Category Archives: Content strategy

Content questions: is the human element worth a try?

At a time when the news media is under intense scrutiny, when people struggle to distinguish reliable information from “fake news” from merely biased news, how will we decide — and who will decide:

  • When is content inappropriate?
  • Who controls the content?
  • What if content is used to deceive?

I posed these questions last week, with emphasis on the information, or the content, that we create. And I asked how we — the content creators — will shape the answers.

Answering the content conundrum

Steven Brill interviewed on CNN
Steven Brill, interviewed on CNN on March 4, 2018

Here’s one answer, from Steven Brill, whose Wikipedia page calls him a “journalist-entrepreneur.” Brill’s new project is called NewsGuard.

NewsGuard, whose launch date has not been announced, will try to “help consumers distinguish between sites that are trying to get it right and sites that are trying to trick people.” Those are the words of Brian Stelter, who interviewed Brill for CNN’s “Reliable Sources” earlier this month. Continue reading


Content questions: will we have the answers?

This is about information: who controls its flow, who uses it, and who watches you when you use it.

This is about you. Because you access information — or content — on the internet, and because you probably create it as well.

Will someone have the power to tell you what content is and is not appropriate? Who controls what happens to the content you publish? Will someone use your content to deceive or mislead?

Just this month, 3 news stories have brought these questions into sharper focus. Will we, as writing professionals, have good answers? We’d better, because I don’t know if anyone else will.

When is content inappropriate? Who decides?

Advertisement captioned Don't worry, it's just Twitter

Scene from a recent ad appearing on Twitter’s website and in movie theaters

On March 1, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey promised to start measuring the platform’s “health” as a first step to freeing users from trolls and propaganda. (Josh Bernoff does a great job of  breaking down the announcement.) Admitting that “we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences” of Twitter’s free-for-all format, Dorsey promises to get busy and fix the problem.

Can he fix it?  Can he put the lid back on Pandora’s box? It strikes me as too little, too late. Continue reading

Lightweight DITA: I’ve seen the light

DITA logo being held aloft by balloons

Lightweight DITA doesn’t have a logo yet. The technical committee is welcome to use this one.

If you’ve taken one of my DITA classes, you’ve heard me extol the power of DITA. One aspect of that power is semantic tagging. In DITA, a piece of content isn’t boldface or italics. It’s a command name. Or it’s a citation to another document. Or it’s the name of a screen (a wintitle, in DITA parlance).

That’s a big selling point for DITA, you probably heard me say. Each DITA element represents what a thing is (hence the term semantic) rather than how it looks. Just think: you can take a big document and generate a list of all the command names, or all the screen names. You can’t do that when you’re just tagging things as boldface and italics.

Turns out there are a couple of problems.

  • First, I’ve never met anyone who wanted to generate a list of all the command names, or all the screen names. While it sounds good in theory, in practice it’s more like a solution in search of a problem.
  • Second, it’s a lot to remember. When is a command parameter a parameter? When is it an option? (DITA has tags for both.) Writers working side by side, writing content for the same help system, might tag the same object in different ways.

Just now, in fact, as I wrote this article, I couldn’t remember the name of the tag for citations. Even though I’m accustomed to using it, I couldn’t retrieve <cite> from my brain. I had to look it up.

Enter Lightweight DITA. Continue reading

Questions from the old year, questions for the new

Looking back over this blog’s performance in 2017, I see a pattern. The 3 most popular articles, in terms of page views, were ones that posed questions. The questions I asked in 2017 are still worth considering today.

Is augmented reality part of technical communication’s future?

While AR is popular for gaming, I asked, can it become a viable platform for technical communication? Nearly a year after I wrote the article, I still don’t see much enthusiasm.

screen shot of a sky map appThere are a few popular low-end AR apps, like the stargazing apps I mentioned in the article. Susan Carpenter, in a comment, envisioned using AR for museum interpretation.

But it’s still hard to see a business case for AR in mainstream product documentation. General Motors, attempting to break into this market, deployed its myOpel app a few years ago. While the app is still available, it’s getting only tepid reviews and it doesn’t seem to be spawning imitators.

Why is it so challenging to apply AR to product documentation? Partly, perhaps, because it’s so hard to know exactly what the user is doing — and trying to do — when they access the documentation. Mark Baker pointed that AR will work only if we can maintain our focus, remove distractions, and not introduce new distractions by, say, cluttering the user’s field of vision with “dashboards” full of irrelevant data.

As we turn the calendar to 2018, the vision of AR for technical communication remains gauzy, maybe somewhere in distant the future but not yet coming into focus.

Is “soup to nuts” what we need?

When I posed this question, I was thinking of authoring systems that combine under one banner all of the major steps of the content workflow:

  • Creating
  • Managing
  • Reviewing
  • Publishing

Vendors have been pitching these kinds of systems for a while. But I questioned whether very many real-world content-development teams were buying and using them.

Since I wrote that piece, my company has invested in one of those “soup to nuts” systems. We’ve begun using it to create, manage, and publish content — but not to review it. Just as I said back then, our subject-matter experts still prefer to mark up drafts using a familiar format like Word or PDF.

It’s too soon to tell whether our soup-to-nuts system will, as I feared, actually hinder cooperation and collaboration with other parts of the company. Service and Marketing, for example, use tools and processes that don’t play well with our the soup-to-nuts system we’re now using in Information Development. How big a hurdle will that prove to be?

People who commented on the article expressed skepticism, based on their own experience, about whether soup-to-nuts can work. One correspondent, however, reported being very happy with a tool I hadn’t considered when I wrote the article: Atlassian Confluence.

Will you still need me? (STC at 64)

Sgt. Pepper album with STC logo addedDuring the last Summit conference — and as Liz Pohland took the reins as STC‘s new CEO — I invoked a Sgt. Pepper song to explain why I thought STC, then marking its 64th anniversary, remains relevant in the 21st century.

I said that STC — which for decades has billed itself as the world’s largest professional society dedicated to technical communication — has stayed relevant by:

  • Providing a solid platform for networking and information exchange
  • Curating a body of knowledge
  • Connecting practitioners with educators

To stay relevant, I said that STC must:

  • Reach across to professionals in fields that involve content creation but that don’t necessarily fall under the rubric of technical communication
  • Make newcomers welcome and help them find their place in the organization
  • Find new ways to attract, train, and energize volunteers — because volunteers are the lifeblood of STC
  • Build its certification program into something that’s valued by practitioners and their employers — a process that’s likely to take a long time
  • Continue to operate as a worldwide society, retaining its place at the table alongside organizations like tekom in Europe

Now, in 2018, STC is spotlighting its age: its next conference is billed as the 65th Anniversary Summit. I think that its strengths, and its challenges, are much the same as they were in 2017.

What do you think — about STC, about soup-to-nuts systems, or about augmented reality?

What questions do you think our profession will need to focus on in 2018?

An image with an impact

If good writing is the foundation on which technical communication is built, then visual elements provide the curb appeal.

Even though most of my training and experience are in writing, not illustrating, I’m keenly aware of the huge effect — for good or ill — that visuals can have on content.

I pay close attention to how the artist chooses to present data in maps and graphs, because that choice can strongly influence the reader’s perception.

I like to spotlight images that are informative and well-executed — like the map in ProPublica’s story on last summer’s Houston floods and the Tampa Bay Times‘ 2015 infographic about the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Unfortunately, the Times has removed the infographic from its site, but a small piece of it survives in my post.)

Then there’s the recent op-ed by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof on gun violence in the U.S. In an article full of bar graphs and maps, one image in particular made my jaw drop.

Wishing to point up the lack of research into gun violence, compared with research into diseases like cholera and diphtheria, Kristof had a Times artist compare two data points for each problem: number of people affected and number of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health over the 40 years ending in 2012.

As you scroll down, try to set aside your political views — whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control — and evaluate this image on how effectively it delivers its message.

graph juxtaposing 4 million gun-violence cases and 3 research grants

I’ve seen very few images that delivered their messages so startlingly, so resoundingly. The numbers are impressive, but the huge red circle and the three tiny boxes thunder out the message: gun violence, while a serious threat to public health, is woefully under-researched. (Kristof says that’s because of lobbying by opponents of gun control.)

Feel free to disagree with the message. But don’t tell me that it wasn’t delivered effectively.

Why do people mangle the language?

confusedAt the recent Australian STC conference, Neil James was asked why people write Manglish, or mangled English. I very much like what he had to say.

(As quoted in Sarah Maddox’s blog, ffeathers. Emphasis mine.)

  • At school, we imbibe the notion that complex writing is better writing. Waffle gets reasonable marks, provided it’s elegant waffle.
  • Early in our careers in the professional and technical workplace, mastering and using the technical jargon of our field gives us a stronger feeling of belonging.
  • When we learn the tech vocabulary of a particular industry, it’s difficult to adjust to communicating with a lay audience.
  • Institutional culture reinforces the language patterns. Large organisations move slowly. It’s hard to change their processes. When you do successfully introduce change, the organisation moves steadily along the new path.
  • Language is used as an expression of power. Sometimes, people deliberately use jargon to protect their financial interests or to manipulate public opinion. An example is from the airline industry, when people use the term “loss of separation” of two planes, which means the two planes collided.

What do you think? Have you experienced a “loss of separation” with some mangled English lately? What might’ve caused it, do you think?

Yes, and: Helping you communicate better

When actor Alan Alda signed on to host the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, in which he talked with scientists about their work, he did what most good interviewers would do. He read up on his subjects and their research, and he prepared a list of questions.

As Alda tells it, the first interviews were dull, dull, dull.

Cover for If I Understood You bookThen he tried a different approach. He did only cursory background reading. He didn’t prepare a list of questions. Instead, he sat down to have a conversation instead of an interview.

In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alda describes what happened. The scientists, realizing they were talking with an interested layperson, started connecting on a personal level rather than delivering lectures. Alda, able to sense the scientists’ thoughts and feelings in the moment, let the conversation flow naturally and comfortably.

Instead of playing the role of a lecturer to a student, or an interviewee to a reporter, the scientists connected with Alda — and, by extension, with the PBS audience — as people talking with people.

Empathy: the key to communication

Alda’s book bears out a lot of things that technical writers already know. Empathy, he writes, is “the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”

Empathy comes from knowing your audience — whether it’s the person across from you in a coffee shop, an audience in a lecture hall, or a datacenter manager who reads your web page. Empathy comes from knowing who they are, what they’re thinking, and what they’re feeling.

Alda writes, “My guess is that even in writing, respecting the other person’s experiences gives us our best shot at being clear and vivid, and our best shot, if not at being loved, at least at being understood.”

He’s right.

He’s also right when he talks about connecting with an audience: “You make a connection by evoking emotions. A great way to evoke emotions is by telling stories. Stories are most effective when you establish commonality with the listener.”

Alda backs up his experience on Scientific American Frontiers with some impressive scholarship. He talks with an array of experts. (It’s easy to get a meeting when you say, “Hi, I’m Alan Alda and I’d like to chat with you about your work.”) He reports on a number of research projects.

Some of the projects were Alda’s own handiwork. He was and continues to be a guiding force behind the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. His contributions to the science of interpersonal communication are such that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) named him an Honorary Fellow in 2014.

Inprov: new insights for technical writers

Still, despite all of his scholarship and all of his hard work, Alda’s conclusions come as no surprise to most technical writers. We already know about analyzing the audience, about connecting with readers, and about telling stories.

Where Alda adds real value for me is when brings his life’s work – acting – into the picture. Much of the book describes his experience with improvisation, in which actors create scenes together without a script and without any expectations as to the outcome. Continue reading

Survey says: DITA’s benefits and challenges

DITA SurveyWhat are DITA‘s biggest benefits? Its greatest challenges?

The Content Wrangler is surveying DITA users, and last week Scott Abel — joined by DITA cognoscenti Rob Hanna,Mark Lewis, and Keith Schengili-Roberts — presented some preliminary results.

I’ve listed the rankings here, along with some thoughts of my own. Each numbered item is from Scott’s presentation; the commentary between the numbered items is mine.

(The survey is still accepting responses. If you haven’t yet weighed in, you can do so right now.)

What benefits does DITA provide?

This section was open to all respondents.

1, Consistency: content reuse/single-sourcing
Yes: when I think of single-sourcing, I think of consistency. But I also think about flexibility — of being able to publish the same content on the web, as integrated help, as PDF, and in other formats. For me that’s a big benefit, just as much as — and probably more than — consistency.

2. Usability: structure provides predictability

3. Translation: savings from reusing translation
The panelists remarked that they expected this one to score higher, and theorized that many of the survey respondents were content creators but were not the people actually responsible for translation. I think they’re probably right — and I’d also point out that a lot of organizations simply don’t translate their content. It would be interesting if the survey asked how many are currently translating DITA content.

4. Customization: segmentation, personalization
Nice to see this one crack the top 4. I think we (the community of DITA content producers) are just beginning to take advantage of features like metadata and keys. There’s so much more we can do to adapt content based on the audience’s geographic location, experience level, and so forth. (Key scopes and branch filtering in DITA 1.3 hold out even more promise.)

Rank the biggest challenges associated with using DITA

This section was open to respondents who said they use DITA.

1. Reuse: determining reuse strategy
Conref or keyref? What taxonomy to use, and where to put the metadata (in topics or in maps)? Who “owns” the library of reusable content? There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on best practices when it comes to developing a reuse strategy. Maybe, like the consultants always say, it depends — on what the writing team is
used to, on which groups are collaborating to produce content, and on what the corporate culture will support.

2. Usage: making DITA do what we want it to do

3. Training: equipping staff with skills needed
DITA logoThere’s a ton of training out there — in the basics of structured authoring, in DITA itself, and in the various tools. So I’m not sure what the problem is, unless it’s that companies don’t want to pay for training and want simply to hire people who already know everything (see #7 below). Even if you could hire fully-capable DITA writers off the street (and that’s a big if), they still need to be trained in how to use your local style, transforms, and so forth.

4. Technology: understanding software

5. Formatting: developing stylesheets and rules for content
This isn’t rocket science, but it is serious, hard work. It’s often not considered when companies plan a transition to DITA — which makes it even harder.

6. Governance: enforcing the rules
See number 5 above.

7. Staffing: finding experienced talent

8. Creation: understanding how to create DITA content

9. Measurement: what to measure, how to decide
Let’s be honest: rather than what to measure, don’t we really mean making the business case? We still struggle to quantify the cost savings and revenue enhancement associated with structured authoring and DITA. Translation savings, of course, are a big part of the story. But increased usability, customization, and brand consistency have value too. We just have a hard time quantifying their value.

10. Translation: issues associated with DITA content

So there you have it. What do you think? Do any of the rankings surprise you? Is anything missing from either list?

Do you agree with my take?

Thanks to Scott Abel for conducting the survey. Like so much of what he does, it’s of great value to the technical writing community. Thanks to Rob, Mark, and Keith for their contributions as well.

Will you still need me? STC at 64

Today, the first full day of the annual STC Summit, marks the 64th year that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) has been in business.

Sgt. Pepper's album cover with STC logo

Hmm…What if I Photoshop all of the STC staff and directors’ faces into this image?

Which brings to mind a Beatles lyric:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

The “Will you still need me?” question is especially relevant as STC — a 20th century organization — copes with flat membership numbers and attempts to navigate the changing professional landscape of the 21st.

As I’ve said before, I think the technical communication profession — and the people in it — still do need STC. But the reasons are changing, and have been changing for some time. As a result it’s not a sure bet that STC will remain relevant over the next few years. Continue reading

DITA satisfaction: Take the survey

Want to know why people are using DITA? Want more insight into the challenges as well as the benefits?

DITA Survey bannerHere’s a way to get those insights — and do The Content Wrangler a favor in the process. The Content Wrangler, the online persona of Scott Abel, has been for many years a leading voice in the worlds of content marketing and technical communication.

If you’re using DITA, if you’re evaluating it, or if you’re in the process of adopting it, take the 5-minute DITA Satisfaction Survey.

The results, which will be sent to you when the survey is over, will provide helpful data about what people see as the main reasons for using DITA as well as its risks and challenges.

The data will benefit individual DITA users and the DITA community as a whole. It’ll equip us to respond to common problems and complaints, and it’ll inform the DITA Technical Committee about what changes and enhancements are most needed.

Take the survey by May 15 and you’ll be entered into a drawing for Google Cardboard.