5.3 Evaluating the cost of a documentation system

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Evaluating the cost of a documentation system can be tricky. There are so many options out there ranging from free products to products costing tens of thousands of dollars. How do you know which one you should choose?

With any product you purchase for your business you need to look at two sides of the equation: cost and value. For example if I needed a car for my business, the cheapest cost might be a toy Matchbox car. It has wheels and only costs a few dollars. But it would deliver absolutely zero value because I couldn’t use it do anything.

The cheapest solution may not deliver the best value. The most expensive may not either. So how do you determine the value of a documentation system? You need to look the following areas for the product you are evaluating:

  • Will it help get the documentation done?
  • Will it help your authors work faster?
  • Will it help you keep your documentation up to date?
  • Will it help your documentation get used?
  • Will it impact your business?

Will it help you get your documentation written?

The whole purpose of a documentation system is to create and deliver documentation to your customers.

Your customers might be users of your product or they may be employees in your organization. It is whoever needs to use your documentation.

If your documentation system makes it harder to write your documentation, then it isn’t delivering much value.

What can inhibit authoring?

  • Complicated document editors
  • Document editors that are too simplistic
  • Complicated publishing workflows

We hear about both ends of the spectrum from our customers in this area. Some come from systems that were so simplistic that they offered just a plain text field. Other customers come from the opposite extreme - applications that are so complicated that they felt like they needed a PhD to operate them.

You need to assess how well the documentation system will help you get the documentation done.

Will it help your authors work faster?

The time your authors spend writing documentation has a value attached to it. It may be anywhere from a few dollars an hour to several hundred dollars an hour. If their time is valuable then you want to make sure that they have tools that help them work faster.

For example, let’s take an author making $25/hour. They have a choice between a free tool and one that costs $20/month to use. With the free tool they typically spend 10 hours a month writing docs. With the paid tool they are able to reduce that down to 6 hours. The paid tool obviously delivers the better value. In exchange for $20 they got back $100 ((10 hours–6 hours) * $25) of extra time for that employee.

If you are looking at this factor consider the following criteria:

  • The cost of the tool
  • The hourly billable value of the people using the tool
  • The number of hours saved/month by using the tool

Will it help you keep your documentation up to date?

So many companies start out with lofty goals for creating the “ultimate” documentation system. They spend weeks and months creating the perfect solution. Everything is complete and everything is beautiful.

...and then something changes
...and they need an update
...and they don’t have time
...and the documentation is quickly out of date

Once the documentation is out of date it is useless. It is even worse than useless because out of date documentation makes you look lazy.

A documentation site is like a house that needs to be repainted every week. If your documentation tool doesn’t make repainting that house very simple then the house is quickly going to fall into disrepair.

When you are evaluating a documentation solution, look at how easy it will be to keep things up to date. Once again, look at the cost of one hour of time for the person who will be updating the docs and multiply that by how long it will take them to make documentation updates.

WIll it help your documentation get used?

At this point the value equation gets into bigger numbers. Up until now we have been talking about saving the time of individual workers on your team as they create and update the documentation. But now we are talking about saving time for possibly thousands of people. This calculation will be very different depending on who your customer is: an end user of a product you sell and support, or an employee in your organization that needs to get work done. We define these as internal customers (employees in your organization) and external customers (users of the products or services you sell).

Internal customers

If internal customers use your documentation you can see cost savings in the following areas:

  • Decreased costs associated with mistakes made because of a lack of documentation
  • Decreased training costs for new hires
  • Decreased costs associated with the time necessary to help employees get work done

For example, if you are in a small accounting firm of 20 people and there is one IT guy that is in charge of helping everyone use the software that runs your business, documentation that gets used can have a big impact.

  • It will save hours each month for the IT guy who doesn’t have to spend all of his time answering the same questions over and over again.
  • It will prevent costly mistakes from being made because employees weren’t sure who to do a task (such as running a specific report) correctly.

External customers

For external customers, documentation that gets used will impact the following areas:

  • The time spent by your customer support team supporting customers. If documentation helps defer or shorten 30% of your support requests then you will be able to support more customers with a smaller support staff. If each support employee costs you roughly $40k-$60k/year then that is a huge savings.
  • The increased adoption of your product by customers. If customers use your documentation they will find it easier to get more value out of your product which will then lead to lower customer churn (or customers who stop using your product).

Will it change your business?

This is a big one. Will the documentation system you choose change the way you run your business? There are lots of documentation systems that won’t really make a dent one way or another around how you run your business. But there are some that will make a major impact. We obviously would like to think that our products fall into the “change the way you run your business” category. And what he hear from customers backs this up.

For example we have a several customers who fall into the ~50 employee range who have expanded the use of ScreenSteps Live to their entire organization. This isn’t just people viewing documentation on ScreenSteps Live. It is people authoring content on ScreenSteps Live. Everyone is documenting their processes which makes their whole business run more efficiently.

We have other customers who create SaaS software products who integrate ScreenSteps Live into the entire customer training process. One customer in particular is able to reduce the number of hours of live, one-on-one training required for their Student Information System. This allows them to pass those savings onto the school districts they sell to, giving them an advantage over their competitors.

The final and biggest calculation should be how much of an impact the documentation system will have on how you run your business.

Summing up

For each tool you are considering, sum up all of the potential cost savings and value created using the questions above. Then compare that against the cost of the tool. You may find that the free solution actually ends up being quite expensive; or that the overblown, super-expensive enterprise solution costs a lot more in the long run than what their sales rep is quoting you because of the complexity of the product. Look at the whole picture and you will make a better decision for your business.

Previous Article 5.2 Creating engaging documentation: Motivation matters more than Learning Styles
Next Article 5.4 Why your documentation needs to be online - not locked in a PDF or Word file
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