Tag Archives: content

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

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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

Got 20 minutes to help build our profession?

cwsurveybig20 minutes is about what it’ll take to fill out the Content Wrangler’s Industry Benchmarking survey. You probably know the Content Wrangler: he’s Scott Abel, one of the leading voices in technical communication and in the larger community of content creators.

Scott says it’ll take 10 minutes to complete the survey. But I encourage you to ponder over the questions, as I did, and give thoughtful, thorough answers.

Why? Because your answers, along with those of others, will provide a detailed portrait of what content creation looks like today: what tools and techniques we use, what challenges we face, and what we see ahead. It’ll help us understand our profession better and suggest ways to overcome those challenges.

The last such survey, in 2013, gave us just such a portrait. I’ll be interested to see how things have changed over the past 3 years.

Take the survey soon. The survey closes on 15 February, and Scott intends to publish the results around the beginning of March. Everyone who takes the survey will receive a copy of the report. (You’ll also be eligible to win a cool travel bag. But don’t do it for the travel bag. Do it for yourself and for your profession.)

Update 3 Feb: Edited the last paragraph to include the end date for the survey.

Hey, let’s give it a name

The year’s first big winter storm is expected to hit the U.S. East Coast this weekend. You know it’s big because the Weather Channel has given it a name: Jonas.

twc_screen_shot

Screenshot from a Weather Channel video. I remember the weather being dreadful last February. Now I know who to blame: Octavia, Pandora….

A few years ago TWC started naming winter storms as if they were hurricanes — a  practice that amuses some, confuses many, and edifies practically no one. TWC’s explanation of the “science” behind naming winter storms is a technical-writing tour de force, mixing a few high-sounding facts with colorful graphs and a sprinkling of acronyms, and wrapping it all in a thick coating of earnestness.

Anyhow, I got to thinking. If TWC can give names to winter storms, why can’t we give names to the various parts of the technical writing process? Something like these…. Continue reading

IBM Verse: A new way to work, or just solving an old problem?

Have you heard? IBM is giving us a “new way to work.” It’s turned up its marketing fluff machine full blast, on behalf of software called IBM Verse.

According to the fluff, IBM wanted to create a technology platform that would make workers more efficient, by finding and connecting the myriad pieces of information they had at their disposal. To build this platform, they say, they decided to start with email.

Screen image of IBM Verse user interface

IBM Verse user interface

 

 

 

Email?

Yep. Email. If you listen to the fluff, email is the bane of every office worker’s existence. IBM’s webinars and YouTube videos describe the demoralizing and productivity-draining experience of starting each day with an overflowing inbox and never being able to catch up.

Maybe that’s how it is at IBM. But here in the rest of the world, that sales pitch is outdated.
Continue reading

Tell me why I should buy

Today’s post is about content marketing — specifically, the lowest form of content marketing: political advertising.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee, from the original edition of Through the Looking GlassOn three different days in the past two weeks the snail mail box has brought flyers from both candidates who are vying for a seat in our state legislature. Tweedledum’s ads all say that Tweedledee is unfit for election because he’s wrong about everything. Tweedledee’s ads say that Tweedledum is unfit because he once worked as (gasp) a lobbyist.

Here’s the thing: each candidate is so busy tearing down the other that he never says a word about why he himself might be the better choice. Continue reading

Time to Dethrone the King

file4361250458421This week brought a thought-provoking article — The Content Marketing Myths We’ve Left Behind: Do You Still Believe? — in which industry leaders challenge some long-held beliefs about content marketing.

I especially like the contribution from Scott Abel, who many of you know as the Content Wrangler. Here it is, in its entirety:
————————
Dethrone the king and put him to work

Content isn’t “king.” It’s a product. And, it’s about time we started managing it the same way we do physical products we manufacture and sell.
————————
Amen. Content isn’t, and never was, an end in itself. If you thought it was, you were setting yourself up for failure. Content is, as Scott says, a product.

So who, or what, is king? It’s our customer, our reader — the person who consumes our content. We craft our content so that we can inform, persuade, reassure, or entertain our customer. So that our customer, at the end of the transaction, feels like they’ve received something of value.

The king (content) is dead. Long live the king (our customer).

You Have a Right to Ketchup and Salt

Did you see the news story about the Florida chef who refuses to let his patrons put ketchup and salt on their burgers?

If you’re older than 10, says chef Xavier Duclos, you have no business adding any flavoring to the dishes I’ve prepared. I’m the chef. You have to trust my judgment. And that’s that.

burgerIf I were a customer of Mr. Duclos’, I’d beg to differ. Having plunked down $12.95 for one of his burgers (that’s the going rate, according to his menu), I’d say that I’d bought the right to season my food as I liked.

Mr. Duclos has heard that argument, and he rejects it. At best he and I would agree to disagree.

At the same time, I understand where Mr. Duclos is coming from. Continue reading