Balancing user advocacy and corporate responsibilities

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion7 Comments

Anne Gentle, in the post Writing Engaging Technical Documentation, says this:

I love it when I hear people say, “I no longer work for development. I work for the user.” They say it with disruption and evolution in their hearts and minds. They fully intend to serve the user the best they can.

Anne has a lot of experience with open-source projects, and I can see where this perspective might work in that area. But I feel that the “user advocate” position is problematic in commercial operations for a variety of reasons:

  • Conflict of interest. Unlike an ombudsman or a guardian ad litem, technical communicators are not explicitly assigned to represent users. If you are on a corporation’s payroll, it’s impossible to be a pure user advocate. (I wrote about this in a post, Web 2.0 and Truth, back in June of 2008.)
  • Isolation. Claiming the user advocacy role sequesters technical communicators from others within the organization. What about quality assurance? What about customer support? Are they not user advocates as well? Everyone, including developers, should have user advocacy as part of their role. When technical communicators claim this role, the implication is that others are not user advocates.

The biggest problem, however, is that what’s best for the user may not always be what’s best for the employer organization. Technical communicators need to balance those competing priorities.

And that led me to a chart:

Tech comm needs to balance strategic/tactical and corporate versus user roles. User-generated content is all user and tactical. Press releases are all tactical and corporate. Third-party books could be user/strategic.

I think that technical communication needs to balance user advocacy against corporate positioning. It also needs to balance tactical information (how to do something) against strategic information (why to do something). Here are some other types of communication:

  • White papers. Usually conceptual information, with a distinct whiff of corporate positioning.
  • Press releases. “Yay, us!”
  • User-generated content. How do to something; highly specific; usually less conceptual.
  • Customer support. Answers the customer’s question; may have some conceptual components.
  • Third-party books. Very user-focused, in-depth on concepts. (You could convince me that some third-party books lie along the X-axis toward users instead of way up in the top right corner.)
  • Bad tech comm. The writers didn’t or couldn’t take advantage of their inside access.
About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

7 Comments on “Balancing user advocacy and corporate responsibilities”

  1. Thought provoking.

    I’m not sure I agree with User-generated content being so far in the 4th quadrant, but I won’t quibble that it belongs in that quadrant. Unfortunately, there’s also the chance of that content being bad techcomm also.

    I do believe, however, that corporate tech comm could be somewhat in the 4th quadrant. Maybe not as far as customer support, but maybe a third of the way there. This may not be by design but by practical needs of the business and limitations imposed on the tech comm group by the corporation. I also think that you’ll find individuals in the tech comm group that will jump into the user-generated content to avoid some of those limitations.

    Nice post.

  2. This is a really interesting view of the landscape — one that I’ve never seen before. There’s a lot here to think about.

    You said that “what’s best for the user may not always be what’s best for the employer organization.” If that’s the case, I think we should ask “Why is that?” If there’s any truth (and I think there is) to what MindTouch CEO Aaron Fulkerson said in his “Evolution Of User Manuals” article this week, then documentation can drive revenue by representing the best interests of the customers. Could it be that the model you’ve depicted — where the corporation’s interests and the customer’s interests lie on opposite ends of the scale — is about to become obsolete?

  3. Thank you, Sarah, for a very enlightening post. I think that chart is very useful when you apply it to specific corporate scenarios. Then it also reveals the benefits of tech comm as user advocacy:

    The tech comm landscape for most software companies I know intimately is approx. this:
    – There are no “Third-party books”.
    – There is little or no structured and usable “User-generated content”.
    – “Tech comm” is closer to, or let’s say: equal to “Bad tech comm”.
    – “Training” is missing and usually in the fourth quadrant, between “Customer support” and “Bad tech comm”.

    Such a scenario often leads to stagnant “business as usual” with siloed content produced by each team. Then it can be an epiphany and exciting for us tech commers to play the user advocacy card. Whether that’s a good idea depends on how we do it.

    We can embrace user advocacy tactically. Then we run into the issues Sarah listed: We have no mandate and a conflict of interest. Users neither pay my salary, nor do they talk to me at the water cooler.

    Or we can embrace user advocacy strategically. Then we can potentially leverage several benefits:
    – We can get out of the cost-center corner and argue that we create assets and contribute to the bottom line.
    – We can help break down the content silos and contribute to a unified content strategy.
    – We can help teams connect for the users’ benefit.

    So to me, the appeal of tech comm as user advocacy lies in opening up these latter avenues of development for my documents, my job and the company as a whole. I don’t take user advocacy verbatim, in a legal sense, but rather as a motivation to change and improve.

  4. @Julio: I wonder if technical communication will evolve toward more user advocacy as user-generated content becomes a bigger part of the mix. Maybe it’s technical communicaTORS who stay in the middle?

    @Larry: I do think that the transparency afforded (or maybe enforced) by social media and the rise of user-generated content makes it much more difficult for an organization to control the messaging. Doesn’t mean they won’t try, though. In other scenarios, the corporation *must* do things a certain way. For example, the requirements around medical devices and their documentation make it difficult or even impossible to allow any sort of user-generated content or discussion. The “controlled documentation” is required to present only one way of doing things. But if I’m the surgeon who actually uses the equipment, I probably want to find out about how others are using the product, even if it’s an unapproved usage. That’s a case where the corporation cannot provide the user-centered content — becaue they’ll get in trouble with the regulatory agencies.

    @Kai: Thank you for that perspective. I totally agree that tech comm people need to start thinking MUCH more strategically about their content development, content positioning, and so on. That’s the direction you’re pushing in.

  5. Sarah, your follow-up comment makes a good point about the corporation having to do things a certain way. (In fact, after I sent my original comment I thought it might’ve sounded too idealistic.) It looks like there’ll be tension between the users who expect the documentation to slant their way, and the corporation striving to maintain control of its message. In the middle stands the technical communicator, trying to keep the peace and strike a balance. This is a role to which we’re not unaccustomed

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  7. Sarah, thanks for posting this response. I think your past experience lends itself to content examples for controlled scenarios rather than community scenarios. I think my experiences are more community-oriented thanks to open source experiences, yet I believe open source and community management is crossing into businesses more and more. We can learn from each other – I know I sure do!

    Kai, I appreciate your clarity in outlining tactical vs. strategic approaches for user advocacy. Your insights clarified my thinking that most companies are going to need employees who are willing to think strategically about user communities and content.

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