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Author's profile photo Vaishnavi Eashwernath

Content Harmonization in Product Documentation

Have you ever wondered how to structure and organize information in your product documentation in an intuitive way? Have you thought about how your content organization impacts customer experience and helps build trust with the information consumer?

If you are a technical writer or you simply care about the way you deliver user assistance to your customers, this blog post is for you. If you’re looking for a way to improve how customers experience product information, this blog post is for you. As a user assistance developer of SAP, I will share with you experiences, stories, and best practices around information architecture for delivering high quality product documentation.

Feel free to try it out yourself or share this blog post with a friend who might benefit from it.

Let’s set the context right. You visit websites every day. Did you come across one that you found difficult to navigate or find the information you were looking for?

Source: SAP Image Library

Our old web site for documentation was full of such examples. We had scattered information with little consistency in writing and not very friendly in helping customers find the information they needed. We realized this. That’s why a step was taken to restructure our website, which is one of the largest documentation bases in the world.

You can see the result by visiting our present website – SAP Help Portal.

How did we come up with the current information architecture? To organize information and help our users find what they’re looking for, we needed to first learn what our customers know, what they think they know, and how they prioritize information. If you have a landing page for your customers, the first important objective of information architecture is to structure and organize the information to help customers navigate around easily and intuitively.

Take a look at any of the landing pages (or product documentation pages as we call them) of our SAP products on SAP Help Portal where we deliver documentation.

We have structured and organized information with the help of categories such as Discover, What’s New, Implement, Integrate, Use, and Develop. Under each of these categories, we have further drilled down to other sub-categories that group the documentation. The number of categories was determined by what makes it easiest for customers to discover and access information. Our decision was not steered by a preordained decision that we need to have only a certain number of categories. So the question to you is: “Will your customers find the content they want by navigating their way around your product documentation landing page?”. To help you answer this question correctly without any bias, without pressure from your manager or your team or any other subjective factors, there exists a very useful user experience (UX) research technique called “card sorting”.

Source: SAP Image Library

Card sorting allows you to observe your users’ behavior and find out how they expect to see information organized on your page. In a card sorting workshop, participants cluster information that is written on cards. They then organize the clusters into categories in a way that makes sense to them alone. At the end of the workshop, if you find that many users organized the cards in a similar way, it’ll help you decide on applying the same organization to your content. However, if they didn’t organize the cards in a similar fashion, you get to see different organizational patterns. This would mean that you may need a different structure to meet the expectations of your users. Card sorting allows you to eliminate subjective factors. Sometimes we just believe that we have organized content in an intuitive way, but with this research you can validate your ideas and be sure whether it is in fact true.

There are different types of card sorting, such as open and closed.

  • In open card sorting, you give participants content cards that represent your product documentation deliverables. You ask them to cluster these cards in any way they feel appropriate. Ask them questions such as “What do you expect to find under this deliverable title?”. Ask them to label each of the clusters (categories) that they have organized in a way that best describes that cluster. This method can allow for new terms to make their way into your project, and expand your team’s understanding of the users and their relationship to the concepts. You commonly use open card sorting for building information architectures and terminologies from scratch.
  • In closed card sorting, you give participants the content cards as well as pre-defined category cards and ask them to place the content cards in the given categories. This method is more likely to result in clear patterns, and give an indication of which concepts relate best to which category. You normally use closed card sorting when adding new content to an existing site or gaining a second round of insights after an open card sort. This is also a good way to confirm that your information architecture is intuitive for users.

There are many advantages to card sorting, the first being that it’s simple, inexpensive, and efficient to run such a workshop. Also, you can conduct it remotely using tools such as Mural or Optimal Workshop. You can perform card sorting in a short amount of time and receive results immediately. It also provides a good insight about your users and how they would expect the information to be organized.

To make card sorting even more impactful, take your users’ tasks and goals into account – you can then end up with a structure that is usable and thus help you create good information architecture for your product documentation.

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      Author's profile photo Lee Barnard
      Lee Barnard

      Nice article! Well structured user assistance makes it a lot easier for users to find what they're looking for!

      I love the card sorting technique and used to use it when delivering information design training for technical communicators at SAP. For a virtual equivalent, Excel also works well and you can expand and collapse the levels of the content structure (best not to have too many). It's not as flexible as the physical card sorting technique, but is a good solution where you don't have the face-to-face option.

      Looking forward to your next articles in the blog.

      Author's profile photo Vaishnavi Eashwernath
      Vaishnavi Eashwernath
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you so much Lee! Great to know that you've used the card sorting technique. For virtual workshops, Mural would also be a great alternative now. 🙂

      Author's profile photo Poornima Ganeshan
      Poornima Ganeshan

      Very nice article! I'm looking forward to go though the card sorting session again 🙂

       

      Author's profile photo Vaishnavi Eashwernath
      Vaishnavi Eashwernath
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Poornima!

      Author's profile photo Laura Cherry
      Laura Cherry

      I love the card sorting concept! Thanks for a great blog, Vaishnavi Eashwernath!

      Author's profile photo Vaishnavi Eashwernath
      Vaishnavi Eashwernath
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks Laura! Glad to know. 🙂