JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Gerry McGovern gave participants at the 2013 Content Management Strategies/DITA North America Conference a stimulating and humorous diagnosis of the content crisis we are facing. Using his work assessing content delivered through websites at companies like Microsoft and Cisco, he painted a compelling picture of what is wrong with technical information delivery today.

As our recent survey demonstrated, most information developers who deliver content on corporate websites produce PDFs of entire books. As a result, we generally have no idea what topics are read and what topics are ignored. We spend a great deal of time and effort creating DITA topics only to obscure the effort in a big manual. The customers hardly benefit from the redesign of the content.

Gerry argues that PDF publishing practices disconnect us from our customers. We don’t know what they are reading or what they really need to know. If we could find out, perhaps we would be more motivated to focus on enhancing the content they use, discovering why they don’t use the rest, and possibly eliminating what is not needed.

In his work with Microsoft’s content, Gerry discovered that 4 million of the 50 million pages of their content website have never been accessed. One might ask, then, why these pages were written? In many cases, the answer will be—bigger was, and is, better. If the manual is voluminous, then our products must be richer and more valuable. Technical authors are rewarded for how much they write, not how little.

Unfortunately, the rewards for volume are gravely misplaced. On a website, the more volume, the less the users can find what they need. And, McGovern tells us that we had better worry about findability.

Measuring Usefulness (not Volume)

In his delightful Irish accent, Gerry told the 350 attendees that they had better start weeding the overgrown garden (or swamp). Fighting back with “somebody may use it sometime” just doesn’t cut it anymore. We should have no more excuses for improving the findability and usefulness of our content.

He tells us that part of the problem is our reward system. We don’t reward writers for removing content. We don’t know how to remove pages; it’s never been done.

His advice—remove the tiny tasks, the minor actions, useless background, and lots of other material that rarely if ever gets used by anyone. The tiny tasks make the main tasks more difficult to find. I’ve long said in our Minimalism workshop that the goal should be a 50 percent reduction in content, which can easily be achieved if everyone focuses on the top tasks that their customers need to accomplish with our products.

In analyzing how customers used topics on the web, the more time customers spent searching for information (counting page views and time on pages), the less information they found. Page views go up—but sales go down.

Measuring Results (not page views)

Rather than measuring hits or page views or time spent on the web content, Gerry tells us that we should be measuring results. When Google added 30 results to their results page, they added .5 seconds to customer time and searches went down by 15 percent.

But how do we measure results. Gerry walked us through an amusing example from the Cisco website. It took the customer 15 steps and 280 seconds to download some software. Reworking the instructions and eliminating the redundancies reduced 15 steps to 4, making life easier for the customers.

Changing the Rules

A new measure of success for our content should be how well we’ve done in assisting customers to do the jobs they hired our products to do for them. Gerry advocates even greater content reductions. In one project, content was reduced by 87 percent and customer satisfaction went up.

He suggests added support content to the marketing website rather than hiding technical content away. Just that one change resulted in the single biggest sales increase a company ever had.

It was hilarious to hear the definitions of HITS—”How Idiots Track Success.” Volume of content, as Gerry explains, is a Stone Age measure. We need to measure success, usefulness, task completion and everything else that tells us that customers are winning.

Gerry McGovern provided attendees not only with a lively presentation, but gave everyone much to think about. I only hope it has a great effect.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.