Been a successful technical writer for several years? Author of several installation guides, FAQs, help manuals, whitepapers for products in the past? But off late, you find that your writing is not making the necessary impact on your customer or on the product sales, don’t worry, you are not alone!
The reason for your struggle is that a critical aspect of technical writing has changed in recent years. Earlier we generated technical documentation based on the traditional Product Development Life Cycle (PDLC), keeping the product as the center point of focus. But now, the paradigm has shifted.
Welcome to the new and challenging world of product adoption. Here we don’t think about the product as the center point of focus. We just don’t talk about documents tracing the product life cycle from idea generation, development, sales and after sales customer support. Instead we trace the entire lifecycle of the end user’s journey.
No matter, what stage of growth or maturity a product company is in, they all share some common goals:
Product surveys indicate that top priority actions/concerns of most product companies, even in revenue-focussed companies, is ‘renewal of customer subscription’.
So let’s figure out how the all-important process of Product Adoption or converting a prospective user to a committed user works. And more importantly, how technical writers ought to contribute to this process.
Even though the entire product team (researchers, developers, testers, tech writers, marketing and support) is involved in driving product adoption, it is essentially a marketing process. In most cases where this process is applied, the product is already developed and ready for use. So the key documentation revolves around product recall, competitor analysis, promotion and pricing.
Spreading the word about the product among prospective users typically begins after the product is ready for sale. But a technical writer’s job begins much earlier. One must be involved in the entire product development activity and build knowledge on its functions, target market segment, technology and key differentiators.
When technical writers develop deep insights into customer behaviour, they can use that knowledge to help in the development of targeted advertisement. Your contribution is vital as you understand the language that best resonates with the customer. Sufficient market research is required to pin-pointedly identify the key user segments. If your company already has a successful product in the market, tailing the ads for your new product along with them is a good idea.
In order to attract user response, move away from simply describing how things work in your promotional material. Create involved user experiences with product stories. The goal is not to explain the product, but rather showing its possibilities and entwining this with what users want from this product. It is desirable to have UX knowledge for mapping user behaviour to product features.
To create a product story, one needs to go deeper to understand what users need to know in order to be successful on their journey. For a documentation team this means working closely with other departments and participating in product development: communicating directly with product owners, working with support teams, developers and QA.
Once you have a lead from an interested user in the form of a trial request or online enquiry, it is time to give them a product demo. This is a critical task for the documentation team. Make customized demos (videos or walkthroughs) for individual user segments, keep it short and bring out the value proposition clearly.
By now the user’s need for the product is established. It now remains to be seen whether your product is chosen over rival products. Now the product team carries out extensive competitor analysis – covering product features, pricing, technology, availability and post-sales aspects of all relevant rival products.
Based on this information, the technical documentation team can help in articulating the product value in ways that are uniquely suited to each type of buyer. Also, identify exactly where to place your product in the market eco-system. If there is a limited free version of your product on offer, remember that is a rival to the paid version too!
Refrain from negative propaganda against rival products, instead focus on bringing out the USP of your product. Position yourself as a technology expert and a seasoned player with well researched, authentic product blogs.
When the user makes a favourable decision towards purchasing your product, the battle is only half won. Now begins the crucial on-boarding phase. Technical documentation must aid smooth product deployment in the user environment. Installation support, automated configuration settings, help on interoperability with other products in the user environment, informative FAQs can make the job easier for the customer support representatives.
While one time purchase products can count the customer as ‘committed’ at this stage, in the SaaS model a product is always on trial! Attractive long term pricing schemes can be worked out to lock in customers for longer periods.
In many ways, retaining a customer is tougher than gaining a customer. To lock-in a customer long term, it is important to build a cohesive relationship between the product team and the user.
Use of analytics to measure depth of adoption – no of licenses, features used and efficacy of support information – is the best way to track a customer’s satisfaction levels.
Change management is another key aspect. In an endeavour to constantly improve the product, multiple version releases happen. Tracking customers’ usage and aiding their migration from older versions to newer ones is important for products so that their maintenance load is minimised. Documentation is a critical ingredient here. User specific upgrade support is to be provided for smooth transition. Automation to the extent possible is a great plus.
Once the relationship between the product team and the user stabilizes into a mutual beneficial one, the user becomes the best brand ambassador for your product. User testimonials is another important focus area for documentation. User success stories must be captured and reported effectively as part of promotion material. Equal importance must be given to feedback analysis of customers who do not renew their contract with the product. Rectifying these reasons of failure are the key to long term growth and success of your product.
That brings us to a close to the product adoption process and how technical writers play an integral and involved role in customer success. Technical writers must stop viewing themselves through the narrow prism of a narrator. You are a proxy user and system tester as well. You represent the face and voice of your product that is visible to the user. Your contribution to product success is as critical as the other functions.