Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

“You don’t own me—or your content!”: the motivated consumer’s mantra

January 13, 2014 by

I love Downton Abbey. I love my Honda Fit.

And I will consume content about those things—even when their creators would prefer I not.

Today’s digital world means that information is global. Sure, ITV can release Downton Abbey in the UK during the last quarter of a year, and PBS can rebroadcast it in the US just a few weeks later. But if ITV and PBS think they can keep the show from American audiences during the initial UK broadcasts, they are very mistaken.

I saw information about the fourth season of Downton Abbey in my Facebook news feed while it was airing in the UK, and headlines about the show from UK-based sites made their way into my RSS feeds. Also, I’ve heard it’s not too hard to find the latest episodes on various not-entirely-legal file sharing sites. Die-hard fans in the US aren’t going to let intellectual property concerns block their immediate access to the Dowager Countess’s sharp tongue and poor Edith‘s latest jilting. Many folks over here watch the show pretty much in real-time as it airs in the UK, even though I’m sure PBS would strongly prefer that Americans watch the official US broadcasts—which seem to correspond with pledge drive season (ahem).

Meanwhile, in Japan, Honda released the third generation of its compact hatchback, the Fit (known as the Jazz in some markets),  in September. That new model won’t be available in the US until later this year, and Honda just launched a site to give US residents a glimpse of the new model. If I kindly give Honda my email address and phone number, they will send me more information on the new model. Oh really, Honda?

I don’t need to cough up my personal information to see photos and specs for the new Fit. I can check out non-Honda sites and blogs (such as this post from July 2013) to get information on the car and what I can expect in the version released in the US.

As content creators and managers, we have to realize that motivated consumers are going to ferret out information through unofficial (and even legally dubious) channels—particularly in situations where releases are staggered across different geographical markets. While there are legitimate reasons for releasing products at different times across world markets (and localization lag time is not a good reason, BTW), our product and content strategies must account for those who really want information—and don’t give one whit if it comes first from an unofficial source.

You cannot control the flow of content once it’s out there or pretend like it doesn’t exist because you didn’t release it. Copyright issues aside, you can’t hold on to antiquated notions about “owning” information in the Internet age. Consumers will speed right by you if you’re not giving them the information they want when they want it—and they may never turn back to your official content again.

P.S. My apologies to Lesley Gore for appropriating the title of her hit song:

Marginalizing tech comm with four little words

December 16, 2013 by

“I’m just the writer.”

For your 2014 New Year’s resolution, please stop yourself from verbalizing those words if they pop into your head. I ask this as someone who has both thought and said (doh!) those very words, especially during my early tech writing career.

Many companies are grappling with a common problem in their technical content. The content covers the what but it is light on the why and how. As a result, frustrated customers call support and create a financial double-whammy: a great deal of money is wasted on shallow, unhelpful technical content, and that costly failure is compounded by the additional support costs.

One way to deepen the context in your content is by providing rich, real-world examples that illustrate the why and how. Unfortunately, the only way you can develop those examples is by truly understanding the products you’re documenting.

Does this mean you need to become a product developer? Nope. But you do need to communicate and collaborate with product developers/SMEs more on their level. These days, a lot of SMEs are being asked to contribute content, so it’s not unreasonable for you to contribute your brainpower to a deeper understanding of your employer’s products.

So, next time you feel yourself flailing in a mire of technical detail about the product you’re documenting, take a deep breath and fight the temptation to fall into the trap of “I’m just a writer.” You must be more more than a stenographer and desktop publisher for product developers. Don’t let anyone—particularly yourself—marginalize tech writing in such a manner. If we act (or are merely viewed) as stenographers, there is little value placed on the content we create.

And that is when tech comm becomes expendable.

Cover from record for practicing stenography. Shows record player, typewriter, and rotary phone.

Stenography in tech comm is as forward-thinking as record players, typewriters, and rotary phones (flickr: epiclectic).

Are you ready to rumble for your content strategy?

November 19, 2013 by

If you can’t handle some rough-and-tumble adversity, you are not ready to manage the implementation of a new content strategy.

Implementing new processes of any kind is rarely a pleasant experience. Even the most meticulous planning won’t eliminate every bump (or enormous sinkhole) in the road. HR consultant Bruce Clarke says:

A normal person sees struggle or failure and averts their eyes. They want neither to be a witness nor part of the cure. They are simply grateful it was someone else.

That means you need to be one of those abnormal managers who is willing to address struggle head-on, even when it is tempting to take the easier route of avoiding difficulty or conflict.

Rock'em Sock'em Robots photo

Flickr: Jeff Sandquist

What’s your biggest adversary in the ring of content strategy implementation? New tools and technology are certainly formidable challengers, especially when you’re just learning about them as you are evaluating them. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with tools, but you can rely on the advice of a consultant to coach you through the tool rounds of your content strategy fight.

As tough as new technology can be, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that tools are your biggest challenge. People are.

In general, people in professional environments do not like change. They become proficient in the current processes and comfortable with routine. So comfortable, in fact, they often can’t see how the inefficiencies of current processes do not support the greater business goals of the company.

Managing people’s resistance to change is by far the most important thing you will do during your content strategy implementation; conflicts will inevitably arise as changes are discussed and then put in place. You can address those challenges with:

If you go into the ring without these things, you’re going to find yourself knocked out in a very early round.

Years ago, a coworker at another job said to me, “People! Who needs ‘em?!?” after witnessing some colleagues behaving badly.  Well, as the manager of an implementation project, you need people, even if their behavior is sometimes less than stellar. Your colleagues can become your biggest advocates and evangelize process change to those who don’t buy in early on.

With additional advocates communicating about—and fighting for—the implementation, you can more easily overcome resistance and win your content strategy fight.

Impressions of the tcworld conference from a jet-lagged mind

November 11, 2013 by

BIG.

That’s my first impression of the tcworld conference, from which I just returned. I’m still jet-lagged from my trip, but I wanted to briefly share my experiences with those—especially from the US—who are considering attending in the future.

  • Even if you are warned ahead of time that the event is big, you still will be overwhelmed by its sheer size. We heard there were roughly 3900 attendees at the tcworld/tekom/trade show events. (See Kai Weber’s blog for an explanation of tcworld vs. tekom and the trade show.) That number is 4 to 10 times the number of attendees I usually see at US-based conferences. The number of exhibitors and halls for vendor booths is also way beyond what I see at US-based tech comm conferences. The booths are big and elaborate, and some featured bartenders and baristas serving drinks. There was even a blimp floating around.
  • You’ll learn about vendors you know nothing about. Take a look at the list of vendors attending, and you’ll quickly realize there are different ecosystems of tools and vendors in Europe and Asia than the US. (Yes, there is some overlap with the US, but not as much as you might think.) After one of the workshops Sarah O’Keefe and I did, I talked to an attendee who knew nothing about Scriptorium and what we do. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience. Never, ever assume everyone knows—or even cares—about what your company does.
  • The focus on standards is much greater in Europe and Asia than in the US. There were many presentations devoted to different standards that can affect tech comm, and I had never heard of many of them. The presentations I attended on standards were not particularly exciting, but I needed to attend sessions on topics that were new to me.
  • Learning about and experiencing other cultures is as important as attending the event. You can learn a lot about different cultures by merely talking to vendors and participants about topics other than tech comm. Also, I recommend that you make time to visit the city around you. Yes, the conference schedule is very full, but you can have dinner out during the evening (or maybe even miss a particular time slot at the conference so you can walk around the city during the day). I walked around Wiesbaden in the late afternoons just to soak up the city a bit. I was fortunate to have a free Saturday after the conference to visit the nearby city of Mainz, which has a beautiful, 1000-year-old cathedral and the Gutenberg Museum. Being inside a building that’s stood for a millenium should give anyone pause, but it was particularly affecting to me as a citizen of the US, where our historical buildings are generally less than 300 years old.

Special thanks to everyone who gave me really great advice before I left for the conference. I was glad to meet many of you face-to-face.

P.S. Ellis Pratt, I never saw a Flachspüler, and I can’t say I’m unhappy about that!

Help this first-time tcworld attendee, please!

October 29, 2013 by

Whew! I’m just back from the excellent LavaCon event in Portland. I have (mostly) recovered from that trip, so now I’m focusing on the upcoming tcworld conference in Wiesbaden, Germany. And I need your help!

tcworld 2013 logoNext week will be my first visit to tcworld (and to Germany). Veteran tcworld attendees are accustomed to seeing Sarah O’Keefe there,  and Sarah’s already given me some great pointers on what to expect. I’d like to get some advice from you, too, on:

  • Choosing sessions. Do you have a strategy for picking sessions? What’s on your must-see list?
  • Visiting the trade show. What should I expect from vendors? I’m bracing myself for a bit of cultural shock on two fronts. Scriptorium won’t have a booth at this event, so I won’t have my usual booth duties. Also, I’ve heard booths are a bit more elaborate at tcworld than many of the events I attend in the US.
  • Networking. I’m attending the International Networking Dinner on Wednesday, where I’m sure I’ll meet many, many people. Any other networking suggestions?
  • What to wear. Any article of clothing you wished you had brought (or left at home)? I’ve seen photos of past tcworld events, and it looks like tcworld attendees dress a notch more professionally than those at US-based tech comm events, where I see more casual attire. Is my assessment accurate?
  • Food, food, food. If you follow Scriptorium’s blog or my Twitter feed, you probably know I like to eat (and I’m partial to good pastries and chocolate). What culinary adventures do you recommend in the Wiesbaden area?
  • General travel advice. I’ve been to Europe before for business and vacation, but this will be my first visit to Germany. Any travel tips? (My years of studying Latin have helped me somewhat with Romance languages, but they won’t be so helpful with German!)

I look forward to meeting you next week—especially those I’ve known for years through blog interactions, Twitter, and webcast events but have never met in person. Also, I’ll be helping Sarah out during The Game of Content Strategy presentation, which runs on Wednesday and Thursday. Hope to see you there!

P.S. If you’d like to schedule a meeting with Sarah or me during the conference, send us a message through our contact form.

How the “we-meeting” kills good tech comm

October 14, 2013 by

Does this sound familiar?

One reason for lack of accountability is the we-meeting. You know the one: “We need a new process for handling customer service issues.” Lots of discussion follows, but no clear direction is given, nor is any responsibility taken.

Bruce Clarke (The View from HR column) referencing consultant Kathleen Kelly

Having worked on many content strategy projects, I can confirm the “we-meeting” is a huge problem for tech comm professionals—particularly when it comes to getting subject matter experts to review technical content.

Photo of ax

Flickr: Martin Cathrae

A solid technical review can be the difference between technical content that merely rehashes the patently obvious (“Press the Print button to print.” Oh really?) and content that gives users depth, context, and useful examples. A technical review must be a collaboration between the SME and writer. Unfortunately, some SMEs (and a handful of tech writers) often see reviews as cursory obligations that should get as little attention as possible. That attitude is deadly for useful content.

What’s the cure for these useless, superficial review cycles? Accountability, which can take many forms, including:

  • Using workflow tools to assign and track content reviews. For example, software companies already use bug tracking tools, so consider using the bug tracker to track review comments, too. Component content management systems often offer collaborative review tools and include ticketing systems, tracking mechanisms, so on.
  • Building in reviews as part of the development process. Scheduling reviews not only sets aside crucial time for reviews, but it also sends the message, “Reviews are an official part of the process.”
  • Specifying what’s in and out of bounds for technical reviews. For example, nitpicks over formatting should be outlawed. If formatted content is what’s being reviewed, technical reviewers should not be requesting changes to line spacing, formatting, and so on, particularly when that formatting is merely aesthetic. (A bad line break in a code sample that could cause errors is another story, though.) If you’re working in an XML-based environment, you may have some options to present review content in a vanilla, formatting-neutral manner that stops useless formatting feedback in its tracks.
  • Instituting consequences for reviews that are late or do not meet criteria. Management has to step up and do icky management things when reviews don’t occur when they are supposed to. If reviewers and content creators aren’t giving reviews time and care, they are failing to meet their obligations as employees.

Codifying review cycles and their objectives is not fun. But you’ve got to do it to get “we-meetings” out of your tech comm.

 

 

 

Blemished—but better—tech comm?

September 4, 2013 by

Consumers’ demand for perfect things drives a lot of pesticide use….Ninety percent of pesticide use in apple crops is to get the last five percent of quality of the fruit.

That comment near the end of an On Point podcast confirmed that accepting a few blemishes on an apple treated with fewer or no synthetic insecticides is a compromise I am willing to make. It also made me think more about a tech comm–related post I saw last week.

There have been more than 100 responses to a LinkedIn post in the Technical Writer Forum about whether one or two spaces follow the period at the end of the sentence. I suppose I should be happy that the tech comm community has active social media networks, but my response was a lot less positive:

I’m skeptical that end users of technical content are that concerned about the number of spaces of following a period. The technical writers’ desire for writing that perfectly adheres to a rule is what’s “driving demand” in the case of that post.  Tech writers are not the true consumers of technical content. The end users are.

I’m not advocating style guide–free writing here. Style guidelines are important because they are the foundation of consistent writing, which is easier to understand and translate. But style guides are a small part of what makes good technical content. Stylistically pristine content is useless if it is technically inaccurate or doesn’t address the audience at the right level. It’s also a waste if it’s locked away in a PDF file that end users can’t find online, for example.

apples

flickr: ollesvensson

Technical writers are generally better writers than most, but we can’t let our writing skills be our primary defining factor. Being a good writer is just a prerequisite in tech comm today; you can’t sustain a career in this industry by focusing on writing ability and style guides as your areas of expertise. (Besides, there are now tools that can automatically enforce style guidelines. Keeping a solitary focus on style is particularly foolhardy when a tool can do it for you.) We also can’t project our need for excellent writing on the audiences for technical information. For them, stylistically “good enough” writing is often plenty enough.

Move beyond the mechanics of writing and ensure your content reaches your audience and gives them the answers they need. If the time it takes to make your content more accurate, accessible, and intelligent means there are a few stylistic blemishes—many of which end users won’t even notice—so be it.

I think it’s a worthy compromise.

P.S. I have a degree in English and worked as a technical editor for years. Style guidelines are probably floating around in my bloodstream.

 

Webcast: Managing DITA implementation

August 16, 2013 by

In this webcast recording, Alan Pringle discusses key factors for DITA implementation success. Alan touches on the following issues:

  • Good and bad conversion strategies
  • Information architecture and content modeling issues
  • Wrangling the various factions (authors, implementers, IT, and executives)
  • CMS evaluation and vendor management

Avoiding buyer’s remorse: techcomm tools edition

July 15, 2013 by

Yes, you can call me overly cautious.

Before making a purchase, I will research the you-know-what out of the item. If it’s a big purchase, I’ll hire a professional to help me make my decision (particularly when it comes to real estate). I’d rather part with a bit more cash than get angry with myself later for a bad purchase.


This careful mindset is why I can’t understand companies that purchase tools first and then seek consultants to help implement those tools. Why not work with a consultant before you buy?

In techcomm, we focus on tools. A lot. After all, tools are what we use every day to get our jobs done. That relentless focus on tools, however, can be a detriment when evaluating new strategies for developing and distributing content. Sarah O’Keefe and I wrote about this in Content Strategy 101:

A high level of proficiency in a specific tool fosters a sense of achievement and security in team members. But a strong attachment to a tool can cause “tool myopia.” … The straightforward (but admittedly painful) cure for this myopia is building requirements. Strategic thinking about content cannot happen when early discussions are framed as “Tool X can do this, and Tool Y can do that.”

When you are considering a move to a completely new process for content (DITA, for example), can you formulate strong requirements if no one on your team has detailed knowledge about that technology? Also, can team members with strong attachments to a tool or particular process objectively develop requirements for the replacement of their Precious?

If you’re fortunate, your company hires someone who has the very knowledge and wrangling skills you need to map business requirements for content to tool requirements. If you aren’t that lucky, I recommend you bring in a consultant—even just part-part-time—to help you sort out your process and tool requirements before you go shopping. The consultant can also help you vet the tools you’re considering.

envelope with tear strip marked "let the buyer's remorse begin"

flickr: benjami

“Imagine that! A consultant telling people to hire a consultant!” More work for content strategy consultants would certainly benefit me. The greater benefit, however, goes to the company that is about to make a huge investment in new tools and processes. Implementing a tool that will not meet the company’s needs in the long term—or that will never deliver what the tool vendor promised—wastes an enormous amount of time and money.

Buyer’s remorse over the purchase of electronics or a car is unpleasant. For expensive, department- and enterprise-level tools, buyer’s remorse can be a career-killer.

 

 

“No PDF for you!” The destructive power of arrogant thinking

June 5, 2013 by

I love it when an offhand remark on Twitter turns into a smart conversation.

 

I was joking with the reference to the much-maligned Windows ME, but Al Martine’s “arrogant thinking” observation is correct. Microsoft was foolish to think one new OS could change decades of how people use the PC interface: “You don’t need a stinkin’ Start button or the ability to boot to a desktop view. You’ll get our new Metro interface and LIKE it.”

Microsoft is about to eat crow with the release of Windows 8.1, which will include—drum roll—a Start button and booting to the desktop interface.

Tech comm professionals can learn some lessons from Microsoft’s poor decisions on Windows 8. We are experiencing huge shifts in how we can distribute content: PDF files/print are being superseded by web pages, ebooks, wikis, video, and more. But that doesn’t mean we just stop producing PDF files because they aren’t cutting edge.

You can’t force your customers to happily rely on new output formats when you’ve supplied just PDF content for the past umpteen releases. This is particularly true if contracts or industry regulations specify how you provide content. If you have a legal requirement to offer PDF, print, or some other format, it doesn’t matter that your HTML pages are searchable or that the EPUB version works well on a tablet. The HTML and EPUB don’t fulfill your obligations.

Even if you don’t have legal reasons to continue to provide PDF files, it’s the height of hubris (and stupidity) to assume your customers will immediately accept content distributed in new ways. Instead, be smart by offering your customers choices in how they consume content. For example, if you want to establish an HTML version of your content, your HTML pages could include links to the PDF manual in the header area.  Google searches will lead customers to particular HTML pages, but if customers want the PDF version,  they can get the PDF file with little extra effort.

More than once, I’ve heard, “PDF is dead, so we aren’t going to offer it any more.” That kind of short-sighted thinking can indeed lead to death—the death of your career at the hands of angry customers who clog up the phone lines and mailboxes of your support department.

Let your business requirements guide how you deliver content, and introduce new outputs alongside your PDF files and other “traditional” formats. Otherwise, your content—and the product it supports—may join Windows 8 as another casualty of arrogant thinking.