Increasing Business Value Through Technical Communication Design

By Jared M. Spool

Writing’s Value Add

In 2010, two researchers, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, embarked on an ambitious experiment. They wanted to see if they could manipulate the value of random objects by creating significance that didn’t previously exist. They named their research project Significant Objects.

Their research started with eBay purchases of more than 200 flea-market-quality trinkets and knick-knacks at an average price of $1.25 per item. At the project’s conclusion, they had sold their collection of trinkets and knick-knacks for more than $8,000. How they pulled off this transformation in value contains important lessons for how we think about the future of technical writing.

After each purchase, Walker and Glenn gave the item to a writer. That writer then composed a creative story specifically about the item. Walker and Glenn then posted the item for sale on eBay, with the new story as its product description. The average item sold for 28 times its original purchase price.

For example, one item was a small, hand-crafted, wood and cloth Russian figurine. They purchased it for $3.00. A writer named Doug Dorst crafted the story around the object, talking of how his grandmother used to tell the adventures of the person represented by the doll. His story described how his grandmother believed it acted as a good luck charm, saving her village from disaster. Whoever bought the figurine after Walker and Glenn put it up for sale thought it was now worth $193.50—64½ times the original purchase price.

We’ve known for a long time that people will pay for a good story. We’ll pay good money for a captivating book, a compelling television drama, or an engaging movie. The biggest revenue from the entertainment industry comes from great stories.

Walker and Glenn’s Significant Objects project shows us that an item can change value if we upgrade its story. Businesses can create value through great writing.

Translating Writing to Value

Around the same time as the Significant Objects project, my team was working on a project evaluating different ecommerce sites. Our goal was to identify the traits of the most successful sites, and how teams could ensure they were building a great site.

We asked shoppers to buy products they needed. Even though the shoppers had a good sense of what they wanted to purchase, they often needed to check details in the product descriptions.

Most retail websites copied product descriptions on their sites from descriptions the manufacturers supplied. The retailers didn’t craft their own copy, partially because of their large inventory and partially because they lacked the expertise and knowledge to do so.

However, one site we studied, Crutchfield.com, was very different. Crutchfield’s merchandise team didn’t copy their product descriptions from the manufacturers’. Instead, their customer service staff wrote extensive descriptions of each product, answering the questions that shoppers had.

In our study, we noticed Crutchfield’s production choice paid off. Although the average shopper spent 89 percent of the money we’d given them as a budget for their purchase, those shoppers spent 237 percent on the Crutchfield site.

In our study, all the sites sold essentially the same products. The only difference between the experience shoppers had on Crutchfield versus other ecommerce sites was the product description. It was the writing of the Crutchfield product descriptions that increased the value over what other sites could sell.

Crutchfield’s writers anticipated their customers’ needs. Customer service fed them the questions that customers had, giving them solid insight into how to craft the content. They could reduce future customer support calls by providing the information directly in their rich product descriptions. The writing not only increased purchases, it reduced support costs.

Technical Writing Then and Now

In the 1980s, technical writing was a thriving occupation. The sudden burst in personal technology gave rise to innovation, all of which required manuals and descriptions. While technology was personal, it was also complex. Technical writers were essential to providing value.

During that time, there was an old saying: you could get a major upgrade to your favorite software packages just by reading their manuals. Buried in the technical documentation were points of real value. Positions for manual authors were ever-present. Yet, by the end of the decade, things had started to shift.

The 1990s brought a sense that documentation needed to be delivered “just in time.” The move pushed technical writing away from manuals and toward online user assistance, such as online tutorials and help.

In the 2000s, we saw a push toward more intuitive interfaces. These were hailed as not requiring any manuals or assistance. The user would know what to do just by what appeared on the screen.

By the 2010s, manuals had all but disappeared. Where a new device in the 1980s might have a 300-page manual, new devices (like a smart phone) in this new decade came with no documentation at all. Web and mobile apps didn’t require any explanation. The interface told you exactly what to do. It seemed like technical writers were no longer necessary.

Yet, the Crutchfield and Significant Objects studies tell us that there’s value that emerges from quality writing. Writing skills are necessary, but the role of the writer has changed dramatically.

The Gusto Effect

ADP, a company that has dominated the payroll processing market since it started in 1949, is now running scared. A new competitor has entered the market and is gaining market share quickly. That competitor is Gusto, a six-year-old payroll processing company that recently found itself valued at more than $4 billion dollars.

What makes Gusto such a threat is its self-service model. Through smart design, it reduces the need for human resources professionals to handle payroll, benefits, and other human resource needs. Instead, companies that employ Gusto can have their employees handle practically all requests and adjustments to their status.

Gusto makes these technical domains easy for employees to manage with a heavy investment in technical content. Yet, that investment doesn’t happen with the 1980s approach to manuals or the 1990s approach to online user assistance.

Instead, Gusto uses a very modern approach by building the asssitance directly into the design. Prompts for information are made in plain English, not HR and tax authority jargon. As the user is prompted for information, additional assistance appears to the side. The result is a very clean and approachable design that doesn’t overwhelm, given the underlying complexity of what the system needs to do.

Designing Intuitive Technical Communication

Product descriptions like Crutchfield’s and designs like Gusto’s need to accommodate their users’ knowledge of the domain. In any design, there are two types of knowledge we need to understand: current knowledge and target knowledge.

Current knowledge is what our user knows the moment they approach our design. It’s all the knowledge they’ve gleaned from dealing with similar things in the past. Target knowledge is all the knowledge necessary for them to accomplish their desired objective.

A design becomes intuitive for a user when current knowledge and target knowledge are so close that the user doesn’t notice they’re being trained. From their perspective, they walk up to the design and know exactly what to do.

We could make a design seem more intuitive by simplifying its interface. Reducing required target knowledge through design simplification eliminates any additional knowledge that the user needs to acquire to succeed. Do that enough and the user starts describing the interface as intuitive.

The historical role of technical communication has been to increase current knowledge until it matches target knowledge. We were training users on what they need to complete their task. In almost every case, that training was constrained to the mechanics of the design. A word processor’s manual described its features, but rarely explained how to write well.

For complex domains, such as electronic product features or payroll information, current knowledge and target knowledge are no longer only about the design’s features. To purchase the right product or set up the correct tax withholdings, the users need to know both how to use the features and how to make the right domain-related decisions.

Becoming Technical Communication Designers

Crutchfield and Gusto succeed because they anticipate the users’ needs. The teams behind these designs clearly understand the value great technical communication delivers.

Yet, “Technical Writer” is not a role on these teams. Crutchfield’s product descriptions were created by customer service representatives. They weren’t hired as writers, but they clearly have strong writing skills. The same applies to the designers for Gusto.

Writers can deliver great value to design teams like those of Crutchfield and Gusto. However, you need to enhance your skill set to make the full contribution.

You need the skills of user research to help identify the needs of the users. You need to know how to best employ typography, layout, and color—the core skills of visual design—to communicate the key messages. You need to know how to best use interaction and animation to present and draw the user’s attention.

Intuitive technical communication isn’t only about crafting words; it’s about knowing which words are necessary and how to present them.

For many writers, it might seem daunting to acquire these new design skills. It is certainly a bit of work to do so.

The good news? The effort pays off. By mastering the design skills necessary to augment your writing skills, you will become a part of the new generation of technical communicators and find yourself strongly contributing to the design. Like the writers in the Significant Objects project who dramatically increased the value of ordinary objects through effective writing, you will be creating business value through your expanded writing skills.

JARED M. SPOOL (jspool@uie.com) is a Maker of Awesomeness at Center Centre/UIE. Center Centre is the school he started with Leslie Jensen-Inman to create industry-ready User Experience Designers. UIE is Center Centre’s professional development arm, dedicated to understanding what it takes for organizations to produce competitively great products and services.

In the 39 years he’s been in the tech field, he’s worked with hundreds of organizations, written two books, published hundreds of articles and podcasts, and tours the world speaking to audiences everywhere.When he can, he does his laundry in Andover, Massachusetts.

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