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Would you please post this to TECHWR-L?
I've been unable to post directly for a while now.
In TECHWR-L Digest - 1 Feb 1996 to 2 Feb 1996, Charles Good
<good -at- AUR -dot- ALCATEL -dot- COM> wrote on the topic of "Quality/validation" that
accuracy and grammatical correctness can be measured, a point with
which I agree. However, he went on to say this:
>> The problem you run into with documentation is so much of the quality
>> aspect is subjective. It's partially dependent on style, layout design,
>> quality of illustrations, usefulness of tables, etc. These
>> characteristics are harder to define as measurable parameters.
>> In addition, quality deals with repeatable processes and controllable
>> environments. However, if there is little automation and a lot of
>> human creativity involved, then the process becomes less exact.
Harder, yes, but these are important elements of customer satisfaction,
and they are neither nonrepeatable nor unmeasurable. The best way to
ensure quality is to agree on standards or checklists. In the specific
examples cited, how about house style? Art guidelines? Standard table
templates? I don't suggest there is one right answer to any of these
questions, but if you collectively agree on a way to present
information and then stick to it, you have both a standard of quality
and a metric, namely the degree of conformance to the standard.
A documentation group within a business must function more as a factory
-- a documentation factory, if you will -- than as an artist's colony.
This is because a business expects all its manufacturing processes to
be as cheap as possible consistent with acceptable quality, and because
as a matter of corporate identity the business expects the output of
its documentation group to resemble the work of a single entity. (Note
that this is not the way fiction is written or packaged; check the
bookshelves to see the great diversity of printing and binding methods,
all designed to make the books stand out. Yet even within the realm of
fiction, it is possible to see common elements that are sometimes
"mass-produced:" for example, the pulp-fiction work of Victor Appleton
and Kenneth Robeson, Tom Swift and Doc Savage respectively, which was
farmed out to a team of anonymous writers who cranked out dozens of
titles based on a template developed by the original author. It's not
at all apparent that they were written by different people!)
For a group turning out multiple documents within a single company or
division, I argue that there's quite a bit more common elements and
repeated processes than you might think. Furthermore, to the extent
that there *isn't* commonality, I would argue that it represents waste
and inefficiency. For example, is every writer creating his or her own
format from document to document? Using different copyright pages
instead of a boilerplate? Documenting procedures to different levels
of detail and in different layouts? Not sharing text for common
elements? I say that's all wasted effort.
>> Even the person reviewing the documentation
>> in the quality/validation process must be considered susceptible to
>> personal values and preferences, as well as being vulernable to
>> biorythms and general health.
If Reviewer A, working on Project X, is very tough on passive voice, and
Reviewer B, working on Project Y, never comments on it, then the documents
produced for Project X and Project Y likely vary in quality in that regard.
I don't think that is acceptable. What to do? Agree on standards for review.
>> Soooo... Quality of documentation is subjective and since quality
>> is defined (nowadays) by your customers, I doubt you could even
>> get a concensus among your various customers as what constitutes
>> quality documentation. At best, they will make some generic statement
>> like, "we want it accurate, easy to use, and portable". Unfortunately,
>> those types of qualities are difficult to qualify in terms of measurable
>> parameters that will yield meaningful trend data for continuous improvement
>> of quality.
I agree that quality is defined by customers, but I am bullish on
asking them directly what they want and then working to satisfy their
needs. I have done it before! Our results were not at all surprising;
in fact, 'we want it accurate' about sums up one of the top responses.
Based on frequency of response, we were able to determine the top needs
of our customers at the time of our survey (at another company, by the
way). I then worked to develop metrics gauging conformance to these
critical success factors (CSFs). There are no obvious direct
measurements, but there are measurements that correlate well to the
CSFs. For example, in the case of "accuracy," we said the document had
to be reviewed and signed off; being able to check that item off the
work list was the best we could do to ensure accuracy.
What I am saying is that I reject the idea that these things can't be
done. Instead, I challenge the technical communication community to do
Steven Jong, Documentation Specialist ("Typo? What tpyo?")
Lightbridge, Inc, 281 Winter St., Waltham, MA 02154 USA
<jong -at- lightbridge -dot- com>, 617.672.4902 [voice], 617.890.2681 [FAX]