Technical writers and knowledge base managers use and evaluate a variety of tools. There seems to be something for everything. PDF conversion and video editing software. HTML and CSS templates. And don’t forget those handy screen capture tools.
Perhaps none of these tools, though, is more important to good knowledge management (nor more scrutinized and debated) than the authoring tool.
The authoring tool is where tech writers (and even knowledge base managers) spend a majority of their time. In many ways, a technical writer’s ability to efficiently and accurately create product documentation depends on good authoring tools. It’s only natural that the tools themselves often take center stage.
The misguided focus on tools first
Don’t get me wrong: authoring tools are important. Vetting, selecting, and implementing these tools can be time-intensive and costly. Getting it wrong can be a nightmare for tech writers, their managers, and the end-user. Hence the tendency to focus on authoring tools as the starting point and solution for all our problems. If we could just improve our authoring capabilities, we say to ourselves as we gaze dreamily out the window. If only our workflows were more organized, our customers could get the content they need faster.
Or, what if we could finally find a tool capable of hosting our private and public help content?
Perfectly valid questions to ask. But a hyper-focus on the authoring tools themselves puts the tools and the tech-writer/KB-manager experience as the starting point for improving the end-user experience.
This is totally backwards.
Start with your internal and external knowledge base experience
Because the mission of any knowledge base team, on a fundamental level, is to create highly accurate, relevant, and timely product knowledge for the end user, be it support agent, customer, or internal employee. Our content helps those users do something: answer a question, troubleshoot a product, or learn.
So why not start there?
Before putting all this effort into finding the right authoring tool, why not examine the needs of your customers first? Throw a little empathy in the mix by mapping out what the end-user (both internal/private and external) experience should be. From there, you can determine more relevant KPIs as a team and use them to drill down to the right tools that suit those specific needs.
Customer experience first, then tools.
Basic questions, valuable answers
To examine the needs of your end users, there’s a few fundamental questions to ask. It’s something akin to the “five Ws” of journalism. Ask yourself:
- Who is using your content? Depending the nature of your business, the answer can be more complex than just “the customer.” Do you have internal users, such as support agents or salespeople, that regularly use this content? Maybe your customer onboarding program leverages knowledge base articles and video?
- What kind of content do end-users need? A web self-service portal with knowledge base articles? Video tutorials? In-product help content? Product manuals and setup guides? A community forum?
- When do your end-users need your content? Customers might demand content at various touchpoints along the customer journey, such as presale research or post-sale self-service support. Internal users might need quick access to content to help solve a customer issue or answer a prospect’s product question.
- Why do your end-users consume your content? Do they need it to answer questions? To solve problems on their own? Maybe your support content is actually helping customers make purchase decisions. You might be surprised.
- Where do your end-users access your content? In your knowledge base? In-product? Within your customer relationship management (CRM) software? Google Search?
- How are we delivering our content? Too slow? Too fast? Is it structured well and optimized for mobile? Is it easy for our customers to find information?
These might seem like basic questions, but a close examination of their answers can provide a lot of perspective. With this information in hand, you can refine your content objectives and better define your customer-centric KPIs. Then it’s time to consider the tools that can help you achieve these objectives. You’ll be surprised at how different your shortlist of vendors is now, versus before, when you were considering the tool first, instead of the end-user.
Outside in for the KB win
Though this kind of “outside in” approach might seem counterintuitive—and run totally against the tendency of tech writers and knowledge managers to focus on tools first—it can lead to a far stronger ROI when you do, in fact, put the money down on that fancy new authoring tool.
Furthermore, taking this kind of inventory—closely examining the internal/external user experience—will reveal the common need for a self-service experience that can be extended into all your channels. As they saying goes, when you are ready for the tool, the right tool will present itself to you. All joking aside, once you shift your focus to your end-users experience, you’ll be that much closer to a tool that specifically meet those needs.