JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.


When Lou Lombardi decided to employ a minimalist strategy for the Avaya telephone user guides, he believed that customers did not need all the technical detail that had long encumbered the manuals. After all, most people already know how to use a desktop telephone. But he had to convince the engineers and product managers and even the usability expert that content they had long held dear could be replaced to save costs.

With the help of Comtech consultants, the basic manuals for the Avaya phones were shortened by nearly 75 percent. The traditional manuals had between 75 and 90 pages on average. The new minimalist manuals average about 25 pages.

All the Avaya telephone manuals are now minimalist, including 16 individual phone products. Lou’s next step is to extend reuse across the four major product lines. Given the current level of reuse, Avaya has experienced at least a 33 percent decrease in the cost of development of the manuals. Most of the content is already written.

To gain acceptance for the drastic cuts, Lou worked to achieve buy-in from executives. When he predicted substantial reductions in translation costs, his business case was well received. His vice president recognized that the cost of translation was higher than the cost of writing the manuals in the first place.

Content moved to DITA

Not only were the manuals trimmed, but all the content was moved to the DITA model at the same time. All topics were included in a master manual. Using two XSL-FO style sheets developed by Comtech, Lou generated the user guides and the quick reference cards from the same master content. The new content eliminates all redundancy and nice-to-have topics, such as detailed descriptions of ring tones. Lou argued that people learned ring tones from hearing them repeatedly, not from reading descriptions of the sounds.

Not only can he now automatically generate the English user guides and quick reference cards, Lou uses the Comtech styles sheets for all languages, including right-to-left Hebrew and Arabic. In fact, the master content enabled him to surprise a sales team member who needed a quick reference card in Spanish. The salesman was astonished when he learned that Lou could “run it for you today.”

The DITA implementation allows for single topic translation and eliminates all desktop publishing by the localization service provider. Using SDL’s translation management system enables Lou to know the exact cost of each translation in advance.

Topic reviews present minor challenges

The Avaya policy is now to add topics only when new features are added. They would like the engineers and product managers to review the new topics alone. However, the reviewers still want to know “where the topic is going.”

Customers are pleased as well

Although Avaya has surveyed only beta customers at this point, the new minimalist manuals are well received. Customers mention that the information is easy to find and easy to use.

When any organization begins to examine their business case for a move to XML and DITA, we urge them to begin with minimalism. The greatest impact on costs comes not from technology but from more carefully and thoroughly exploring what customers really need to know.

Read Matthew Nickasch’s comments on Avaya Documentation at