I’ve seen a lot of smaller software companies want to manage their documentation needs using an in-house technical writer. In fact, I’ve been that in-house writer for a few companies. But the problem comes when the project finishes. Unless your company puts out multiple software products or has constant updates, your writer may find themselves killing time. And you’re still paying for that time. If you have a relatively unchanging feature set or a product with inconsistent update cycles, a full time writer will eventually find the end of your documentation needs.
So you think maybe you’ll get an existing employee to write documentation part time. Depending on what that person’s expertise is, you’ll get vastly different results. If you give it to a developer, you get technically accurate descriptions of the mechanics of the software that don’t consider how the user works. It’s like getting driving lessons from someone who builds engines. If you give it to marketing, you’ll get pretty text that clouds the information that your users needs with sales material. Users need to know how to perform tasks, not why performing that task is so great.
Your other option is to outsource your technical writing needs to a firm like us. Here’s a few of the benefits of outsourcing.
Your outsourced technical writer is an expert at simplifying the complexities of your product and communicating them to a user of unknown familiarity with the software. There’s a lot to consider. Look at the classic tech writing exercise, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Simple, right? But how many steps allow the user to screw up? Which slice of bread do I put the peanut butter and which do I put the jelly on? What sides? How do I place the bread when I’m not using it? You think it’s easy because you have a ton of ingrained assumptions about how it works. But your users are the ones who will place the peanut butter side down on the table and blame you for misleading them.
When you outsource, you get access to that expert only when you need the work done. There’s no finding busywork for staff on the payroll. It’s all necessary work. You may think that you’ll save with a full-time person, but consider all the extras that person needs: computer, office supplies, health insurance, desk space. All these cost on top of payroll. Your outsourced writer already has that.
While I am talking about getting a writer at a discount, watch out for the impossible bargains. There are a lot of overseas content factories that will give you documentation on the cheap. You’ll get what you’ve paid for – low quality docs written by someone who clearly does not have a command of American English. You might even need to hire someone else to significantly rewrite that material. What’s the point of saving money on the first draft if you pay extra on the rewrite?
Fresh Eyes on the Product
It’s my job to think like a user, to make their mistakes, and figure out where they could get lost. So on top of documentation, the contract writer is somebody trying to use the software without much advance knowledge. That lets you see where people will get stuck and where you can improve the user experience. Because that contract writer isn’t tied to your product, they come with a broader set of experiences and none of the assumptions and tacit knowledge that anyone gets after using something for years. For a regularly updated software product, that lets you see where new features make sense only when you have old assumptions.
I always end up being an additional tester with every piece of software I write about, and not just on interface design. Good documentation has to follow what a user does, so I walk through the process in the software, When I’m done, I’ve entered data, run processes, and more importantly, found what breaks. Sometimes in software development, a bug persists for so long that everyone considers it a feature and works around it. Your external writer, poking around to see what happens, will run into all the old fractures and more.
More Control Over Work and Budget
You might think that an outside contractor is a loose cannon, someone who plays by their own rules because they don’t owe you anything. As much as freelancers like myself would love to put on mirrored shades and play bad cop, it’s just not true. Contracted writers, whether you agree to a fixed price or an hourly rate, get paid when they do the work that both of you spelled out in the contract.
For fixed price contracts, you need to spell out exactly what that price gets you. Your writer should come up with an outline of topics and other materials, as well as a process as to how to deem something up to snuff. If the work doesn’t meet the standards that everyone has agreed to, no money changes hands. An in-house writer gets paid no matter what they write.
For hourly, make sure you and the writer know what deliverables you expect. You won’t get as pro-active a writer, but you will get exactly what you’re looking for. Have regular meetings where you review what was produced, what’s next, and how the writer can suggest new documentation. That will make your writer show a little more initiative without them running up a massive tab.
For smaller software companies, outsourced technical writing makes sense. You’ve got an on-demand expert ready to produce the documentation that will simplify your customers’ experience.