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Documentation Quality Metrics
2004, Q3 (February 21, 2007)
By Jules Cohen

Kaizen, lean thinking, Six Sigma, committed to quality — these are all methodologies for continuous improvement. Initially manufacturers applied these methodologies only to their manufacturing processes. Today continuous improvement is applied to just about any process you can think of, including technical documentation.

To implement any continuous improvement process, you have to measure your progress. This is where metrics come in. Have you been struggling to create a process for measuring your technical documentation? If so, this article provides the information you need to get started.

Presenting your Business Case

The first step is to present your business case to upper-level management. At a minimum, your business case should:
  • Identify the benefits of measuring documentation quality
  • Explain how you will use documentation quality metrics to support the business goals
  • Propose a methodology for tracking improvements over time
  • Establish a corrective action and reporting process
  • Provide an accurate estimate of resources and time required

Forming a Documentation Quality Team

Once you've secured a sponsor, you can establish a documentation quality team comprised of writers and managers. The team's primary responsibilities are to:
  • Set objectives that management will support
  • Identify the KPIs (key performance indicators)
  • Define the process for evaluating documentation
  • Create and implement a communication plan

The team must determine which KPIs are most important. Ask for input from end users, marketing, engineering, management, sales force, and writers. Choose KPIs that can be validated via surveys, customer support data, or usability testing.

The team should also:
  • Decide who reviews the documents (that is, manager, author, peers, editor, and so on)
  • Train the reviewers to give positive, constructive feedback
  • Define the criteria for selecting documents to be reviewed
  • Select a meaningful and appropriate rating scale
  • Create a process for correcting documentation errors or defects

Launching the Process

Good communication is the key to your success. Measure your metrics — continue to solicit feedback from everyone involved, including management. Send regular updates summarizing the metrics, and noting the successes, pitfalls, and corrective action plan. Consider establishing a recognition program similar to the STC publication competition. Celebrate major milestones and choose meaningful rewards, such as printed certificates, gift certificates, or time off.

It takes time and forethought to develop an effective process for measuring documentation quality. Once implemented, the resulting metrics will let you know whether you're meeting your customers' needs and will provide the data you need to continuously improve your documentation.

Sample KPIs

  • Targeted to the correct audience
  • Accurate
  • Complete
  • Well written
  • Easy to navigate
  • Properly indexed
  • Appropriately illustrated
  • Practical
  • Relevant
  • Consistent

Jules Cohen can be reached at cohenj at squared dot com. This article is based on a presentation prepared by Susan Johnston and Helen Weeks. Jules and Susan are members of the STC Carolina Management SIG. End of article.

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