Part 1: Identify and Fix Underperforming Documentation

December 14, 2020
image shows tape and tools

Your technical writing team has an impactful role in supporting and improving the organization through effective documentation. Your documentation is a critical direct connection that your customer has to your brand.

It is also a new employee’s earliest touchpoint with the organization – and you want to ensure that experience is a positive one! But how do you effectively identify and remedy underperforming documentation – the documents that are lacking in clarity or information, but have the potential to be excellent? What needs updating and what needs a complete rewrite? This post will help you produce high quality documentation that serves you, your team, your business, and your customers. I’ll be focusing on written documentation, but the lessons here can also apply to multimedia help content. Let’s jump in!

How to Find Underperforming Documentation – the “problem” documents

Your organization could have hundreds of documents of various types, from external-facing white papers to internal training manuals. With all that content, pinpointing those that are underperforming can seem a daunting task. So how do you spot the “problem” documents? Don’t worry, it’s easier than it seems!

Reactionary Identification (or, putting out fires!)

The easiest way to find these “problem” documents is through direct feedback from your audience. Symptoms of an underperforming document are numerous, and dependent on the type of system or process the document details. For example, a significant volume of customer support calls made regarding a specific topic indicates that that topic needs improvement. Likewise, if newer employees require constant help, then the document that is supporting them must be examined.

But how does a technical writer know that customers need additional clarity and support? Similarly, how does the writing team know when onboarding documentation needs to be clarified or updated?

To gather external, customer-based feedback, the writing team should have regular “maintenance exploration” meetings with their customer support counterparts. By maintenance exploration, I mean discussing issues and brainstorming solutions! These meetings should involve data-driven discussions that react to customer support metrics, such as high call volumes regarding specific topics. In other words, the writing team should ask the customer support team:

  • Where are customers consistently having difficulties?
  • What terms are customers using to describe these problems?
  • How can the writers make things easier and clearer for customers?
  • What content is working, and what is not?

Similarly, to gather internal stakeholder feedback, the writing team should have regular meetings or “check-ins” with teams and team leads across the organization. For example, the technical writer should check in with staff overseeing internal support (such as onboarding a new employee), and ask how smoothly onboarding is going.

Are there:

  • any specific pain points during the process?
  • any specific resources that are frequently required for handing a new employee’s needs?
  • any noticeable drops in senior employee productivity as they help a new team member through the onboarding process?

The writing team could also team up with HR/People Ops to run an improvement program. New employees can be asked to volunteer their feedback on their onboarding experience, so you can determine their clarity and understanding of their role in the organization.

  • Is there anything missing that they need to be a productive team member? This could be resources, references, procedures, etc.
  • Is the documentation vague and frustrating to understand, or clear and easy to follow?

However, feedback is not always explicit. Comments like ‘I couldn’t find what I needed’ or ‘it was too confusing’ leave you with a lot of assumptions rather than specific actions to take.

Writers also need to meet with teams and investigate the issues they regularly face. They should ask questions relating to data quality, turnover rates, and inefficiencies in working processes.

  • Do they find their employees constantly referring to a small group of individuals for knowledge?
  • Are there any steps in the process that are not clearly defined and documented?
  • Does any work stop when a particular individual is not around to answer a query?

The consistent message through all of these varying symptoms is simple – wherever the business strategy is inefficient or ineffective, there may be missing or underperforming documentation.

Proactive Identification (or, how you stay ahead!)

For the purpose of this blog, “proactive identification” simply means to actively analyze and improve rather than reacting to red flags. By performing regular, scheduled proactive identification, you can keep your content up-to-date, relevant, and effective.

For proactive identification to work, schedule regular audits for each document. During the audit, the document owner should review the content and determine whether it relates back to the intended purpose of the document. Regular maintenance of your documentation is vital for making sure it is up-to-date, relevant, and effective. The maintenance process should include an auditing period in which the document owner should review all information in the document. They should determine whether the information relates back to the intended purpose of the document.

For proactive identification to work, regular audits for each document must be scheduled. A passing audit should indicate the document is effective, while a failing audit indicates that the document needs work. But how to determine if the audit passes or fails?

To begin an effective documentation audit, the writers and any internal stakeholders should agree on the ultimate objective of the document. The team should create an ideal table of contents for the document in question. Feedback from users is essential to this process and needs to be incorporated, otherwise the risk is that decisions are made without the user in mind. This practice will form the essential structure of the information.

With an explicit objective and essential list of contents, the team can then compare between the current state of the document and this new ideal structure. If the team finds the document does not need to be updated, the document passes the audit. If the team finds the document needs to be updated to fulfill its objectives, then the document has failed the audit and must be scheduled for improvement.

Of course, documentation auditing is an entire topic that we shall not delve too deeply into here.

This proactive method takes much more effort on the part of the author, but will lead to higher-performing documentation that truly serves the business and its customers. Through direct reader feedback, tracked symptoms, and proactive auditing, your team has identified underperforming documentation that needs updating. But how do you determine what the required “fix” is to remedy the issue? Read on in Part 2!