Laura Readdy, Siemens PLM Software

How do you know if your documentation and training is helping your customers? Sometimes companies send out surveys to their customers and ask “How’s the documentation?” Maybe they get a number back between 1 and 10. What does that number mean and is it really accurate? The only way you know for sure is by talking with the users of your content. This is just what we did at Siemens PLM.

Our Goal

Our goal was to get enough information from our customers to create a strategy that addresses true customer issues as shown in Figure 1.


With the customer at the center, we designed an approach to gather input from customers, create solutions based on their true needs, and involve staff throughout the levels of the organization. The customer input influences our high-level vision and strategies and allows our staff to directly communicate with our customers.

Which Customers?

There are dozens of ways to select customers to interview. We have so many customers there is no way to interview them all. We could have spent a huge amount of time finding the perfect customers to interview, but we would be far behind where we are today. We started with a random list of customers, using contacts from past conferences and software testing. Interestingly enough, when the demographics played out, we had a great mix of customers by region and industry. We targeted a total of twenty-five internal and external customers. Twenty-five was the key number from a great tip we picked up at a previous CIDM conference. Twenty-five is the answer to the question: How many users do you need to talk to before you start to see trends in their responses?

Sometimes customers will want to send more than one person to an interview. The additional participants provide a broader range of input. It’s also a good idea to ask if there are others who would like to give input. Have a survey with your interview questions ready to send out to customers who can’t attend the interview.

Let the Customer Talk

We are here to listen, not to talk. We worked to create a conversation with the customers by listening and trying not to lead the customer to a specific response. We also didn’t show them our new Help UI or our latest videos or graphics. We were more interested in how they think and feel about our content. We wanted to understand the true customer experience with our content. For example, we wanted to know if they couldn’t find information, but not the details about what they couldn’t find—at least not right now.

We based our one hour meeting around three simple questions:
1. Tell us about yourself
a. What is your role and what do you do?
b. Tell us about your users and what they do.
2. How do you use our documentation and training to get your job done?
3. How can we make this experience better for you?

Question #3 was the key to the engagement—this is when our customers started to reveal their real problems and issues to us. And just in case the conversation started to slow down, we had another eight to ten questions ready to be sure we used every second of that one-hour time slot:

  • How do you typically access our content?
  • Who accesses our content?
  • Do you go to the documentation or training first or do you ask a coworker to answer your question? Are there other places you go for answers and why?
  • What format do you use and why? Online HTML or PDF?
  • How do you train your users?
  • What are your pain points?
  • How can we make our content more engaging? (Videos, graphics, or other customer ideas)
  • What is your wish list and how do you want to work with our content?
  • How do we compare with other third party documentation and training materials you use?

Now here is the real impact of these meetings. We invited everyone in our organization to attend these meetings: managers, writers, editors, and architects. Everyone! While we tried to keep the number of people attending to about ten, everyone had an opportunity to attend at least one of these interviews. For many, the interviews were the first time ever to hear a customer (yes, the person who actually uses the documentation and training) talk about their good and bad experiences with our content.

One thing we worked very hard on was not to respond defensively to any criticism we received. Clarification was alright, but we couldn’t make excuses for the issues our customers were having with our content. This decision was challenging because we all care about what we do and work very hard to do it well. It’s important to look at criticism received as an incentive to improve, not a failure of existing efforts.

Key Components

When creating a customer engagement program, consider the key components shown in Table 1.



Take a couple of months for planning, but then start getting your invitations sent out. Start with some internal customers first to practice; then move on to customers outside of your company (see Figure 2). You can start looking at trends about half way through your interviews, but hold off on any conclusions until the end.


Analyze the Input

There is no magic way to classify the customer input, but one technique is to use mind mapping to place similar items together as shown in Figure 3. Create a classification for each group.


We created a spreadsheet and started to create classifications for customer input as shown in Table 2.

When interviewing customers, you may have more than one customer in the interview. Count each person’s input individually in the metrics—everyone’s vote counts.

The improvement areas that have the most input are the ones to focus on. For us, the most frequent request was adding more real world examples to our content. Because this was such a large job for our 100+ content areas, we selected the highest priority subject areas to focus on for this improvement.

For each major focus area, we defined customer pain points. The key to identifying pain points is to listen to why the customer is asking for this improvement. For example, why do you need more examples? One customer said the procedure wasn’t enough to understand how to use the product to do his job. For some features, they needed to know how it was intended to be used in the real world.

What’s Next?

The customer conversation doesn’t end just because the analysis is complete and potential solutions are defined. It’s important to keep the customer feedback coming. Remember to

  • Follow up with customers to have focused discussions on specific areas of your content.
  • Identify customer champions who will help define and validate your content improvements.
  • Keep talking listening to your customers.