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When Fabrice Met Val: Personalization, Contextualization, and the Future of Tech Doc Delivery

Oct 20, 2022  |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

Get Fabrice Lacroix and Val Swisher together to share their thoughts on how to break free from one-size-fits-all documentation and fireworks are assured!

Swisher, the CEO of Content Rules Inc. and author of the influential book The Personalization Paradox: Why Companies Fail (and How To Succeed) at Delivering Personalized Experiences at Scale, is a big believer in the power of content to convert. She believes that personalized marketing content is imperative to the enterprise and the only way to deliver personalized content at scale is through standardization. Fluid Topics CEO, Fabrice Lacroix, though, wonders how to apply these fundamental concepts to technical documentation, asking whether it is possible to deliver individualized technical content experiences and, if it is, how best to achieve that.

In what event organizers at The Content Wrangler described as a friendly yet lively discussion, the two experts talked through everything from the promise of dynamic delivery, the importance of progressive disclosure, the place of artificial intelligence and machine learning in tech doc delivery, normalization, knowledge taxonomies and more.

Here are four takeaways from their discussion:

1. Personalization or Contextualization?

As Swisher puts it, « A personalized experience is when we can deliver the right content to the right person at the right time on the right device in the language of their choice. » Personalizing content is a proven strategy for breaking through in marketing and communications campaigns. With enough relevant information about the audience – and with the right selection of content to suit that audience – messages land more effectively, audience interest is piqued and maintained, and conversions are more common.

When it comes to tech doc, though, Lacroix explains that « what we need is not personalized content, it’s contextual content. » Tech doc users need the right information about the right machine at the very moment they are seeking it. Lacroix argues that technical content doesn’t so much need to be personalized to their individual experience, but it does need to be contextualized to the specific task that is being performed. It’s less about being personal and more about being situational, less about the persona and more about the job.

Still, Lacroix recognizes that personalization can apply to technical documentation, but not in the way that marketers understand it.

2. Progressive Disclosure and a Personalized Experience

Personalization of marketing content and of technical content should be addressed differently. For marketing, personalization of content means showing a selection of content that is likely to generate interest for the reader and hiding the rest. For technical content, hiding a piece of information is not an option.

Take your average service manual and, for each operation, there are multiple steps for every task that needs to be completed. Open this, unscrew that, pull, unplug and test the third widget from the left. Every step in the process is essential and skipping step three might cause problems when it comes to completing step seven and could even be hazardous. But this doesn’t mean that every service technician needs to go through the highest level of details all at once and every single time.

Swisher gave the example of a technician servicing a machine with a torque wrench. The relevant content might start with the definition of torque and instructions on how to set the wrench and then use it to apply the required torque. « If I’m a beginner, then don’t forget to show me the definition of the word torque, » she says, « but don’t waste my time with that if I’ve been working with torque wrenches for 20 years. » This is how personalization can add value to the users of technical documentation.

Lacroix explains that progressive disclosure of information is key here. This means that while all the steps in a service task are presented at any point in time, only the most relevant steps to the user are shown with a higher level of detail. For Lacroix, the key question here is « how much of the content should I display initially and how much should I make available on demand? »

User Interfaces that allow minimizing and expanding information with a tap or click enable this sort of progressive disclosure and, with the addition of AI tools, there is an opportunity to further refine these disclosures. « The system might learn enough about the user that it starts folding in a bit of that content without the user doing anything, » explains Lacroix. « It’s like the system is saying you’ve read this four times and based on how fast you have scrolled through it last time, I’ve minimized it this time. »

3. Personalize at Content Writing or at Delivery Point?

In Swisher’s opinion, there no doubt about it: « It’s the point of delivery that does the magic. » In order to be able to deliver personalized content experiences at scale, Swisher explains that we need to be able to create and use small chunks of content and, at the point of delivery, pull the right pieces, assemble the relevant documentation on the fly, and minimize or expand the content based on all the things we know about the user.

But for the delivery system to be able to find and combine the pieces of content that are appropriate and create the output that will be served to this user, you need a standardized taxonomy. « It’s critical because it’s the taxonomy that’s determining what content to pull, » emphasizes Swisher. The granularity of the content and a standardized taxonomy are the conditions for the delivery system to be able to personalize the content experience at the user end.

One question, though: do we have this delivery mechanism? Does the technology exist? Lacroix has the answer and explains that content delivery platforms help companies shift towards dynamic delivery of their documentation. « We are moving away from static content, documents and PDFs and making content more dynamic and adaptive to the user, the device, and the situation. » Powered by AI, the Fluid Topics technology leverages the information we know about a user, her profile, preferences, but also behavior, to assemble and serve the most relevant, personalized content for the tasks she needs to achieve.

4. Accept That There Is No Single Authoring Tool to Rule Them All, and Adapt to That Reality

In a perfect world every team would author their product documentation with a single tool where one taxonomy would be enforced.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

The reality is that today’s product content is authored by more people in more departments using different tools. Tech doc teams favor an authoring tool or a CCMS, developers are writing in Markdown, marketers draft Word documents, and support teams produce video screencasts.

« We’ve always been saying, we need to break the content silos, we need to break the content silos, » says Swisher, « And you know what? 30 years later, we’re not going to break the content silos. »

Instead of seeking to break content silos with ‘one tool to rule them all’, content delivery systems adapt to the way authors work and collect content from different places, put it all together and serve it to the users.

Still, when content is not centralized at a unique writing point, standardization and normalization beyond taxonomy are even more critical. « If we’re going to have a variety of content in a variety of tools written by a variety of people, in a variety of departments, » says Swisher, « we’d better use the same words, and we’d better use the same tense. » With multiple places where you create and store content and different contributors, you need to define and apply corporate content rules. The words, style, tone, and grammar must be standardized, and the rules must be enforced across the organization so that each component can be combined with the others and provide a consistent user experience.

Is it a challenge for organizations? Sure, but as Swisher says after 30 years of experience helping companies with their content strategy and information architecture, content models and more: « We know how to fix it! »

Over the course of an hour Lacroix and Swisher took on the whole gamut of content personalization and tech doc contextualization – to see the whole of that conversation, click through to the webinar replay!

About The Author

Geraldine BOULEZ

Geraldine BOULEZ

Geraldine is passionate about new technologies and their ability to solve people and business problems. This is what has led her to product management, marketing and business development positions in fast-growing tech companies and innovative corporations for almost twenty years.