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Beyond Traditional Accounting Systems — Showing the Value Technical Communicators Add

by Prinna Boudreau
Overview

Technical communicators spend years learning and collaborating about the nuts and bolts of technical communication. We learn that editing is more than just proofreading. We learn how to conduct usability tests that yield priceless information on behalf of the user. We learn the countless contexts in which our expertise can be applied. But little time is dedicated to teaching and discussing just how technical communicators can measure the value our work adds despite the usefulness and persuasiveness inherent in this information.

All technical communicators understand that we are advocates for the user and that users benefit from ease of use. In the business setting, making it easier on the customer increases customer loyalty and customer satisfaction. Satisfied customers return again and again so ease of use can actually increase business. In short, usability equals profitability. However, technical communicators struggle to reliably and convincingly show how our work affects the bottom line. The result is that technical communication specialists are often undervalued in terms of income, resources, and recognition.

The Main Issues

A number of issues surround the topic of measuring the value technical communicators offer businesses. First, in most organizations, usability engineers struggle for recognition and appropriate funding, yet increasing cost consciousness puts even more pressure on them to justify their work. Second, usability engineers need to be skilled at going beyond traditional accounting systems to show their value. The typical corporate accounting system fails to show where and how value is being added. Ginny Redish, internationally known expert in usable design, says that "testing" and "fixing" costs typically come from different budgets. Often those responsible for building a system or designing the documentation are not necessarily responsible for whatever might happen later. Third, technical communicators cannot underestimate the need to be proactive in demonstrating their value. Part of the role of the technical communicator is to constantly show value in their work. Only after technical communicators collectively strive to find ways to do this can the value of their work truly be recognized and rewarded.

Measuring value often means technical communicators need to work cross-functionally with other groups in their company. For example, a usability engineer may need to go to marketing to find out current levels of customer satisfaction. Customer service would have information on support costs. Subject matter experts have knowledge about what users want. By working with all of these groups, technical communicators can get data to support the value of their contributions, but also to strengthen communication among departments.

What is the best way to measure the value of usability testing? Is it through outcome measures, customer satisfaction ratings, projections of value added, or general perceptions of the value? These are questions that every technical communicator needs to answer and be prepared to justify to a management team or project team. Technical communicators can not afford to wait until their work is completed to make the case that it was necessary and beneficial. Without hard data on the value of something, managers must draw their own conclusions, which may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Particularly in the area of usability testing, there seems to be a myth in the corporate world that usability testing is prohibitively expensive and difficult. Knowing that this does not need to be the case can make it easier to justify a series of small, inexpensive usability tests. Jakob Nielsen, a user advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, has shown that helpful results can be achieved with surprisingly small test groups. A factor that adds to the misperception of the value of usability testing is that usability information is the most valuable outcome of exposure to users, yet usually not much is done to share or study this data. In many companies, the data collected during usability tests is discarded after it has been applied to the product design, or worse yet, sits on the shelves of the experts who collected it.

The value technical communicators bring to businesses in all sectors is clear in technical communication literature. But we operate in the real world of constraints, especially of time, money, and opportunity. Proper research, adequate and strategic testing, and informed writing often take a backseat to tight deadlines. All technical communicators need to take the benefits of our work beyond our own publications and into the larger community and business setting.


Further Reading

Bias, R.G., and D.J. Mayhew. 1994. Cost-Justifying Usability. Boston, MA: Academic Press.

Dumas, Joseph S., C. Janice, and Redish. 1993. A Practical Guide to Usability Testing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Karat, C.M. 1993. Usability engineering in dollars and cents. IEEE Software 10, no. 3: 88-89.

Karat, C.M. 1990. Cost-benefit analysis of usability engineering techniques. In Proceedings of the Human Factors Society 34th Annual Meeting. Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors Society.

Mead, J. 1998. Measuring the value added by technical communication: A review of research and practice. Technical Communication 45, no. 3:353-379.

Redish, Janice. 1995. Adding Value as a Professional Technical Communicator. Technical Communication, 1st quarter, http://www.techcomm-online.org/shared/special_col/measuring/2.pdf