Category Archives: Content strategy

Is “soup to nuts” what we need?

For almost as long as I can remember, pitchmen (especially on late-night TV) have been selling all-in-one gadgets that slice, dice, puree, and do pretty much everything.

In our world of technical communication we have something similar: “soup to nuts” authoring systems that combine all the major steps of the content workflow under one banner:

  • Creating content
  • Managing content
  • Reviewing
  • Publishing
breakfast_gadget

This is actually a thing — but are you using it in your kitchen? (Source: Nostalgic Electrics)

Vendors have been offering systems like this for several years. The sales pitch is alluring: unify all of your content under the banner of one integrated toolset. Lots of content, a multi-step workflow, and one brand to rule them all.

Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company, or even a decent-sized organization within a company, use one of these single-vendor systems for its entire content workflow.

I’ve used parts of these systems. For example, I’ve used easyDITA for content management and publishing, but not for content creation and reviewing. I’ve used XMetaL, but only for creating and publishing content.

In fact I’ve never used these systems for reviewing. All of my SMEs have said the same thing: “Give me a Word document or a PDF that I can mark up. Don’t make me learn a new tool.”

Do any of you use a single, soup-to-nuts system to create, manage, review, and publish content? If so, I’d like to hear from you. Is it working well for you? How easy was it to set up, get buy-in from content producers and SMEs, and train everyone? Continue reading

Timing is as important as delivery

Dear technical writer:

Your content is well-written and accurate. But what happens if you put it into your reader’s hands at the wrong time?

This is what happens.

 oscars17.png

At last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway came onstage to present the award for Best Picture.

When it came time to announce the winner, the card said

Best Actress
Emma Stone
La La Land

Beatty hesitated. Dunaway read the only thing that made sense in the context: the name of a film, La La Land.

It wasn’t until several minutes later, during the acceptance speeches, that the mistake became known. Beatty and Dunaway had been given the wrong card. The Best Picture winner was actually Moonlight.

Dear technical writer:

You might not be embarrassed in front of tens of millions of people. But when you provide the right content at the wrong time, no matter how good the content is, you’ve betrayed your readers.

As every good actor knows, timing is every bit as important as delivery.

Video source: New York Times

I know it when I see it

Who makes the rules of the internet? Who judges what’s offensive and what’s OK? What are the implications for those of us who create content?

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the State of Ohio could ban a film it deemed to be obscene. Famously, Associate Justice Potter Stewart wrote that while he was hard pressed to define what qualifies something as obscene, “I know it when I see it.”

Where are the boundaries?

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Image source: The Verve (Eric Peterson)

The boundaries of offensiveness have always been fuzzy and subject to change. Movie scenes that horrify one audience might not elicit even a blush from another. Books that would’ve gotten me in trouble had they been found in my high-school locker are part of the curriculum today.

Despite the lack of rules, the boundaries are very, very real. Most of us would say with all sincerity that, like Justice Stewart, we know when something transgresses a boundary. There are standards, even if they exist only in our minds and are sustained by our (illusory?) sense of belonging to a community.

The secret rules of the internet

This week I came upon The Secret Rules of the Internet, a long piece that describes the ways in which content is moderated on the major social-media platforms.

To the extent that I’d thought about how moderation works, which admittedly wasn’t much, I never would’ve supposed that:

  • Moderators often work with guidelines that are slapdash and incomplete.
  • Moderators are poorly trained, if they’re trained at all.
  • Moderators are prone to depression and other psychological disorders, largely because their jobs force them to see things they can’t bring themselves to describe to anyone.
  • There are no standards or best practices for moderation; rather, most media companies treat their moderation practices as trade secrets.
  • Moderation is often shoved into a “silo,” segregated from the rest of the company, even — especially — from areas that set the company’s course in terms of legal and ethical principles.
  • Some platforms are better at moderation than others. (The article contrasts Facebook, with its relatively well defined Safety Advisory Board, and Reddit, which has weak guidelines, a small team of moderators, and a reputation for harboring lots of offensive content.)

According to the article’s authors — Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly — all of these things are true. Continue reading

Our creative future

ai_oracle

Image source: Oracle

Happy new year. Or, to phrase it differently, welcome to the future.

I’ve just read a couple of fascinating takes on the technologies and the jobs that await us in the not-too-distant future.

Innovations in artificial intelligence

In Big Tech’s AI Predictions for 2017, experts from leading technology companies provide a peek into technology that will arrive in the next couple of years. We’re treated to new advances in voice-recognition technology, new uses for AI, and more. A couple of examples:

“In 2017 there will be a chatbot that passes the Turing test, exhibiting responses so human-like that an average person wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s human or machine.” – Jim McHugh, Vice President and General Manager, NVIDIA

“2017 will see product developers rapidly adopting the latest AI-powered voice recognition technology, [using] speech APIs and tools that are now free to use.” – Adam Coates, Director, Baidu Silicon Valley AI Lab

Reading the article reminds me of my childhood trips to the World’s Fair, where futurists paraded their visions and inspired me to dream of seeing in my lifetime a wonderful, exciting world enabled by technology and human ingenuity.

Tomorrow’s design jobs

The Most Important Design Jobs of the Future lists new jobs that, according to a panel of design experts, will need to be filled within 3 to 5 years.

Some job titles are self-explanatory (though still fantastical), like Augmented Reality Designer and Human Organ Designer.

Others, like Cybernetic Director (responsible for the creative vision and execution of highly personalized media services) and Fusionist (envisioning and creating cross-disciplinary links between art, engineering, research, and science), reflect new directions for technology and for the way people will use it.

Technical communication blogger Danielle Villegas (TechCommGeekMom) laments that she feels unprepared for the jobs of the future. “How does one train or learn [for] these kinds of positions,” she asks, when it’s hard enough keeping up with the technologies and opportunities that exist today? Continue reading

Where do the technical writers fit?

The other day Sarah Maddox posed the question Where do technical writers fit in an organisation? It’s a question my colleagues and I have bandied about for most of my 30-plus years working in technical communication.

The answer has evolved during those 30-plus years. And it’s tempting simply to throw up my hands and give the standard consultant’s answer: it depends.

smaddox

Sarah, like all of us, is looking for a place to fit in

Sarah doesn’t advocate for any one answer, either. Instead, she deftly states the case for including technical writers in each of these parts of the organization:

  • Engineering and product management
  • User experience (UX)
  • Support
  • Marketing
  • Developer relations

Here’s what I make of it.

We’re not an island

There’s one place in the organization where the technical writers definitely should not be, and that’s off by ourselves.

I didn’t always feel this way.

Early in my career, when technical writing was still being defined as a profession, it was important for the writers to establish an identity as a team and emerge from the backwaters of wherever they’d been placed on the org chart — usually in product development.

In companies that formed separate technical writing teams, the writers were better able to collaborate on tools, training, and best practices. Their managers could fight for a place at the table alongside development, marketing, and support.

The separate-team approach was what I experienced at IBM, and it wasn’t until maybe the mid-1990s that we, as a profession, had evolved past it. Continue reading

Taxonomy: bringing light to the ocean depths

The American Heritage Dictionary defines taxonomy as division into ordered groups or categories.

oceanlight

Taxonomy brings light to the depths of our content.

Amid today’s ocean of content, taxonomy is the secret sauce that brings light to the depths, that imparts value to all of that content.

It breaks the content into usable subsets. It groups apples together with apples, oranges with oranges. And, when needed, it groups apples with caramel, or with peanut butter, creating associations that delight our readers.

Sounds wonderful. So why aren’t we all out there creating great taxonomies? Because it’s hard. It requires a lot of understanding.

Seth Godin recently wrote about taxonomy:

Your job, if you want to explain a field, if you want to understand it, if you want to change it, is to begin with the taxonomy of how it’s explained and
understood.

Seth observed that not all taxonomies make sense. Words in the dictionary are grouped by alphabetical order because that’s the way people look for them. Imagine if, instead, the words were grouped by their origins: all words relating to Anglo-Saxon farming, say, or Roman military strategy. No one but a hard-core etymologist would be able to use the dictionary.

That’s why we, as technical writers, have to know our readers’ domain — really know it — before we can make a meaningful taxonomy. Before we can organize that ocean of content in a way that’s relevant to our readers.

Seth put it this way: If you can’t build a taxonomy for your area of expertise, then you’re not an expert in it.

I submit that the converse is true as well: if you’re not an expert, you’ll struggle to build a good taxonomy. Study your readers’ domain. Seek to learn as much as you can about it. No shortcuts.

That’s the bad news. Now here’s some good news. Continue reading

The watery state of content

lakeCherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt wrote this week about the content lake. Picking up on the concept of a data lake, a repository that holds “a vast amount of raw data in its native format,” Ellis explained that content can exist in much the same fashion: a big bunch of content that can be organized and processed by a smart piece of software.

I’d never heard of a data lake until I read Ellis’s article, and I’d never heard of a content lake until Ellis coined the term.

It reminds me of Alan Porter’s content pool: the total body of content than a given organization possesses, from every part of the organization.

Maybe the difference between a content lake and a content pool is that the pool’s boundaries are a little better defined. And usually there’s a lifeguard to rescue you when you’re in over your head.

With all due respect to my colleagues Ellis and Alan, I find that the best description of today’s content is an ocean.

No matter which watery metaphor you prefer, our containers for holding content are filling up fast. Content comes to us from every direction, in a multitude of forms.

  • In the business world, seemingly every company is publishing how-to documentation, marketing and promotional literature, forum posts, and images. Look at the company’s organizational chart, and it’s hard to find an area that isn’t publishing content.
  • Anyone with a computer or a phone can churn out articles, posts, messages, tweets, and images — from self-published manuscripts to cat photos. From
    thought pieces to birthday greetings.
  • Content has begun flowing from the Internet of Things: an endless array of surveillance cameras, household appliances, and, well, things.

surferEllis writes about storing, querying, and retrieving the content for instantaneous use. Here’s a question for those of us who call ourselves content professionals: Are we ready to do that?

I think we’re taking steps in that direction. But a lot of us, and a lot of the companies we work for, are at risk of getting swamped with all of the content that’s coming.

In any case, as we approach the 2020s, the winning content professionals will be those who can not only stay afloat in the content ocean but who can ride on top of the waves.

Surf’s up!

What do you think? Do you see an ocean of content coming our way? Are we ready?

Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles

dita-bird_0This is an appeal to the DITA community: the experts and the evangelists, and possibly the tools vendors as well.

We’ve done a good job selling DITA: after years of slow growth it’s gaining momentum. As it does so, paradoxically, I’m hearing more and more anti-DITA rhetoric. While some of the rhetoric reflects a lack of understanding or even a hidden agenda, some is worth listening to.

I’m thinking of two things in particular that the DITA community often touts as selling points: authors no longer have to worry about formatting, and their DITA content can readily be used for adaptive content — output customized for the audience.

As good as those sound, I don’t see content authors raving about them. We need to understand why that is, and find a way to address it.

Leave the formatting to us

I’ve proudly touted this in every DITA class I’ve taught: Freed from having to worry about fonts, indentations, and other formatting issues, authors at long last can concentrate on content.

Except that a lot of authors like to worry about formatting. Continue reading

Are we driving or being driven?

On my first or second day in my new technical writing job my manager told me, “The CS [customer support] guys have put together a ‘cheat sheet’ for setting up hardware redundancy. They’d just started working with Pat [my predecessor] to get it published as a user guide.”

trends16.png

Image source: Scriptorium

I looked at the cheat sheet: a 40-page Word file describing what works with what (and what doesn’t), the basic setup process, and several “gotchas” to watch out for. Good, useful stuff. Yeah, our customers would like to have this. I can massage it into a user guide.

But when I investigated further, I found a surprise: about half of the cheat sheet consisted of content already in the product documentation. The CS guys were surprised when I pointed that out to them.

So now we have two things going on: the organization has good information that it wants to deliver to its customers. At the same time we’re already delivering good information, but people don’t know it’s there.

My situation exemplifies two of Scriptorium’s Six Trends of 2016 — two trends that at first sound contradictory but actually are closely related in yin-and-yang fashion. Continue reading