When Andrea approached me to guest edit this special issue of Intercom on “Content Quality,” I was, of course, honored. Having worked as a technical editor for over 20 years, and being deeply involved in documentation quality research, the goal of providing readers with high-quality content is my bread and butter.
But then I began to panic a little bit. Where to begin with such a formidable topic? “Quality” is a very elusive concept. As Robert Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “You know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is.” How can we even begin to have a discussion about content quality if we can’t define it?
Quality is, at its heart, a concept that cannot be fully defined; after all, what quality is depends solely on the observer. So I thought, “Every article I receive is going to define content quality in a different way, and Andrea certainly won’t let me have an unlimited number of articles! I need to find some way to limit the scope of the definitions without limiting the usability of the articles.”
So I asked prospective authors to look at this complicated idea of “content quality” and tell me how they see it, how they think their audiences see it, how they ensure the two approaches match, and what they themselves have done to improve the quality of the content they send to their audiences. Most importantly, I wanted the articles in this special issue to give Intercom readers food for thought that they could use to think more about what “content quality” means to them and how they could apply it to their own work.
In addition, when soliciting articles for this special issue, I made a conscious decision to try to include people outside of the regular STC circles, not because I thought STC members would have nothing to add, but because I felt that such an amorphous idea like “content quality” would benefit from the broadest possible scope of contributors. This led to an amazing number of submissions and helped me find articles that I felt had the highest levels of applicability.
Steven Jong starts us off on our journey to understanding content quality by proposing a potential framework built on three groups of stakeholders: customers, clients, and (technical) communicators. He suggests that we can use this framework to understand what each group expects from the content and then balance the needs of all of them to produce high-quality content.
Lisa Gay looks at applying user experience (UX) design principles based on usability testing practices. She discovered that, even though she thought she knew her audience well when she started writing, testing the usability of her documents opened her eyes to a whole new level of understanding what her readers really wanted. Based on her experiences, she gives us some practical pointers for testing the usability of our own content—even with limited time and resources.
Continuing with personal experiences of improving content quality, Ben Mansheim relates a true story about a nightmare project—hundreds of pages of poorly written documents that needed to be reviewed for technical accuracy and writing style and then approved by multiple SMEs and technical communicators—that he was able to turn into a dream scenario by using open source documentation principles. He and his team stored the content source files in a GitHub repository and used commits and pull requests to write, comment, review, and approve all of the content in an efficient manner—and most importantly, to improve the quality of the content without killing themselves in the process.
Rochelle Fisher also draws on her personal experiences to explain how she feels quality definitions have changed over the past 20 years. She believes that high-quality content in the modern age has to be relevant, controlled, and accurate, and she gives us clear and concrete examples of what she means by each of these. She also warns us that these are the ideal definitions of quality; we must also be aware of another definition of quality: reality. We should apply these ideal definitions of quality when and where we can, but sometimes we have to be okay with what we can get in the time that we have.
While all of these articles provide us with great ideas about how to improve the quality of our content, we can’t have a conversation about content quality without finding out what our readers themselves think. Too often, content creators (in our case, technical communicators) are disconnected from their audiences and miss the voice of their content consumers. We sometimes write our documentation in a vacuum, hoping that what we are creating is what our readers actually want.
To address this situation, I invited four content consumers to discuss how they define “content quality,” give some real-life examples of their own experiences with both good and bad content, and offer us some advice about how to give them the high-quality content that they are looking for. Enid Newberg, Fran Sardone, Lara Kulpa, and Peter Johnson share their thoughts with us. It’s a rare chance to listen to what our audience is saying!
I hope you find the articles in this special issue of Intercom entertaining, as well as useful and applicable, and that they meet your own personal definition of quality.
— Yoel Strimling