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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Turning your Product Documentation into Compelling Content

Product Documentation. Everyone has it. Often it's in the format of a thick manual, many-megabyte PDF, or online knowledge base. Every detail about your product is included... somewhere.

And that 'somewhere' is exactly what your users are trying to find. Most end-users go to the documentation in two instances:
  1. They are new to the product and need something to provide them with a way to get started.
  2. They have an intermediate to advanced knowledge of the product and need to find information on a specific feature.
But when you look at how documentation is presented, it is primarily clustered around product menus and runs through everything possible within that section. Going into too much detail for the beginner and compiling more information than the advanced user wants to sift through.

(And we'll just gloss over the sterile language that most of this documentation is written in.)

So how does a company go from producing this kind of documentation as a necessary evil to making it an integral part of their user-experience and a rich source of content that can be mined for other uses?

Content Strategy for Product Documentation

Many of the principles of content strategy are applicable here. While the work isn't easy, it is possible – especially if you have a resource that you can dedicate to transitioning your existing documentation into new, compelling content.

(Another piece of good news, you probably already have the first step done.)

First, identify your audiences. Who are the end-users of your product? What makes them log in to your software every day? What areas are they currently struggling with? Your internal search is a gold mine for the last one.

Next, you want to look at your external facing content, do an audit of your marketing collateral, and understand the story that you are telling. Where are the similarities between prospective audiences and customers? How does your story evolve in the context of your customer base? What story do you want to be telling your customers?

The clear sense of audience and story will give you the foundation for the tone and style that you should use for your content. With this in place, you can move onto the next steps to determine the structure of your product content.

Classification and Taxonomy

Creating your product documentation structure includes creating a classification system and taxonomy. This will provide a framework for both your current and future content needs.

The classification typically falls along lines similar to your navigation. Features can be grouped according to where they fall within the menus of your product. Your primary objective in the classification is to ensure that you can account for all the buttons a user may need to push.

But, you know there are additional attributes that define features beyond where they appear in the navigation. This is the purpose of developing a taxonomy. These are the additional axes that provide context and will allow you to serve up content that pinpoints your users' needs.

Some of the additional information we may want to associate with features are:
User Experience Level – Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced
Customer Type – Solo, SMB, Enterprise; or along pricing tiers
Use Case Processes – Getting Started, Search Engine Optimization, Etc.
Related Features
Other concepts as relevant

You are now able to create a flexible taxonomy that accurately represents the context of content needed for each product feature.

For example, you might determine that one feature should be listed as:
Beginner, All Customer Tiers, Getting Started

While similar feature may be:
Advanced, Gold Tier, Getting Started

How does this taxonomy help with content creation instead of making it an unwieldy process that already looks out of control – and you haven't even written a word yet!

(Spoiler: The answer is that you can determine the taxonomies as you go and they will allow you to group content contextually later on.)

Creating Content Form and Function

The taxonomy then allows you to separate form from function.

First, is the form. Chunked content built it in pieces around a specific feature, or feature-set, using the taxonomy to determine the content objective, depth, and format.

Second is the function. 'Playlists' of content that connect elements of the taxonomy.
For example, a Beginner's Getting Started guide, or an Advanced Search Engine Optimization guide. Users are provided with a context-rich experience that targets both features and intent. 

These playlists can also be generalized to form the basis of additional external information – completing the circle of using your product documentation as another source of compelling content.