Online groups, autumn 2010

Document reviews

A comment about 'the paperless office' started a discussion about the problems of on-screen reviews of documents.

One member established a PDF review process with Adobe Acrobat. All the reviewers could see all the comments from the other reviewers. The member sent a 176-page manual for review. One customer did not use the system for six weeks. Then, a package arrived. The package contained a printed copy of the manual. Comments from reviewers were written on the printed manual. Other members told similar stories, and asked why people do not adapt to on-screen reviews of documents.

With an on-screen review, you can get only a small amount of information on the screen. No software effectively simulates many sheets of paper that are organized and tagged for quick reference.

One member knows many technical communicators who can find errors more easily on paper than on screen. He says, "We present information in formats that facilitate ease of reading and better understanding. … So why do we expect people to change their behaviour in the face of overwhelming evidence that they relate better to printed documents, when in every other case we adapt our behaviour or presentation to the needs of our readers?"

When one member visited end-users, he learnt that they do not know what online help is or what PDF files are. He recommended the use of paper manuals and quick-reference cards. "The end users were much happier not reading their paper manuals than they were not reading the online materials."

New work from websites

A freelance technical communicator received an enquiry through his website. He was "quite excited", because this was the first time that someone contacted him through his website. He asked whether other technical communicators get work through their websites.

In 12 years, one member got three contracts through his website. However, another member gets approximately 50% of her business through her website. She invests much time updating the website.

One member's website attracts the wrong type of business. Someone from New Zealand wanted cheap technical communication. Someone from Canada continued to ask for "just one more addition" on a small initial contract. The member decided not to continue to work with that client. One local organization did not pay for the member's work. The member went to court, and the customer had to pay the invoice and the member's court costs. The member thinks that a website is useful only to add to his usual marketing to local businesses. A website and a related e-mail address looks professional.

Documentation for quality management

In one software organization, a quality-management audit showed that the documentation needed to be improved. Each function of the software must contain a statement about what occurs when the function is done. How do you produce suitable documentation?

Before an organization can have quality control, the organization must define 'quality'. Typically, an organization maintains quality by establishing procedures for all its activities, by monitoring conformity with those procedures, and by regularly reviewing and updating the procedures to conform to best practices. Quality control documents are similar to process and procedure documents.

Quality does not mean quantity. Frequently, an organization that has a new quality-management system (QMS) puts too much detail in the documentation. Too much detail causes the following problems:

The amount of necessary documentation is dependent on the knowledge, the skills, and the experience of the people who use the documentation. If people are trained sufficiently to do a function, then documentation of the procedure can be small. (To show the ability of the staff, training records are necessary.)

A QMS is about consistency, not about quality. If people obey the procedures, an organization can pass a quality-management audit. However, the quality of the product can be low.

Document what you do, not what you think is necessary. Many organizations fail their first quality-management audit because they document the procedures that they want, not the procedures that they do.


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