Technical Communication with a Purpose

Should You Outsource Documentation Development Offshore?

We have all noticed the trend of moving software development off US soils. The hope of reduced development cost has lead many companies to outsource a large percentage of their software development to non-US companies.

How are these projects going? From what we can see, some are going very well and some are going very poorly. Will organizations see the reduction in costs that they expected? For some projects, yes; however, the jury is still out on what level of benefit the average company is going to see. Yes, the hourly personnel costs are lower; however, in many cases the hourly productivity and the software quality are also lower. And, unfortunately, the software industry won’t really know whether the software currently being developed offshore meets their product usability goals and customer satisfaction goals until late in this decade.

We bring up this subject because we see some of our customers also moving their documentation efforts offshore. These offshore groups are direct competitors of ours, so we are obviously interested in how these projects are doing and what our customers’ experiences with the projects are like. Some preliminary results are in and we thought that we would share our observations with you.

First, the success rate for offshore documentation project appears to be lower than that for software development projects. The projects typically get done, but the quality of the documents does not meet the standards of the audience. In other words, the readers are rejecting the documents—even complaining about them.

The question to answer is, “why is the success rate so low?” We have a few ideas about why this is the case. To understand where the issues arise, you need to understand what makes documentation successful and what makes good writers so good at writing documentation.

The Characteristics of Excellent Writers

Excellent writers have a huge number of skills that make them excellent. Some of the skills are generic, such as planning and time management skills. However, there are also a large number of skills that are specific to writing. In particular, there are five skills that stand out when we discuss the subject of the outsourcing of technical writing:

  1. Good writers write well in the target language. This goes beyond being able to write a grammatical sentence. It also means that the terms, idioms, and examples are familiar and meaningful to the reader. Good writers use the right technical phrases, the right level of detail, and they make the right assumptions about what the reader knows and does not know.
  2. Good writers have mastered their writing/publishing tools. Writers who really know their tools are significantly more productive than writers who don’t, and their documents are more attractive, are more consistent, and it is easier to find information within them.
  3. Good writers know how to present material (even complex material) in a simple, clear, and concise manner. They know how to organize the material in a way that flows logically from one concept to another and also that allows the reader to find information quickly. They know when to present information in tables and graphics to increase the effectiveness of the documentation.
  4. Good writers answer the reader’s questions. Good writers know what tasks the user is trying to perform and what questions the user is trying to answer when using the document. Good writers help the reader succeed with using the product. For example, a writer who writes an API document must understand the task that the developer is trying to perform along with the kinds of information the developer is going to need to make use of the function, class, structure, or method.
  5. Good writers know how to ask for and get feedback on their work. Then, when they get it, they are extremely good at incorporating reviewers’ feedback into their documents. You think that this is a given and a simple skill? Think again, it is a very advanced skill. Many writers ignore comments because they don’t know what to do with them, or they have come to a decision that a comment “misses the point.” Good writers know that even if a comment seems off base, the fact that the comment was made means that there is something wrong with the document. A good writer figures out what the real issue is and fixes it.

To tell you the truth, less than 10% of the US writers that we have met during our 14 years in the business are good at all five of these things. Most US tech writers are usually pretty good at #1, control of the target language, and #2, mastery of their publishing tool; a number satisfy #3, presentation of material; very few are good at #4, understanding the reader’s point of view, especially when the subject matter is extremely technical. A higher percentage are good at incorporating feedback, but the mastery of responding to feedback often depends upon the kind of feedback received.

Documentation Skills and Offshore Writers

Now, lets think about the typical offshore writer with respect to these five skills:

If the writer is from the British Isles, Canada, or Australia, you can be pretty confident that they are going to write in English well. However, if the writer is from the Asia, English is probably the writer’s second or third language. The sentences are often grammatical, however, the language is often awkward. In addition, the term usage and idioms are often wrong. Sometime the word selection is so bad that the reader cannot figure out what the writer is trying to say. Offshore writers rarely share the US culture, and, the greater the distance between the writer’s culture and the reader’s culture, the less likely the documentation will “speak” to the reader.

Many offshore writers are relatively new to this job. We believe that it takes a writer about 5 years to become a tools master, and some never reach that point. A writer who has been writing for only 2-3 years is still figuring out the tools and how they can help create a more effective document. Without this experience, the document is often flat, inconsistent, unappealing, and the appearance is distracting. The reader is not drawn in and often does not read the document at all. In addition, the writer will take significantly longer to produce the document.

It takes even longer to develop information presentation skills. The skill of creating an architecture for a document or documentation suite is a very advanced skill. It takes most writers from 8 to 10 years to become adept at organizing information in this way. Most offshore writers are new to this job and they have not developed document design skills yet. We are often asked to fix offshore produced documents that have significant organizational problems.

Very few writers, onshore or offshore, are good at understanding where the reader “is coming from” (skill #4). This is especially true in highly technical areas, such as documentation for scientists, developers, and system administrators. Offshore writers rarely have any depth of understanding in the technical area that they are writing about. They are unable to anticipate the task the reader is trying to perform and therefore, cannot present just the right information at the right time. In addition, most document specs emphasizes coverage, not clarity, so most offshore writers have little motivation to do more than a forced march through the material— concern for how to optimally present material to a reader is strictly an afterthought.

One of the things that has shocked us during the last couple of years when reviewing offshore developed documents is the number of our review comments that have been ignored or deemed “not worth fixing.” When we probed to find out why this was the case, we uncovered two issues. First, the group was insulted that their documents were being reviewed. Some cultures consider sending review comments as a very rude act. Second, they thought that comments concerning formatting, consistency, and conventions that we consider “standard practice” for technical documentation were not worth making. For us, excellence and consistency in presentation aids the understanding of the material and, in so doing, sells the product and reduces support burdens. For them, excellence in presentation was a frill, an extra, that the out-sourcing customer hadn’t paid for and which wasn’t really needed. This reaction again points back to a difference in culture—this time, documentation development culture—that is not easily overcome.

Making an Offshore Documentation Project Successful

Our observations indicate that the projects being done in the British Isles, Canada, and Australia are typically more successful than those being done in China and Japan. In fact, there are only a small percentage of documents that we have seen from China and Japan that we would consider good enough to ship to the US and European marketplace.

But, even if you are convinced that offshore outsourcing of documentation is too great a risk, documentation decisions are not always under the control of the documentation department. If you are required to outsource a document offshore, how can you raise your chances of success? Here are some suggestions.They are the same suggestions that we would give if you were going to hire any less-experienced (or less-expensive) writer:

  • When you select your offshore writer or writing group, make sure that you see several samples of their work.
  • Give the writer(s) grammatical guidelines. If you have a style guide, make sure to pass it on.
  • Give the writer(s) a list of technical terms along with examples of how you want them used.
  • Provide an example of good writing—perhaps, a document that you would like them to mimic.
  • Get an early draft of a chapter and edit it carefully. It is important to set the quality expectations early in the project.
  • Keep a close eye on the project and have the writer(s) send draft documents frequently.

Let your writer(s) know that the documents will be reviewed, when the review(s) will occur, what will be reviewed, and how you plan to confirm that the requested changes were made.

Do these steps seem like overkill to you? An experienced writer will thank you for being so well prepared and for caring so much about your documents. A less experienced writer will know that your expectations are high and a significant amount of work will be required to meet them. The plus for you is that you will have a chance of getting documentation that you can send to your customers without embarrassment.

Good luck!

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