Summary: When content is a utility the job of the tech writer is to ensure reliability of supply.
In my earlier post, Content as Furniture, I suggested that while content used to be furniture — something to be acquired selectively and displayed as a prized possession (and a mark of status) — it is rapidly becoming a utility — something we simply expect to be there when we need it, like water or electricity.
The notion that content is becoming a utility has some pretty important consequences that I think are worth discussing.
A furniture store does not attempt to stock every conceivable piece of furniture in every conceivable size. It stocks the popular styles of the day in the popular sizes. It measures its success by how well that stock turns over. Models that don’t sell as well are dropped from stock to free up floor space for models that move more quickly. Stocking and selling the popular pieces is the right metric when you are selling furniture.
A utility has a different metric. It is not enough to provide the most popular and discard the rest. There may be far more demand for power at 4pm than at 4am, but if the power cuts out in the middle of the night, and all the clocks have to be reset, we are unhappy with the power company. We expect the power and the water to be there when we flip the switch or turn on the tap, regardless of the time of day. A utility must be as reliable in low demand times as in high. Reliability of service is the key metric for a utility.
Of course, more customers will be frustrated by power cuts at peak times, than power cuts in the middle of the night. But power cuts at 2 am are also highly damaging to the customer relationship. Among other reasons, they make customers worry whether the power might also go out at peak times.
Reliability of service should matter greatly to a company that creates an information-dependent product. Customers frustrated by obscure questions are just as frustrated as those frustrated by common questions. And most customers do not know if their question is a common one or an obscure one. All they know and care about is that they can’t get the product working. And every question not answered raises their concern that the next question won’t be answered either.
Whether the customer finds an answer every time they ask one is the key metric for a content utility. One particularly important factor to understand here is that almost every customer will ask some obscure questions and some common questions. We don’t have a large group of customers asking only common questions, and a small group asking only obscure ones. The common questions are simply those that many different customers all tend to ask. But most of those customers are also asking questions that few others ask.
What does the experience of asking questions look like to the customer in these circumstances? It looks like their questions are not getting answered half the time. What would you think if your car did not start half the time, if your lights did not come on half the time, if water did not come out of the tap half the time?
Unfortunately, it is very difficult for a technical documentation group to generate all the content to answer all the user questions all of the time. Fortunately, we don’t have to. Chances are, your utility company does not generate all the electricity that comes out of your sockets either. Instead, to ensure a steady supply of electricity, it relies on the grid.
The content grid
A utility company does not need to be the sole generator of electricity. Other sources can be brought online via the electrical grid. Electricity can be sourced from many suppliers, from distant hydro projects to local homeowners transferring excess output of their solar panels back to the grid.
The electrical grid has made a huge difference to the reliability of electrical supply, and the way industries and homeowners alike do business has changed profoundly as a result, with important economic consequences.
Equally great changes in behavior, and equally great economic consequences have followed from the introduction of the content grid — otherwise know at the World Wide Web. It is thanks to the Web that people now treat content as a utility — a reliable source of supply from a single point of contact that seamlessly integrates content supplied by many different content creators (including many individuals giving back to the grid).
In our homes, we do not have an array of sockets labeled with different sources of electricity supply: the hydro socket, the wind socket, the solar socket, the surplus power from a neighboring state socket. We do not have to plug our appliances into different sockets at different times of day depending on the current source of supply. We have one socket that is connected to the grid and supplies power consistently all day long.
So it is with content today. Readers do not want multiple different sources that they have to go to looking for information. The want a single place: the Web. People will not go to the documentation for their information. They will go to the Web and expect the documentation to be there. And just as we do not pause to think about whether the electrons powering our laptops at any given moment are being pushed by solar, wind, coal, gas, or water, readers largely do not think about whether the content they are consuming comes from the documentation or not. They just want content that solves their problem.
What, then, is the role of the technical communication group in the age of the content grid? Customers, forums, tech support, peers, and tech writers all contribute content to the grid. If tech writers have a distinguishing role in maintaining the content utility, it is not simply as another generator of content. Rather, the particular job of the tech comm group is to make sure that overall content supply is maintained. To do this, we certainly need to generate a lot of content. But that alone will not ensure reliability of supply and avoid blackouts and brownouts for our customers. As the engineers of the content utility company, we need to monitor the overall information network and its performance and act where needed to ensure the reliability of content supply.
This will require a profound change in how technical communication groups understand their role, and in how they measure and report the value they bring to the organization and to is customers. It will require content strategists, information architects, and documentation managers to think and plan much more broadly, and, in particular, to think outside the boundaries of the content they themselves generate and to focus instead on the reliability of the overall information supply.
Ready to start thinking about the move from content generator to content utility? Analecta Communications can help. Contact us today to find out how.