Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Tech comm skills: writing ability, technical aptitude, tool proficiency, and business sense

August 17, 2015 by

Technical Writing is only about what software you know! Is that why every where I read any type of document, web page, or article it is FULL of misspellings, incorrect punctuation, and horrible formatting?!!

That’s what started a thread on LinkedIn that encapsulates long-running debates on the skill sets technical writers need. (The thread was removed from LinkedIn sometime after Friday, unfortunately.)

From my point of view, a good technical communicator possesses a balance of writing ability, technical aptitude, and software skills. Problems arise when that mix of skills is off-kilter:

  • Grammatically pristine content that just scratches the surface of a product reflects a lack of technical understanding and reduces tech comm to stenography.
  • Overly technical content that catalogs every feature of a product demonstrates technical depth but no writing ability. Such content is usually badly organized (writing about every menu choice in order is not good organization) and littered with grammatical and spelling mistakes.
  • Proficiency in the tools for creating content means information development is more efficient, but blind devotion to a tool is a big (and unprofessional) mistake.

A lot of commenters in the thread touch on these aspects, but at the time I wrote this post, there was a glaring omission among the discussed skill sets:  an understanding of business.

Business requirements should drive all content-related efforts at a company, so it’s vital that content creators—technical writers included—understand how their content supports company goals (or not, as the case may be). Changes to content (new tools, new publishing formats, and so on) must be carefully vetted to determine whether there is a solid business case to make such changes. For example, you propose implementing an XML-based workflow because you have numbers showing cost savings. “Other companies are doing it” and “a software vendor told me we need it” are not business cases.

Writing ability, technical aptitude, and dexterity with software are important skills for technical writers to have. But understanding how your efforts connect to the company’s business requirements is what gives you the edge in making your tech comm work indispensable.

Announcing LearningDITA.com: free DITA training

July 22, 2015 by

Our new DITA learning site, LearningDITA.com is now live with its first course, Introduction to DITA.

LearningDITA.com logo

We put a bird in the logo. Imagine that!

Are you somebody who is interested in DITA, but not sure that it’s right for you? LearningDITA.com now provides a free Introduction to DITA that you can work through on your own time.

The content was developed by Scriptorium staff and other contributors using an open-source DITA training project hosted at GitHub.

The course includes six lessons:

  1. What is DITA?
  2. DITA topics
  3. Metadata
  4. Creating DITA content
  5. Tables
  6. Creating relationships among topics

Lessons include code samples, links to additional resources and videos, and more. There is a quiz at the end of each lesson.

We hope this site will become a useful resource for the DITA community. We welcome additional content through the GitHub repository. We’d like to expand the introductory content and offer more courses with advanced topics, but we need your help to do that. If you’re interested, check out the project roadmap and start writing!

Thanks to content contributors (listed in each course topic) and to the site’s sponsors.

P.S. To get notifications about new content on the site, sign up for LearningDITA.com announcements. You can also sign up during the site registration process.

Content strategy amateur hour

July 7, 2015 by

“My team is looking into how we can use <incumbent tool> to handle our new content requirements.”

That’s what I heard from a manager during a recent phone call about a company’s expanding content needs. The tools-focused response made me cringe.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered content developers using a current tool’s capabilities as the benchmark for content requirements. An incumbent-tools-first approach is an easy way out that maintains the status quo.

Periodically assessing how efficiently you’re using tools is sensible, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that checkup is a complete process analysis. A true content strategy assessment looks at how content supports business requirements and then investigates which tools best support those needs. The list of prospective tools should include the incumbent if—and only if—that tool meets the criteria for supporting business goals.

When developing a content strategy, content professionals are anything but professional if they do not step outside the comfort zone of the tools they use every day.

Please don’t be one of those amateurs.

What makes a good leader—and a successful content strategy

May 19, 2015 by

General Stanley McChrystal offers sage leadership advice you can apply to your content strategy.

Here are your marching orders:

Acknowledge change resistance

Within the US Army, General McChrystal encountered high change resistance because people in the organization become very attached to existing processes:

[An individual’s] very identity is wrapped up into how things have been done.

The same is true in content development: workers become very adept at using the current tools and feel threatened when approached with the possibility of implementing new processes. The fear of the unknown is universal, and a strong leader will counteract that fear by resolving to…

Share information “until it’s almost illegal”

On the surface, this advice to overshare is surprising—it’s coming from a military official who had access to classified information the general public will never see. That said, company initiatives (content related or not) gain supporters much more quickly when management is painstakingly thorough in communicating the business requirements driving the changes, seeking input on the evaluation criteria for new tools, and so on.

Harness data to make it useful

[T]he idea that big data is suddenly going to give us the answer to the problem is something that [is] incorrect because the speed at which data is being created and changed stays ahead of our ability to harness it.

A company can supply vast amounts of data through multiple channels: tech comm, marcom, support, etc. Unless customers can pinpoint the information they want when they want it, that sea of data is useless. Therefore, our content processes must be intelligent to ensure information is findable and useful.

Content strategy and the big picture

April 20, 2015 by

What’s the best way to minimize conflict when developing and implementing a new content strategy?


Keep everyone focused on the big picture:

Conflict is inevitable, especially the unproductive kind. When people take their eyes off the bigger picture and focus narrowly on their own needs and views, conflict fills the gap. People who put aside their preferences, styles, assumptions, inflexibility and selfishness are seen as part of the solution.

On content strategy projects, I’ve often seen personal preferences affect the evaluation of tools and processes. Employees understandably get very attached to tools when they master them. That mastery, however, creates a tendency to view all other tools through the prism of the incumbent technology: the dreaded “tool myopia” described in Content Strategy 101.

Another common pattern is shifting the burdens of inefficient processes to other departments: “As long as I get my stuff done, I don’t care about how my department’s inefficiency affects you.”

Both of these content strategy showstoppers require all parties to focus on the big-picture business requirements. Upper management also needs to be very clear that supporting those goals is mandatory. Do the current tools and processes bolster business goals such as shorter time to market, the breakdown of content silos, or more efficient localization? If not, the new content strategy must address the deficiencies with new tools and processes.

Couple the implementation of those new tools and processes with thorough training and good communication, and you’ll reduce conflict and align your content strategy with the big picture.

P.S. I’ve yet to see “support each employee’s personal preferences” as a company’s big-picture goal. If such a business existed, I’m sure we’d all want to go to there (to paraphrase 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon):

Money and technology are not a content strategy

March 23, 2015 by

Having the budget to buy new technology isn’t the same as having a content strategy. Case in point: the US government has spent billions on electronic medical record (EMR) systems that can’t communicate with each other.

The American taxpayer has funded the installation of electronic records systems in hospitals and doctors’ offices — to the tune of $30 billion since 2009. While those systems are supposed to make health care better and more efficient, most of them can’t talk to each other.

[Technology entrepreneur Jonathan] Bush lays a lot of blame for that at the feet of this federal financing.

“I called it the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ bill,” he says. “It gave $30 billion to buy the very pre-internet systems that all of the doctors and hospitals had already looked at and rejected,” he says.

On the surface, the idea of installing the EMR systems makes sense: sharing medical records electronically increases efficiency and accuracy, and it eliminates duplicated medical procedures. Unfortunately, the offices installing these systems were blinded by the government funding and didn’t ask some important questions:

  • What are the business goals the new technology must support? Easy exchange of medical information is a primary reason for implementing EMR systems. Therefore, the selection processes should have focused on interoperability and support of standards for data exchange.
  • Can I trust what the vendors are telling me? Generally, vendors are not going to volunteer information about their products’ deficiencies, tell you whether a product is reaching the end of its life, and so on. That’s where some good research on industry web forums, LinkedIn, and elsewhere can help you uncover information to back up (or refute) vendor claims. Also, spending some money on solid advice from a third-party consultant (such as Scriptorium) is a smart investment, especially compared to the cost of a system that ends up not supporting your needs.
  • What is the exit strategy for moving to another system? If you outgrow a system, how hard is it to transition to another system? Can you, for example, export data to an industry standard format that other systems can import? Completely re-creating information in a new system is an inefficient, error-prone time sink you want to avoid.

It’s always great to get the budget to buy new tools and technology. Just be sure the tools you buy support clearly defined business goals.

How fast food can help your content strategy

February 23, 2015 by

These days, I generally avoid fast food, but it’s hard to pass up good French fries every now and then. Look beyond those yummy fries, and you can learn some valuable lessons that apply to content strategy.

A consistent—yet location-tailored—experience

In 1986, I took a whirlwind tour of Europe with a group of other teenagers. About a week into our trip, our not-so-refined palates were craving some American fast food. In Venice, we were elated to see this canopy:

Wendy restuarant in Venice, Italy

When in Venice, eat as the American teens do. Wendy(‘s) of Venice, 1986.

Even though the ‘s was missing because the English-language possessive makes no sense in Italian, we instantly recognized the lettering. The food was also comfortingly familiar. I was on another continent, but much of the food could have been from the Wendy’s just down the street from my family home in North Carolina.

That said, the menu board was in Italian, and there were some differences in the food that reflected Italian culinary flair. The burgers were also smaller than their American counterparts, perhaps to better match European serving sizes or to reflect supply costs.

Does your company’s content offer a similarly consistent experience that takes regional differences into account? In this global economy, distributing content in one language with little thought about delivery in other locales is usually a losing (and revenue-limiting) proposition. Merely translating words into another language is not enough, either. You also need to consider several issues, including:

  • Are images and colors culturally appropriate?
  • Does your content contain turns of phrase that are region-specific?
  • Can the formatting of your content handle text expansion from translation or a shift from a left-to-right language to a right-to-left language (or vice versa)?

My visit to the Venetian Wendy—without the ‘s, thank you very much—was an early lesson in adapting for different locales. A trip to Venetian fast-food outlets might give you some perspective, too. (Good luck with that expense report. I doubt “Alan Pringle told me to go to Venice” will cut it.)

“Have it your way”

I’ve already dated myself with the previous post about my teenage years, and I’m about to do it again with this ad:

“Have it your way” was a Burger King slogan for 40 years. As long as I can remember, the chain has promoted its ability to accommodate customers’ tweaks to menu items.

I’m no expert on fast-food workflows, but I’ll bet Burger King has done all sorts of studies on how to crank out the food quickly while fulfilling customers’ special requests. The chain has probably instituted specific processes based on those studies. Burger King knows it will lose business if it cannot correctly and quickly prepare customized food items.

Implementing intelligent content can help you deliver customized information to your customers—even more quickly than Burger King can put extra ketchup on your Whopper.

Suppose your company sells multiple models of the same item. Some features are consistent across all models, but other features are specific to particular versions. With intelligent content in place, you could create a web portal or app through which customers specify the model they own, what accessories they have, and so on, to generate instant custom content. It takes a lot of planning and work to set up systems that deliver on-the-fly custom information, but it is possible—and some companies are doing it now.

In addition to customizing the content itself, you also need to consider how information is displayed on phones, tablets, computers, and who knows what devices in the future. If your content doesn’t display well on differently sized screens, you aren’t letting customers have it their way. (I’m as displeased about reading a big PDF on my phone as I am about a restaurant that won’t hold the mayo on a burger. Blech.)

Any other “special sauce” lessons you’ve applied to your content strategy? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

2015 content trends

January 12, 2015 by

It’s a new year, which means it’s time for Scriptorium to discuss—and wildly speculate about—the latest trends in content. Here’s what Bill Swallow, Gretyl Kinsey, and I had to say about 2015 content trends.

Content strategy driven by IT

dog with paw on laptop keyboard

flickr: ttarasiuk

Alan: Years ago, IT was brought in a little later in [content strategy projects], and there was also some adversarial positioning going on. I can remember one client saying, “Our IT department: they’re impossible to work with. We don’t like them.” The IT department turned out to be a really huge asset for them and really went to the mat to the help them get systems set up like they should have been.

More recently, I have seen cases where IT departments are the primary stakeholder and are the folks who are really instigating changes in content strategy because they see the overall bigger picture of how content is flowing across the company.

Gretyl: [One concern is] when your IT department is driving a project but then they are going to make a decision that works really well for them but makes things harder for content creators or doesn’t serve the organization as well as a whole.

Content as part of the customer journey

Gretyl: When someone is buying a product, they’re not just buying a product. They are buying an experience. It’s becoming a lot more important for content to be a major part of that experience of the customer journey. Marketing content will be what draws you in or educates you about the product.

And there is also some room for technical content to come into play here as well if you are looking for something that has a lot of technical information you need to know about before you can make a choice.

Bill: It seems to be a trend more on the customer side as an expectation. I think a lot of companies are really starting to pick up on this after the fact. What we’re seeing is people responding to improper information being posted online; we see a lot of complaining on social media. Pretty soon, the company is playing catch-up trying to save face.

Executive eye on content

dog wearing glasses

flickr: Monsieur Gordon

Bill: For a while now, the idea of having an executive sponsor for a major project like a content strategy implementation was fairly commonplace. But more and more, we are seeing executives who have a firm investment in the project if not direct ownership over it—so much so that we are seeing more titles out in the field for a chief content officer. [The title] was traditionally reserved for a lot of broadcasting and media companies. But now we’re seeing it in lots of different consumer companies, software, hardware, manufacturing.

Alan: There’s a stereotype out there: executives know nothing about the real world. There are some people [for which] that is true, unfortunately. They’re a little out touch with what’s going on. But I have also seen the flip side of that very vividly where an executive basically says, “I don’t need all these metrics; I don’t need all these numbers. I can tell you exactly what is wrong with this part of the big picture. I know content is part of it. Fix it.” Sometimes, they have an uncanny ability to zero in on exactly what the problem is.

Accommodating experts as content contributors

Alan: I’ve really seen an increase in content creators wanting to be sure that subject matter experts, tool experts, [and] internal experts are able to contribute content easily to the process and to review content. More and more content creation systems are allowing people to actually get into the source—and not necessarily edit the source—but to suggest edits, and someone on the content creation side can approve it.

Gretyl: This goes along with the idea of getting more and more technologically inclined. That’s really helping our content strategy both inside and outside the organization. While we’ve talked a lot before about how [technology] is helping the customer; this is the flip side of that. If you’ve got content contributors that really don’t know anything about your actual [content] creation process—they just know about the subject they’re an expert in— this is using technology to your best advantage.

Cross-company focus in content strategy implementation

Sled dogs running

flickr: Frank Kovalchek

Gretyl: For me, this a trend mostly about breaking down silos. These groups don’t interact and collaborate—and if they do interact, it’s to say, “Don’t touch my stuff.” What this leads to is content that really doesn’t work well together, and that can hold your company back. One of the ways you can get rid of this idea of silos is to develop a content strategy that encompasses all your content, and that will be more effective than just developing a content strategy, for example, for one department and ignoring all the others.

Bill: The cross-company focus is definitely on the rise, but it comes back to, “People really love their silos.” Even if they don’t, and they do want to work outside the silo, a lot of times, there is so much embedded in the way they need to work, the channels they have to go through because of financial reasons or because of reporting structures, that it is going to hinder this cross-company focused growth.

“Old” social media platforms decline

Bill: The social media landscape is going to change—it has been changing—but there are some outliers there that have been around for quite a while. Even though they still seem new to many of us, according to my kids and my kids’ friends, these are all “Mom-and-Dad networks all the old people are using.” They want nothing to do with it. They maintain a Facebook page to talk to family, but a lot of their actual interactions with friends are done on private networks, which is kind of scary.

It speaks to a different way of looking at social applications, social networking, and sharing of information. We’re not going to see a lot of Facebook, Google Plus, blogging, and other resources used by the younger generation. So, our social media and social engagement strategies around content strategy are going to need to adapt.

Alan: I think this goes back to one of the oldest and best guidelines for any kind of writing—tech comm, marcom, whatever—and that is know your audience. That’s the most important thing here. I think we’ve all seen in social media and advertising [when] companies selling fairly traditional products [are] trying to play like they’re all hip. It’s painful, absolutely painful, to see.

We had fun during the event. You can see for yourself when you watch the recording:

You’ll probably enjoy my “Did I really say that?” moments a lot more than I did!

Content strategy and DITA and localization, oh my! Our best of 2014

December 29, 2014 by

Yes, you need another “best of 2014″ list to round out the year. Without further ado, here are Scriptorium’s top 2014 blog posts on content strategy, DITA, and localization.

A hierachy of content needs

Based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the layers are from bottom to top: available, accurate, appropriate, connected, and intelligentMaslow has his hierarchy of human needs: physiological, safety, and so on.

We have our hierarchy of content needs.

Ten mistakes for content strategists to avoid

As content strategy spreads far and wide, we are making old mistakes in new ways. Here are ten mistakes that content strategists need to avoid.

XML publishing: Is it right for you?

Wondering about a transition from desktop publishing to XML publishing for your content? Check out our new business case calculator. In five minutes, you can estimate your savings from reuse, automated formatting, and localization.

Managing DITA projects (premium)

A DITA implementation isn’t merely a matter of picking tools. Several factors, including wrangling the different groups affected by an implementation, are critical to successfully managing DITA projects (registration required).

Content strategy mistake: replicating old formatting with new tools

photo of rubber stamp

(flickr: woodleywonderworks)

When remodeling your kitchen, would you replace 1980s almond melamine cabinets with the same thing? Probably not. Then why make the content strategy mistake of using new tools to re-create the old formatting in your content?

 

XML workflow costs (premium)

Everyone wants to know how much an XML workflow is going to cost. For some reason, our prospective clients are rarely satisfied with the standard consultant answer of “It depends.” This premium post (registration required) breaks down typical XML projects at four different budget levels: less than $50,000, $150K, $500K, and more than $500K.

Content strategy burdens: cost-shifting

In assessing an organization’s requirements, it’s important to identify content strategy burdens. That is, what practices or processes impose burdens on the organization? A content strategy burden might be an external cost, such as additional translation expense, or it might be an internal cost, such as a practice in one department that imposes additional work on a different department. A key to successful content strategy is to understand how these burdens are distributed in the organization.

Three factors for evaluating localization vendors

Localizing content can be a frustrating and expensive effort. In addition to per-word costs and turnaround times, keep these three key factors in mind when choosing a vendor.

XML product literature

Maria robot from movie Metropolis

“Machine Human” Maria in Metropolis (1927)

Your industrial products become part of well-oiled machines. Unfortunately, your workflow for developing product literature may not be as well-oiled. Using desktop publishing tools (such as InDesign) to develop product literature means you spend a lot of time applying formatting, designing complex tables, and so on. This post provides three examples of how XML can improve your processes for developing product literature.

Content strategy: first steps (premium)

Content: You’re doing it wrong. That’s easy for us to say—we rarely hear from people who are happy with their content. But are you ready for a major transformation effort? Our approach is to assess the overall content lifecycle, meet with all the stakeholders, identify needs, develop a strategy, and then execute the strategy. If you want a more incremental approach, consider these inexpensive first steps (registration required).

Content strategy vs. the undead

Lego zombie hunter; image via Kenny Louie on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Flickr: Kenny Louie

Implementing a content strategy can involve overcoming many challenges. Some of these challenges can be quite scary and hazardous to your strategy. In fact, overcoming these challenges is a lot like battling the undead.

 

Localization best practices (premium)

Localization—the process of adapting content to a specific locale—is a critical requirement for global companies. More than ever, products and services are sought, purchased, and consumed in multiple language markets. Proper localization practices are critical to drive sales, and they can save you time and money in production.

This post (registration required) describes best practices for efficient, effective localization.

Scriptorium wishes you the best for 2015! Please join us on January 8 for our annual trends webcast. This popular event is free, but registration is required.

Want to solve some content problems in 2015? Contact us. We’d love to help.

Categories: Opinion | Permalink | Comments Off on Content strategy and DITA and localization, oh my! Our best of 2014

XML product literature

October 27, 2014 by

Your industrial products become part of well-oiled machines. Unfortunately, your workflow for developing product literature may not be as well-oiled.

Using desktop publishing tools (such as InDesign) to develop product literature means you spend a lot of time applying formatting, designing complex tables, and so on. These time-consuming, manual chores:

  • Lengthen the amount of time it takes to get information to customers
  • Make it difficult to update information quickly
  • Provide many opportunities for introducing errors into content

XML-based workflows can solve these challenges in the development of product literature for machinery and industrial components. This post provides three examples of how XML can improve your processes for developing product literature:

  • Creating specification sheets
  • Managing common content across models, product lines, and departments
  • Handling OEM rebranding

Creating specification sheets

Putting together spec sheets and datasheets in a traditional desktop publishing environment is just painful. It’s easy to introduce significant errors by merely transposing digits in a part number, for example, and let’s not get into the horror of composing tables in a DTP tool. By the time you finish the layout, the information may be outdated—and customers haven’t even seen it yet!

Maria robot from movie Metropolis

“Machine Human” Maria in Metropolis (1927)

Part numbers, product dimensions, and the like often exist in a database (or multiple databases). It’s better to extract that content as some kind of markup language from the database and then and insert it into the source files for product literature.

The exact process will vary depending on the database and other tools involved, but generally, you want a workflow that extracts the information from the database and formats it automatically. By eliminating the need for human intervention (typing information, applying formatting, and so on), you reduce the possibility of introducing errors and shorten the amount of time it takes to get content to customers.

Because the workflow is automated, you can also release updates more frequently. If you release specs or datasheets in electronic format (web pages, for example), you could set up nightly updates to distribute the latest information.

Managing common content across models, product lines, and departments

The different models of a product usually have shared features, and those common features can stretch across product lines that contain the same parts.

In a traditional desktop publishing environment, it’s very easy to end up with multiple versions of content about a particular part or feature because there is no “single source of truth.”

A modular content workflow eliminates this problem: you develop chunks of content and mix and match them for a particular information product (a user manual or web page, for example) according to product features. Generally, a component content management system (CCMS) manages the chunks, and authors can search the CCMS to find the modules of content they need.

Sharing content modules has two big benefits: the reuse means you’re reducing the amount of time it takes to develop content, and you present customers with consistent information within and across product lines.

Content chunks can also be shared across departments. For example, a table with specs for a part can appear in a user guide, a trade show handout, and on the web site. Even though that table may be presented with different formatting in those information products, the XML source is still the same for all. That’s the great benefit of XML-based content: formatting (usually applied through automated processes) is completely separate from the content itself.

You really need XML at the core of your content to implement industrial strength (ahem) modular processes. One XML content standard, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), is specifically for developing modular technical content. Even if an XML standard isn’t an exact fit for your requirements, you can adapt and modify it. After all, the X in XML stands for “extensible.”

Handling OEM rebranding

If your company provides components to other companies in an OEM relationship, an XML workflow streamlines the rebranding of content.

The separation of content and formatting inherent in XML workflows means you don’t have to open up and modify multiple source files to change logos, corporate fonts and colors, and so on. Instead, you create a new automated formatting process (possibly using your company’s transformation as a starting point), or you apply the other company’s existing formatting transformation if they are already in XML. The correct formatting is applied automatically, saving both companies a great deal of time—and that automatic formatting means you and your partner dramatically shorten the time to market for OEM equipment. By the way, all this talk about the separation of content and formatting has another huge benefit: decreased localization costs and faster release of localized content because you eliminate the manual reformatting work associated with translating content.

XML workflows also provide mechanisms for quickly switching out company and product names, addresses, and so on. The modular nature of many XML workflows also enables a partner company to select just the chunks of information they need about an OEM component.

Even if two companies are using two different “flavors” of XML, scripting can automate conversion. It is much easier to convert XML to XML than to convert content in one desktop publishing program to another.

 

Desktop publishing tools are wonderful for creating visually rich information. But for product literature, you need a system that produces attractive content, speeds up content production, eliminates tedious reformatting work, and streamlines translation.

XML is a better fit for product literature.

Need more information about how XML product literature can help your company? Contact us.