The heart and mind of technical communication

I’ve seen the future. I turned my calendar to today’s date, and there it was.

And when I saw the future, do you know what I realized?

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of Technical Communication had better learn structured authoring.

I invite you to look into the future too. Just observe what’s going on today. Here’s what you’ll see:

  • Content comes from all over the organization — and sometimes from customers and others as well. Gone are the days when all of the technical content came from the Tech Pubs department. With all of that collaboration going on, we need to have formats in which everyone can contribute content so that it’s easy to mash up together.
  • People read content on all kinds of devices: tablets, smartphones, desktop PCs. If the content can’t at least be adapted to the screens where it’s displayed, it’s of no use. The industry leaders are going beyond adaptive content: they provide content that’s responsive (it changes format to fit the screen) and smart. Smart content changes based on the readers’ attributes: the product features they’ve purchased, their geographical location, and their preferences.
  • Our employers demand content that affects the bottom line. One way to provide bottom-line value is through efficiency: content is developed once and then reused in many different contexts without the need for reformatting.

StructureNone of these scenarios would be possible without structured authoring. Structured authoring allows each piece of content to be tagged for a particular display format or for a particular user attribute, and it allows content to be reused.

Structured authoring isn’t simply a new way to organize the same content you’ve always been writing. To learn to do it, you have to embrace a new way of thinking about content: content that’s created in pieces, or chunks, that can be rearranged as needed to fit a specific context.

You might have to learn some new tools, like authoring systems and content-management systems. But most of the tools aren’t hard to learn, and some of them even resemble the tools you already use. The key isn’t learning the tools. The key is embracing the idea of content in chunks.

Perhaps the new world of adaptable, context-independent content hasn’t yet come to your workplace. But it probably will, and soon. (Granted, there’ll always be a place for documentation that’s written and published in the traditional fashion. But like analog TVs and land-line phones, it’ll soon be the exception rather than the rule.)

If you want to create mainstream technical documentation — maybe not today, but probably sooner than you think — you’d better learn structured authoring.

Please share your experiences with me. How much has your work changed in the last year or two? Have you begun to realize the benefits of structured authoring?

Hat tip: French-born historian Jacques Barzun came to the U.S. at age 12 to receive his education — right at the time that Babe Ruth joined the Yankees and became the best-known athlete, and perhaps the best-known celebrity, in the world. Later, Barzun wrote Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball. It’s one of my favorite quotes.

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