Information Strategy Pyramid
The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. As such, it stands to reason that two monkeys would be able to produce the same volume of output, but are unlikely to write exactly the same thing. Add in a few more monkeys to the equation and suddenly you have lots of content, none of which really relates to anything else.
I’ll stop with the monkey metaphor before I insult anyone.
Consistency is an important part of communication, even at the simplest level of having a common terminology, using the same words consistently throughout a document helps the reader learn. Take this idea up a level, from a single document to a number of documents and maintaining the same terminology across all documents can further help re-enforce the messaging and aid learning, and should give the reader a level of comfort that the entire set of information has been thought of, and delivered, as a cohesive set.
Move up the stack one more time and you start to look around at surrounding areas of information, outside of product documentation, produced by a different department and it’s here that consistency starts to suffer.
Typically Technical Communications teams will spend some time developing their own Style Guide (however loose), and agree a basic set of terminology, also known as the Product Glossary. Having been involved with creating a Product Glossary in the past, it’s interesting that other areas of the company see it as being a ‘documentation thing’, until such times as you get them to sit down and help you compose entries for it.
I know that the information produced by my team will be consistent and is written in a similar enough style that it won’t ‘jar’ the reader. In other words, it doesn’t matter who wrote the information, it is all part of one larger set of documentation, with a similar tone, voice and style.
Aiming the information at the correct audience is a key part of deciding what the three attributes of tone, voice and style, should be, and it’s at this point that I find other departments starting to struggle. Without a clear idea of the audience, and with their own perception of what the message (the terminology) needs to be, there is a tendency to wander off message, and produce a document which, whilst perfectly good in isolation, doesn’t seem to fit into the overall set of product information.
So what type of information is this? Well it varies, and can be tracked through the customer (or company) journey and their interactions with your company and product. Broadly speaking there are four levels, all of which need to be talking to the correct audience, and ideally should be providing the same message in a consistent manner.
- First up there is an introduction, a high level chat about our product and what it can do. This is typically a mix of marketing brochures, website collateral, and sales presentations.
- The next level of interaction delves a little deeper into the business benefits and key selling points of the product, and can start to touch on product features and capabilities.
- After that, there is a need to provide a level of technical information, outlining the architecture and fundamental design of your product, detail the full set of capabilities, and provide reassurance around any potential implementation issues that may arise.
- And then we get to product documentation, training material, and ongoing support and maintenance information.
Four levels of information, all of which should be saying the same thing about the product, regardless of what message that is.
It would be wrong to say that each level is unique, as each interaction your company has with a customer will vary, but largely speaking the four levels allow anyone who is creating information to better understand their audience. Add in a Product Glossary to ensure terminology is consistent, and a strong product message and there is no reason why any of the content being produced cannot be consistent.
Mapping these levels to the amount of content available at each level gives us the following:
Of course this is a very simplistic model, but as a starting point, it at least provides the mechanism for anyone about to create new content to pause and consider the audience. So whilst you could add in several levels, and several different mappings of document types, I think it’s better to leave things a little open to question as that helps bring a better understanding of why the content is being produced in the first place.
I first introduced this model to my current company several months ago, and we are currently revisiting this to make sure it is still a good fit to our needs. The next step for me is beefing up our Product Glossary, and then we can get on with the thornier issue of document management, an intrinsic part of having a Content Strategy for your company.