JoAnn Hackos, PhD
In an eight-article series for the e-newsletter, CIDM will be discussing buying tips for typical services and products that you, as an information developer, might be interested in buying.
This is the sixth in our e-newsletter series of purchasing guides for information-development products and services. In this issue, we look at technical writing services.
Technical writing service organizations provide information-development managers with flexibility to handle peak demand, supplement full-time staff, handle complete projects, and provide expertise not ordinarily available in your group. A range of technical writing services are available worldwide. Technical writing services usually employ writers. They may also employ editors, indexers, illustrators, information architects, project managers, tools experts, and others whose skills are needed for large, diverse projects. Some service providers offer consulting services, including information design, usability testing, customer studies, and others that were included in our Purchasing Guide for Consulting Services.
Several types of technical writing services are available, depending on the needs of your organization and the degree to which you want to manage the work effort:
- Independent contractors are usually individuals who have several years of experience in various forms of information development, including manuals and help systems. They generally work alone, hiring out their services for single projects or for all work required over an established period of time.
- Independent contractor groups consist of several independent contractors who come together to work on larger projects requiring more hours and a range of abilities. In many cases, these contractors invoice separately, although they may form weak coalitions as needed to provide a single point of invoicing.
- Small companies, typically those with 2-20 employees, consist of full-time staff employees, generally an owner knowledgeable in the technical communication field, and several independent contractors who join the staff for specific projects.
- Large companies, typically with 100 or more employees, have a larger contingent of full-time staff, more specialists, and generally contract for larger projects in which a wider range of capabilities are needed.
Since the US Internal Revenue Service cracked down on companies that had unofficial permanent staff on long-term contracts, many information-development managers must employ independent contractors through hiring and payroll companies, commonly referred to as “job shops.” The job shops hire staff for your projects as needed, although they may have long-term employees who work continuously for them on many projects. The job shops have expertise in hiring and maintaining staff payrolls but they often have no expertise in information development or in the management of the company. They usually do not manage their staff members on the job. The staff member works as part of your team under your direct supervision.
Technical writing service companies, unlike job shops, are intimately involved with the work they support. They may have staff who work at the company locations or at home. They may entrust a project to a long-time employee or even to an independent contractor. However, they are just as likely to take on the complete management of the project and its deliverables for you.
Probably, the key difference in the service companies is their willingness to handle projects rather than provide people. If you simply want a person or persons to supplement your staff, working at your location or separately, you can work with an independent contractor, a small company, or even a large job shop. You are most likely to be billed for hours worked on the project.
However, if you want a services organization to handle an entire project, you should expect to provide a statement of work, ask for a proposal, and be billed on a project rather than an hourly basis. A full-service technical writing organization will provide a not-to-exceed project estimate but bill based on the hours worked. They will either complete the project for the estimated amount or submit a change of scope request for additional funds.
Features that count
To find a technical writing service that best meets the needs of your organization requires careful analysis. The features I discuss here are important for your requirements analysis. As with any requirements, you will find services that fulfill some but not all of your needs. Once you have completed your investigation, prioritize your requirements to help with your decision-making.
Years of experience in information development may help you distinguish between a newcomer to technical writing and someone who knows what it takes to put technical information together in a usable form.
Many managers remark that they only hire writers with several years of experience. However, years of experience can be misleading. For example, it’s not uncommon to discover that a writer with many years of experience is unfamiliar with the tools or subject matter that your project involves. You may discover that the experienced writers has acquired over the years many bad practices or may be reluctant to change from traditional methods.
All technical writing services will assign experienced writers to your project but they may also include less experienced writers to work alongside the more experienced ones. In this way, they develop new people and train them in their own best practices. You may find that the mixture gives you high quality at lower cost.
Years of experience alone are not sufficient to judge the quality of someone’s work. If you are hiring an independent contractor or a service, you may want to evaluate writing samples or ask the candidates to handle some of your company’s content that needs rewriting. Just as managers give writing tests to direct candidates, you may decide to use a writing test to evaluate the experience of contractors or of a service company.
Be aware that writing samples presented by a candidate or a company may be misleading as well. Managers have sadly become too familiar with job candidates who present someone else’s work as their own. Or, they present work that has been thoroughly edited. A company may present writing samples that were done by employees no longer part of the company.
We have regularly asked service providers to work on a small sample project that we provide. It’s no guarantee, of course, that the people who worked on the sample are the same as those assigned to your project, but it may help.
Many managers place a high value on technical expertise for short-term, contract employees. If your work involves semiconductors or telecommunications or other complex technical subject matter, you may want to find writers who have worked with similar content. Their knowledge of the subject should make it easier for them to come up to speed on your project.
However, skilled project-oriented service providers may include a mix of people on the project, some with technical expertise and others without. Given good project management and quality control, that mix may work well. You will also find that many skilled, experienced technical writers are able to come up to speed on a technical subject very quickly. They have enough experience with different types of content that they can learn yours.
Some service providers may also hire a technical expert to supplement their writers. We did that on an important project many years ago because the internal experts were often not available and none of them had customer experience. Our expert tutored the writing team, answered any and all questions quickly and thoroughly, and proved to be a considerable asset to the project. Even the product developers looked to him for expertise.
Tools expertise is a tricky subject. Many skilled technical writers will tell you that they can learn whatever new tools are placed before them. Someone who has already learned a raft of tools usually assimilates new tools quickly. With the advent of DITA and XML, the pool of writers who know these tools is small. As a result, you may have to opt for one team member who knows the tools and who can teach the others on the team. You may also have to provide some basic training on a new tool set.
Project management and reporting
Whether you are hiring an independent contractor or a service provider, you should insist on project management. Unless you are prepared to manage the individual writer or writers within your own projects, they should have basic project management skills. That means reporting to you regularly and accurately on the progress of the project, as well as being able to estimate their own time and manage deadlines.
If you are using the services of a writing company, project management and a sound reporting system are essential. In this case, you are more likely contracting out an entire project rather than one part of a larger project. In that case, you should expect your vendor to handle all aspects of project management: estimating and scheduling, progress reports, change management, staffing, and so on.
I advise asking for considerable information about how the vendor manages projects. That information should help you differentiate a “job shop” that is masquerading as a service provider. The job shop may provide reports but usually has no one overseeing the work of the writers. The writers are actually independent contractors working under one roof.
In a first-rate service company, you should find that the project manager oversees all aspects of the project, including working closely with the team to ensure a unified and consistent approach to the content development. With sound project management, your goals of content reuse rather than rewriting, consistency in terminology and structure, and translatable content are more likely to be fulfilled.
More often today, you manage information development globally. You have team members in North America, Europe, and Asia. You need a writing vendor who can support you wherever the work is. Unfortunately, we find few companies that are sufficiently global today. They are located either in North America, Europe, or Asia. They sometimes have two locations but not three. It would be worthwhile if more writing service providers combined forces to produce global solutions if they don’t have sufficient contacts on the other continents to put a team together for a project.
Many North American and European writing service providers today have satellite groups in India. These groups were developed in response to clients who wanted reduced costs. Depending on the management structure, you may be able to benefit from the cost reductions as long as the information quality remains high and real team work produces consistent results.
Full-time, direct employees
I have a strong preference for writing service providers who have permanent, full-time staff. If they hire only contract employees, you have little chance of having the same people from one project to the next. Certainly, a permanent staff requires that the company have a sufficient volume of work to keep everyone busy. Since individuals’ time is billed to clients, having them sitting around with no work to do is terribly expensive. However, the full-time staff means that the company has its own culture, its own way of working, that influences everyone’s work quality.
You might also want to know where people work when you look at how people are employed. An independent contractor working alone on one project may certainly be able to work at home. Two or more team members who work at home may not function as a team, especially when information development must be a collaborative process. Content management and content reuse requires collaboration. If everyone works at home, that collaboration may be very difficult.
Find out if the service provider maintains offices for staff members to come together to work on projects under the direction of a project manager or information architect. Office arrangements may point to the kind of company that will provide you the best quality of service.
Given the increasing interest in information design, minimalism, DITA, and content management, information-development managers are looking for technical writing services that provide more than writing. The specialists needed to handle complex projects include information architects, editors, layout and format designers, graphics and rich media specialists, and tools experts. These diverse skills are usually not found in single individuals. Large companies that provide information development can put together specialist teams that meet the demands of projects that deliver more than PDFs.
Specialists handle help system development, XML-based topics and DITA maps, various types of style sheets, and increasingly, multiple media presentations. Interest in web delivery for interactive content requires the talents of many individuals, including programmers and web designers.
In many cases, a manager cannot assemble all the requisite skills inhouse. Specializations require that a manager look for help from outside.
How to choose
If you are interested in finding the right organization to handle your information-development projects, consider using a more formal process to evaluate capabilities and get responsible and thorough work estimates. Finding the best technical writing service provider requires you to do your own project planning. Perhaps the need for a plan causes many managers simply to hire individual contractors and add them to the staff. But, the advantages of working with a company with a full range of services may outweigh the simplicity of hiring another person for a short term.
In addition, if you manage information development for a large global organization, you may find it necessary to develop an outsourcing arrangement with a full service provider. That arrangement may include reliance on team members in developing countries so that you can reduce the average cost of projects. You are looking for a special set of skills and practices that will result in a high-quality information product.
Develop a statement of work
Unless you are hiring independent contractors, even those from a job shop, you’ll have to develop a statement of work (SOW). The SOW details the project that you want the service provider to accomplish. It should include descriptions of the deliverable and the source material available. It should include estimates of the project dependencies. Dependencies include the complexity of the subject matter, the availability of subject-matter experts (SMEs), the degree of cooperation to be expected from the SMEs for the project, the likelihood that the project will change during its course, and the availability of the product for experimentation and testing. These are the typical dependencies that we would see incorporated into a Dependency Calculator. For an example, see the dependency calculator on the Comtech website.
Research available organizations
You need to include basic research of the potential organizations to help create a short list of possible vendors. You may want as many as 6-8 companies on a longer list to begin, especially if you have a complex project. You can use the web to look for possible suppliers, but you might be more successful using your personal network of other managers. Find out what companies are used for outsourcing of complete projects by others in your industry and by respected colleagues. They will often point you to the best providers.
If you are looking for help outside of your region or country, you may have to throw your net more widely among colleagues in other countries. Be certain as you ask for recommendations to fully understand the type of services provided. If you are looking for a full-service company that can manage large, complex projects, you’ll have to make that clear to your colleagues.
If you are looking for low-cost providers in developing countries such as India, speak with colleagues in those countries in addition to colleagues that have used such services. You can find out a lot about the trials and tribulations of working with technical writers who do not write in English as a native language or who have no experience with technical manuals or writing for end users. If you don’t ask the right questions, you may end up with text that reads like a doctoral dissertation in formal British English.
Decide on the type of service you require
Decide early about the types of service you want the vendor to include in the project. If you need information architecture or graphics production, be clear that you want those skills included in the project. If you really want to hire one or more independent contracts, look to job shops that can handle the hiring and payroll. Find those that have a reputation for providing well-qualified individuals. If they also provide training in new tools and skills for their staff members, you may have a winning combination.
If you want a vendor that hires people full-time and provides complete project management, recognize that as a key capability that goes into your request for proposal.
Ask for a proposal
That statement, request for proposal, is critical to finding the right partner. You want to find a service provider that will provide you with a comprehensive estimate of the work and an explanation of how they will handle your project requirements. Ask for a proposal that includes company history and experience, project management and quality assurance practices, hiring and training, information design and architecture experience, and tools knowledge. Ask for references on projects that are similar to yours.
Consider global locations
If you have a global organization and your projects span the globe, you may want to find a technical writing service that has multiple locations or can provide people to work with your locations. If you have product developers who communicate only in their local languages, you may need technical writers who speak those languages as well. You may want some or all team members to come from low-cost countries.
It remains difficult to find global technical writing service providers. Those that have multiple locations around the world may consist of formerly independent companies that have no history of working together on global, integrated projects.
If you want to work with one global organization, ensure that they are able to integrate project resources across multiple locations and people. You may want to ask that they manage the project from one central location so that you have a single accountable party for your project.
Evaluate company history and financial stability
Ask the technical writing service company for information about the company’s history. Is the company brand new or does it have a history of successful projects? Has the management team been in place for some time? You want to learn about the technology in which the company specializes. If they have been handling telecommunications projects for years, but your company produces automobiles, you want to ensure that they can come up to speed quickly with your subject matter.
Financial stability is essential to a long-term relationship. Ask for basic financial information, including annual reports if they are available. If the company is not public, you should still ask for evidence of financial stability.
Be aware that some service providers may exist on a shoestring. You don’t want them to go out of business in the middle of your project. On that note, ask how much of their revenue comes from a single client. If that client suddenly disappears, will your vendor also disappear?
You should look for a company with a history of projects like yours, a full-time staff of experienced professionals, and a financial history that includes profitability for several years.
Evaluate project management skills
Project management skills are the one critical ingredient that you should pay careful attention to. If you are looking for a company to handle entire projects, many of which include new technology from your developers, you want sound project management practices. You should see evidence of project plans, content plans for deliverables, estimates for entire projects and their components, regular reporting, a change management process, and other components that you find in Managing your Documentation Projects (Hackos 1994) and Information Development: Managing your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People (Hackos 2006).
Ask for references
Ask for the names and contact information of managers and other individuals in companies that have used the services of the company. If possible, ask that the references be for projects similar to yours, in similar industries, or of like complexity.
Review references and writing samples
Once you receive the references, prepare a list of questions you want to ask. Then, call the references and be certain your questions are addressed. You want to use the references to verify the information you have received from the service provider.
If you have requested writing samples from a company, rather than individuals, you can have more confidence in their reliability. You can always verify that the company produced the samples by talking to the clients. You can also see the result of the project management, writing, quality assurance, graphics, and other services you have included in your request for proposal.