Monday, September 22, 2014

Information Architecture at Cisco - demistifyed

The STC learning session held at Cisco on 20th September, can probably be summed up with the following quote

“Without understanding how people use your products and information, you are more likely to develop information that meets the needs of your authors or your subject matter experts rather than those who need to use your products and services to meet their goals and get their jobs done”

- JoAnn Hackos (in her book Information Development - Managing your Projects, Portfolio and People).

I've not comes across another statement that gets this close to home.

Here are a few notes I took down and hope you find useful.

  • Before Sandhya and team started the presentation, they asked the audience what their expectations were. The expectations ranged from understanding the new methodology, tools used, how this method impacted UI and Non UI products, how quality goals were measured, etc.
  • The session started with a video recording from Denise Asplund, the Global Head for tech com at Cisco. She welcomed the audience and gave a short introduction to the topic.
  • So it all started with the problems that the team were trying to solve. Some of the problems with tech comm at Cisco included a lot of content (unwieldy and huge), content difficult to find, finding relevant content, content that included marketing language, content that made the product appear more complex than it actually was
  • The first step at solving this problem was to find out where tech pubs was actually needed in the product lifecycle. They found that they were needed only in the pre-implementation, implementation and maintenance phases of their lifecycle.
  • Top down approach used to buy in stakeholders. Don't even try the bottom up approach. You might end up like that... bottom up.
  • Tech pubs gets involved in the process only after a customer is on board. Thus there was no need to sell the product to existing customers. That task is left to marketing/sales. All such content was removed. The team refused to include marketing content. Lucky team!
  • Customers who were used to seeing marketing information (about features, etc) were pointed to marketing information (managed by other teams)
  • Different types of users, their skills, and experience levels were analyzed and personas created.
  • An exercise to identify key workflows was then made and the workflows were mapped to the personas.
  • It was only after the above steps were completed that the documentation set was finalized.
  • Content strategy and content delivery models developed. (Who to write to, what to write, what not to write, defect workflow, etc)
  • Use web analytics whenever available to understand content/product usage. Talk to marketing/sales when the product is new. Use use cases.
  • Two important questions to keep in mind when creating content – Who is the product aimed at? Why would someone use this product
  • Some of the questions to ask to arrive at conceptual content – What is this feature about, why is it required? What problem does it solve? Who will benefit and at what stage (of the lifecycle) will they use the feature? What problems can arise (troubleshooting)
  • The first step at this change is to commit to this sort of information architecture. It requires a mindset change and can only succeed if driven from the top. This method needs to align with the development methodology used (agile/waterfall)
  • When trying to influence stakeholders, include reasoning for the change
We at GT Nexus, also use a workflow based documentation approach. Of course our domain (supply chain) is much more complex, with users interacting with each other using our product and processes. What we did was to chart out the big picture as a workflow. When would each kind of user perform a certain task. How does that task impact other stakeholders in the process? Users not only get to see the big picture, but can also figure out where they come in. 
I wish we could show you some of the documentation as examples. But then, we'd probably have to kill you ;)

What could have been better.
  • Most of us had to wait outside the gate for nearly an hour. Cisco has an 'escort' rule in place, where visitors need to be escorted by employees at all times. (I was thanking my stars that the rest rooms didn’t need access cards! You know... or we'd need escorts to go as well.) Reception didn’t seem to be aware that an event was happening. Neither did they know whom to call and inform. The event was supposed to start at 10, but even after half an hour, we were at the gates trying to 'negotiate'. We were let in only after 10.30 am. The phone number given on the confirmation email was not being answered. Not a very pleasant experience to start with.
  • Both the font size and colors used in the presentation made it very difficult to view/read the text. I've noticed this at other sessions too. Perhaps STC should have a say in this, publish certain guidelines and maybe review the presentation once before it is D-day. Please.
  • Disappointing to see the poor attendance at such events. Even from Cisco. From what Sumathy says, she hardly sees any attendance from writers in events held in other companies. That’s probably why someone had the idea of working on the mountain instead of Mohammed. Perhaps it time to go back to Mohammed. 
  • Registration shouldn't be free. Charge a nominal amount which gets reimbursed at the venue/refunded back to the account. Those who don't turn up... well they just treated those who attendees to some snacks : )
The icing on the cake. 

Some time back, I had written an elaborate procedure on TWIN on how to file one's income tax returns online. (I'm sorry to say this, but the TWIN site is currently just a shadow of what it once was. Search doesn't work. We can't create new content. Lots of spam comments. Articles are missing and there's a general apathy that gets under your skin. I could have have linked the article here, but can't find it). The article was titled 'Fire Your Accountant' and had a step by step procedure on how to look up your form 16, identify and use the required information to complete and submit the IT return. Believe me, it's much easier to file returns now. But the procedure documented the process when it was not so simple.  That's putting it mildly.
So coming back to the subject, I was pleasantly surprised when one of the writers who attended the workshop came to me and said he was able to file his returns by just referring the page I created. Mighty pleased. 
We have come back full circle to the quote we started with. Now that's RTFM for you!

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