During some of my last few projects, I’ve used help authoring tools to create content in different formats (print, online, mobile devices, embedded help files), all using single sourcing principles. Quite a few clients/employers I’ve worked with in the last 2-3 years have embraced or have been open to the idea of single sourcing and are confident it can work for their content needs, so it has been fairly easy to persuade them to invest in good help-authoring tools that will allow them to make this ‘leap of faith’ from ad-hoc documents to single sourcing content.
I was first introduced to the term “single-sourcing” by my lecturer Tony Self in one of his classes on Developing Online Help for Applications, when I was completing my Graduate Diploma in Technical Communication at Swinburne, 9 years back. As part of this same Diploma, I distinctly remember pursuing a book by Dr Joann Hackos about managing documentation projects, for another class by Sonja McShane on Developing Technical Documents. The book covered (and to an extent, still does) almost everything related to planning, prototyping, creating, implementing and wrapping up a documentation project. The book was first published way back in 1994 (a recent edition covers more relevant topics), but it has pretty much been the cornerstone for many a technical writer, especially when it comes to managing multiple documentation projects and deliverables.
Imagine my delight when I heard that Dr Joann Hackos was going to speak/present at an event in Sydney on 19th June 2014. I had no hesitation in booking my tickets for this 1-day conference, because I was confident of finding something useful throughout the day.
Technical Communication Framework for the 21st Century (Robert Phillips)
In the opening address to the event, Robert Phillips spoke about the Technical Communication Framework for the 21st century.
In terms of Professional Development, the technical writing profession is stuck in a cyclic path wherein the Technical Communicator is in a constant flux of “Start, Learn, Develop”, across projects. In terms of growth, TCs can often learn tools, then the techniques and then the discipline of the profession itself.
There is a strong case for finding good mentors in the industry and also a solid training framework to support the new TW in the 21st century. The glue that holds all of this are the conferences, society journals, trade displays and magazines and hence it is necessary for technical societies to keep this culture alive.
He stressed the need for appropriate training, certification, access to good courses and fostering good techniques which is currently lacking in the TC industry in Australia.
Information Development in the 21st Century (Dr JoAnn Hackos)
In her first presentation for the day, Dr Hackos gave us an accurate picture of the nature of information development in the 21st century.
Some of the key challenges facing the information development process right now are challenging work environments, global customers and collaborative efforts, pressures to reducing costs, changing skill sets, new tools and standards, disciplined work practices and technical proficiency.
The future information developer will need to pick up a few smarts and likely have more than one of these following traits:
- Discipline in development
- Expert in technology
- Collaborative team member
- In-depth global customer understanding
- Highly resourceful and assertive
- Superior communication abilities
- Political and business savvy
TCs may, if not already, turn into curators of information due to crowdsourcing/user-generated content. Content and more importantly, the way it is delivered, is what is making it interesting.
Single Sourcing in the 21st Century (Dr JoAnn Hackos)
In this highly useful talk, Dr Hackos started off with this statement “Manuals are not books and product users are not readers. Users need information to perform certain tasks or meet certain goals“. Content has come a long way from books to the online media, though some of the basic concepts of topics, chapters, sections or hierarchies have been carried over.
Dr Hackos then went on to explain why single sourcing is a good idea for businesses and how DITA can step up to fill this niche. Some of the things that DITA does well:
- It supports structured writing standards
- It encourages information relationships
- It promotes repurposing
- DITA topics enable reuse, and
- It simplifies translating and publishing
Single sourcing leads to a shift in the way TCs can approach content. Content itself becomes more important than the formatting, so it is essential to future proof content as well as include value in content.
Roadmap to DITA
Dr Hackos’s Roadmap to DITA talk started off with a very valid statement “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.” She spoke about a few important things (amongst others) that would see a DITA implementation go a long way.
I could relate to some of these, based on my experience working with single sourcing:
- A strong business case to get management support
- Avoid too many stakeholders.
- Choosing the right CMS. Not every CMS can fulfill the organisation’s requirements. Spend the right amount of time to research a suitable fit for your organisation. She recommended a Component CMS, one that allowed sufficient control over separate components for the content.
- A well-designed publishing pipeline
- Collaboration is essential
One of the real impediments to taking up single sourcing is resistance to change. It is essential to build a strong business case for to help realise it’s value and encourage everyone to embrace it.
Single Sourcing Tools in the 21st Century
In this tools-based event, 4 presenters gave quick 5 minute overviews about the key single sourcing tools currently available in the market:
b. Madcap Flare
c. Red Hat Open Source
d. Adobe Technical Communication Suite
Content Management in the 21st century (Dr JoAnn Hackos and Dr Annette Reilly)
I missed the first 5-10 minutes of Dr Annette Reilly’s presentation on Standards (see why below – Lunch), but she spoke about the new and existing standards by ISO and IEEE, particularly ISO/IEC/IEEE DIS 26531.2. Later, Dr Hackos gave us a rundown on managing a CM project. This mirrored some of the content from her book, but applied more to a content management project than just technical documentation.
She also expounded on the benefits of using a Component CMS, from her previous talk about Single Sourcing. A Component CMS is specifically designed to support total information development lifecycle and manage components simultaneously as both independent resources as well as part of a larger workflow.
A Component CMS supports:
a. Structured topic based authoring
b. Single sourcing
c. Topic based re-use
d. Multi-language publishing
g. Release Management
While the principles of managing a documentation/content project has not changed over the years, what has changed is the nature of the content and the way it is delivered. Having the right tools (Component CMS) will make the transition from disparate, stand-alone documentation to single-sourcing, a more pleasant experience.
Communicating in the 21st century (Dr JoAnn Hackos)
In her last presentation and perhaps the most relevant to TCs in this day and age, she presented some startling findings about the impact of social media on content. Based on a survey conducted about industry trends, social media as content strategy and user-generated content, the following findings reveal how and why TCs need to change their approach to content:
Social Media trends:
a. YouTube –16% to 32%
b. Wikis –15% to 22%
c. HTML –23% to 80%
d. PDFs – 90% down to 74%
Customers are even more demanding:
a. 64% ask for content on mobile devices
b. 54% want videos
c. 55% ask for topic-based content
d. 43% want embedded help
Having said that, there were some real barriers to digital publishing that we need to address, and quickly:
a. Content not ready to move forward
b. Lack of experience in creating online content, new technologies, new tools
c. Lack time, resources and funds
d. Disorganised content
To succeed with social media, we need to:
a. Establish a clear social media strategy
b. Set proper governance and standards
c. Integrate social media across information development process
d. Use tools and infrastructure to monitor social media
Social media is rapidly impacting the way we create and curate content. As TCs, we need to be engaged in the monitoring process, else we risk losing a great opportunity to interact with customers.
Lunch at Google Sydney offices
It’s good knowing people in big companies! I got a chance to meet fellow tech writer Sarah Maddox for lunch at the Google office in Sydney. Although it was a bit of a mad dash across town to get to/from the Google office, it was well worth it.
Sarah and I have met only once before in person, when I was in Sydney for the Atlassian Doc Sprint in 2011, we’ve been in touch regularly through emails. I’ve also followed her blog religiously, because she has a highly effective and easily understandable way of explaining things and her blog is a great way of learning new things and hearing about first hand experiences of conferences she presents at/attends.
Google offices have a great vibe to them (so I’ve heard) and I think one of their hiring criteria must be that you have to be cool. Their cafeteria is located on level 6 and it overlooks the magnificent Pyrmont Bay. Over a sumptuous spread of a mix of fresh dishes, salads, desserts and handmade juices, Sarah and I quickly caught up on what we have been doing since we last met. It was great chatting to her in person and she is one of the most pleasant (aren’t all TW’s?) people you will ever meet. We discussed single sourcing, wikis, API documents, online help, conferences, tools and would have chatted on the whole day, had I not been strapped for time to get back to the Dr Hackos event.
A nice way to end the day
Adobe had organised a competition at the Dr Hackos event, where you had to string a phrase/sentence including the words “Technical Communicator” and one of their TC products. I put in “Structured documentation is where Technical Communicators meet their (Frame)Maker” and won a prize. A licenced copy of Adobe Technical Communication Suite 5.
Not a bad way to end the day.