Interview: Bri Hillmer, Documentation Coordinator at SurveyGizmo
Catherine Heath | April 18, 2017
Bri Hillmer is Documentation Coordinator at SurveyGizmo, a platform for data collection.
She shares her story with us about how she got into writing documentation for a living, what it’s like doing her job on a day-to-day basis, and has some tips for other people looking to break into this industry.
How did you get into writing documentation?
I happened into the world of documentation. I was working at the Census Bureau as a survey statistician, where I was doing a lot of what amounted to technical writing. I had been at the Census for about 5 years and was looking for a new job.
I found SurveyGizmo (I was looking to move to beautiful Colorado, where they are based) and saw they were hiring a technical writer. I thought "I could probably do that job!"
So, I applied online. Amazingly I got a few interviews and was hired! I've been writing documentation for 5 years now and I love it.
What is your current role and what team are you on (products, marketing support, etc)?
I am Documentation Coordinator at SurveyGizmo. I am on their Customer Experience team, which is part of Development at SurveyGizmo. This is a somewhat recent change, since for my first 4 years at SurveyGizmo I was part of their Support team.
What is one thing you think your current docs site does really well?
I think we do a great job of writing minimum viable product articles to answer customers’ actual questions about our product. This means we write new articles based on the support tickets we received. As a result, this reduces our customers’ need to contact our support team.
What's one thing you would like to improve in your current docs?
Our knowledge base isn’t that easy to use for those who only want to browse our content, rather than use the search bar for something specific. So we're a search-focused knowledge base.
And in order to do what we do well, we have to have A LOT of content, which makes it hard to browse. Here and there, I get feedback from customers who wish to browse our content but can’t, because it's not well suited for these folks.
What's your biggest personal challenge in your role?
I have to do what amounts to a lot of front-end development, but I'm not a web developer. My biggest challenge is not that I am not a web developer, but that I keep telling myself I can’t do it.
If I could put that negative thought out of my head it would be a lot easier to get things done. To help me with this challenge, I could do some self-training on front-end web development.
How do you collect feedback on your documentation to make things better?
We love feedback! We collect feedback any way we can get it. We allow our users to comment directly on our documentation and we act on those comments very quickly.
We also have a systematic way of collecting feedback from support heroes from within their tickets. If the documentation isn’t helping our team to support customers well, we want to know about it. We also have a survey available to collect feedback from other internal customers.
Finally, people can chat, email, and talk with us in person when they need something in documentation. We really like helping!
What company/product do you really like and why?
I love KnowledgeOwl obviously. I also use and love Snagit for screengrabs and gifs that I include in documentation. I use and love Google Custom Search, though I’m sad to say this tool is being deprecated.
How do you see self-service sites changing in the next few years?
I think self-service needs to become more part of the flow. This is usually called contextual help. This takes all sorts of forms but I think the kind of contextual help that is most exciting is programmatically picking up on what users are trying to do and if they are stuck.
For the average user, interrupting their use of your software in order to search through a help site feels like a bigger task than we might think. It can be really frustrating and time-consuming for users to self-help so we have to make it easy for them.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to breaking into this type of work?
I think you have to be a self-starter to succeed in documentation. You should also have a penchant for helping. If you have these two characteristics you will succeed in a documentation role.
Beyond this, you just have to find someone who is willing to take a chance on you. In SaaS organizations, you might try starting out on their support or service team. Startups generally don't allocate resources for documentation right away.
If you start out on the support or service team you'll get to know your audience and the software. This will put you at a huge advantage over professional technical writers applying for a software documentation position.
Try to write some content as you learn about your customers and the software. You can then present this portfolio when you apply for a documentation position. You could even get to a place where you propose that the position is created, and you should be they one to do it!
We’re so grateful to Bri for sharing her fantastic insights about her role writing documentation, and much more. She’s clearly had an interesting career path from her role in the Census Bureau being hired for technical writing at SurveyGizmo.
A key takeaway from Bri’s wise words is that there is rarely a straight route into documentation! Show your interest in technical writing through gaining experience in a customer support team and taking any opportunity to write support docs.
Bri has also contributed some great posts to the KnowledgeOwl blog about why you should allow users to comment on your documentation and why you should use Google Analytics in your software documentation.
Follow Bri on Twitter for tweets about all things documentation.