It’s Time We Start Personalizing Technical Documentation Experiences

By Scott Abel | STC Associate Fellow

Consumers want—and increasingly expect—convenience. They don’t enjoy working hard to locate relevant answers to their questions. They don’t yearn to learn how you organized your content, nor do they fancy figuring out how to circumnavigate your documentation portal.

When they need to ask a question, they want you to provide a relevant answer quickly, most often on-demand and not via a PDF that contains more information than they require (and which makes them responsible for finding it).

Many technical communication professionals today worry that presenting consumers with too many options can harm business. That’s understandable. Patience is in short supply on the Web, with most Web visits lasting only a few seconds before the searcher decides to abandon the quest.

Furthermore, information overload is a bad thing. It occurs when we present more information than the brain can process at one time. Information overload causes what cognitive neuroscientists refer to as analysis paralysis—a situation in which users get so overwhelmed and annoyed that they give up and stop looking for the answer.

Too much content and not enough patience leads to the right content going undiscovered. Analysts at Sirius Decisions say 60 to 70 percent of B2B product content goes unused.

A Tsunami of Information Is Overwhelming Consumers

The tsunami of information available to consumers today is a double-edged sword: On one hand, the more information available to consumers, the better informed they can be. On the other hand, the more information available to consumers, the more stressful their quest for relevant answers—especially in situations where we fail to help reduce the amount of friction caused by excessive information availability.

Irrelevant content is not useful. It hinders productivity and creates a cognitive overload. Too many choices disrupt focus, damage memory, introduce confusion and frustration, and distract consumers from their intended purpose: Finding relevant information.

According to Accenture, helping your prospects and customers avoid information overload is an opportunity to differentiate your company from the competition. Nearly 40% of online shoppers surveyed have abandoned a website because they were overwhelmed with too many options.

Presenting too much information to individuals looking for help solving technical challenges can lead to information overload. Irrelevant or conflicting technical documentation creates frustration and confusion. Too much information increases the likelihood that your customers might call your support center or seek answers to their questions elsewhere.

Less is more. Having access to too much irrelevant technical documentation content is the same as not having enough relevant content.

When you fail to provide personalized technical documentation experiences, you shift the cognitive burden of discovery to consumers. If the content experience shifts the burden to consumers, your content is the problem.

Consumers Desire Relevance Most in Personalized Content Experiences

University of Texas researchers found that consumers respond positively to personalized content, because those consumers perceive that they have a higher degree of control over their content experience. Personalization creates the perception that the information was tailored to address the needs of a specific individual, the researchers say.

Amazon and Netflix do personalization right. And their efforts shape consumer expectations for personalized experiences everywhere.

Amazon says its efforts to provide individualized content recommendations have been amazingly successful: 86 percent of consumers say personalization has a significant impact on the purchasing decisions they make; 45 percent of shoppers are more likely to purchase products from vendors that provide personalized product content recommendations; and 56 percent of those consumers say they are more likely to make repeat purchases with brands that provide personalized experiences.

Personalization involves getting the right pieces of content in front of the right person, at the right time, in the right place, in the format that individual requires, and in essential ways that provide value to them.

To implement personalized technical documentation, you must be able to leverage taxonomy. Organizations that succeed in this arena focus their efforts on providing relevance, the guiding principle of personalization, says Lawrence Orin, Product Evangelist and Customer Implementation Expert at Zoomin Software, a platform that allows documentation teams to deliver individualized technical documentation experiences.

Personalization “enables you to cross-sell and up-sell products. It allows you to present pertinent recommendations and the content individuals want to see,” says Orin.

“To personalize at scale,” he advises, “you need content that’s designed to facilitate personalized delivery, actionable data about individuals in your audience, and a software platform that’s engineered to manage and deliver individualized content experiences.”

Taxonomy makes the personalization of technical documentation possible. Most technical communication teams already think in taxonomical terms.

“It makes sense to technical writers to tag their content by product name, version, and by user role,” says Orin.

“Taxonomy allows them to provide documentation appropriate for individuals with a specific role (like Progress Software does; see Figure 1), who need to understand how to use product A, version Y in the context of the job they perform.”

However, Orin warns, these three tags alone are insufficient to deliver the type of high-quality personalized content experiences consumers expect today.

Filling the Personalization Capability Gap: The Four Rs of Personalization

Consumers are more likely to spend more than they had planned in response to personalized product recommendations and offers, according to guidance from Gartner contained in their ebook, Maximize the Impact of Personalization. Additionally, Gartner found, consumers that experienced a high level of personalization provided 20 percent higher Net Promoter Scores (NPS) than those consumers who experienced a low level of personalization.

Consumers want fresh and unique experiences delivered quickly. Consumer preference researchers say consumers want frictionless and accessible experiences no matter when, where, or how they might be interacting with your brand. If you seek their loyalty, they want you to deliver meaningful, relevant, personalized experiences—every time.

Fifty-eight percent of consumers surveyed by Accenture Interactive say they are more likely to make a purchase when a company offers them personalized recommendations based on purchase history or personal preferences.

The disconnect between the type of content experiences consumers desire and the ability of an organization to provide them is known as the personalization capability gap.

Content personalization is a big project. Doing it right—and across all channels you support—can be challenging. Doing it right requires developing capability.

There’s an entire industry sector dedicated to helping companies adopt content personalization strategies, as well as a non-profit educational organization (Consortium of Personalization Professionals) working to develop best practices for creating and maintaining personalized content experiences.

Orin recommends starting your journey toward creating personalized content experiences by using a checklist to guide your technical documentation personalization efforts—the Four Rs of Personalization: A list of the three things you must do (Recognize, Remember, and Recommend) to produce Relevant, personalized technical documentation experiences.

Personalized experiences require you to recognize the person you are hoping to engage, remember the information they provide you (or that you can glean from their interactions with you and others), and use the information you remember to provide content recommendations.

Let’s take a look at three things you must do to provide personalized technical documentation experiences.


Personalized technical documentation experiences require us to recognize individuals (a prospective or an existing customer) by associating them with a user profile. Basic profiles might capture user name, contact information, and photo, but the addition of more user-specific metadata to the profile makes it possible to deliver more relevant technical documentation experiences. Storing information about users — like role (job function), level of access (what content they’re permitted to see), level of expertise, location, language, device preferences, and customer, account, and membership information—allow us to provide targeted experiences.


To provide personalized recommendations, you must be able to remember things about the individuals who you are attempting to serve. And you must be able to use what is remembered to inform the recommendations you’ll make to meet the needs of that individual consumer.


“‘[Insert name here]’ is not a personalization strategy,” says user experience manager, Colin Eagan. “It’s an unsophisticated tactic — it’s a lackluster attempt at addressing the needs of the organization by professing to address the needs of consumers.”

Some organizations fail at personalization because they run toward the basics, the low-hanging fruit. They begin by personalizing content based on a person’s name and birthdate. While this may seem like a good first step, it’s not. Consumers don’t find this type of personalization (recognizing someone by name or wishing them happy birthday) all that useful. Only 8 percent of those surveyed by Pure360 said addressing them by name is likely to motivate them to consume your content or take advantage of your offer.

“Some companies get content personalization right,” says Eagan, a member of the Consortium of Personalization Professionals. If you don’t know where to start your personalization program, Eagan recommends you consider mimicking the efforts of others, learning from their successes and failures.

Take Amazon, for example. Amazon puts the individual customer front and center. The company is a pioneer in the personalized content arena and has focused on delivering the best experiences possible. Amazon customers don’t need to do anything to set up product recommendations (although customers can tweak the system to influence and improve recommendations).

Amazon serves up content to website visitors automatically in the form of recommendations. The company combines customer data (Web browsing, purchasing, and other measurable behaviors) with demographic and current-event data to serve up suggestions that should provide value to the individual shopper.

Amazon’s personalization efforts have helped to differentiate it from the competition and allowed it to capture more than 50 percent of the total U.S. retail eCommerce market and nearly 15 percent of worldwide eCommerce sales.

Personalized content recommendations work for Amazon. The company claims that 35% of sales come from personalized content recommendations.

Amazon doesn’t rely solely on user profile data to improve content effectiveness. It also learns about consumer preferences from the crowd. Amazon uses deep machine learning (think Big Data meets Artificial Intelligence) to monitor the habits of its customers. By remembering what it learns, Amazon can make inferences from the data that help them provide content that is relevant to individual consumers. This approach might allow them to determine that most of their customers that like X, also enjoy Y. In practice, this enables Amazon to know whether visitors who shop for non-toxic cookware from its flagship online mall might also be interested in ordering organic produce delivery from its grocery distribution channel, Whole Foods.

While some people are uncomfortable with companies like Amazon collecting personal data (and for good reason), 70 percent of consumers say they don’t mind if service providers collect their personal information as long as they are transparent and responsible about how they use it.

Amazon also makes its capabilities available for free to others (that means you) who want to serve up personalized recommendations.

Netflix is another company that has developed personalized content experiences that have helped change user expectations while reducing company expenses. The company’s content recommendation engine recommended 80 percent of the videos watched by Netflix customers. Company leaders report that personalizing viewer experiences save the company over $1 billion a year in unnecessary expenses.

Offering up irrelevant content recommendations, like offering a product that the customer already owns or offering content that is incongruent with user needs, behaviors, and preferences, violates the “recommend,” “remember,” and “relevant” rules, Orin says.

Personalization Versus Localization

Personalization involves tailoring content so that it aligns with the preferences, interests, and characteristics of individual consumers. Localized technical documentation experiences may address fundamental needs—like presenting content in the preferred language of a specific region or group of people—and still fall flat with those who consume it.

“Personalization increases the utility and relevance of localized technical documentation and allows us to focus our efforts on delivering hyper-relevant content experiences at scale,” says Orin.

Leaders of many successful organizations have attributed their market growth and industry dominance to their ability to provide personalized content experiences. Technical documentation teams are beginning to recognize that consumers search the Web for product information before purchasing.

“An exceptional customer experience is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a requirement for today’s digitally savvy consumers,” says Rahel Anne Bailie, Director of Content for Babylon Health.

“Today, publishing machine-friendly, technical documentation content can deliver dramatic improvements in search engine optimization, leading to increases in organic Web traffic,” Bailie points out. “Increasingly, organizations are discovering that their technical documentation content can become a powerful conduit
for product discovery.”

Traditionally, technical documentation has been considered post-sale content—that is, information provided to consumers only after they purchase a product or service.

“The view of technical documentation as a post-sale deliverable created solely to provide information to existing customers is outdated. It overlooks the importance of technical content as digital bait for prospective customers,” says Enterprise Content Strategy Consultant, Charles Cooper of The Rockley Group.

“The good news is that the outdated view of technical documentation is changing,” Cooper says. “Increasingly, sales leaders are recognizing that technical documentation can solidify the satisfaction of existing customers and serve to attract and convert prospects into purchasers.”

Bailie, co-author of the book Content Strategy: Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand, and Benefits, says that personalizing technical documentation experiences allows us to humanize the content experience. Personalization brings us closer to “connecting with the interests, passions, and aspirations of our prospective and existing customers,” Bailie adds.

“Establishing relevance with consumers, in a world in which many personalized consumer interactions are the norm, requires us to work to improve the effectiveness and utility of technical documentation by ensuring the content we offer is laser-targeted to the individual. Personalization can increase the perceived helpfulness of your content,” Bailie says, “reducing consumer frustration and confusion, helping you to build trust and loyalty.”

“The key is to focus on improving the consumer experience,” Bailie says. “When you personalize content, it shows individual consumers that you value them and desire to be of service,” she continues. “The investments you make in helping users avoid doing extra work pay off in the form of brand trust and customer loyalty.”

Bailie recommends that tech comm teams who aim to improve content experiences ensure that the personalized information they develop includes simple-to-implement but often overlooked improvements. One easy first step is to localize technical documentation to ensure it reflects the currencies, units of measure, time zones, and local rules, laws, and regulations in use where your customers live and work.

“Making your content more meaningful, appropriate, and effective for a particular culture, locale, group, or market is the goal of localization. When you add personalization to the mix, your goal becomes the delivery of the right content to the right individual user at the right time,” says Bailie.

Consumers Expect Personalized Content Experiences

While Amazon has led the way in personalizing product shopping experiences, Netflix has done an equally impressive job at delivering personalized content experiences that both delight consumers and deliver business value to the company. For Netflix, personalization doesn’t just involve pushing entertainment suggestions to each customer. It also involves personalizing or localizing the images displayed with those recommendations.

The Netflix personalized recommendations strategy not only involves suggesting the best titles to its customers, but it also serves up personalized artwork for each title that the system predicts might be compelling to you. The algorithm attempts to present the best possible list of titles, explicitly prioritized for you, based on your previous viewing habits.

The act of personalizing images that accompany recommendations presumes you’ll view the image as evidence for why the recommendation might be the right choice for you. The artwork delivered might feature a performer you recognize, draw your attention to a mind-blowing space invasion, or illustrate a theatrical scene that communicates the essence of a motion picture or TV show. These efforts help you discover new content that satisfies your needs and keeps you coming back to Netflix for more.

Consumers subconsciously expect similar personalization efforts when they interact with your content. That’s important to understand, because 89 percent of digital consumers say they won’t buy from you after just one experience that fails to meet expectations.

Everywhere you look, personalization is becoming the norm. Consumers encounter personalized experiences throughout their daily lives. From the voice-enabled devices that wake them from sleep, remind them of upcoming appointments, and warn them to prepare for severe weather or to avoid traffic delays, personalized experiences are so ubiquitous that consumers expect them.

Eighty-four percent of customers rank being treated as a person (not a number) as “very important” to winning their business. While individualized experiences are becoming the de facto experience consumers expect, there’s considerable room for improvement in implementation. As consumers’ expectations for exceptional experiences rise, their patience for—and tolerance of—mediocre content encounters wanes.

According to Gartner, only 12 percent of consumers feel like current personalization efforts meet their expectations.

While consumers have concerns about privacy and data security, a report by Boston Consulting Group finds that most are willing to share their data if they think you’ll use it to make their experience more convenient and relevant.

Researchers at Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) found that consumer willingness to share data may be waning. Consumers were slightly less likely to share their data in 2019 than they were in 2018, ARF says.

Many organizations practice personalization sparingly—or selectively—and of those that do, most aren’t measuring whether a personalized content experience leads to improved content performance. That’s not true of streaming media platforms like Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and Spotify. Companies in this sector are more likely to be sophisticated regarding content personalization as it is at the heart of everything they offer.

While you might desire to better serve the needs, preferences, and desires of consumers by providing individualized content experiences, it’s essential to recognize that you’re aiming at a moving target. There’s no single content organization or delivery scheme that can meet the changing needs of every individual human being every time. Interests, needs, situations, locations, careers, relationships, and intents change from day to day, and people evolve their thinking on subjects, and as a result, their information needs change.

Tackling the personalization of your technical documentation content is an endeavor worth pursuing. While it can be challenging to get it right, avoiding the mistakes made by others before you and putting their lessons to work for you are good first steps. Measuring performance is required in order to demonstrate value from your efforts.

There’s an evolving services industry taking shape that is dedicated to helping companies adopt content personalization strategies. And there’s a non-profit educational organization (Consortium of Personalization Professionals) working to develop best practices for creating and maintaining personalized content experiences.

Your job is to overcome the personalization capability gap—the disconnect between the type of content experiences consumers desire and the ability of your organization to provide them. Mimicking the successes of those who get it right, and building on the lessons shared by others in technical communication circles, will help you start off on the right foot.

Scott Abel is the Founder and President of The Content Wrangler Inc., a global content strategy consultancy. Scott is a content management strategist and exponential growth evangelist. He specializes in helping content-heavy organizations improve the way they author, maintain, publish, deliver, and archive their information assets. Scott publishes a series of content strategy books for XML Press and is the producer of several content industry events including Technical Documentation Roundup and Information Development World.



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