Engineering content champions at stc17

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. These are my notes from one of the sessions at the conference. All credit goes to the presenter, and any mistakes are mine.

In her session, “Engineering Content Champions”, Becky Todd spoke about crowd-sourcing content. The session’s theme was that you can build excellent documentation by allowing contributions from engineers and product owners, but there are some rules to make it work.

Becky mentioned the dilemma of identifying ourselves as technical writers or technical editors. She works on developer-focused documentation, where you often find yourself writing less, and working more strategically to enable other people to create documentation.

There’s valuable, but hidden, content in places like email. This type of content solves many real problems, but it’s hard to find. As a result, she developed the idea of a content champion. These are people who curate content, even though that’s not their core role. They share knowledge, and get feedback on it too. Examples are support engineers, developers, product managers, and people in the community.

She started thinking about a crowd-sourcing mechanism for technical documentation. This involves a way of allowing occasional authors to provide content voluntarily.

Crowd-sourced content has a number of benefits. It helps you documents edge cases. People include knowledge from various areas of your organisation. And you can minimises bottlenecks and reduces pressure on a small tech writing team.

There are challenges too. Ownership becomes less clear, and people may decide not to fix a problem. Language may be poor, and content hard to understand. You may end up with quantity versus quality.

How to be successful with crowd-sourcing your content:

  • Communicate clear goals.
  • Document processes clearly.
  • Get support from all stakeholders.
  • Ensure that editorial review and oversight is in place.

The tool-kit you provide for crowd-sourced content is very important. Create a guide to contributing content, and ensure the workflow is simple and matched to your contributors. Provide style guides and best practices. Consider providing training for other areas of your organisation. Plan your content strategy, and how to receive feedback on the docs.

A good tip is to make sure documentation is regarded with respect inside your organisation. This shows respect for your customers who need to use the product. Becky showed us a page on the Django documentation site, which embodies this principle.

We walked through a case study of a crowd-sourced knowledge base. The project successfully replaced the repetition of question and answer that the support team had been subject to, with a base of 300+ articles on common questions and answers. The flow of information between support and engineering also improved the relationships within the organisations.

It’s important to reward or acknowledge the successes of people who contribute to the documentation. Use whatever mechanisms are available within your organisation, such as mentions in quarterly meetings, kudos, etc. This also raises the profile of documentation within the organisation.

Thank you Becky for a great session and engaging content!

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 9 May 2017, in STC, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks very much for the notes, Sarah! I cannot afford attending such conferences for now, so I really appreciate your blogs.

    I agree we technical writers should try to invite other teams to contribute and most people would never collaborate without a known reward behind! It’s probably a question of influence too, when I see the number of people participating in wikis on TV shows, I still have hopes to get a whole company enjoying documenting.

    • Hallo Angéline
      I’m so glad these notes are useful! You make a good point about influence. I guess influence works both ways: The first is that as tech writers, we can raise awareness of the docs and their influence on customers and the company, thus also raising our own influence. The second is that we can maybe recognise other people for their contributions to the docs, and thus raise their influence in the community too.

      • Agree on the recognition. If the company provides annual awards, why not having one for “Best Outsider Author”! We all like compliments and to be appreciated for our work. In my case, we don’t have such things yet, so the small thing I can do for now is to add the helpers as co-authors of my docs.

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