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easyDITA recently presented a webinar with Earley & Associates on the topic of effective search. We didn’t get a chance to answer all your questions on the broadcast, so we thought we’d follow up with a blog post.

The webinar was built on the work we had performed recently for a big financial services company that was spending millions of dollars supporting one critical sales application. Salespeople were bypassing the help and documentation and going straight to phone support.

By following the steps outlined in the webinar, we deployed an search-based online help system that solved their problem in just four months. If you haven’t watched it yet, you can access the webinar here.


Here are the questions people had about how we did it:

Q: How do I know if my documents are large enough that the search experience will benefit from a component approach?

A: A good rule of thumb is “If the user has to search again inside the PDF (or a long HTML page), it would benefit from componentization”.

Do some test searches. Does the document containing the answer to your test question appear at the top of the list? Can you see a preview of the answer? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then open the document. Do you have to search or scroll to find the answer? Chances are you will lose your customer at this point, if you haven’t already.

Q: How do you figure out the level of componentization?

A: The process here is similar. Start by analyzing what your customers want to know. Compile a list of their Frequently Asked Questions, then create question-answer pairs that answer them, briefly but completely. That is the level of componentization you are looking for: individual chunks of information that provide the answer, the complete answer, and nothing but the answer.

We should note that you might benefit from hiring a specialist to help you perform this analysis.

Q: What sort of methodology do you use to identify the answers that will be needed?

A: Finding the answers is not usually the most challenging part of the process; what can be difficult is identifying the questions. Fortunately, your customers are probably leaving clues on your support site, in help desk transcripts, online forums and social media. Use Google Analytics to measure how your online help content is being read, what information is popular, what pages cause people to leave the site. The idea is to identify what’s missing or incomplete. At what point are people getting frustrated and calling the support desk?

Once you have the questions, if you can’t pull the answers out of your documentation, ask your support team or Subject Matter Experts.

The final step is to present the answers in a way that is optimized for action. Think like a user; what are they trying to do? Build a detailed use case around the task, and then make sure you explain how to do it using the same terms your audience would use.

Q: If you are just creating question and answer pairs, how do I keep my other docs up to date?

A: One of the main benefits of using an topic-based information standard like DITA is that you can reuse content. There’s no reason why the answers in your question-answer pairs cannot be reused in your User Guides and online help systems. As you apply the concepts of minimalism to this process you might find that you do not need such a large document set, lessening the burden of maintenance.

Q: If FAQ’s are where most answers are, and my answers are small, am I good to go?

A: Maybe. Do you have dozens, or even hundreds of FAQs? How will your customers find the one they are looking for? Are they accessible and searchable?

Q: What search did you use?

A: In the project we presented we used the easyDITA Delivery Platform. easyDITA is built on top of an XML database, so tools for searching deep into your content are included in the software. Adding a taxonomy will enable you to index your content, greatly improving the search experience.

Q: There are more and more recommendation engines on web sites. How would you integrate such an engine in your approach?

A: DITA gives you a lot of opportunity to customize your search results in much the same way that a recommendation engine does. In many cases, there is no need to purchase any additional technology, though some custom coding may be required.

When you enable star ratings or thumbs up/thumbs down on your content, you can program your search application to take that feedback into account and place popular answers high on the list.

You can also program a DITA search application to understand context, which will enable you to display recommended links based on the search terms that are used. If someone searches for information about a particular product, for example, you can display a sidebar with links to the parts list, User Guide or other related content.

Use Google Analytics to analyze the traffic on your support site. Track where people go after they view a particular results page. That might surface some good next steps that you can suggest to your users in a sidebar list of recommended links.

Finally, a good search application or content delivery portal will allow you to customize and bundle in third party software. So if you do find a suggestion engine you like, chances are you could easily build it into your site.

Q: What learning curve do I incur moving to something like easyDITA?

A: easyDITA was built with non-technical users in mind. Most customers get up and running in a few hours, with little or no training. However, writing component content that is focused on the customer can be a big change for many of your team members. Getting some training on how to write effective minimalist, task-based technical documentation can be very useful.

Q: What is the key to estimating document conversion? I’ve got a pretty large library and I’m worried this is too expensive.

A: The costs associated with document conversion are determined by the amount and the complexity of your content, as well as by its consistency and quality. However, the process we are describing isn’t conversion as much as it is refining and repurposing the information in your User Guide.

Before you convert any content, ask yourself, “Does anybody really need this information?” Conversion is often a good time to do some spring cleaning. A smaller content library can be a more effective content library. Many companies have seen dramatic improvements in customer experience when they removed huge sections of their content, making it easier to find the good stuff.

Q: Can you give me a short list of how to find benefits? costs?

A: The main benefit of helping customers find the answers they seek is improved customer satisfaction. You can grow revenue and reduce cost by helping people help themselves. What would it mean to your business if you increased your retention rate by 10%?

Your operational benefits will largely come from the higher productivity you will get from your content creators and support staff. Your costs will vary based on the complexity and scope of your project.

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