When you travel, do people ask you for directions and address you as if you live in the area? I’ve had that happen a few times, and friends and colleagues have shared similar experiences.
You may not stand out as an obvious tourist on your travels. But does the content you distribute fit in as well across different environs?
No, not everyone speaks English
The world is now a global economy. If you expect to reach the widest audience possible for your products and services, localizing your content is a must—and in some cases, it’s a legal requirement to sell in other countries.
Also, making assumptions that everyone speaks a particular language (cough, English, cough) is a really bad idea when traveling, and it’s really, really bad idea in business. Don’t be one of those arrogant tourists (or companies!) who thinks everyone will adapt to them.
Dress for your location
Flickr: Jean-François Gornet
When traveling, it’s a good idea to bring clothes that are a good match for the location’s climate and attitude. Wearing the wrong clothing makes you really stand out, and not in a good way. It’s also downright uncomfortable.
The formats in which you present your content require similar thought. If your customers are using tablets and phones to access information, distributing your content just as PDF documents is not the right fit. Also, does your web content display well in both desktop and mobile browsers?
Get feedback from your customers on how they want to consume your content, and adapt your formats accordingly. Otherwise, users will go elsewhere.
How else can companies make sure their content isn’t an obvious tourist? Leave your tips in the comments.
Information Development World September 30–October 2 San Jose
Next week at Information Development World, Bill Swallow is presenting on Localization Planning and The Content Strategy of Things, and Gretyl Kinsey is presenting on the Unsung Heroes of DITA.
Please drop by our booth in the exhibition hall to chat with Bill and Gretyl—and to get some chocolate!
Bill Swallow is presenting on Content Strategy: Disrupting the Traditional LSP at LocWorld 29. He is also on a panel, Smart Products and Connected Devices Require Intelligent Localized Content.
At LavaCon, Sarah O’Keefe is presenting on Content Strategy Triage. Visit with her and me at Scriptorium’s booth, where we can talk about content strategy. And eat chocolate, of course.
Sarah O’Keefe is offering a tutorial on Unified Content Development: Marketing, Technical, and Support Communication at tcworld. I’m presenting on Balancing Standardization Against the Need for Creativity.
If you’d like to schedule a meeting with us during these conferences, please contact us—and safe travels!
Want a deeper dive into the DITA information types (concept, topic, reference, and glossary)? Today, we are releasing our second course on the DITA concept topic. The course and supporting videos were created by a Scriptorium team led by Gretyl Kinsey (with help from Simon Bate, Jake Campbell, and me).
Here’s the course outline:
Lesson 1: Creating a concept topic
Lesson 2: Images and tables
Lesson 3: More elements
Lesson 4: Advanced elements
Lesson 5: XML overview and best practices
Don’t worry: we aren’t neglecting other topic types! Two more courses are coming your way in October and November:
The DITA task topic (scheduled for October 2015)
Lesson 1: Creating a task topic
Lesson 2: Creating steps
Lesson 3: Finishing up the task
Lesson 4: Best practices for tasks
The DITA glossary entry and reference topics (November 2015)
Lesson 1: Creating a glossentry
Lesson 2: Creating a reference topic
Lesson 3: Best practices for glossaries and references
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:
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.
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.
Our new DITA learning site, LearningDITA.com is now live with its first course, Introduction to DITA.
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:
What is DITA?
Creating DITA content
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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:
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.