It’s often difficult to determine the impact documentation has on an organization. The work of collecting information, writing documentation, and making the documents accessible is often underappreciated. Most technical writers have an ongoing struggle to get product or service details in a timely manner. The difficulty increases when the complexity of the product or service requires working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who aren’t writers. Simply mentioning ‘documentation’ can cause a Subject Matter Expert’s eyes to glaze over. To help writers and managers better understand the cost of not fixing these problems, we outlined some of the temptations when working with SMEs and the impact they have on organizations.
Documenting It Alone
Don’t try to turn yourself into an engineer. Taking an SME completely out of the documentation process is a bad idea. If you don’t have a clear idea of how to use the product or service, neither will your users. Every hour customers spend on a support call costs your company around $25-$65 per hour1. To ensure your product or service is documented correctly, make it easier for you and SMEs to work together. Use tools that enable SMEs to create the first draft without too much effort, so they can get the ball rolling in the right direction.
Letting SMEs Write All of the Documentation
There’s the temptation to have SMEs write their own documentation, especially if you’re scrambling to meet deadlines. Yes, a developer might know the software best and can find what they need in the software, but chances are they write documentation like they write code; which is to say, it’s probably just comments strung together without the end-user in mind. Only checking for spelling and grammar mistakes is not enough when the information itself is not readable. Also, when support costs can range from $20-$500 per incident2, it’s better to hire technical writers for support than to try to turn SMEs into technical writers.
Neglecting to Organize
If you don’t properly label and store the information when you get it, you’ll run into trouble. SMEs are busy and short on time. Their willingness to work with you will decline if you need to keep asking for the same information. Organizing and labeling documentation is tedious and time-consuming. It’s tempting to save files quickly without descriptive names or consistency when working with projects, but chances are you won’t remember where you put it later. According to a recent survey by AIIM, 85% of organizations surveyed spend extensive time searching for content3. Think of all the time you spent looking for files when you could have been doing more productive activities. That alone should make you look for a content management system to organize and store your documents. Use of proper file naming, central storage, and descriptive tags will make finding content easier.
Lagging Behind Updates
Every feature exists in two places: in the software and in the documentation. Documentation can easily get out of sync and become incomplete, outdated, or just plain wrong. If your documentation department is siloed away from the SMEs, receiving updates can be delayed or lost. This results in frustrated support calls and negative word-of-mouth feedback, but worst of all: you’ll lose customers. Keeping information relevant can increase an organization’s revenue by 70% above the average enterprise4. Don’t settle for lagging communication between you and your SMEs. There are plenty of software packages available that assist in sharing changes and keeping your content updated.
We’ve summed up four major temptations you can face while working with subject matter experts and the corresponding impact on your organization. If you have even one of these problems, it’s not sustainable to keep going without solving them. We held a webinar to discuss these problems. View the Webinar: Advanced Tools for Working with SMEs.
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- “Microsoft Increases Support Costs for IT Pros …” 2015. 11 Feb. 2016 <https://redmondmag.com/articles/2014/12/01/microsoft-ups-support-costs.aspx>
- “easyDITA | Reports.” 2015. 11 Feb. 2016 <https://easydita.com/resources/>
- “The True Cost of Bad (And Clean) Data – RingLead.” 2015. 11 Feb. 2016 <https://www.ringlead.com/blog/cost-of-bad-data/>