After the kick-off, the next step is to conduct the research. This serves as an additional information exchange directly between the editor and the responsible employees in production and development.
What do we need to know, and how will we proceed?
Strictly speaking, there are two types of research.
First comes the research we conduct at our desks: I examine and work through the files and documents that the customer ideally provided during the kick-off. Inevitably, this process brings up questions that I write down, sorted thematically by contact (if known), so that I can resolve them during my on-site appointment. Once I have seen all the information, I call my main contact to agree on a date for my on-site research. During this call I usually also describe what information I still need, so that the relevant contacts can attend the appointment as well.
This on-site research is what most people think of when they hear the term “research”. I meet my technical contact in order to take a closer look at the product. I now have the opportunity to experience the product live as far as possible: I can touch it, ideally try it out, and ask all the relevant questions – those I collected during my desk research and any additional ones that came up while I was trying out the product. Of course this only works if my contact has prepared accordingly.
Strictly speaking it is enough for the responsible contacts to sacrifice a little of their time to the editor, as they are the people who are most familiar with the product. Ideally my main contact will have shared my catalogue of questions with their colleagues in the various departments, so they already know where I am having difficulties. Specific operating situations have also been prepared. If, for example, something needs to be unscrewed from the machine, the tools have already been prepared. If the software is supposed to display a specific behaviour, the program has been configured accordingly. It is not necessary for every contact to schedule a full day, but at the end of the day all my initial questions should have been answered, allowing me to return home with the relevant information and begin writing.
So what information does the editor want, and what is essential?
Every editor has his or her own view of things and records information in a different way. Some take pictures or make films. Others create drawings and notes. I personally believe that it is the product that determines what works best. But there is something that all editors have. Curiosity and the will to understand the product completely in order to achieve the best result for the documentation. Once research is complete, nobody wants to spend hours on the phone or write countless emails in order to collect the necessary information. Software, for example, calls for different research material than a machine. For software documentation it is very useful to have video recordings showing menu structures or installation processes, for example, and screenshots that can later be used in the documentation. Always assuming that everything works the same way as it will for the end consumer.
In general, everyone involved in the project should agree from the beginning whether photos should be included in the documentation. If that is the case, it should be possible to present the product accordingly. Everything should be neat and tidy, the product should be working as intended, the product should be accessible from all sides – in short, I can show the product from its best side. Of course, like editors, every contact is different, so a little sensitivity and rhetorical skill may be needed in some situations to coordinate questions and answers. Simply running through the catalogue of questions in a robotic fashion is not a good idea. A little interpersonal skill can sometimes achieve miracles.
If I managed to collect all the necessary information during my research appointment, the actual work is easy to do. Certainly, the occasional question is unavoidable. But if research is comprehensive, well prepared and efficiently conducted, follow-up work can be reduced to a minimum.
Personal contact with contacts is also a key part of on-site research. The follow-up work is much easier to do when you know who is on the other end of the phone and can put a face to the name.