What do Content Strategy and technical writing have in common? Does Content Strategy offer anything to a tech writer and users’ advocate?
I ask because a friend pointed me at the Content Strategy meetup “Talk the Talk: A Voice and Tone Summit”. The description intrigued me:
We stare and poke and swipe at machines all day. But no one wants to sound like one. Voice and tone helps keep us human, and they’re some of the most powerful tools in content design and strategy. How do you use voice and tone to stay human and connect with other humans? […] How do you create a system for making sure content creators deliver a consistent voice and tone to your customers? […] When do you need to change your tone for certain messages and audiences? And how do you do it?
Establishing and maintaining connection with your users? You have my attention. Practical advice for developing and modulating tone for different messages and audiences? Do tell. Industry professionals sharing their experience actually implementing all this? Yes please!
You’re probably familiar with the concepts and practices that drive Content Strategy because you’re a TechWhirl reader and, well, TechWhirl features “Content Strategy and Planning” in their menu. How did I miss it? Simply put, my work focus on creating user documentation never really intersected with it. Once I crossed that intersection, I had to satisfy my curiosity and to fill in the blank spaces in my knowledge with a trek deep into Silicon Valley.
Socializing at a professional meetup looks like a typical party: appetizers, small clots of people in animated conversation. The scene can be intimidating if you’re not an extrovert or if you don’t know anyone. It helps me to remember that a meetup is not a typical party: you all share an interest in the topic.
I joined a small group and introduced myself as a tech writer. This surprised everyone. Weird. I shrugged it off, but then it happened again with another group… and again. What’s going on here? Maybe we don’t have that much in common?
To be clear, everyone was welcoming and open. No one was dismissive or disrespectful. Still, I felt like I needed to explain myself, like I didn’t belong. My curiosity was now glowing white hot.
After some engaging talks and lively Q&A, I left the meetup that evening with my head swimming with ideas. I wanted to study my users and gather big piles of data on them, develop functional personas from the data, and then craft product stories for those personas. Every scrap of doc that my users touch would now reinforce and enable these product success stories.
So, yeah, I needed to know more about Content Strategy.
A quick search yielded Content Strategy Basics at usability.gov with a section “Best Practices for Creating Meaningful Content”. Sounds like a good place to start. Let’s run through the list with a tech writer’s eye and see what we can glean.
Reflect your organization’s goals and user’s needs
“You can discover your user’s needs through conducting market research, user research, and analyzing web metrics.”
Know your audience. This best practice should be familiar to any tech writer. As a young writer, professors and mentors branded these words onto my brain. However, I don’t remember anything specific and practical about how to do this “knowing”. I assumed that getting to know your users happened naturally as a function of your work.
Wow, was I naive. Is there any company that allows tech writers to consort with customers?
To compound the problem, I work in finance, a very insular business domain. Customer data is proprietary and closely guarded, often governed by strict privacy regulation. Users themselves are generally not very forthcoming, unless they have a problem. Our Support team has been my best source for my users’ perspective, their experiences, and their needs.
So how do you get to know your audience if you don’t have direct contact with them?
Content strategists have been working the problem for a while now. They’ve developed tools and metrics to gather information and to help them refine their work with what they learn about their users.
My own small experience with user metrics has been transformational. If you’re a tech writer without these Content Strategy tools and techniques, then you and your employer are missing out.
Understand how users think and speak about a subject
“Content should then be created and structured based on that. Doing this will also help you with search engine optimization (SEO).”
Another best practice straight out of the tech writer playbook. If you’re not writing with your users’ familiar concepts and terminology, you may as well be writing in a foreign language.
I learned early on to treat raw content from Product Managers and developers with suspicion. It’s not that their source was incorrect, but rather it was full of theory with little practical application and riddled with internal terminology completely unknown to our users. I remember how a salesperson once summed up their customers’ experience: “What is this crap?”
SEO sounds technical and very website-oriented, but if the “search engine” that you’re optimizing for is your user, then it gets very personal and applicable. You need to use the words and language that your users expect. If users can’t find what they’re looking for on their first try they give up. And if you already take user perspective into account as you write, you’re probably already optimizing your content.
Communicate to people in a way that they understand
“Embracing plain writing principles helps with this.”
I’m starting to feel some deep simpatico for Content Strategists. They understand that users want what they want and they want it now (or even sooner). Users will not parse your content for nuggets of meaning like panning for gold. Give your users nothing but gold.
“By being purposeful in the content that you include, omit the needless.”
Simple. Anything that gets in the way of user success must go.
Stay up-to-date and and remain factual
“When new information becomes available, update your content or archive it.”
Erin Grace drives home this point in her column on regression testing your docs: “an outdated description of the product or a process… misleads users when they need help the most.” Betray your users with stale content and they will disengage and will not forgive you.
Be accessible to all people
“You have a responsibility to make sure that all people can access and benefit from your information.”
It doesn’t matter if you design websites or if you write docs, your content is not useful if your users can’t use it. Accessibility is an art and discipline in itself. In some cases, it’s required by law.
“Following style guides, both for language and design, helps people understand and learn what you are trying to communicate.”
Users build mental models from your content. You want the component pieces of their model to be as consistent as possible so that they snap together easily and reliably.
Inconsistencies in terminology, construction, and presentation, however, are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Users don’t want a puzzle, they want a solution and they don’t want to work for it. They shouldn’t have to.
If you force your users to work too hard to use your doc they won’t.
Be able to be found
“Make sure that users can find your content both internally through navigation and also externally through search engines.”
As a corollary to the slogan “Docs or it didn’t happen”, you could say “If your users can’t find your doc, they can’t use it”. Docs that your users can’t find may as well not exist. Those are wasted effort. Can you afford to waste any effort in delighting your current users and attracting new ones? Adweek reported in 2014 that 81 percent of shoppers do online research before they buy. So if your management still labors under the idea that docs should remain hidden behind paywalls, maybe you should tell them “Docs or it ain’t going to happen.”
Help define the requirements for the overall site
“Content should drive design, structure, etc”
his should make tech writers happy. Writers create content. Logically, according to this Content Strategy best practice, tech writers should be intimately involved with the design, structure, etc. of the mechanisms that deliver their content to users.
If this is the case, then why have I been in the dark for so long about Content Strategy. Is it me? Have I been living and working under a rock all these years?
Show me the money
This isn’t a best practice of Content Strategy or of technical writing, but it helps me understand why I didn’t know more about Content Strategy until just recently.
Apparently, I’m not alone and my frustration is not unique to me. My pal, Neal Kaplan, the one who pointed me at that Content Strategy meetup, noted a distinct lack of attention paid to tech writing in the culture and literature of Content Strategy.
After another meetup, he spoke to a well-known presenter: “I asked [Kristina Halvorsen] why she gave no love to tech writers in her book [Content Strategy for the Web]”. Her answer? She said that “she loves working with tech writers and that we have really valuable insights… but rarely gets jobs where she does that, so almost all of her work is with marketing teams…”
Money is a significant indicator of priority. And marketing almost always gets the money.
My friend draws the conclusion that “content strategy is mainly focused on marketing, and there’s not nearly enough collaboration with tech writers, and all for financial reasons.”
This is a shame. I know that many organizations are missing out on the opportunity to delight their users with the combined efforts of the Content Strategists and technical writers that they have on staff.
So check out Content Strategy. If you have Content Strategy coworkers you don’t know yet, go introduce yourself. I’m sure you’ll find some common ground and do some useful, profitable, and beautiful things for your users.