Outsourcing technical documentation
If you are considering outsourcing some or all of the creation of your technical documentation, the following information may help you with your decision.
What are the pros and cons of outsourcing technical documentation? What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages when software documentation such as user manuals, online help, or screencasts are created by an external service provider or contractor?
Is it possible and does it make sense to outsource the creation of technical documentation?
Concern No. 1: Costs
“Outsourcing is too expensive.”
At a first glance, the rates of an external documentation service provider may seem high. However, you only have to pay for the productive time that was actually spent on the product, instead of consistently paying a permanent employee. There are no ancillary wage costs such as social insurance contributions, sick days, vacation, training, etc. In most cases, you also save the cost for a workplace at your company, including special software.
The bottom line is that a documentation service provider is rarely significantly more expensive than an employee. In addition, you have much more flexibility in times of unsteady workload.
Concern No. 2: Qualifications
“An external documentation service provider will never understand our products as well as we do.”
Of course, every new contractor will have to learn a lot about your products and about your clients. This will take some time, but it also has a major advantage: No one will be able to produce technical documentation that’s more user-friendly than somebody who has to learn the same things as the user. Permanent employees will take many things for granted that aren’t obvious to users. Documentation written by an insider often lacks vital information and can thus be hard for novice users to understand.
Concern No. 3: Time
“When I outsource documentation, I will have to spend a lot of time on project management.”
Of course, your management times must be taken into account for your individual cost-benefit analysis. No documentation project will go without planning, meetings, interviews, and reviews. However, bear in mind that most of these tasks are exactly the same when a company employee writes your documentation.
Concern No. 4: Dependence
“Outsourcing makes us dependent. What happens if a contractor terminates service or becomes too expensive?”
Yes, there is some risk. But isn’t the risk with “permanent” employees just the same? They, too, can become ill or leave the company.
The important thing when charging an external documentation service provider with creating your documents is that you reserve all rights regarding templates, style sheets, texts, and source code (especially in the case of online help / online documentation). All processes should be designed in such a way so that they can be mirrored in your company. This means: All documentation processes should be documented. Only software should be used that you can easily license. If any custom software is involved, this software should be sufficiently documented and should be available for use with an appropriate license.
As you can see, most doubts aren’t without reason. However, if you choose your contractor carefully, the advantages will often outweigh the disadvantages.
A lot of start-up and small- to mid-sized companies don’t have their own documentation department. Documentation is written by developers, by support staff, by product managers, or by marketing professionals. However, in most cases, these people don’t have much training and experience in writing user manuals and help files. Also, many of them don’t like writing documentation at all. An external documentation service provider is a specialist in this field and can produce better quality in less time.
▪Reduced time to market
Typically, with every new product release, documentation departments face a tremendous workload. Using external documentation services can increase your flexibility and reduce time to market.
Often, developers, product managers, or marketing professionals are expected to produce technical documentation or online help in addition to their usual work. This drains valuable human resources. Outsourcing documentation gives people back the time to focus on their core tasks.
No one can be an expert in every field. Tasks that require special skills can be performed much more efficiently by a specialized service provider.
▪New ideas, unbiased perspective
The more you become involved in a project, the more difficult it becomes to critically reflect on things and to work out ideas for improvement. For an outsider, this is much easier.
How far away from your facilities can a documentation service provider be located? Does it make sense to charge a contractor with the task of designing or creating software documentation, such as user manuals, online help, or screencasts, if this contractor is not based in your local area?
Where is the best place to write technical documentation? Does your contractor have to work on-site? Should the office of your documentation service provider be located close to your own office, or does this really matter?
On the one hand, working at your facilities makes it easy to test drive your product and to resolve questions. On the other hand, you also have to provide a suitable workplace and testing equipment, and you must schedule some extra time to answer questions. Another problem is that there are often only a few working prototypes available of a new product. So access to these prototypes is limited.
For this reason, the most efficient approach is usually to schedule dedicated meetings when your contractor visits you to work with your product and to get questions answered. To prepare for these meetings, your contractor should also use written materials (if available), such as spec sheets, notes from developers, presentations, sales brochures, etc. This will minimize the time that it takes your experts to answer questions.
The bulk of work can then be done offsite at the contractor’s office.
In the case of software
If your product is mere software, your documentation service provider can often use a suitable test version or remote access to do most of the testing. Meetings at your facilities can then focus on expert interviews. Most questions can even be answered by phone or by email or via Skype or similar services.
The bottom line is:
▪The more investigation needs to be done with the product, the nearer the documentation service provider should be located to the manufacturer. However, in most cases you won’t need more than a few well-prepared sessions.
▪With software user assistance projects, distance is usually no issue at all.
What is the typical workflow of a documentation project? Which milestones should you schedule when planning a technical documentation or software documentation project? What tasks and steps are required to create a user manual, an online help system, or a screencast?
Single tasks can always be handled flexibly. Larger documentation and online help projects typically involve the following milestones:
Usually, to make a bid, a documentation service provider will need some background information, which you can best provide during a short phone conversation. To prepare for this, it’s helpful if you can assemble some facts about your product in advance (such as specifications, sales material, demo versions, etc.). If existing documents are to be completed or updated, the service provider will also need to be able to take a look at these documents.
Documentation service providers usually base their offers on a preliminary time estimate. With larger projects, there are typically several approaches to a solution. Often, the best alternative can only be determined from the result of an in-depth target group analysis.
Only after you’ve decided on a specific alternative, can the cost of authoring and implementation be calculated reliably and in detail. For this reason, many offers are split into two phases: concept and authoring.
Acceptance of the bid
It’s a good idea to accept an initial bid only for the concept. This leaves you the option to back out and change contractors in case you’re not fully satisfied with the work. Also, after the concept has been agreed on, you can ask for a much more detailed and definite offer for the authoring phase.
In either case, you should designate one or more people within your company as being qualified to answer questions about your product, its users, and their goals.
If your project involves the creation of new documentation from scratch, the first step of your documentation service provider will be to work out a documentation plan.
If possible, the concept defined in the pan should be presented and discussed personally. It’s important that this discussion involves your product experts as well as product management and all authors who will have to implement the concept.
Authoring and review
Your documentation service provider begins authoring and finally presents the results for review and approval.
If possible, you should plan the project so that completed parts are reviewed as soon as possible. This shortens the “throughput time” of your project and enables you to identify and resolve any systematic, recurring problems early on. However, please don’t ask your documentation service provider to hand over parts that aren’t yet final. This would result in extra work on both sides.
It’s good practice to split the review tasks as follows:
▪Have subject matter experts from development check the technical details.
▪Have a product manager or documentation professional crosscheck for general and formal issues.
Final approval and delivery
The documentation service provider implements what was decided on as a result of the review, and then delivers the printer’s copy (PDF) or the distributable online help files to you.
Your final approval completes the documentation project.
Periodical project status reports
Your documentation service provider should inform you at regular intervals on the progress of the project. A proven option is a weekly status report, which lists all agreed changes, progress, and deadlines. This enables you to ensure that everything runs smoothly on time and within budget, and it gives you the chance to resolve problems early on, if needed.
How long does it take to create technical documentation, especially software documentation, such as user manuals, online help, and screencasts?
Often, products are almost ready for shipping but still lack documentation. But there’s no reason to panic when you read the numbers given below. If you have tight deadlines, we can provide a preliminary solution and complement it later step by step.
Time needed for the authoring
The time that it takes to create technical documentation (user manuals and online help) directly correlates with the length of the documents. You can use the same rule of thumb as for estimating the costs. For creating software documentation, it takes:
▪about 1 hour per page to revise an existing document
▪about 2 hours per page to write a new document
Time needed for the review
When the texts are complete, usually there’s a review, which gives you the opportunity to verify the new documentation and to request any changes. The time needed for this review, plus the time needed to make the changes, must be added to the time calculated above.
What should you bear in mind when comparing quotes from different documentation service providers for the creation of technical documentation, especially software documentation such as user manuals, online help, and screencasts?
A low price doesn’t always mean that you get a good value for your money. Don’t ignore the following aspects when comparing different quotes for the creation of technical documentation:
Is the approach holistic?
▪Does the quote include the development of a documentation plan? Although it might initially seem faster to just start writing “intuitively,” a clear concept will save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
▪Will translatability and future documentation maintenance (updates) be addressed?
▪Will the document structure be modular so that you have the option to reuse certain parts of the documents within other documents or media in the future?
Which extra tasks are covered?
▪Does the quote include the creation of templates? Even if you already have some templates, these templates may need to be completed or adapted. Has this been accounted for?
▪Does the quote include the creation of graphics and screenshots, or do you have to supply them?
▪Does the quote include the creation of an index?
▪Does the quote cover at least one review cycle, and does the quote include the time that it takes to revise the documents after the review?
Who is going to write your documents?
▪Agree on who is going to work on your documents, and what qualifications and experience this person has. Make sure that the same person will be available for future updates as well. Every change of staff involves additional costs and bears the risk of inconsistent quality.
▪If the person assigned to your project is a trainee, ask for a considerable discount.
How easily can you change the service provider if you need to?
▪Will you only get the final documents (for example, PDF files) or will you also get all source documents (for example, Microsoft Word files) and templates, including the required rights to use them freely? This is a key factor if you need to change your documentation service provider or if you want to produce your documentation in-house.
▪Which authoring tools will be used? Are these tools freely available on the market or does a custom tool force you to commit yourself to a specific contractor? If you plan to create printed user manuals (PDFs) and online help from the same text base (single source publishing), make sure that you get the rights to use all customized converters as well.
Would you like to convince your boss of the usefulness of external consulting, training, or the external creation of technical documentation? Here you can find some good arguments.
Arguments in favor of external consulting/training/services:
▪Know-how: External consulting enables us to benefit from special know-how without having to invest in corresponding further training or research ourselves. Once structures and processes have been set up, we can continue to use them ourselves even after the service has been completed. With minimal effort, targeted training can help us make progress in precisely those areas where we still need additional skills.
▪Cost: By choosing the optimal tools and processes, we not only increase the quality of the results but also create and maintain the documentation more cost-effectively in the future. Compared to the costs that typically go into creating and, above all, continuously updating documentation, the costs for a sound tool selection are soon amortized.
▪Resources: Work performed externally gives us correspondingly more capacity internally. We can concentrate on our core tasks and thus gain flexibility. Ultimately, this enables us to bring our products to market faster and to respond more quickly to changing requirements. The fact that we can manage the tasks at hand sufficiently well in terms of time increases our employee satisfaction and creates more room for creativity and long-term thinking.
▪Change of perspective: An external consultant has an unbiased and thus objective view of things. We may no longer be able to see certain solutions ourselves, or we may rule them out from the very beginning for historical reasons that have long since become obsolete.
Possible objections and counterarguments:
▪“An external contractor is way too expensive.”
Counterargument: “This is almost always true only at first glance. If we consider the complete wage and workplace costs of an equally qualified internal employee, the costs are quite similar. Don't forget fringe benefits, vacation, sick leave, continuing education, office rent, computers, software, insurance, taxes, ...”
▪“The costs for the project are far too high. No customer pays a cent more just because they get better documentation.”
Counter question: “Can we afford not to invest in better documentation? How many customers will we lose due to insufficient documentation? How many customers will we fail to win in the first place if we don't provide good documentation? What support costs do we incur due to inadequate documentation?”
▪“Then we'd rather look for an intern or a low-cost assistant. After all, anyone can write. Or development writes the documentation on the side.”
Counterargument: “This is exactly why many user manuals are the way they are: incomprehensible and unusable. Is that what we want for our products? Writing comprehensible technical documentation is anything but trivial and cannot be done “just like that”. There are entire university degree programs for this today.”
▪“Our products are so complex that only an internal employee can fully grasp them.”
Counter question: “And how about our customers? Don't we also expect them to understand our products? Isn't it perhaps even just better if the documentation is created by a person who has to undergo the same learning process as a customer? For us, many things have become so obvious over time that we would not even mention them in the documentation. These are exactly the things that our customers then have problems with. This is less likely to happen to an external technical writer.”
▪“I don't want us to become dependent on someone external. We must remain capable of acting ourselves at all times.”
Counterargument: “Correct. However, internal employees can also leave the company more quickly than expected. Then the problems are the same. No matter who creates our documentation: What is important is that we work with common tools and formats, and that we have always access not only to the results but also to all source data. Then there is in fact no difference in terms of risk.”