We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. In documentation and customer education, a clear image can make or break how well end users understand the accompanying text.
The problem in customer education for technical products is that frequent product updates can render some or all of your educational images out-of-date.
I've been fascinated for some time with one solution to this problem: the simplified user interface (SUI). Here's an example from Outlook's "Coming Soon" in-product guidance.
So what's the big deal? The SUI image takes a bit more time to prepare than a screen shot.
But that extra time pays off big with two main benefits.
For example, in the following image, I was able to easily and quickly simulate the Outlook environment by using a real Outlook environment and then masking the information for the purposes of this educational content.
And honestly, this is a quick and dirty example that's not nearly as visually appealing as the above Outlook example.
If you are localizing your educational content, you already know how complex that can make your project. Using SUI images means you could potentially use the same images across content in multiple languages.
The good news is that SnagIt 2019 by TechSmith has a new feature that automatically simplifies your image. Just grab your screen shot and SnagIt does almost everything else.
Here's a demonstration using that same "real" screen shot from Outlook.
Ok, maybe the image is still not perfect in under 5 seconds. But those colored rectangles can be styled or removed individually, and it's easy to add your own if you can't find the right balance using the Auto Simplify feature. (Tip - use the Detail slider to change how SnagIt interprets what needs to be simplified in the image.)
With just a little more time and customization, here's that same image.
It might not look as awesome as you could do by mocking it up in Photoshop, but it gets the point across quickly and without any advanced graphics skills.
To learn more about why and how to use Simplified User Interface images in your content strategy, you can read this article from TechSmith, one of many they have on using SUI.
But with the coming “knowledge tsunami,” the time has come for single-sourcing to be applied to content creation everywhere. Marc Rosenberg reports in his October 17, 2017 article in the Learning Solutions Magazine on an IBM prediction that “by 2020, knowledge will likely be doubling every 11 to 12 hours.” He says: “Establishing processes and priorities for curating and managing knowledge within and outside your organization will help you become more efficient and your knowledge products...become more effective and valued.”
Single-sourcing is one of the most powerful processes available to prepare you for riding this wave.
“Establishing processes and priorities for curating and managing knowledge within and outside your organization will help you become more efficient and your knowledge products...become more effective and valued.”
The existing definitions of single-source publishing are often dry, nerdy and use complicated words. You can get explanations from Wikipedia, MadCap Flare (one of the providers of technology supporting single-sourcing), or this one by the CEO of another technology provider, Paligo. These definitions will probably make your eyes glaze over if you're not a nerdy technical writer type.
I used this utility to make sure I could explain single-source publishing as simply as possible.
To boil it down to the essence, single source publishing is a way of writing once for many uses. It takes a bit of work up front to write in a way to use it again, and another bit of work to store the content in a way to make the pieces easy to find later.
But the payoff for the added set up is an exponential increase in efficiency and productivity. You can maintain the content pieces in an agile way to keep up with your product changes, and assemble deliverables ranging from white papers to knowledge base articles to training materials in minutes.
Single source publishing is a way of writing once for many uses. Writing and storing the content takes a little extra work at the beginning, but pays off in increased productivity, with more efficient updates across multiple outputs and audiences.
Though write once for many uses takes some up-front work, the techniques are not complicated.
A good overview starts with a summary of Anders Svensson's 5 principles*:
It is possible to over-complicate the design for reusing content. I once had a client who wanted user guides for multiple modules of multiple products with multiple licensees. As I implemented his requests one-by-one over time, the documents I'd inherited ended up getting so complicated that maintaining what amounted to hundreds of pages of content needed to be a full-time job rather than a once-every-update outsourced project.
However, in the new subscription service landscape, these principles of single-sourcing are vital not only to documentation, but to every aspect of an organization’s content creation, from customer education and success to sales and marketing.
The most successful companies will master these methods of reusing and sharing content across their organizations.
* Rosenberg, M. (2017, October 17). Marc My Words: The Coming Knowledge Tsunami. Retrieved from Learning Solutions Magazine: https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/2468/marc-my-words-the-coming-knowledge-tsunami
* Svensson, A. (2016, January 13). The 5 Principles of Single Sourcing in Technical Documentation. Retrieved from LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/5-principles-single-sourcing-technical-documentation-anders-svensson/
You know you need to create content for your customers to train them on your product. But where do you start?
But instead, you've got limited resources.
While a long-term strategy can connect and reuse content for different purposes, it's best to determine your main goal to help set priorities on where to start and how much you can tackle now.
There are number of common goals that companies have when they want to create self-service content. I polled my colleagues on The Customer Success Forum on LinkedIn and got some some feedback that mirrors what I've found in my consulting work with software companies.
Reduce Support Costs
"Of course they want to reduce support tickets. Support is expensive...you want as much self-service knowledge as possible."
Goal Number one for many companies is reducing support costs. Scott Hopper, an IT Software Technical Support Engineer says, "Of course they want to reduce support tickets. Support is expensive. Unless, you are trying to grow your support team, you want as much self-service knowledge as possible."
If this is the issue you want to start with as you embark on creating your content, make it a specific, measurable goal, like "I want to reduce the number of open support tickets each month by 10%." That way, you can get a clear financial impact that shows the value of your time spent writing and maintaining online help or a knowledgebase.
Brooke Harper, a Sales Development Representative, clarifies the purpose of content like this. She says "As a consumer, I usually look for a quick answer to basic questions or quick actions to simple tasks."
Scott Hopper mentions a couple of other goals you might have as you develop content. "Onboarding customers and converting trial users, puts money in [company's] pockets."
Let's look at these goals separately.
Convert Trial Uses
One of my clients with a microniche software company wanted to improve the conversion rate of his trial users. He had a conversion rate that hovered around 20% of potential users who downloaded the trial version who became paid customers. The product had a fairly steep learning curve, and he gave 14 days of use on a lite version of the product for potential customers to make a decision.
He wanted to give the potential customers enough self-service information in a Quick Start Guide to help those customers make a decision about purchasing the product. For him, we determined that his goal was to have an increase of 5 sales a month, which was worth thousands of dollars a year, for an investment of a couple of weeks of focused effort.
Improving Onboarding Process
Another one of my clients has a very technical product that requires a lot of customization. Their account executives spend several hours with new customers helping with a new implementation. But I helped them create some videos that explained concepts that are important for the customers to understand in order to use the product. This saved about 1/2 an hour of the implementation consultant's time for each new customer. That may not sound like a lot, but when you multiply it by every new customer over the months and years that they may use it, it adds up to literally thousands and thousands of dollars a year. And this is just the start for them. When you want to climb a mountain like this, you still have to take it one step at a time.
"One goal is to facilitate adoption for large accounts, where a CSM could have a hard time delivering high-touch assets for every user. This helps deliver product and support updates to all customers with just a link."
A similar goal is clarified by Sebastian Cabrera, a Customer Success Manager. He says, " One goal is to facilitate adoption for large accounts, where a CSM could have a hard time delivering high-touch assets for every user. This helps deliver product and support updates to all customers with just a link.
This is closely tied to a goal of providing self-serve education for customers. Self-serve education can be anything from basic 1-2 minute YouTube tutorials on how to complete specific tasks, to much more elaborate academy course offerings that go beyond using the tool into industry best-practices, as well as preparation for high-stakes proctored exams (certification).
All of these are good goals, and you can find evidence in the Customer Education discipline of how beneficial each can be to your bottom line. Once you start developing your content, you will find that much of what you develop can be tweaked to serve more than one purpose including in sales and marketing where the financial return is more obvious.
But when you are starting out, focus on one very clear, specific goal. It's great to think long term about how that project can scale along with your company. You need to have that laser focus on what you are trying to accomplish. Otherwise, you may end up with lots of help, but find that your customers don't find it very helpful.
*This post is an excerpt of an upcoming course I am developing on creating customer-focused content. Stay tuned to hear updates on the course development and release date.
Most products present the user guide as a necessary evil if they bother to provide one for their customers at all.
But if you keep in mind the purpose of a user guide, and use topic-based authoring and a good design, the user guide can provide a foundation for your entire customer education strategy. And it doesn’t have to make you tear your hair out in the process.
A user guide is a map, not a document that will be read from cover to cover. The purpose for a software user guide is to explain screens that the user is likely to encounter and provide procedures for the tasks that they can perform. It can also include conceptual information if helpful for learning how to complete tasks. A user guide is not a training document, nor should it be used for marketing or sales. It is simply the most clear and concise explanation of what the user needs to know to get a job done, organized in such a way that the information is easy to find.
Topic-based authoring is a way of chunking information. One topic is the minimal amount of information needed to perform the given task – and only one task – with hyperlinks or cross references to point the reader to prerequisite or subsequent tasks or other related information. Conceptual information is kept separate from procedural information and usually organized before the related procedures.
There are significant advantages to writing your user guide with topic-based authoring. It creates a structure that makes it easy to navigate, for the author, subject matter experts or other reviewers and editors, and most importantly, the reader/user. But you can also easily leverage topics for other purposes, including training in person or online, tutorial video preparation, and online help/knowledge base creation.
Keep the design simple, with every design decision made to ensure that the information presented is clear and concise. Use consistent wording, capitalization, punctuation, and formatting to provide landmarks to your user for navigating the tasks. Use emphasis sparingly. I recommend bold for any button or field name the user interacts with and italics to reference screen names or other topics.
Free User Guide Template
After working with a number of companies just starting out with user guides, I've developed an easy-to-use Microsoft Word template to help with the design. (You can download it here.) It includes some common user guide features, including: