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Down With Print - Plugging a Paperless Process - STC

Down With Print - Plugging a Paperless Process - STC

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Published by John Melendez

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Published by: John Melendez on May 25, 2010
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writing & editing
with Print
Plugging a Paperless Process in a
Customer-Centered Company 
elieve it or not, up until a year I ago, printed user guides were
the primary source of techni-
cal information for my com-
I pany's customers. Why were
stuck in the dark ages?Company management was customer focused and didn't want to eliminatewhat it thought was an essential service.Providing free, printed user documentation had been part of the company's practice since its beginnings.
Because the company's products consisted of both hardware and software, providing a printable PDF of the documentation was essential. In-product online help alone wouldn't meet the needsof many of the products' users, especially those using the hardware-driven products.I set out on a mission: to research a better way to provide user documentation. After surveying customers, reviewing printing charges, and mapping the
documentation production and distri bution processes, the answer becameclear: provide frequently updated PDFdocumentation on an existing company
Web site. The process made sense fo
the customers and the technical writing team, but how would I convincemanagement? The sections below outline recommendations for promoting a paperless documentation system withinyour company.
Determine Customer Preferences
The most compelling reason for changing a process in a customer-centered company is listening to thevoice of the customer. What do customers really want? What type of documentation
way to
out is to ask them.Start by surveying a sample of customers. Gather names from internal groupssuch as the project management teamto ensure a high response rate. Thosewho work with customers often have themost up-to-date customer contact information, and they know which groups atcustomer sites use the documentation.You can also survey company employ
ees who work directly with customers to
see what customers have been tellingthem. It's always best to get feedback directly from customers, but employeescan be an additional source of information. The more feedback you can gather, the better.In my survey, customers said they
wanted flexibility and accessibility. The
majority of those surveyed said theywanted electronic documentation theycould print and that was frequently updated on the company Web site. Electronic distribution would allow customers to print the entire user guide or justthe sections they needed. It would alsoallow them to print as many copies asthey needed. Once you determine whatcustomers want, you can begin to ex plore how meeting this need
helpyour company.
Calculate Cost Savings
Printed documentation can be a hugeexpense. Some companies, especiallylarger ones, may not even know howmuch they're spending each month
writing & editing
on printing user documentation. In mycase study, the figures for the company's printing costs were astounding: morethan $16,000 a month for printing user guides. In black and white. This figurespoke for itself. Moving to a PDF solution on an existing Web site didn't cre
ate any expenses for the company, and
it eliminated a huge one.If you can prove such dramatic savings in printing charges, it's easy toconvince management to move to a pa perless system. Then you can leveragethese cost savings to request that your company invest a much smaller sumto purchase new software tools to enhance electronic documentation. Thisallows a writing team to produce better documentation—making even the costsavings ultimately benefit the customer.And learning new tools doesn't hurtyour resume.
Count Time Savings
Producing documentation the old-fashioned way takes time. At my com pany, the technical writing team wasspending 300 hours per year on administrative tasks related to publishing printed documentation. This time wasspent burning master CDs and shippingthem to the company's offshore printing facility. The forms that the writersneeded to complete for this processwere complicated and restrictive, making the process time-consuming andfrustrating.Calculate the time your writing teamspends on tasks related to printing documentation. You might be amazed byjusthow long these tasks take. Time tracking
tools like
can be helpful, and even askingwriters to keep a log of how much timethey spend on printing-related tasks can provide accurate information.If you move to a paperless system,use time savings the same way you canuse extra money—to improve the documentation. Allow writers to improvetheir skill set. The extra time and moneymight allow your writing team to learnXML or a new word processing or online help tool. Writers could use thetime to enhance the documentation editing process or develop a company styleguide. Today's technical writing toolsoffer many possibilities.
Benefits for Other Employees
Moving to an electronic documentation process can offer benefits to a com pany's project managers or whoever isresponsible for ordering documentation and making sure customers receive
The paper documentation-ordering
 process for project managers at my
company included fourteen steps. Itinvolved a two-week lag time while theoffshore printer produced and shippeduser guides. Project managers whowaited until the last minute to think about customer documentation endedup printing the documentation in theoffice and traveling with it themselves.And the documents could be heavy.In the paperless process, downloading documentation takes only four steps. This new process means that project managers no longer have to worryabout the documentation not arrivingon time or the customer losing the documentation. There's no longer a needto order replacement copies. In addition, the searchable PDF makes it easier for the project managers to find answersto customer questions.Talk to the people in your companywho deliver documentation to customers and map their process. You might be surprised; in my study, what projectmanagers were supposed to do and whatthey actually did sometimes differed.See how your company's employeeswould prefer to deliver documentation.If they prefer an electronic process, thisis just one more bargaining tool you canuse with management.
Better Service
Remember: You're not eliminatinga service; you're adding a better one.This point is key. When we rolled outthe new process, naysayers thought wewere slighting our customers by depriving them of hardcopy documentation.Employees had to see the benefits of the process before they could sell theidea to customers. In fact, the new process would mostly affect new customers,so company employees were the maingroup that needed to be convinced thatelectronic documentation was better.It takes time to convince those outsidethe technical writing field of the benefitsof a paperless system. Keep your company's employees informed. Send e-mails.Conduct Web-based training sessions
to demonstrate new processes. Show
customer survey results and before-
and-after process maps for customers,
technical writers, and project managers.Demonstrate how to use the new documentation system and provide a tutorialfor employees to refer to when needed.Provide sample files showing the newelectronic format.Convincing company employees thatelectronic is best is a continual process.Keep reinforcing the benefits. Writearticles in any company newsletters,e-mails, or other forms of communication. Include FAQs, tips and tricks, andinstructions for using the new system.Any new process involves changemanagement. More important thanconvincing employees that electronicdocumentation is superior is gettingthem to accept change. And change isessential as new technologies allow us to
 better serve customers. ©
 Lisa Earl 
is a
member of the Pittsburgh Chapter STC. She
is a technical and freelance writer in western
 Pennsylvania. She also organizes process-
improvement projects.
June 2008

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