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Creating Benchmarks for Technical Documents

One of the difficulties in managing a large team of writers is determining the quality of their work. This is more difficult if the teams work in remote offices, for example, in different countries, and you want to get a better understanding of where they are succeeding and falling short.


One way to get some insight into this is to define a set of benchmarks. Of course, benchmarks will not automatically improve the quality of your product, which is a set of technical documents, but should give you some insight into the performance of your team.

Benchmarks should be seen as one tool in your quality improvement program but not a means to an end.

In other words, your aim isn’t to move the scores for 70% to 100%, rather to determine why the team struggles to deliver specific types of content, for example, workflow diagrams with their materials. Once you understand this, you can explore how to resolve it.

Benchmarks for technical documents

  1. Identify areas to be assessed. Agree on the scope of the quality improvement program. For example, it may make sense to start small, isolate one part of the documentation, say the Online Help, and use this as a starting point. After this, you can expand and gradually include all document assets.
  2. Establish scoring mechanism. Some types of documents are harder to write than others. And, some parts of documents are more difficult. For this reason, make sure when you’re creating a scoring mechanism that you factor in the relative difficulty for each piece/type of content. For example, conceptual documentation may require more attention and effort than procedural documents. If you’re using MS Excel to capture the information, consider using weights for different criteria. You can also consider applying scores, for example, 1-5, depending on the depth of information provided.
  3. Establish a baseline. Once you have the first review completed, you should be able to establish a baseline, i.e. a starting point. Use this to compare the quality of work going forward and identify which areas need the most attention. For example, while your team may be doing well overall, it’s possible that one of two areas keep affecting their scores. These are the areas you need to examine and fix.
  4. Provide feedback. You probably need to remind the team that this isn’t a witch-hunt. The aim isn’t to name and shame. Instead, see it as an opportunity for the team to identify blind-spots in their work and also ensure that they can be proud of the product they deliver.
  5. Avoid using metrics to punish writers. Avoid scoring systems that create a league table as writers will see this as a competition. When that happens, writers will engage in CYA tactics and stop helping each other. Instead, focus on how the team is improving and, where necessary, sit with writers who are struggling to improve their numbers. Remember, they may not be the laziest, rather their results may be low as they have the heaviest workload and most difficult materials to document.


Before you start. Do you really need benchmarks to improve the quality of your technical documents? Maybe not. Are there other ways to achieve this?

If you do decide to adopt this approach, weight up the pros and cons first. What do you stand to gain?  What can go wrong? For example, I’ve seen writers, when pitted against each other, stop sharing information and use passive aggressive tactics to undermine other writers. So, it’s not that straightforward.

Benchmarks are only one tool in your quality improvement program. Before you set about establishing benchmarks, identify how this helps writers improve their work – and it should – and give them examples of how other firms have approached it.

Finally, don’t announce this out of the blue. Introduce the idea in advance, canvas opinions, and set expectations.

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Review Camtasia 6: The Good, Bad and The Ugly

I upgraded to Camtasia 6 at the weekend (from v4) mostly to import and edit .MOV files. These are created by my faithful Canon Powershot when I shot videos. Sony makes AVIs. The other reason was to do more heavy lifting with Camtasia. I have tons on material on the hard-disk and want to get these into screencasts. So, what the verdict?

Review Camtasia 6

Price – $149 not cheap but not as expensive as Adobe Premiere.

Key features

  • Import and edit MOV files
  • Independent audio edits (saves me doing audio in Audacity)
  • 3D tilt (can’t find where to do this, yet) and oodles of
  • Special effects

The good – What I liked

The user interface is nice, no nutty changes a Ia Microsoft Office and ribbon bars

Presets for blog, YouTube etc means it will help you produce files that best suit these formats. For simple videos, this is fine. You can do your own monkeying around as well, e.g. change frame rates.

the bad – What I don’t like

Audio enhancements are hit and miss. Sometimes makes the voice lovely and rich (hey, why not!) other times I sound like I’m under-water.

Number of un-dos seems limited. I love to un-do.

the ugly – real Problems

Freezes with files over 4 MB. These are (for me) small files, so I need to reboot all the time. Big problem. (What memory do I have? 80 GB of hard disk and 2 GB of RAM – thought that would be ok.) This is a killer. Files more than 3MB cause Camtasia to freeze. What this means is that when I try to make an AVI, MP4 or MOV for YouTube, the thing locks, usually at 19-25%. Close all apps, re-boot and try again. No joy.

Smartfocus won’t start – Camtasia thinks I’m using an older version, e.g. v5, and so won’t start it. I’m on 6. Can’t get it to work. See the error message.

MOVs won’t import – this is a horror! According to the site ‘Large MOV files not importing into Camtasia. Camtasia will crash or give a no codec message upon importing. This is a known issue that will be fixed in a future release. As a workaround, try creating smaller MOV files from other programs when bringing them into Camtasia.’ I’ve done this and still no luck. Off to contact Tech Support.

MP4s won’t import – No Codec available error message. Contact Tech Support.

FWIW I download all the codes I can find on the site, re-boot and… no joy.

What to do next?

Not sure. Have downloaded all the codecs I can find, re-booted the pc, cleared the cache, closed all apps and sent some emails to Techsmith. Now, I’m waiting…

Can you help?

If you’ve had these type of issues, can you let me know what you did to fix this?

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Robohelp vs Doc-to-Help? Which is best for Online Help?

Robohelp or Doc-to-Help?

My client has given me permission to use whatever tool I want to do the next batch of tech docs — and they’ll buy the software. No cost to me.

Which one should I choose?

Robohelp or Doc-to-Help

Doc-to-Help was the first help authoring tool (HAT) I used in my technical writing career. We’re talking quite a while back now. Since then Robohelp has overtaken it as the tool of choice for technical writers, especially as it’s now owned by Adobe and bundled with its Technical Communications software pack.

For Doc-to-Help

  • I feel this product is under-estimated. Other technical writers (more knowledgeable than me about HATs) recommend it.
  • Opportunity to broaden my skillsets (self-interest here and not to the client’s advantage!)
  • Rapid response from Component 1 (product owners) when I contacted them. Very helpful. Only Techsmith (esp Betsy Weber) were more helpful.

Against Doc-to-Help

  • Price is not cheap
  • Will there be enough qualified Doc-to-Help experts to take over this project when I move on?
  • Does it integrate with other technical writing apps and/or Microsoft Word?
  • Worried about lack of community support, i.e. from other technical writers, if I need help.

For Robohelp

  • Oceans of Doc-to-Help experts to take over this project
  • Part of the Adobe Tech Communication suite. Maybe get discount.
  • Arguably the industry standard
  • Plenty of tutorials online if I get stuck

Against Robohelp

  • Price
  • Concern that there is no real advantage in getting the Tech Communication suite anyway as we (i.e. the client) won’t use it once I’ve left
  • Found the user interface horrible to work with last time. Admittedly, this was four years ago but you know how these things stick.

Another alternative is Madcap Flare.

What do you think?

If you were in my shoes, what would you do?

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Review EPIC Editor – XML and DITA Authoring Software

Of all the technical writing tools I’ve used over the years, Epic Editor was probably the most impressive, especially when it came to doing tech documents that involved DocBook and Dita. It was difficult to learn – no point pretending otherwise – but once I got the hang of it, I used it non-stop for over 2 years. Then I switched companies are haven’t had the opportunity to use it again. With that in mind, here is a brief intro to EPIC Editor, Ivan’s favorite XML Authoring Software!

Update:  Epic Editor is now called Arbortext Editor. You can learn more over here:

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