User feedback? (was 5 users in a room), Take II

Subject: User feedback? (was 5 users in a room), Take II
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "Nuckols, Kenneth M" <Kenneth -dot- Nuckols -at- mybrighthouse -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 14 Nov 2006 10:42:32 -0500

Kenneth Nuckols wondered: <<We're aware of the pitiful response rate Geoff speaks of when it comes to a low response rate, even among internal customers, and 61 of the 62 projects I've completed or am working on for this year have been sponsored by and are written for an internal audience.>>

In theory, that's a golden opportunity. In practice... people are people and need a reason to abandon their own work, however briefly, to do you a favor.

<<it's easy to get annoyed with the sponsors and SMEs who respond to our requests to review a draft five minutes after it hits their inbox with the inevitable "Looks great!">>

For technical reviews, the manager has to make the reviewers responsible for their work. There's no other way to reliably obtain good reviews. If the manager doubts the seriousness of the problem, try leaving a howling error in the middle of the docs, where even a casual reader will find it--if nobody reports the error, you've got all the proof you need that they're not doing their jobs. Of course, the risk of this approach is that it's appallingly easy to inadvertently leave the error in the document, so if you try this, you need to ensure that at least two people add a note to their "to do" list to remove the error later.

Note that the "hits their inbox" in your message is a clue: work that arrives unannounced and anonymously (in which category I include e- mail) on someone's desk gets treated just like the rest of the spam. Try speaking to each reviewer in person, asking how they want to receive the document (e-mail vs. print, the whole document vs. one chapter per day), asking when is most convenient for them and what deadline they feel is reasonable, and ask them for a commitment to do the work. That's not just theory, by the way; I implemented this approach at a former employer for external review (i.e., by people I had no authority over) and it worked brilliantly.

<<Should I expect that making time to sit down with project sponsors and document users will give me any better feedback than a form? Everyone's busy, and the way this company has operated without technical writers for so long (our department is only 2 years old) I still think the majority of people don't quite know what to make of us or how we can (should, ought to, ideally) be helpful to their department within the organization.>>

Yes, you should expect better results, but not without a bit of work and a bit of luck. Because this becomes a dialogue, you can apply all your human interaction skills to establish a relationship (possibly even a friendship), find out what the other person needs before they can do the review for you, and meet those needs. For example, I've had reviewers who only wanted a printout, and others who wanted me to sit in their office and discuss the manuscript: different strokes for different folks, and you can't use the wrong approach and expect to succeed.

You can also make it clear "what's in it for me?" when you talk to them; that's easier if their manager supports this process (i.e., they get a raise if they catch all the errors), but you can often give them a good reason that's less mercenary. The best reason of all is that you've already developed a relationship with them in which they know who you are, and have something to talk to you about other than work; since you're a friend who has demonstrated clear concern for their needs, they feel a certain obligation to help you that they won't feel towards a complete stranger.

Of course, you can't always establish these relationships in the workplace, in which case you need to figure out (for each person) the "what's in it for me?" answer. That's harder to identify, but sometimes it pays back 100-fold. I once helped a developer figure out an effective interface, saving him possibly a day of screwing around with the interface designer, and he greatly appreciated that time saving. Subsequent interactions were easy and friendly.

<<In the mean time, if anyone has any gems of wisdom on how to nudge these meetings with sponsors and users to be the most productive (and maybe warnings about what not to say or do) I'd be most appreciative.>>

Have a look at my other articles (search resources/bibliography.html using the keyword "review" to turn up likely candidates, or just browse the titles). Getting people to work with you is always more art than science, but some "tricks" work well in a wide enough range of situations to be worthy of consideration. Even the ones that don't work outright often leave an opening for dialogue, or reveal clues as to other fruitful approaches.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

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RE: User feedback? (was 5 users in a room) - [TECHWR-L Digest, Vol 13, Issue 14]: From: Nuckols, Kenneth M

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