JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

During the 2011 early summer, The Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM), with the sponsorship of Alcatel-Lucent, surveyed CIDM members and others about the methods they use to deliver content to their customers. We received 355 responses to the survey, representing a very wide distribution of industries and specializations. The largest percentage of respondents came from computer software, representing 53% of responses. Other responses were distributed as follows:

  • Computer hardware—11%
  • Telecommunications—10%
  • Healthcare and the machine industry—both 8%
  • Semiconductor industry—6%
  • Financial services—5%
  • Industrial equipment manufacturing—4%
  • Medical equipment manufacturing—3%

A small number of individuals, including those from pharmaceuticals, military, government, biotechnology, education, legal, insurance, and many, many more, represented additional industries.

Those responding to the survey reported that they produce a wide range of information deliverables, most frequently user and administrative guides (93% and 70% respectively). Training materials are produced by 46% of respondents, and programming guides are produced by 52%. About one quarter of respondents produce marketing information, service bulletins, and various service manuals. Other deliverables include reference materials, newsletters, help systems, release notes, data sheets, and more.

A small percentage of respondents produce material for internal use only, including 46% who produce PDFs. PowerPoint slides, wikis, online help, HTML pages, and many more media types are included in internal deliverables.

The distribution of content to external customers through multiple media types continues to expand:

    • Fully 88% of respondents report that they now deliver content through the Internet
    • Only 39% still deliver hardcopy documents
    • A few more (46%) send documents on DVDs or similar “hardcopy” media
    • 65% deliver embedded help
    • 21% are using social media of some type

The interest in social media—wikis, cloud-based resources, web-based sessions, videos—is clear and web-based delivery has obviously become the norm for the respondents.

To examine more closely the practices represented by the 39% delivering hardcopy and the 46% using hardcopy media, we asked about delivery policies:

      • 31% do not deliver documents on paper and 47% minimize hardcopy
      • 16% do not deliver documents through physical media such as DVDs and 23% minimize the use of physical media
      • 22% report that they have no particular policies about delivery mechanisms

One of the more common policies for print media relates to the medical-device industry, in which some countries require print copies to be shipped with products. However, several years ago, the US government ended the requirements, and there are reports of possible changes in other countries.

Others report that the only documents they deliver in print are their “getting started” guides, supplied with the product. A few others allow customers to select printed copies or make printed copies available through distributors like

Electronic delivery is, of course, pervasive, although PDF is still dominant. According to responses,

      • 97% provide PDF output
      • 68% deliver HTML and another 16% deliver through the Eclipse platform
      • 66% deliver online help, presumably embedded in software products
      • 18% deliver PowerPoint slides and another 5% deliver audio files
      • 23% and 10% deliver source files in MS Word and Adobe FrameMaker respectively

A few responses indicated that there is a tentative move toward newer electronic formats:

      • 3% are experimenting with e-books
      • 6% produce Smartphone applications

The comments indicate increased interest in electronic media although the interest is not yet reflected in more than trial applications. Training materials appear more likely to be delivered electronically than documentation.

We wanted to know if there is a shift underway to delivering content in individual topics, rather than entire books. The responses indicate that books and entire libraries of content are still preferred:

      • 74% deliver complete books
      • 40% deliver entire libraries of books
      • 40% deliver articles, typically through a knowledgebase
      • only 37% deliver individual topics, although 65% deliver topics through an online help system

Training organizations deliver individual courses through e-learning, as well as instructor-led courses. We also learned of wikis, podcasts, videos, and many other new media.

Asking for more details about PDF delivery, we found that the majority, 63% deliver unprotected PDF files. 40% also deliver PDF files that are protected against modifications.

Digitally signed PDFs with or without certificates appear to be quite new. Several people mentioned that they did not know what these were, and a few indicated they were considering these options. Only 3% deliver digitally signed PDFs and 2% deliver with certificates.

Delivering documents in e-book formats is clearly new:

      • only 6 respondents (2%) indicated that they are now using e-books
      • another 21 respondents (6%) indicated that they were planning to release e-books in the near future
      • 18% told us that e-books were under consideration

However, 74% of respondents indicated that they do not now have any plans to release e-books, although a few mentioned that PDFs can be read on e-book-ready devices. Those delivering or considering e-book formats indicate that they prefer ePub format (12%). Other formats used include iPad, Kindle, Android, and eCompress. ePub can be used on iPad and Android, making it more adaptable.

Going further, we enquired about delivering information specifically on handheld devices such as smartphones. We learned that 26% are considering delivering to handheld devices but only 8% are doing so at present and another 8% will do so in the near future. It’s interesting that more organizations are using or considering the use of handheld devices than are considering e-books.

Those moving to handheld devices intend to support tablets (14%), smartphones (23%), iPad (2%), and general computers (4%).

We asked respondents for their opinions about the future use of e-books for product documentation. The most interesting responses asserted that delivering topics rather than books is the direction for the future. Because e-books are static collections of information, they are less likely to satisfy an audience more interested in immediate answers to specific questions, an interest best served by delivering stand-alone topics rather than books. E-books are more likely, remarks one respondent, to be used for information now delivered in print.

Because electronic delivery of topics allows customers to modify content or create content collections that best suit their needs, we asked if respondents knew that their customers modified the information they delivered. The majority, some 89%, indicated that they believed customers used the information as delivered. 16% indicated that customers were provided with editable formats because they need to modify the information. Another 19% find that customers place information in their own repositories, and 23% indicated that customers were managing information from multiple suppliers. In the comments, respondents mentioned that they know that customers create Standard Operating Procedures from the information delivered or modify the information to account for their customizations. It appears, however, that the interest in delivering editable content is increasing because customers are managing sets of content from multiple vendors or need to include their own information in the same context.

We recognize that information developers increasingly seek customer feedback on the information provided. In the past, we used comment cards in the back of the book. Unfortunately, they were rarely if ever returned. With electronic delivery, customer feedback becomes much easier to obtain. However, 71% of those responding to the survey indicate that they continue to expect customers to send them emails with their concerns about content. Comments appear to indicate that this form of passive email response yields few returns. They conclude that we must solicit feedback in a much more active manner.

Responses indicate that, to gather feedback,

      • 8% are using interactive wikis
      • 13% are using electronic rating systems or feedback at the document level
      • 13% solicit electronic feedback at the topic level
      • 31% have an Online Support suggestion box

Many report that they have no formal method of gathering customer feedback, or they rely on comments received by customer support, marketing, sales, and others in direct contact with customers. One person expressed what seems to be a typical response: “When someone calls the company, it eventually filters down to me.”

Without feedback, of course, we have no way to know if we are meeting customer needs. Certainly the absence of feedback, whether positive or negative, does not mean that people are not troubled by the lack of useful and usable information. Most people cannot be bothered to complain directly to the company, often because they believe their comments will be ignored, and they are usually correct.

However, our interviews with companies that are actively soliciting feedback at the topic level through electronic responses or providing wikis or other means for customers quickly and easily to comment on information indicate that they are getting useful responses. Better yet, those who are going directly to customers through site visits, focus groups, web discussion, and phone calls continue to gain the best understanding of what customers really need to know.

Comparison with the 2008 survey

In March and April of 2008, Comtech surveyed information development organizations about their publishing practices and information management techniques. 493 people responded. At that time, we found that most information was being published in PDF format on paper, CD, or on the internet. The overall results for 2011 were much the same.

We found a small number of early adopter organizations that were experimenting with wikis and blogs. Translations were increasing with about one third of organizations still doing no translations at all and less than half translating all of their technical information. In the 2011, survey the early adopters have moved on to experimentation with DITA and HTML; more modular and searchable content on new media, handheld devices, eBooks, and social media; and the beginning of using social media to obtain customer feedback.

Unfortunately, we continue to conclude that the mainstream organizations are generally plodding along still producing PDF content at about the same level as three years ago. The only change is that the PDF content is now more likely to reside on the internet rather than in printed form. The two surveys show that little progress in delivery innovations is being made by the majority of information development organizations.

Sometimes we can learn as much about our discipline from the survey questions as from the respondents answers. In 2008, some of the key words used in the survey were “Wiki”, “Blog”, “HTML”, and “CD”. In the 2011 survey, we added words including “DITA”, “handheld”, “eBook”, and “social media” with the word “CD” nowhere to be found.

The next time we conduct this survey, perhaps in a year, we hope to see some real movement toward innovation in information delivery. At the 2011 Best Practices conference, attendees will learn about delivery innovations from groups like Symantec. We need to continue to share new ideas and move the industry toward greater innovation and more about getting the right information at the right time into the hands of the customers who need and want it.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.