Simple Rule #5: No complaining about the quality of your tech writers. Afterall you agreed to outsource your docs to _______in the first place. (Insert your country here.)

I hear a lot of complaining these days about the quality of technical documentation being written offshore. I hear it mostly from the people who are responsible for making the decision to move tech docs offshore to begin with. Let me try to elucidate the problem from end to end.

As time has gone on, and technology has become more commonplace and less mysterious, the information that we create to explain how to install/use/administer technology products has become less important in the eyes of our upper management. Ease of use has morphed into “Do we have to provide instructions?” Technical writing as an art form has become commoditized. As with all commodities, the most important aspect from an upper management perspective is to get the docs created as cheaply as possible. I have actually heard upper-level managers say, “Good enough is good enough. I don’t care about quality. Just make it cost less money.” Scary, no?

Budgets for technical documentation have been slashed and much cheaper alternatives to the U.S. tech writing market have popped up. Offshore creation of technical manuals is so commonplace now that I cannot think of one large customer who isn’t using offshore writers for at least a portion of their documentation creation. And, from an upper management perspective, it is compelling. Last time I checked, you could hire 3 writers and a manager offshore for the same dollars as a single senior technical writer in the U.S.

However, almost across the board, I have heard complaints about the quality of the content that is being written offshore. Sure, there are exceptions. I know a few managers who, after searching for months and hiring/firing many offshore writers, are finally very happy. This is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, asking writers who have English as a second (or third or fourth) language to create technical instructions does not work out well for the documentation manager responsible for the project.

The same problems are described over and over again:

  • The documentation is difficult to understand or it makes no sense grammatically.
  • Managing the project is difficult. To have a phone conference with everyone on the project means someone is always in their pajamas; managers here in the US feel like (and do!) work around the clock.
  • The culture clash between the offshore groups and the U.S.-based team presents work issues.
  • The loyalty of offshore writers is almost non-existent. As soon as you have them trained and doing a good job, they leave for a better paying opportunity elsewhere.

Now, I am not saying that all offshore situations fail or that there is no such thing as a loyal, competent offshore writer who gets along famously with the U.S. team and is willing to work odd hours. These people do exist. And as time goes on, the quality of offshore content has risen and more managers who I talk to have found adequate offshore help. But, I am saying that, overall, I hear more complaints than compliments.

So, what’s a tech doc manager to do?

There is no magic bullet to solving the problems I’ve listed above. Usually, it takes a lot of patience and time to find an offshore writer (let alone an offshore team) that produces to the level most technical documentation managers would like.

Trying to explain to upper management that penny-wise is dollar-foolish only works to a point. If the economy has tanked and budgets are being slashed, getting upper-level managers to pay for quality documentation is a Herculean task at best. Sometimes, if customers complain loudly enough – usually to technical support departments – and if the costs of technical support skyrocket, you can get upper management to listen. Customer satisfaction scores (known as “CSAT” scores) can be very compelling. Unfortunately, I don’t know of many companies who measure CSAT scores for documentation. “Ease of installation” is often correlated to the product itself, rather than the instructions that ship with it. I also don’t know of many companies that have metrics for the correlation between poorly written documentation and number/cost of technical support incidents. We intuitively know that if the instructions are confusing, the customer is going to reach out for help. But we don’t have actual numbers to support it.

Now that many people are using social media communities and forums to voice their complaints, the possible brand damage from unhappy customers is more risky. In the past, I could complain to a manufacturer. Now, I can complain to a forum and have many people echo my dissatisfaction. Unhappy customers can do a lot more harm as a community. This argument might be compelling and upper management might listen, but if customers are already complaining in droves, you have a PR nightmare on your hands and it might be too late.

Here are a few ideas on how to handle the mandate to use offshore resources that are underperforming:

  •  Work with other groups, such as technical support and training, to gather metrics on customer satisfaction as it relates to technical documentation. Be careful that this tactic doesn’t backfire, making you or your department look worse for pointing out the problem. There is always a danger in pointing out weaknesses on your team.
  • Consider onshoring your content. There are areas of the U.S. where salary requirements and hourly rates are much lower than in high-tech meccas. While I’ve never seen rates that are as low as offshore countries, you might be able to find qualified writers here who are willing to work for compelling wages.
  • Examine your quality control/quality assurance processes to identify holes that you can plug. For example, see if you can implement QC/QA tools and processes to help catch and fix errors before the docs are released.
  • Look for tools and processes that can help your offshore team perform better.
  • Solicit help from the community. If customers are starting to complain, reach out to them and find a way to let them help make your content better. User generated content is a blessing and a curse. Think about what you can do to incorporate community content and ideas to help. It is amazing the goodwill you can garner by listening to your customer base.

And when your management finally wakes up and comes to you complaining about the quality of the documentation, do your best to stay calm and remind them that you always get what you pay for. Always.

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.
Discuss
Blog · Global Readiness · July 31, 2011
 

 

 
  • Amy Hicks

    There are plenty of unemployed in the US willing to take just about anything to relieve the excruciating frustration of trying to find a job. And there ate quite a few of us who spend our time fiddling with software programs, hacking our registries, and writing end-user documentation for nothing. Most of mine goes in a notebook, in case I need it later. You can find us if you reach out.

    • http://www.contentrules.com Val Swisher

      I couldn’t agree more, Amy. I’m not so sure that folks in the U.S. will be willing to work for minimum wage, but I know that people are really hungry out there. I hope that corporations start considering onshoring more in the future. We are definitely recommending it to our customers.

  • Jasdavison

    Sad commentary but more of the same.
    Yes, off-shore outsourcing is occurring in technical writing just as it has in semiconductors, auto, customer support, and too many other US industries. This is not only due to low wages elsewhere, but also off-shore tax incentives provided by our “friendly” government. Penny-wise executive-driven outsourcing and tax incentives will never equal quality, customer satisfaction, and ultimately, repeat business…HELLO(!) Too many executives continue to turn a blind eye toward the implications of poor customer support.
    Personally, I’m not willing to work for wages not befitting my career level and education. However, unlike many job searchers today, I’m not financially squeezed. Hopefully my attitude will provide a job for someone who has to support themselves and/or a family in this country. Its still a great country, just poor government decision making in my opinion.  

    • http://www.contentrules.com Val Swisher

      Thanks very much for your reply. I agree that we have made it quite enticing to do business offshore. Let’s hope that changes one of these days!

  • Dave Gardner

    Good commentary. It follows what Daniel Pink describes in his book “A Whole New Mind”–if your job can be automated, if your job can be sent overseas for cheaper performance, if your job has become commoditized, then you can kiss your job goodbye. Our world went through the agricultural age, the industrial age, and the information age–and, although many haven’t recognized it yet, we are now in a new “age.” It’s the “creative age”–in which those who can adapt with unique offerings of creativity and specialization that can’t be duplicated elsewhere will thrive. But our education systems churn out students trained to work in the assembly-line, cubicle model. Instead of looking for “jobs,” those of us affected by this new paradigm must find ways to generate an income that may not depend on a job. Be creative–search your hobbies, your interests, your skill sets, and your talents to find that unique offering that only you can provide.

  • Mike Unwalla

    > Ease of use has morphed into “Do we have to provide instructions?”

    The question is good. If instructions are not necessary, then supplying instructions is an unnecessary cost.

    > As with all commodities, the most important aspect from an upper management perspective is to get the docs created as cheaply as possible.

    Yes. Why pay more money than is necessary?

    > I have actually heard upper-level managers say, “Good enough is good enough. I don’t care about quality. Just make it cost less money.” Scary, no?

    Most products and services that you [the author of 'Simple Rule #5'] buy are only ‘good enough’. You do not buy the best. If you had the money to buy the best, then you would not have written the article. Instead, you would [insert your dream lifestyle here].

    Upper management has a responsibility to maximise the revenue for a company. Therefore, ‘good enough’ is the optimum choice.

    > Most of the time, asking writers who have English as a second (or third or fourth) language to create technical instructions does not work out well for the documentation manager responsible for the project.

    A counter-argument is that multilingual writers are usually more aware of language than monolingual writers. The problem is not that a writer has English as a second language. The problem is that the writer does not know English well, and that problem was not identified during the hiring process.

    >    Managing the project is difficult. To have a phone conference with everyone on the project means someone is always in their pajamas; managers here in the US feel like (and do!) work around the clock.

    Managing international projects is always difficult. A technical documentation project does not have special problems.

    >    The loyalty of offshore writers is almost non-existent. As soon as you have them trained and doing a good job, they leave for a better paying opportunity elsewhere.

    I am an offshore writer. (I am in the UK. Sometimes, I write for US companies.) I always look for more money.

    I guess that the loyalty of most workers is non-existent. If you have the opportunity to improve your career and have a higher salary, will you remain with your current employer?

    • http://www.contentrules.com Val Swisher

      Thanks for your comments, Mike. I agree with some and disagree with others. It is also interesting to see another viewpoint.

      • Mike Unwalla

        Hi Val,

        Which comments do you disagree with and for what reasons?

        Correction to my first reply:
        I wrote, “Upper management has a responsibility to maximise the revenue for a company.”
        I meant, “Upper management has a responsibility to maximise the profit for a company.”

        Regards,

        Mike

        • http://www.contentrules.com Val Swisher

          I’d like to bring us back to the premise of this series of posts. What are the things that you can do to make your content cheaper to translate, faster to translate, and result in higher quality translations. In my experience, content that is written by people who do not have a full command of English (which is generally the case with cheap offshore writers) is usually more expensive to translate, takes longer to translate because of multiple iterations, and the quality of the translation suffers. 

          So, while I agree that companies want to spend as little as possible so they can maximize their profits, I find that many companies are “penny wise and dollar foolish”. They think they are saving money by using the least expensive writing resources that they can find, only to have the cost of translation skyrocket. By “cost” of translation, I don’t just mean the number of words * the number of languages * the price per language. I also mean the amount of time in-country reviewers spend iterating with translators, the cost of delayed time to market, and the cost of customer satisfaction.   If I cannot understand your instructions because the translation is of poor quality, then I have to call your help desk. That also costs the company money. And if I am not satisfied, I will never buy from you again. I might even tell my social network how bad your product is.

          If companies paid more attention to the quality of the source content, much of this waste could be minimized.

          By the way, I am fortunate to be living my dream lifestyle and to be able to buy the best quality when I want to. I’ve worked very hard for many years to get here. That comment was unwarranted.

          And, if I was an employee, I would probably consider more than just my paycheck when it came to selecting my employer. Since I own the corporation, this is a non-issue for me. 

          Thanks again for your comments, Mike.

          • Mike Unwalla

            > That comment was unwarranted.

            I did not intend to offend. Sorry.

             

  • http://twitter.com/strangereading Chris Bedford

    This article makes many good points. Having reviewed documentation
    written by off-shore publications groups, many of the quality issues
    presented resonate quite strongly with my experience.

    I’ll also offer a different point of view on off-shoring and authoring
    quality documentation… I work for a large software company
    which–through acquisitions and the need to competitively produce
    products–has technical staff in most every part of the world in which
    you can find software developers.

    For the product line I currently work on, the development team is–in
    its entirety–in Beijing. Locally (in San Francisco) I work with a
    product manger and a handful of other writers, but the development and
    QA teams are in China (I’m told a Chinese Java developer earns about
    one tenth that of their U.S. counterparts). In addition to the project
    management hurdles the time difference between the U.S. and China
    inflicts, the other challenge we have is that of gathering information
    from the developers–the subject matter experts. Their spoken English
    ranges in comprehensibility, and while their written  English is
    better, it is still lacking when it comes to authoring functional
    specifications and other documents. The language issue rears its head
    again during documentation reviews, as I have to very carefully respond
    to the review comments, and assure reviewers that what is documented is
    in fact correct–quite the role reversal, and very time consuming.

    Other writers in my group also have to work with development teams in China, and the language issue is present in all cases.

    Mind you, the developers make every effort to keep me informed. They realize communication is an issue, and try really hard to write comprehensible specifications, and communicate as clearly as they can. I can only be grateful for their efforts, as its unlikely I’m going to tackle Mandarin Chinese any time soon.

    I’ll close by saying that this situation is emblematic of the position
    technical writing has been relegated to in many organizations. Fifteen
    years ago, when I began my career as a technical writer, my managers
    strove to keep the writers close to the developers; seating us in close
    proximity so that we could have the kind of incidental contact that
    builds stronger working relationships. One manager even sponsored tech
    pubs/developer lunches to further build cross-team relationships. Since
    that time, every company I’ve worked for has had the technical writers
    segregated ever further from the development team, to the point where
    it now feels more like we’re a line item on a program managers
    schedule. It’s unfortunate because I really enjoyed my job in those
    first few years, when I felt like I was part of team, helping to make
    the product successful by making the users successful with quality
    information.

    I’ll hope to one day find a company that values documentation, user experience, innovation, and collaboration. Until then, I’ll continue to look for opportunities where I can apply my creativity as an information develop and communicator.

    Thanks again for this informative article.

    Regards,
    Chris Bedford

    • http://www.contentrules.com Val Swisher

      Thanks for your comments, Chris. What you describe is extremely common. There are companies that value docs, user experience, and so on. Just keep looking! 

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