology management tool allows an organization to define dictionaries of valid or restricted terms. Content modules can be analyzed against the appropriate dictionary and validated with the correct, approved terminology. This will eliminate inconsistencies and confusion in terminology and help to reduce translation costs by minimizing the variations in wording.
  • Project management: When using workflow in a CMS, users can analyze the status of the project, including any content modules or topics that are referenced. The analysis shows if any referenced content is still running through an active workflow, thereby indicating that it is not ready for publishing. Also, it is possible to put a hold on a task until other tasks or sub-workflows have completed. This prevents incomplete content from being published.

Using a CMS to manage the quality of content can turn it into a corporate asset by improving brand loyalty and lowering translation and support costs for an organization. It can also help you produce more consistent content in less time, responding to more customer requests. This is a win for everyone.