Crossing the chasm with documentation

I was reflecting today on whether companies are making the best strategic use of their documentation departments. Of course, we doc folk believe that no self respecting corporation should ever let any product go out the door without full, brilliant, richly illustrated documentation — preferable printed on acid free archival quality paper and bound in rich leather embossed with gold lettering. In fact, of course, that virtually never happens, and yet our companies still manage to eek out a return for their shareholders.

Still, it does seem that most products do go out the door initially with a full doc set (of whatever quality) and retain pretty much the same set of titles through the next however many releases until the product reaches end of life. We have seen significant discontinuities in the physical form of these docs over the past couple of decades, but their substance has changed little in most cases.

But, few companies have shown themselves willing to devote enough resources to tech pubs to create and maintain a full documentation set for every product from cradle to grave, so the quality of those docsets has tended to decline over the years. And, alas for doc folk, these declines cannot be tied clearly to a corresponding decline in sales (if only because every competing product’s docs have declined at the same time for the same reasons).

Which leads to the question: is documentation ever a useful product differentiator? Because if it isn’t, there is no real case to be made for companies to increase their investment in it.

Documentation is an productivity enhancer. It contributes to ease of use. It helps users get their jobs done faster. Strategically, companies should be asking themselves, when is customer productivity and ease of use a significant product differentiator? We might instinctively say “always”, but that is really not the case.

Geoffrey Moore famously described a chasm in the technology adoption curve (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Chasm). Crossing the chasm is the most difficult part of marketing a technology product. I’d suggest that it is at the point that a company is trying to get a product across the chasm that documentation has the highest strategic value.

For the innovators (in Moore’s model), it is functionality that counts. First one to deliver the functionality wins, and relative ease of use is of little consequence. Innovators expect things to be difficult (they may even like it). Plus, companies can raise additional revenue by selling support and training to the innovators, so providing great documentation might actually reduce their revenue stream rather than enhancing it.

For the majority, on the other hand, there are a wealth of information sources available — the websites, blogs, and forums set up by the innovators; the guy in the next cubicle who’s been using the product for the last six months; their own experience with similar products. Docs are nice to have, but they tend to be a last resort, and if they are not there, or not complete, there are usually ways to work around the problem. Even though information needs may still by high for the majority, documentation may not be a great differentiator because there are so many other sources of information available.

But then there is the group in the middle, the early adopters, the people who get the product across the chasm from experiment-that-escaped-from-the-lab to viable commercial product. They are not masochists who like having to figure out things the hard way, nor are they sheep who will buy whatever product all the other sheep are buying. They have choices and they are serious about making the right choice. For them, productivity and ease of use are key differentiators between competing products.

So, perhaps crossing the chasm should be the key strategic use for documentation in a company’s overall business plan. Perhaps it is here that documentation can make a real and measurable contribution to the company’s bottom line.

What would happen if companies started to concentrate the majority of their documentation efforts on products that were preparing to cross the chasm?

What does this have to do with every page is page one? A lot, I think. Taking an every-page-is-page-one approach to information design would allow companies to roll out pieces of documentation at the best tactical moment as a product moves through the key early adopter phase. And also because an authoring strategy based on EPPO topics would make it easier to concentrate many writers on a single product as it passed through this critical phase of its life cycle.

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