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Improving Customer's SOA Experience with DITA

Personalizing documentation by product, location, and, yes, customer

We've all experienced the thrill of acquiring a new product only to have it diminished when it's not as easy to use as expected. You rip open the box ready to start playing with your new gizmo and 20 minutes later you're stuck on the phone with tech support because the instruction book was incomprehensible.

Obviously this experience negatively impacts the likelihood of you purchasing from this vendor again or recommending the product to a friend or colleague.

The quality of product information for customers is often an afterthought, yet the importance of any post-sales customer-facing information shouldn't be trivialized. While businesses invest heavily in customer service training and customer relationship management systems to improve customer satisfaction, they often overlook the experience that customers have with product documentation. User manuals, online help, Web self-service, and training provide the first touch points after the sale and the opportunity to make a good impression on a new customer. Informative instructions or trouble-shooting tips are crucial to ensuring the customers' full understanding of, and satisfaction with, the product. Because even if a customer is having a problem with the product, the manual or Web site are the first places people look to get started, where they expect to find answers to their questions quickly. If the customer gets discouraged and doesn't fully adopt the product, he's unlikely to recommend it to others.

Conversely, improving user aptitude increases the chances that they'll find greater functionality in your product - a key component for becoming the next product advocate. Strong documentation can be a key element to enhance customer loyalty. Moreover, well-crafted user guides and online documentation also reduce costs by driving down the number of help desk calls from new customers.

Yet, all too often documentation specialists and other information developers are bogged down by out-of-date systems and processes that hinder their ability to deliver the goods.

What Is a Good Customer Experience Worth?
Most companies recognize that customer experience plays a key role in their market position. 85% of companies surveyed in Forrester's Q4 2006 Customer Experience Peer Research Panel Survey said customer experience had a critical or a very important role in the firm's competitiveness. However, many of these same organizations felt their overall approach to customer experience management is lacking - with 57% reporting that their companies had an undisciplined approach to customer experience management.

Unfortunately, creating excellent product documentation is easier said than done, particularly for companies selling multiple products and/or distributing products globally. The sheer volume of documentation to be created for each product iteration and language can be staggering. Keeping up with changes is a monumental task. Moreover, documentation development can usually only begin once the product is near completion putting authors and documentation teams under immense pressure to deliver content quickly and not delay time-to-market. Too often content quality suffers.

Overcoming these challenges involves tackling several issues:

•  Ensuring consistency between print, online documentation, help, and other forms of communication
With multiple options open to customers for finding information about products, companies must ensure that the information across these channels is consistent. Regardless of whether customers are interacting with a company via phone, Web, help files, manuals, retail outlets, or e-mail; "providing inconsistent content across multiple channels can generate customer frustration or the inability to respond to changing market conditions," according to a recent Forrester research report. However, delivering on these demands is no easy feat in one language, much less several.

•  Keeping information up-to-date in all channels
Organizations must have a mechanism in place to ensure timely updates across these multiple channels to ensure information is accurate by the time the customer reads it. This is not only critical in ensuring customer satisfaction but can be a compliance requirement in some industries.

•  Customizing documentation
Today's customer won't stand for "one-size-fits-all," yet writing content for each individual audience is too cumbersome. Documentation teams need a quick and efficient way to personalize content by product, location, and often by the role of the person reading it - thereby giving customers just the information they need, nothing more.

Businesses often overlook the impact that documentation has on customer satisfaction and view it as a last-minute item on the product release checklist. So how do organizations ensure the quality and quantity of valuable information isn't compromised in the rush to deliver? And, how do they keep up with the influx of content changes when the materials are produced in numerous versions, formats, and languages?

A New Approach
To face these challenges, leading documentation and information development teams are moving to the Darwin Information Type Architecture (DITA) to handle these tasks in a significantly more efficient manner. Simply put, DITA provides a framework for content creation and management that facilitates reusing and re-purposing content across multiple communication channels and languages. This new open standard of XML information architecture is ideal for collaborating on and publishing high volumes of content in documentation and ensuring consistency and accuracy of that information.

Using DITA enables writers to streamline the entire content creation and updating process in four key ways:
•  Topic-level authoring and management
Traditionally, documentation teams developed individual books or manuals for each product, support teams wrote FAQs or knowledge base articles for online reading, and trainers put together training materials. This approach meant there was a considerable amount of redundancy of content and effort. One simple product feature change might necessitate changes to the same content in numerous places. Thus, keeping content updated to align with product changes has become a major challenge.

By using DITA, companies can now modularize content, writing and updating information in "chunks" instead of writing an entire document. Authors focus on writing small pieces of standalone information known as topics and then assemble these topics using DITA maps into the end-published media.

Without worrying about the information layout and formatting, authors can use the modular topics as building blocks for information products, support teams can leverage them in knowledge base articles and call center scripts, and trainers can reuse them in classroom materials. Information developers and subject matter experts across the organization can easily find and reuse DITA topics because they also contain metadata, making it easy to search and retrieve appropriate content. By managing content as objects instead of whole documents, organizations gain one updateable source of the truth - automating and accelerating the review, approval, and publishing processes.

Using DITA, modular content topics are easily extended to bring information such as interactive tutorials, support documentation, online help, FAQs, and quick reference guides to all customer service channels, such as phone/chat, e-mail, and self-service Web sites.

•  Repurposing content across deliverables
With DITA, organizations can automate publishing into multiple formats for print, online help, or a Web site from a single source. This single source production of multiple output types eliminates the need to create and maintain content for each specific output format. Topics can be reused in various combinations for customized documentation.

The DITA specification provides several content reuse methods, such as "conref," a simple text inclusion mechanism that lets authors easily reuse content stored elsewhere, and "conditional text," which lets publishers select only the content that relates to a specific audience or product. These features make it simpler to write, assemble, and publish customized documentation.

•  Ease of content updates
Most importantly, DITA provides the ability to "update once, change everywhere" - greatly easing the process of content editing and improving the organization's ability to keep all materials accurate and up-to-date. DITA makes it vastly easier to keep up with changes; when a product changes, editors need only update that topic, and wherever that topic appears, regardless of the format or language, the content will be updated. This eliminates low-value administrative tasks such as searching for and updating content in multiple places.

•  Translation efficiency and acceleration
Applying the DITA model has proven very effective in reducing translation costs and globalizing your information faster. By translating information in topics rather than documents, organizations can send content to be translated as each topic is completed. This significantly reduces delays because information is being translated in a continuous stream instead of in a last-minute rush at the end of the authoring process. Additionally, with the proper relationship maintained between languages, no piece of content has to be sent out for translation twice, helping save on translation costs.

Next Steps If customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention are a strategic focus for your company, make the business case for a move to DITA for customer-facing documentation and communications. Besides the cost-savings realized in the call center or help desk by empowering customers to help themselves, you can demonstrate DITA's ability to improve the productivity of your current information development staff significantly. With the number of hours saved by using DITA and automated publishing, your staff will be able to spend more time creating additional valuable materials for your customers. For more on the financial impact of XML and DITA, download a white paper on this topic featuring calculations you can use in your business case at http://na.justsystems.com.

Another thing to consider as you make the move to DITA is the change that your documentation teams will go through. The shift from authoring whole documents to authoring standalone topics will require some getting used to, but organizations that have done so are encouraged by the increased productivity and quality. Your company might also consider upgrading your team's skill set to include content modeling and information architecture to leverage DITA and XML best.

When planning a DITA implementation, evaluate how your team will collaborate with others: engineers who may contribute expertise, lawyers who may need to be part of your approval process, and the localization team that is critical to globalizing your content. Other players in your organization will have to understand new processes and systems to optimize your content lifecycle.

Lastly, what systems do you need to work with DITA? The open standard is supported across several authoring, management, translation, and publishing systems that are capable of recognizing and handling XML and DITA content. Doing due diligence on your selection will best enable your company to transition to DITA, which is vital to a successful implementation.

Conclusion
Authoring and editing content using traditional systems is no longer a viable option for global businesses that have to produce high-quality documentation not only to keep up with but exceed customer expectations. The DITA framework offers information development teams a highly effective way to maintain the integrity of information across multiple channels, languages, and audiences while reducing the time and costs associated with information publishing. DITA is helping companies like Sybase, Tellabs, and Sterling Commerce, to ensure content accuracy and consistency in a world of multi-channel communications, enabling these companies to deliver better customer satisfaction through better documentation.

More Stories By Jerry Silver

Jerry Silver is director of product management with JustSystems Inc., responsible for XMetaL content lifecycle solutions and software. He has over 25 years of IT experience as a developer, consultant, and product manager, specializing in database and application modeling and design, application architectures, Web technologies, content management, and collaboration. He has been a featured speaker on these topics at numerous industry conferences. Jerry spent 15 years at Oracle in a variety of technical roles, most recently as Principal Product Manager of Oracle Application Server Portal.

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