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Archive for the ‘Technical Writing’ Category

Documentation Is Part of a Smart Marketing Strategy

Do you see documentation as an important marketing asset? Are you putting your documentation to work as a sales tool? If not, you may be leaving money on the table. (Click image for source and credits.)

In these difficult economic times, companies need all the strategic marketing assets and sales tools they can muster. Did you know that documentation can help you achieve several important marketing goals? Are you getting the most out of your documentation?

One of the strongest arguments for investing the proper amount of time and money to produce effective documentation—the kind that shows you understand your market and your customers—is that you will create several powerful marketing tools in one package.

Want to become a member of the “smart marketing” winners circle? Here are some of the top reasons why great product documentation can set your products and company apart from the crowd …

One, repeat business. Successful documentation helps your company get repeat business in a very economical way. As you know, converting prospects to customers requires a lot of work and money. Once you’ve made the sale – what then? If your customers are satisfied with the product and how it meets their needs, they are likely to buy from you again. Documentation that helps customers use your products and get the most out of them promotes repeat business.

This is low-hanging fruit, so don’t overlook the marketing value of great documentation. As a bonus, if you publish your documentation online, you can build out those pages to encourage even more customer interaction with your company.

Two, analytics. How do you know your documentation meets your customers’ needs? Are you really communicating everything your customers need to know about the product?

Build out your online documentation package to encourage customer feedback, so you can find out what customers really think about your product documentation, and how they use it. Enable comments so users can tell you what they think is missing, what they like, and more. Automated analytics tools can tally and rank page and topic views, for example, and also list referrers, search terms used to find topics, which links were clicked, and so on.

Documentation analytics just might turn out to be your best friend in the marketplace, providing unvarnished, honest feedback and market intelligence. You can use that information to correct weaknesses, build on strengths, make better decisions about product development, gain a competitive advantage—and, ultimately, generate more business.

Three, interactive customer engagement. Who said documentation has to be just static pages lurking on a company website, waiting for customers to drop by? That’s all well and good, of course, but why stop there?

If you know your customers and how they use your product, you can slice and dice your documentation into many different configurations, and push it out onto many devices in various formats.

You can also make your documentation more interactive. Beyond pages of text, figures, drawings and photos, why not add podcasts, videos and automatically updating fields to the mix? Consider a video-game format for a training document, for example. Interactivity keeps customers connected and learning; that can pay off on the bottom line.

Hankering for more information on interactivity? Then you might also like to read Does Your Company Use Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM)?

Too many companies still view documentation from a limited perspective and, therefore, leave business on the table. You already know documentation is critical for making your products usable and useful. It’s time to take the next step and realize its potential as a powerful, strategic marketing asset.

Talkback: Does your company view documentation as a marketing asset? Do you use documentation to develop and retain your customer base? If you use documentation as a marketing tool, has it helped increase your customer base and revenues? What documentation formats work for you? Share your thoughts and experiences in comments—thanks!   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

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Geographic Information System (GIS)

How can Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help writers and content creators visualize data? Do you use information visualization in your publications and documents? (Click image for credit and source)

Data visualization is becoming the new frontier in content, writing, and communication. In this post, I want to share with you a remarkable type of map.

There are your standard, average sorts of maps, and then there are your WOW! amazing, captivating maps.

In The World in Tweets and Photos and Infographic of the Day: Using Twitter and Flickr Geotags to Map the World, Eric Fischer has created a marvelous series of geographic maps of the WOW! kind showing overlays of geotagged photos posted to Flickr and tweets to Twitter.

This fascinating project visualizes the intersection of geography and vast quantities of user-generated data.

When you look at Fischer’s images, you will see clusters of multi-colored dots that represent where people are when they send photos and tweets. Red dots correspond to Flickr photos; blue dots signify tweets; and white dots indicate locations from which both have been sent.

From New York and Washington to the entire United States to Europe to the entire world, you can see images that instantly communicate how many people are using those two social media, and where they are when using them.

In an earlier post, Information Visualization: How Can It Improve Your Publications?, I wrote about the value of using visualization to extract meaningful information from a sea of data, and gave you some guidelines for successfully doing just that.

I think Eric Fischer’s maps beautifully illustrate the best reason for visualizing large and complex data sets: visualization is a technique that allows us to explore visually and perhaps arrive at some understanding of patterns and groupings that might otherwise remain invisible.

That type of large-scale analysis gives writers and other communications professionals a powerful tool to connect with their audiences and convey a story in moving and unforgettable ways.

Enjoy Fischer’s glorious maps. I hope they inspire you to come up with even better visualizations for your own publications and documents.

Now it’s your turn: What do you think of Fischer’s maps? Do you use information visualization in your own work? What software tools do you use to take large sets of data and convert them to visual form? Please share your tips, techniques and experiences – thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Information visualization provides a way of helping people make sense of large, complex data sets, such as the following:

  • Topology data
  • Epidemiology data
  • Sets of time series
  • Medical data
  • Geographic maps
  • Network connections
  • Financial data
  • U.S. Government Budget
  • Billions of customer transactions
  • Radiation doses and their impact over time

Improving large-scale analysis of these and many other massive data sets presents an ongoing challenge for businesses, academia and government. Using information visualization techniques, however, allows us to explore visually and perhaps arrive at some understanding of patterns and groupings that might otherwise remain invisible.

Essentially, information visualization allows you to extract meaningful information from a sea of data.

And those data do not have to correspond only to the physical and concrete. They can be abstract, drawn from the domains of the symbolic, the textual, the logical, the tabular, the networked, and the hierarchical, among others.

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Example: Accessing the Geosocial Universe via Mobile Devices

How popular are the various geosocial networks with mobile users? This infographic is a good example of “compare and contrast.”

Geosocial Universe

This infographic illustrates and compares the popularity of different geosocial networking services. (Click to see credits and source.)

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Example: Ranking Themes in Documents

If you’re curious about the relationships among documents, this visualization shows clusters of themes and their strengths in health- and medical-related literature.

IN-SPIRE Software: ThemeView Landscape

This ThemeView Landscape figure shows relationships among documents. High peaks represent prominent themes. Peaks close together represent clusters of similar documents. (Click to see credits and source.)

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Example: Ordering  News Topics by “Interestingness”

Ever want to find out what are the hottest news topics within a given time period? In this visualization, the most reported (hottest) topics are in the center column. Less-reported topics appear in the side columns.

Automated, Intelligent Broadcast Video Content Analysis

News visualization topics are arranged according to “interestingness” for a given time period. Hottest topics (those most reported) appear in the central column. Side columns are used for topics of lesser impact by the interestingness measure. (Click for credits and source.)

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Using Information Visualization to Improve Your Publications

For your visualization to be effective, it must be useful to your audience as well as aesthetically appealing. This requires thoughtful analysis, attention to detail, imagination, and no small amount of perseverance. This YouTube video provides some examples and techniques. You may also find inspiration in Edward Tufte’s website.

The idea is that you do the heavy lifting, so your audience doesn’t have to.

To guide your work, ask the following questions:

Does your visualization have a purpose?  That is, what is the story you are trying to tell with this visualization? What information are you trying to tease out of the data and put into visual form?

Is your visualization the best one to convey the story?  That is, when your audience sees the visualization, will they immediately grasp the “big picture” of your analysis of the data? Will they easily grasp the meaningful patterns in the subject? If details are also important, does your visualization scale to that level in a way that makes sense for the subject and the audience?

Is your visualization interactive? Interactive views allow you to guide the story and are especially helpful when there is too much detail to show all at once. Although interactivity works best online, it can be approximated in print by breaking out information into related visualizations.

Is your visualization beautiful? Beauty influences comprehension. How you present something can determine its usefulness. Visual attributes such as fonts, colors, sizing, orientation of view, scaling of graphic elements and placement of graphic elements have a large impact on the user experience. For an example of WOW! beautiful maps, check out Maps: Visualizing Twitter and Flickr Data.

Tell me, do you think information visualization is the new frontier?

Now it’s your turn: What do you think? Do you use information visualization in your work? Do you generate your designs by software or have a graphic artist create them? I’d really like for you to keep the conversation going by leaving comments. Thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals: Multimedia and Multi-Platform

Does your company use Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM)? These documents offer users a multimedia and multi-platform experience.

Around 1980, some companies and organizations, notably the aerospace industry and the branches of the U.S. military, began to re-think how they presented technical information. Their products were complex, and their maintenance, troubleshooting and product-support requirements were stringent and time-consuming.

They knew they needed to improve performance, reduce errors, and shorten learning timelines. But how?

As it happened, they looked at emerging computer technologies and wondered if moving from paper to an electronic format would improve results. Among their questions:

  • Would users find it easier to learn and use the material?
  • Would they reduce errors and improve performance?
  • Could they integrate documentation with other systems?
  • Could they save money?

Tests with interactive electronic formats showed positive results and so, encouraged, the companies and the military forged ahead into the world of Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM).

Since that time, we have seen IETM systems develop a variety of features, with most using one or more of the following:

Linear Structure. This sort of electronic document is based on the structure and layout of a printed book and uses navigational aids, such as a table of contents and a list of figures, that hyperlink into the content. A PDF file is a good example.

Nonlinear Structure. These online documents are organized around the logic of the product or task, for example, instead of following a linear book-type structure. However, the concept of a static page remains. As you would expect, there are lots of hyperlinks and other navigational aids. This type of document is often authored in a markup language.

Dynamic Data. These online documents are very nonlinear in structure. Content and pages are dynamic, drawing much of their data from relational databases and data dictionaries. Background programming automatically updates the dynamic data when the databases and dictionaries are updated. Hyperlinking in these documents is typically very complex and is, therefore, usually handled by programming. Content may also be context-specific and user-specific.

Integrated with Expert Systems. As companies build databases of heuristics and expert feedback, these can be integrated with the IETM system to improve the user experience and results. This information can be dynamically mapped into documents in all sorts of ways. For example, feedback by expert troubleshooters about errors and how to resolve them is sought after by companies across the product and process spectrum.

New Frontier—Multiple Devices. Many companies are now changing the way they and their customers think about IETM. From design concept to reality, they are experimenting with unleashing product support through all sorts of channels, for example: Mobile devices such as tablets and phones, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, websites, CDs, PDF, print, wikis, and blogs.

The new frontier of IETM seems to call for a “basket” of delivery platforms, each carefully selected for a certain type of content.

And no matter the platform, content rules. As ever.

Content must be organized in a way that suits the product, the audience, and its intended use. Content must be consistent across multiple platforms, well structured, properly modularized, cross-referenced and completely accessible by a full range of search and navigational features.

IETMs and their spin-offs present design, writing and production challenges, but produce a better user experience and greater performance improvements over stand-alone paper documents.

For more on creating an interactive user experience, see my recent post Let Your Customers Tweet in Your Documents.

Now it’s your turn: Does your company use IETMs? On which delivery platforms? How would you describe your experience implementing IETMs? Do you think the results are worth it? Please share your thoughts and questions about IETMs in comments. Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Are Your Publications Things or Behaviors?

Do you see your company's publications as things or behaviors? Your answer can have all sorts of interesting consequences for your customers and your company.

If you started to think about your company’s publications as behaviors instead of things, would such a shift in perspective change the resulting documents? Would your customers respond to your message in a different way?

Consider the publications that you and others in your company create—they probably run the gamut, from sales and marketing literature to online pages to proposals to technical documentation and maybe even to interactive multimedia presentations and video scripts.

Like most writers, you work with others to establish the requirements for each publication and to generate and refine its specifications. You create an outline that captures the topics, features and procedures to be included in each document and organize that content in a way that satisfies the project specifications.

Such an approach is based on seeing the document as a thing. And, while it may be necessary, at least in part, is it sufficient? Does it really satisfy your customers’ needs? Does it let you wring every last drop of value out of what you spend on trying to connect with your customers?

What if you viewed a publication as a set of behaviors, instead of just a thing?

For starters, this might mean that your project requirements stated how your company’s customers would interact with the publication—and any associated product. After all, why do your customers read your stuff? What do they expect to get out of it?

If you thought about customer behaviors—for example, how they use the publication, the ways in which they need to access the document, how they find topics, how they use the information, what other resources they might need, how they might use the document as a focal point for customer-to-customer and customer-to-company interaction—would those considerations change your document specifications? Would the specs begin to reflect a mindset that took user experience into account?

If you viewed each publication as describing, prescribing and integrating a dynamic set of behaviors among your customers, your products and your company, how would that change the types of documents you create?

Would you enhance your publication model to include various scenarios and anticipated interactions that played to customer needs and experiences?

Begin to think about your company’s publications as behaviors instead of things, and I’ll bet your documents become more interactive, more dynamic, more user-friendly and more attuned to your customers.

Now let’s talk: What is your opinion? If you create publications, what is your approach? As a customer, how do you respond to companies’ offline and online publications: What do you like about them? What don’t you like? You can leave your comment at the top of this post. Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Social Media and Static Documents

Have you thought about embedding live Twitter streams in your company's online documents? Do you think this could help you connect better with your customers?

Recently a colleague and I were talking about product promotion. As is so often the case in the world of business, the real issue was how to connect with customers on an ongoing basis and get them more involved with the product and the company. All successful companies are interested in that, because they want to encourage customer loyalty, get feedback on specific products and help build a word-of-mouth campaign about their products.

And what better way to accomplish those objectives than by engaging your customers in conversation?

This is where tweets come into the picture.

What if you decided to embed live Twitter streams in your company’s document pages and then invited your customers to become part of a lively exchange of opinions, feedback, suggestions and idea-sharing?

The more my colleague and I batted around ideas about this, the more I thought about the many ways a tweet stream could benefit everyone involved.

So I decided to poke around the Internet and see what I could find, since I was pretty certain that someone, somewhere, must have already experimented with such a useful tool.

As you might expect, there are companies out there which have already embedded live Twitter streams in their documents. I found a really nice example at ffeathers, a technical writer’s blog written by Sarah Maddox. In her post on embedding Twitter streams in documents, she describes how she integrated Twitter into some of her company’s online documentation.

Although Sarah’s post concerns technical documentation, what she has to say could be applied to all sorts of online business and technology documents: imagine brochures, books, white papers, instruction manuals, marketing documents … and the list goes on.

I think the fusion of dynamic social media like Twitter with more static pages like company documents could usher in a wholly new way of interacting with customers.

Why not offer your customers the immediate gratification of expressing themselves directly to you about your products and services? Why not take advantage of this tool to keep a closer eye on the marketplace? There are so many possibilities …

Now let’s talk: Do you use embedded live Twitter streams in your company’s online documents? Do you use other social media to keep in touch with your customers? If so, what are the results? We’re all ears, so please let us know! And thanks for leaving your comments. Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Kitten and Sponge Try to Communicate

Are you communicating with your audiences in a way that helps you reach your objectives?

Happy New Year! As you make your business resolutions for the coming year, communicating better is likely on your list. Whether you are an entrepreneur charging forward at the head of a fast-track startup or are growing an established small, midsize or large company, you know that telling your story and getting your message out to your customers and prospects is absolutely vital to your continued success.

With my best wishes to you for a kickin’ and profitable New Year, here are four hot-off-the-press tips that will work wonders for you in 2011.

1. Set Your Objective

Establish an objective to serve as the framework for your communication project. In other words, what is your purpose in reaching out to your customers, a colleague, prospects, your staff, or the general public? What do you want your audience to know, do, think, or feel? What results are you looking to get? From a single letter to an entire advertising campaign in a variety of media, you must know why you are communicating.

Taking aim and knowing what your target is before you take action gives you a real edge over your competition. So don’t bypass the tried-and-true advantage of figuring out where you want to go before you hit the trail: set an objective.

2. Develop Your Strategy

Now that you have an objective, you need a way to get there. The path to your objective is your strategy.

A useful way of thinking about strategy is to ask this question: what achievable steps can I take to reach my objective? In other words …

What is your product, process, idea, and so on? Who are your audiences? How can you engage and hold their interest? What sort of material (white papers, letters, brochures, books, manuals, videos, websites, blogs and other social media, and so on) do you need to create to reach your audiences? What must you say to your audiences to accomplish your objective? What is your point of view? How do you begin to tell your story, make your pitch, start your message to get through to your audiences?

Basically, you can think of strategy as defining the who, what, where, when, and how as specifically as you can. Strategy is your gameplan, and every step must lead to the why, which is your objective.

3. Establish Your Theme

Good Writing Establishes a Theme, Just As in Music

Is your communication organized around a theme, which holds everything together?

In music, a theme is a pattern of notes that makes the dominant statement at the opening of a composition. After establishing a theme in a piece, the composer develops it and plays with it until the end, when the musical exploration is resolved into a re-statement of the theme.

Communicating by words and images is similar. A good theme lets you own one or several words in the marketplace which are identifiably yours. In this sense, a theme positions or brands your message, that is, it creates “shelf space” in the minds of your audiences.

A theme is the glue that holds your strategy together. If you are spangling messages across market segments and platforms, what is the tie that binds, the unifying element, the cohesive force? Your theme.

You want coherence and organic unity? Grab yourself a dominant theme and stick with it for the project.

4. Create Your Message

Build your message around your theme. The message also must fit within some part of your strategy, so that it helps achieve your objective.

The persuasiveness and effectiveness of a message stem from four factors: what you say, how you say it, where you say it, and how often you say it.

The most important aspect of a message, however, is that you have to write for the audience. Do you know your audience well enough to send them a message they will find meaningful? Will your audience understand your message? Are you using words and images that are relevant and familiar to your audience? Will your message achieve the desired results with your target audience? Is the message appropriate for the medium you have selected, for example, the digital market space, a print magazine, a video or a white paper?

Howling Pups on a Communication Roll

Are you just howling into the wind, or are you on target with an objective, strategy, theme and message set?

What are your thoughts on how to communicate well? Please share them by leaving a comment. Thanks! Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas


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