The client was a large Australian communications corporation which was about to launch the pilot project for an e-commerce transaction management system. We were asked to review and, if necessary, revise the documentation to be issued for the launch.
The documentation had been adapted from material provided by the original developers of the system, an overseas corporation. The system itself had been customised by our client for use in Australian conditions, to match a slightly different banking-network interface and a significantly different regulatory environment – mainly about when funds were actually to be transferred from the end-client’s account.
Yet the documents were, quite simply, an unusable mess. In principle, most of the required information was in there somewhere, but it was so poorly organised and so muddled that it was almost impossible to find. Technical information on low-level server management was mixed in with instructions to consumers; marketing jargon was used in the middle of essential step-by-step setup procedures; some of the information was out of date, and a few crucial items were missing, or just plain wrong. In one extreme case, a document intended to be handed out as part of a general press-kit included a complete schematic of the physical and logical locations, types and IDs of all the system’s secure servers: if released to the public, it could have had nightmarish consequences – “you mean they didn’t print the passwords too?” was the wry comment from one of my colleagues…
In discussions with the client, it became obvious that no-one had done what to us seemed the obvious first step: identify the different audience-groups, and re-edit the documentation to match the requirements of those distinct audiences. There were a number of reasons why this hadn’t been done: the usual one of lack of time, but also because they’d assumed that the existing documentation could be used without change, despite the large number of supposedly ‘minor’ customisations and operational differences. There was also the classic problem of ‘never let the left hand know what the right or middle hands are doing’: the marketing group was in Melbourne, the technical group in Sydney, the help-desk group in Brisbane, the strategy group in another region again, and none of them had actually looked at what the others were producing or saying to their various client-groups. And the split between audience-groups was not simple: even a simple question such as “who is the client?” had several different answers.
The audience-groups we identified were as follows:
- system-developers within the corporation (development models and system documentation)
- server-administrators within the corporation (procedures for management of secure servers)
- marketing staff within the corporation (procedures and support-information for marketing to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Application Service Providers (ASPs) – the clients of the corporation itself)
- marketing staff within ISPs and ASPs (material to support marketing to merchants – the clients of the ISPs and ASPs)
- server-administrators within ISPs and ASPs (procedures for managing interfaces with the corporation’s system)
- application-designers within ISPs and ASPs, or in independent web-design firms (procedures for incorporating and testing links to the corporation’s system from within ‘shopping-cart’ and ‘checkout’ structures in e-commerce implementations)
- end-customers (account-setup and account-management procedures for e-commerce customers – the active clients of merchants)
- prospective end-customers (material for distribution by the corporation, ISPs, ASPs, web-design firms and/or merchants, to support marketing to the general public – the prospective clients of merchants)
- help-desk within the corporation (all materials, plus additional procedures for management of enquiries and escalation of problems or complaints from any client-group)
We re-worked the documentation accordingly: when the pilot project was launched, a separate volume, booklet, brochure and/or set of on-line reference materials was provided for each audience-group. Six months later, after the successful conclusion of the pilot, the full product was launched: it now has a significant share of the e-commerce market in Australia and elsewhere.