Monday, January 16, 2012

User-Generated Documentation 

One trend that garners the attention of many instructional designers and  technical communicators is that of content generated by people other than us.  We typically face two major competitors to our work:  
Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), whose have an in-depth knowledge of the content and save time on translating it for communicators by writing the material themselves 
Users and learners, who have hands-on experience with the content and can offer real-world perspectives on ways that people actually use the content in the context of their jobs and lives

For the purpose of this article, I'll refer to contributions by both groups as user-generated documentation, even though the technical term for the first category is SME-generated documentation. 

Like many technical writers, Malobika Khanra and Debarshi Gupta Biswas 
authors of User-Generated Content: Embracing Social Networking to Deliver More Engaging Technical Documentation,   (UX Matters, 
primarily focus on the advantages of user-generated documentation, noting that it is an inevitable byproduct of a Web 2.0 world, democratizes content and offers broader perspectives on the content than possible by technical communicators alone.  They note that technical communicators still play a role in publishing user-generated content, calling that role a content curator. 

One of the tools for producing user-generated content is the template, which guides users through the process of preparing content on their own.  In Are You Tempted to Use a Template to Expedite Policy & Procedure Development (, policies and procedures expert Raymond Urgo distinguishes among the different types of templates available:

Content, which presents a fill-in-the-blank form that not only addresses formatting issues, but also prompts authors to provide particular types of content in a particular order--and use  particular headings to signal that content to readers.  

Mechanical, which primarily assists with formatting.
Pre-written, which contains most of the text needed on a particular topic, prompting users to replace certain types of things.

Urgo notes that none of these templates guide their users through the foundational process of analyzing users and their needs and, as a result, using these templates might speed up the production of content, but the content might fail to actually meet the needs of its intended users. 

This problem of analysis is also raised by Khanra and Biswas, who note that instructional designers and technical communicators often do not conduct a full audience analysis.  

The same pressures driving people to use templates are the ones presumed to prevent instructional designers and technical communicators from conducting audience analyses:  pressures to reduce costs and time to publication.  

But in many cases, the problem is more fundamental.  In some organizations, instructional designers and technical communicators are actively prevented from gaining access to users; only marketing representatives and a few select members of the product development team have such access.  

Worse, when confronted with such situations, instructional designers and technical communicators merely complain that they don't have It's that someone actively prevents access to users.  They don't push to gain access or, at the least, to talk directly to those people who do have access.  

For example, I once had a student--a professional technical communicator--who was supposed to do an audience analysis in her work environment for her class project.  She said she could not do so because her company prevented it.  I said that she should then speak to the people who do have access to users to get this information; previously she relied solely on product specifications and internal marketing plans for information.

She did so--and the experience was enlightening.  The documentation on which she relied was misleading; they described the intended markets and users for her products.  After speaking with the people who had direct access to users, she learned that the primary audience assumed for the product was actually a secondary one, the group assumed to be a secondary audience was merely a tiny population, and that the primary market was one that was not even on her radar.  

User-generated content has its value, but it is not vetted content.  

That vetting is the value added by instructional designers and technical communicators.  But we don't bring much value unless we truly do the vetting--and push to gain the broad, practical perspective that SMEs lack because of technical focus, and users lack because of their one-environment-only focus.  

Perhaps the best advantage of user-generated documentation is that it keeps us on our toes.  

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