User-Generated Content: Embracing Social Networking to Deliver More Engaging Technical Documentation
Published: April 19, 2010
Social networking Web sites are gaining increasing prominence on the Internet landscape, with millions of users around the world connecting to their friends and making new ones, participating in online communities, and posting comments. Social networking leads to the creation of social capital, primarily taking the form of user-generated content (UGC). User engagement and the democratization of content drive the popularity of social networking Web sites. In looking at the social networking model closely, we have observed that it is a collaborative and dynamic model, in which the consumers of content are also its creators and owners.
Society and technology have played equally crucial roles in providing a platform for user-generated content. The social networking phenomenon has ushered in a shift in mindset that, in turn, has driven people to become actively engaged in generating their own content and sharing it with an international audience on the Web, in contrast to the earlier trend of passively viewing content that others had created. Previously, people viewed the Web mostly as a place of anonymity, but times have changed. People now perceive the Web as a more personal space where they can connect with thousands of other people who have similar interests and share their photographs, videos, and writeups with them. One of today’s most frequently referenced Web sites, Wikipedia champions the cause of user-generated content. As users’ contributions add more value to the Web site, it attracts more users, creating a virtuous cycle.
This article explores how we can embrace this trend toward user-generated content to elicit greater user participation in the technical documentation space and make the communication of business information a more effective process.
Development of Technical Documentation: A Two-Way Street
Technical documentation often fails to create a user-empowering environment, particularly when it lacks a user-centered approach. Interestingly, although effective communication is essentially a two-way street, the development of technical documentation too often fails to involve users through either user research or usability testing. Thus, one-way communication characterizes its writers’ endeavors to enable readers to understand complex technical and business information. Unfortunately, this approach does not take into consideration the valuable insights of readers.
With the advent of Web 2.0 technology, the development of content is no longer restricted to the realm of technical writers. On Web sites that support user-generated content, any user can now contribute information, with technical writers transitioning from the dual roles of creators and gatekeepers of information to curators—giving them the opportunity to evaluate and fine-tune the information users provide. And, not unlike in other social networking scenarios, the opportunity to co-author content helps readers to identify themselves to technical writers and establish peer-to-peer networks that enhance the sharing of first-hand knowledge.
We should regard the development of content for technical documentation as an intrinsic aspect of the product development lifecycle rather than an isolated afterthought. Considering the fact that the creation of technical documentation essentially involves the communication of complex technical information and business concepts, enabling users to provide feedback is highly beneficial in terms of assessing the effectiveness of content. For example, readers’ commentary has the potential to shed light on fundamental gaps in communicating an application’s workflow, understand whether a how-to procedure is complete, or provide an assessment of the documentation’s layout.
Contrary to perceiving users’ feedback or user-generated content as competition, writers who are striving to create the most effective technical documentation should recognize that they can benefit from leveraging this opportunity for continuous improvement.
Technical Documentation and Web 2.0: The Participative Web
The advent of Web 2.0 has reshaped technical documentation. Bringing technical communication to a Web 2.0 space, in which users generate much of the content, has distinct advantages. Content that we develop solely on the basis of what a subject-matter expert (SME) considers to be important features of a business application may be somewhat different from what users perceive as important while actually using the application. Also, an SME’s view of performing a task might be different from that of users who actually perform the task using the application. This is particularly true when companies develop applications using off-the-shelf products like Oracle’s Siebel CRM, which support multiple ways of accomplishing the same task. Opening content creation to the users of a business application has the potential to fill this communication gap between writers and users.
It is time for technical documentation to move on to its next level of maturity. Instead of providing documentation that elaborates on everything users might need to know about a product, technical writers can open up new avenues of communication with users. We can present a basic content structure, then let users expand on our content, leveraging their know-how about an application and their business processes. We can act as moderators, smoothing undulations in the quality and completeness of user-generated content, while gaining users’ more intuitive understanding of business applications.
Thus, instead of limiting a product’s documentation to a writer’s knowledge, we can do users greater justice by providing essential user assistance, then facilitating the evolution of our documentation by enabling users to contribute content. This dynamic approach also makes reading a more engaging experience, because users can take an active role in documenting the workings of an application rather than assuming the passive role they generally take today.
Business Benefits and Risks of UGC for Technical Documentation
User-generated content can help businesses reap additional benefits. Reader commentary can be instrumental in identifying the concerns of users. Based on user feedback, we can modify content to suit the needs of our audience. Creating more effective technical documentation also reduces the cost of helpdesk support. At the same time, UGC can serve as a strong marketing tool. A product’s audience can best reflect its proper market position. Good testimonials that a product’s customers or users have provided can work wonders in increasing its user base—delivering on the promise of greater adoption.
However, since bringing UGC to the technical documentation space enables users to freely add or edit content, it comes bundled with the risk that the content a professional writer originally created might become more difficult for users to read. Most users contributing content would not have a background that would allow them to appreciate the nuances of content development.
Keeping all of these benefits and risks in perspective, to ensure high-quality technical documentation, it is essential that technical writers provide a structured approach to creating UGC and eliminate any redundant or inappropriate additions or edits.
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