Staging the Investment in Information Development

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

At this year’s (September 2012) Best Practices conference, Paul Perotta and Ben Jackson introduced us to their strategy for negotiating with senior management. They stressed the contribution that information makes to product success, especially with customers who own one product and might be encouraged to purchase additional products. If these customers are successful because they have the information they need to work effectively and answer questions, they are much more likely to remain loyal to a company’s product portfolio than if they are annoyed and feel unsupported.

Ben Jackson
Ben Jackson

 

In making a business case for information development, managers have an important role to play in demonstrating the value of information in post-sales support. Perotta and Jackson asked their senior management for an increased investment, across the product lines, in information development. To estimate the investment needed over that broad product spectrum, they used two baselines: the number of product developers versus the number of writers and the investment in Product Development versus the investment in Information Development.

Reviewing literature in the field and talking with managers in similar industries, they calculated that they needed a ratio of 12:1 for product developers to information developers and a level of investment roughly 5% of R&D investment. Participants at the Best Practices conference largely agreed with these baseline figures although they often mentioned that their own organizations were below the baseline.

Perotta and Jackson explained that their new business investment case has been favorably heard and that the investment from the corporation is on an upward track with additional hiring and a larger budget. Good news all around.

If you are considering an investment in the information development for an entire product line, the baseline approach is best. We recognize, of course, that industry-wide data about the ratio of product developers to writers will vary with industry and product. Some product development groups include many individuals whose work rarely if ever affects customer-oriented information. Some product development groups using an agile methodology require more information developers to participate in the teams than might have been necessary in a traditional waterfall methodology where development typically takes place over a longer period of time.

But both of these variables do not account for the stages that Geoffrey Moore discusses in Crossing the Chasm. As a product moves from innovators and early adopters to more mainstream markets of the early and late majority, the information needs vary dramatically.

Innovators and Early Adopters are often highly motivated customers who want the new features and functions that a new product or a new product version offers. They are often the people who define the new features in their discussions with sales and marketing. In some, although not all, cases, they have skills that enable them to use new products and apply them to their work that later, more conservative customers may lack.

Innovators and Early Adopters will accept delivery of products that actually don’t work very well and may have lots of bugs. We have often said that they simply want the developer shipped in the box rather than use formal documentation. They can get by, presumably, with minimal information. That is, unless the people who purchase the new products are not those asked to use them productively. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult for information developers to get past the perspective of product developers that the customers are experts and only need descriptions of the features and functions and not much else.

I’m sure many of you recognize this situation and have actually produced information that appears to be written by the product developers for people they know personally. The developers claim that the users are much the same in their interests and skills as the developers themselves. With new products and Early Adopters that view might have some truth to it?

Unfortunately, it is in these early development stages that companies are spending money. They need to develop the products and get them out to the customers. They may be able to provide resources to get the documentation out as well, providing resources are a healthy percentage of the product development budget.

If a new product crosses the Chasm and moves beyond the favored few customers, the environment changes significantly. Moore labels users across the Chasm as Early and Late Majority customers. They are more conservative and reluctant to purchase untried products. The later they are in accepting a new product, the more they require that trusted colleagues and experts in the field can vouch for the usefulness of the products. Unfortunately, they rarely show the same diligence in ensuring that the training and information are appropriate for their needs.

Early and Late Majority customers are more needy. They require more robust support and better training and information so that their workers can be successful. However, as customers grow more conservative and require more support, our organizations become more reluctant to provide resources for information development.

Often, a mature product is outsourced or put into a maintenance mode. The product development resources decline and so does the related percentage of resources for information development. However, mature products actually require more resources for support and information. The customers are changed, less capable of learning and functioning independently. They need more innovative help from good information, more handholding. But resources, in terms of percentages of development and ratios of developers to writers, actually decline when they should be increasing.

Look around at your own product distribution. Find the areas in which the customers are changing, requiring more rather than less help. These are the areas in which resources for support and information must become a higher percentage of product development than in the past. In fact, it may be advantageous to put more funding into support and information for a mature product, one that has often become the proverbial “cash cow,” than for new products with more able and less needy customers.

The process I describe here is one of “staging,” understanding how product support changes over time, just as customers change if a product is successful. Crossing the Chasm has more to do with strong analysis and decision making than with a simple examination of success.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.