What you track is what you focus on. That is why it is important to select the right technical writing metrics.
You can track technical writing metrics that focus on quantity and those that focus on quality.
Furthermore, technical writers and their managers need to track different technical writing metrics.
Quantitative Technical Writing Metrics
The following is a list of quantitative technical writing metrics you can track to increase and measure productivity.
One of the most well-known metrics for writers is word count. If you focus on producing a certain number of words of content per day or week, you will prioritize your writing to ensure that you hit your word-count goal.
Having said that, focusing only on word count can sometimes detract from other important matters.
If the focus is on word count, then writers can focus on producing words only, leading to verbosity. Technical writers can also be discouraged from considering other effective approaches to conveying information, such as images and diagrams.
According to documentation expert JoAnn T. Hackos, writers need to spend around 30 percent of a documentation project’s time on planning and design. Focusing only on word count can discourage planning and design, which will have an adverse effect on documentation quality.
Determining word count is easy for new documents, but it can be more difficult for documents that require updates.
Focusing on word count can lead to publishing more and more content without analyzing whether the content solves a business need or problem.
Despite the mentioned drawbacks, word count is a powerful metric that you can use to ensure and measure your productivity as a technical writer. It is also easy to track. A technical writer who uses the word count metric properly, i.e., to produce quality content, will grow and prosper. A technical writer who does not focus on creating quality content can find themselves out of work.
Depending on the type of work that technical writers do, they can also track similar metrics such as:
- Number of articles published per week/month/year
- Number of tutorials reviewed and tested per week/ month/year
- Number of new content feature documentation added per year
- Number of community/forum questions answered per week/month/year
Even though these metrics, like word count, focus on quantity and not quality, technical writers can use them to set goals for ensuring productivity and measuring it.
Even though it seems non-intuitive, technical writers spend much of their time on non-writing activities. This is because they have also to do the following:
- Answer emails
- Attend meetings with subject matter experts such as developers and engineers
- Review work done by junior writers
- Guide and mentor junior writers
- And so much more
This raises the question of how to ensure that technical writers spend time on writing. And the answer is: by tracking time.
Time is a metric that is easy to track. Even if writers do not log time, they can use suitable estimates to track this metric.
Why should you track time? Because the most important factor that goes into creating content is time and effort. If you are spending time writing, you will create content. The converse is also true: if you do not spend time writing, then you will not create content.
Time spent on writing does not always translate to high-quality content. However, as all writers know, the first draft is not the finished product. The only path to high-quality content is to create content and edit and refine it into a high-quality piece of content. However, the process starts with writing, which only happens if a writer spends time writing.
Readability (Flesch reading ease)
Rudolf Flesch developed the Flesch Reading Ease formula in the 1940s. Flesch worked as a consultant with the Associated Press, where he worked on developing methods for improving newspaper readability.
The formula gives content a score between 1 and 100. The higher the reading score, the easier a piece of content is to read. A score between 70 and 80 is equivalent to school grade level 8. This means that the text is easy for the average adult to read.
Most word processors such as MS Word provide readability statistics, including the Flesch Reading ease score, for text. Technical writers can use this metric to check whether their content matches their audience. Depending on the score, technical writers can make suitable adjustments to content to make sure it matches their audience.
Grade level (Flesch-Kincaid grade level)
The Flesch Kincaid Grade Level is a readability formula that assesses the approximate reading grade level of text.
The US Navy developed the formula in the 1970s. The Flesch Kincaid Grade Level formula is used for a wide range of applications. If a text has a Flesch Kincaid level of eight, the reader needs a grade eight reading level or above to understand it.
On close inspection, you can see that both the Flesch formulas depend on the following two factors:
- Sentence length, which is the average number of words in a sentence
- Word length, which is the average number of syllables in a word
Reducing the average sentence length leads to higher readability. In the same way, reducing average word length also leads to ease of readability.
Technical writers can use the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level metric to check whether their content matches their audience. Depending on the score, technical writers can make suitable adjustments to content to match it to the audience.
Linking documentation to support costs can help demonstrate ROI for technical documentation projects. Documentation can help to reduce calls made by customers to your customer support teams, thus reducing your customer support costs. However, the calculation of support cost reduction achieved by investing in high-quality documentation is not straightforward. This is because products and documentation vary in complexity, cost, and scope.
You can, however, develop benchmarks for similar products/documentation and track the reduction in support costs achieved by investing in training for technical writers and other initiatives such as documentation usability testing that lead to the creation of high-quality documentation.
For documentation published on the Internet, technical writers can use analytics software to track the following:
- Traffic volume: Gives you an idea of how many people read the content you write and support. You can use traffic volume trends to determine if your content attracts users.
- Visit duration: Gives an idea of how useful the content is for the user. You can learn what leads to higher visit durations and apply that learning to improve visit duration for all your published content.
- Bounce Rate: A bounce occurs when a visitor visits your site and leaves it immediately. Many things can cause a high bounce rate, such as your visitors not finding what they were looking for, your on-site experience being confusing, or your on-page content not addressing their needs. Some reasons for a high bounce rate are unrelated to the content, such as a website error or a slow or non-responsive website. A high bounce rate is an indication of low content quality and usability.
- Top pages and content: Knowing about top pages can help writers create content similar to top-ranking content and remove content that does not draw visitors.
Qualitative Technical Writing Metrics
The following is a list of qualitative technical writing metrics you can track.
Quality is a subjective metric that depends on accuracy, completeness, comprehension, accessibility, language/usability, and complexity of technical content.
You can measure content quality by implementing a systematic process for review that is benchmarked according to rigorous style guides and checklists.
Technical writers working on producing content for documentation need training to ensure they are aware of and understand the quality process, i.e., style guides and checklists used by your business.
Technical writers also need to understand that focusing on producing high-quality content is the only way that they can grow. A single-minded focus on quality will help technical writers and your business succeed.
Documentation usability refers to how easy it is for users to use documentation to achieve a goal or purpose.
The purpose of technical writing and documentation is to help users and readers achieve a goal through the quick and efficient transfer of information. Examples of user goals include learning how to solve a problem or understand a concept or idea.
Content with high usability content has the following characteristics:
- Content Structure: Grouping related information into sections and displaying the sections so that users can go directly to the section that contains information of interest helps to improve usability. A powerful search that helps users find information also improves usability.
- Readability: Using active voice, short sentences and short paragraphs help to improve readability. You can use the Flesh formulas to check the readability of your content.
- Content quality: You can improve content quality by ensuring content accuracy, relevance, and completeness.
- Visual appeal: Good design that focuses on the use of appropriate font, font size, color scheme, layout, images, screenshots, and navigation elements can all contribute to increasing the visual appeal of your technical documentation.
One of the simplest ways of measuring usability for content is by asking customers the following question: “Was this information helpful?” The number of yes and no responses can give you an accurate idea of content usability.
You can use other methods to test documentation usability, such as paraphrase testing, plus-minus testing, and task-based testing.
Testing documentation usability allows you to know the extent to which the documentation will help product users achieve their goals. You can make appropriate changes based on the usability results to improve documentation usability.
You can use surveys to get customer feedback and determine if your content provides customer satisfaction.
To gauge customer sentiment, you can ask customers how their experience was and then compare it against quantitative reports. You can incorporate the feedback section into the content, e.g., on a webpage. You can also send emails to customers requesting feedback, use live chat to gauge customer satisfaction, and use social media.
Once you have collected the feedback, you need to analyze it to understand the level of customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). Once you have analyzed feedback data, the next step is to take appropriate steps based on customer feedback to make changes to technical documentation content to increase customer satisfaction.
Technical Writing Metrics for Writers
The job of technical writers is to produce content, whether it is for manuals, training material, or other types of product documentation.
If you are a technical writer, focusing on word count and ensuring that you produce a certain word count per week or month is one way of ensuring that you are producing content. As mentioned previously, focusing on word count only does have its drawbacks. However, from a writer’s perspective, measuring word count does help to ensure productivity.
As a technical writer, you spend much of your time on tasks other than writing. If you track your time, you know how much of it is spent on the actual writing. You can use your time tracking to evaluate whether you need to scale down on other activities to give more time to writing. To ensure that your writing tasks are not affected, you can also work with your manager to increase or decrease the time you spend on non-writing tasks.
You can use metrics such as the Flesh Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level to check whether your content is suitable for your intended audience.
To ensure quality, you must follow your organization's quality process. You must participate in usability and quality testing and make changes to the content if required.
Technical Writing Metrics for Managers
The job of technical writing managers is to ensure their writers produce high-quality content. The way to ensure content quality is by implementing systems and processes that track content quality during production and test quality after production. Technical writing managers need to initiate training programs for technical writers that help writers create high-quality content.
Managers also need to track the financial aspects of producing technical documentation. Even though connecting technical documentation to ROI is not straightforward, managers can develop in-house metrics that track the effectiveness of technical writing initiatives, such as:
- ROI on training that leads to improvement in documentation quality, leading to product success and customer support cost reduction
- ROI on usability testing that leads to improvement in documentation quality, leading to product success and customer support cost reduction
Calculating the exact ROI might not be feasible because measuring the contribution of documentation to product success and customer support cost reduction is not easy. However, the use of suitable estimates can provide an accurate estimation of the ROI.
Technical writers and their managers can use a wide range of quantitative and qualitative technical writing metrics.
Quantitative metrics, such as word count and the Flesch reading grade, are objective. Their advantage is that you can measure them with a high degree of accuracy.
Qualitative metrics, such as usability and customer satisfaction, are subjective. While you cannot measure them quantitatively, they give better insight into what matters to customers.
The technical writing metrics that you select will depend on your business priorities. It is advisable to make the selection after due consideration of all relevant factors because you will focus on the metrics you track. And what you focus on will determine whether you fail or succeed.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He had his first job in technical writing for a video editing software company in 2014. Since then, he has written several books on software documentation, personal branding, and computer hacking. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.