JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Note: This is the sixth article in an eight-part series on the key characteristics that we measure in the information process maturity model (IPMM). Here’s the sequence of articles to date:

For September, I focus on the critical need to understand our customers if we are to produce information that provides lasting value.

Quality management in the Information Process Maturity Model
Most of the key characteristics in the IPMM focus on issues of process management: planning projects, estimating and tracking effectively, ensuring quality, and managing costs. However, two of the characteristics allow us to examine the effectiveness of an organization in serving the needs of customers: information design and quality management. In the August newsletter, I discussed how information design enables organizations to adopt innovative ideas about delivering key information to customers.

Quality management is the process of ensuring that we understand our customers’ information agendas and communicate our understanding to senior management.

Quality management is a hallmark of a mature information-development organization. In fact, quality management is a major determining factor in assessing an organization as a Level 4 or 5 in the IPMM. Without a program in place to ensure that customer needs are being evaluated and addressed, an organization cannot be judged as superior to most others in the field.

Beyond quality assurance and information design
In the June 2005 issue, I discussed the role of quality assurance in information process maturity. Quality assurance encompasses activities such as developmental editing, copyediting, reviews by internal and outside experts, and even usability assessments of document design. All of these activities ensure that the information we develop meets our own standards. Quality assurance addresses such issues as accuracy, readability, core functionality, and presentation.

Information design activities also contribute to the quality of the information delivered. We all understand that excellent information design requires that customer needs be taken into account from the beginning of a design process.

But quality assurance and information design activities are inadequate without a thorough understanding of how, when, and where our customers need and use information in service of their goals.

What is the essence of quality management?

Quality management, as a key characteristic of the IPMM, is focused on a variety of activities, all related to ensuring that customer needs are met and the organization provides value to customers.

Customer studies
Customer studies provide the core of quality management. Customer studies include
  • Regular assessments of quality, including surveys of customer satisfaction
  • Development of comprehensive user profiles that describe in some detail the characteristics of representative members of the user communities
  • Task analyses so that information developers know how users articulate the tasks they are trying to accomplish using the company’s products and services
  • Customer site visits which focus on direct observations of users in the workplace to ascertain the users’ agendas in using products, services, and information

Many information developers tell us that they have no time for customer studies, even though they know they are important. Others tell us that they are barred from customer contact by others in the organization, including senior managers who do not believe that information is important to the customer’s experience. Still others have the opportunity to conduct customer studies but choose not to. They may believe that they already know what the customers want, or they may be reluctant to expose customers to their lack of knowledge of the product and the customer’s environment.

In each case, an immature organization finds reasons for avoiding customers even though they admit that their information development suffers as a consequence. Information developers prefer to interact with product developers, in part because these individuals may exert powerful influence on the information developer’s career.

Mature organizations take the opposite position, finding ways to meet with customers even when there are barriers. They go out of their way to ensure that writing staff have regular customer contact.

Managing for quality includes knowing about the competition
I have generally been surprised to learn how little many information developers know about their competition. Understanding what the competition is producing is critical to quality assessments. That means acquiring samples of competitor documentation and asking questions:
  • Are customers happier with the competitor’s information than the information you produce?
  • Are competitors conducting studies of their customers’ information needs?
  • Are competitors engaged in cost reduction activities, such as content management, topic-based authoring, and minimalism?
  • Does competitor information appear more usable and accessible?
  • Are competitors offering information on web sites or providing other innovative ways for customers to find and use information?

Benchmark studies are one vehicle that mature organizations pursue in understanding competitors. In 1999, CIDM conducted its largest benchmark study, involving most of the large companies developing telecommunications hardware and software. The amount of information exchange among competitors was remarkable, resulting in a level of understanding of competitor information development that has been rarely equaled in other industries. However, few information developers in other industries appear willing to engage and invest in benchmark competitive studies. Product managers in the same industries are usually thoroughly familiar with competitive products; information developers need to study competitive information products as well.

Knowing what competitors are up to is an enormous competitive advantage in any field.

Managing for quality includes responding to customers directly
We reported last year about the continuous publishing program that the Microsoft Office Applications team had put into place to respond to customer concerns. The program, called Content Watson, led to the first Rare Bird Award going to the Office Applications team. In the program, customers are asked to evaluate each topic they access through the help system supporting Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and other parts of the Office product line. Customers can rank the topic on a scale of one to five and provide comments about what they found to be useful and not useful in their search for information.

The customer comments and rankings are reported daily to the information developers, who decide which topics need to be updated or completely rewritten. Once a new or updated topic has been reviewed and approved, it is immediately made available to users. Although the information developers don’t respond to customer comments directly, they use the continuous flow of customer feedback to improve information quality.

Managing quality means responding to customers’ concerns with information accuracy, completeness, readability, and usability. Organizations that have programs in place that allow them to respond feel much closer to their user community. Consider programs in which information developers listen in or actually respond to customer inquiries with the assistance of the support organization. Consider processes in which every customer complaint is logged and explicitly addressed by the information-development team. Organizations that take an active role in addressing customer concerns will come out high in a process maturity assessment.

Partnering with customer support
Customer support is the perfect partner for information development. Both organizations are concerned with delivering quality information to a diverse community of users from novice to experts. Information-development managers should build alliances with support managers, especially since it is possible to show a clear relationship between quality of information and cost of support. CIDM and STC members who establish a partnership with support find that improved information content and delivery can have a dramatic affect on the cost of support, particularly by reducing calls for support.

In a study we conducted for a client, we found that improved information quality reduced support calls by more than 60 percent and reduced the duration of an average call from 10 to 2 minutes. At a recent CIDM Best Practices conference, Angela McAlister of 3Com described how her staff of information developers was responsible for ensuring the effectiveness of the customer-accessible knowledge base. Their work to improve the quality of information contributed to the steady growth in popularity of the support-information web site.

Promoting quality in your larger organization
Information developers in many organizations take a leadership role in customer quality. They review product interfaces to help ensure usability. They engage in direct customer studies that influence product development. And they engage their larger organizations in promoting quality.

Too often, we here about information developers whose quality concerns are denigrated, often because they lack direct evidence of the importance of information in the customers’ acceptance of and success with a product or service. We also find that when the evidence is there, in the form of direct customer data, quality concerns gain recognition. To earn a place in the discussion of product and information quality requires that you engage with the customers themselves. Through direct customer visits, to surveys and other data gathering, to engagement with support, and through partnerships with customers themselves, you can elevate the discourse around quality in your larger organization.

Does quality count in these days of focus on the bottom line and building stockholder value? Only if it helps to improve sales and revenues. Does quality in information improve sales and revenues? It certainly does when it helps to increase customer satisfaction.

If you are engaged actively in a quality management program, please let me know about your activities. I am sure that we can find an opportunity for you to report on your work to CIDM members either through this enewsletter, through the Best Practices newsletter, or at a CIDM conference.