Next-Generation Product Documentation: Survey Results on the Current State and Future Directions of Documentation

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Chad Jackson, Aberdeen Group

What are the top pressures on the documentation department, the biggest challenges, the processes and technologies that are working – or not working? Most documentation professionals probably have ready answers to these questions within the confines of their own organizations. But what’s the big picture?

To find out, in October of 2006, Aberdeen Group, with the help of CIDM and other organizations, fielded a survey with these and related questions, especially on next-generation product documentation approaches and technologies and their results, in order to write a benchmark report offering guidance for improving documentation performance. In response 332 people – 44% of whom identified themselves as documentation staff, 33% documentation managers, 5% documentation directors, 4% consultants, and 7% C-level management – gave us their time and answers. Here are some of the key findings.

The Squeeze: Addressing Customers’ and Executives’ Demands with Less

Documentation departments are being squeezed. On the one hand, customers are asking for more. They want product information to get to the point quickly and concisely and, increasingly, to be customized to their configuration. On the other hand, executives are telling the documentation department to satisfy customers, but to get the job done with less: produce documentation on more complex products, faster, with fewer resources, and in more languages.

Specifically, according to survey results, the top business pressures burdening documentation departments are:

  • Increased demand for concise and customized documentation – 55%
  • Shortened documentation lifecycle constraints – 49%
  • The growing complexity of products – 48%
  • Reduced documentation budgets and resources – 44%
  • Increased focus on customer satisfaction – 36%

Survey results also show that departments are responding to both the demands and constraints accordingly. They are developing customized documentation according to customer segments (23%) and publishing in multiple formats (53%) – that is, creating documentation for varying levels of technical expertise as well as delivering it in a variety of forms. At the same time, they are reacting to the resource constraints by try to reuse textual (67%), design (29%), and translation (23%) content.

However, documentation departments confront a common set of issues in executing these activities efficiently. The top challenge, as indicated by 55% of survey respondents, is keeping documentation text updated to product changes. The next most prevalent difficulties were past publications in legacy formats (29%), documentation customization to customer product configurations (25%), and the time and expense of documentation localization (25%).

Separating the Best from the Rest: Next-generation Product Documentation

The good news is that some companies – the best in class in documentation – are overcoming these obstacles and turning the results into a competitive advantage. These companies constituted the 20% of survey respondents with the best documentation performance. Specifically, they hit their performance targets – for publication or product launch dates, documentation costs, translation costs, documentation purpose, and documentation quality – at a 92% or better average.

Survey results showed that these top performers consistently lead average and lagging performers in their use of new technologies that support textual, graphical, and translation reuse. These technologies enable them to produce and update documentation on complex products in less time and more languages.

For example, 83% of these top performers are using structured documentation authoring tools such as XML and “help” technologies, and are 45% more likely than laggards to do so. These technologies allow them to decompose technical publications into their constituent sections and use them in a single-source manner – that is, make changes in one place that automatically propagate to all instances of that text in different places instead of requiring copy-and-paste duplication as the first step toward content reuse.

Best in class companies also leverage existing materials for graphical communications. They are 72% more likely than laggards to use design-based illustration tools. These applications allow technical illustrators to develop illustrations directly from CAD geometry instead of images captured from the CAD applications. Using these tools releases them from dependence on CAD users (saving both parties time) and gives them more flexibility in developing illustrations.

Best in class companies also tend to be on the leading edge in developing communications based primarily on graphics rather than text. This trend is just beginning, but best in class companies are twice as likely as laggards to be using 3D visualization and publishing technologies to embed dynamic 3D graphics in electronic documents or on the web. This allows the users of their documentation to explore the product in fine detail and see animations of procedures – for clear, concise communication. Just as important, this type of technology also reduces the amount of text that needs to be localized for global markets.

To reduce the time and expense of localization, companies are also trying to minimize the amount of content in documentation that is localized by using memory translation applications. These applications dynamically analyze what is currently being written against a database of existing translated content. When they find a match – or even a close match – they suggest this existing content to the writer. In this way, only net new content is translated. In fact, 53% of best in class companies (versus 35% of average and 24% of laggard companies) are already using this technology.

Other Best Practices in Documentation

In addition to these technologies, Aberdeen also looked at the strategies and tactics of best in class versus other companies to determine “best practices” in product documentation, including optimal organizational structures and processes. Aberdeen Group’s The Next-Generation Product Documentation Benchmark Report examines these successful approaches. –. A complimentary copy is now available by following this link:http://www.aberdeen.com/summary/report/benchmark/RA_NtGenProdDoc_3706.asp

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