Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

tcworld China recap

April 25, 2016 by

The tcworld China event took place in Shanghai April 18 and 19. I was there to present on content strategy and advanced DITA (yes, I hear your gasp of surprise), but for me, the most interesting part of the trip was getting a chance to connect with the technical communication community in China.

Technical Communication in Chinese

“technical communication” in Chinese

There were more than 100 attendees at the event. Most of the people I met were from Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen. There were also participants from other cities, like Nanjing, and from Japan and Singapore.

For those of us completely ignorant of Chinese geography (which I’m embarrassed to say included me until I found out about this trip), here is a basic map:

I don’t recommend making a strategic decision based on my single week in China, but nonetheless, here are some observations.

Blending authoring and localization

In several conversations, I heard about a blended authoring/localization workflow. Technical writers create information in Chinese and work with the engineers to have this information reviewed and approved. Once the Chinese document is finalized, the same technical writers rewrite the information in English. The English document becomes the starting point for localization into all other languages.

English as a pivot language is common in many places, but the difference here is that a single technical writer is expected to create both the Chinese and the English versions of a document. This means that the technical writers must be able to write in both languages.

Academic background

Chinese universities are just beginning to offer technical writing courses. These courses are often intended for engineers. Technical writing is not currently available as an academic major. Like North American technical writers, Chinese technical writers have varied educational backgrounds. The most common is a university degree in English or a related subject like English translation. Engineering or computer science majors also may end up in technical writing.

In English, we usually refer to people “falling into” technical writing, and German has the word “Quereinsteiger”; that is, “a person who climbs in sideways.” In Germany, however, a large percentage of technical communicators have university-level education in technical communication, and there is also a robust certification process.

It remains to be seen which approach the technical communication industry in China will choose, or whether China will choose a third way.

Business relevance

I delivered a presentation on content strategy in technical communication at the event. My key message, as always, was that you need to have business reasons as the driving force behind your content strategy decisions.
tcworld China slide: Chocolate factory with a sign on the wall reading 400kg chocolate every three minutes. Caption for the slide is Justify your approach.

I also spent some time discussing why cheap content is really expensive—product returns, legal exposure, and inefficient content processes all increase the cost of producing information.

tcworld China slide: Two chocolate bunnies with their ears bitten off. Caption is The myth of cheap content

Both of these messages seemed to resonate with the audience, but there was concern about how to get management support for any new content initiatives.

Several people told me that, in China, organizations are often not ready to invest in content or content strategy. Their corporate culture is to keep operational costs as low as possible. This makes the argument for content strategy investment, even with compelling ROI, a difficult one. That said, it is clear that some companies are shifting their strategy toward innovation—they are delivering cutting-edge products rather than commodities.

A view of the Bund and the river at night

Shanghai at night

There is an informal Association of Shanghai Technical Communicators, which communicates mainly via WeChat. If you can read Chinese, that would definitely be something to explore.

Platform differences

At home, I rely heavily on Slack (internal business), Twitter (mostly business), and Facebook (business and personal) for social media, along with email, Skype, web meeting tools, and more. Inside China, people use different platforms, such as WeChat (similar to Twitter). In part, this is because of the Great Firewall. Facebook, for example, is not officially allowed in China, and I expected to be blocked from using it.

What I found, however, was in some locations I could use the Facebook mobile app via a cellular connection (but not Wifi). In other locations, it appeared to be wide open. I had very little luck getting Twitter to work anywhere.

This presents a business problem for us. We want to continue to connect with the Chinese technical communication industry, but the social media tools we use are not appropriate for making those connections. Information posted on Twitter will not reach people in China, but the social media applications used in China are not widely used outside of China. We have a platform divide.

Communication challenges

Finally, I want to talk about some of the communication challenges I ran into. A colleague told me that the biggest challenge in China is that you are functionally illiterate. Although many signs are provided in both Chinese and English, this is quite true. Upon arrival, I hopped in a taxi and told that driver my hotel. But because the hotel name is different in Chinese, it wasn’t until I showed him the written address, in Chinese, that he understood where I needed to go. (Based on advice from colleagues, I was prepared with the necessary version of the address.)

Shanghai was actually easier in this regard than Shenzhen, where I also spent a couple of days. (This is probably a good spot to mention that Yuting Tang of tekom did a fantastic job organizing various outings, providing translation, and acting as a general fixer for me and other speakers. And I had a great time just hanging out with her! Without her, Shenzhen would have been a big challenge.)

In Shanghai, I had a twelve-hour time difference with my office in North Carolina. Given a conference during the Shanghai day, I generally had only a few hours in the evening for synchronous communication. That is, after I got back from one of our epic dining adventures until I fell into bed, I could check in with the office as needed. For a week-long stay, this wasn’t particularly critical. For an ongoing business relationship, though, this introduces obvious challenges. One (China-based) colleague had to leave an evening get-together to attend an 8 p.m. meeting. Another (visiting) colleague had previously scheduled a webcast, so he found himself at his computer at 11 p.m. local time. There’s not much that can be done about the time zones, but best practices like rotating meeting times (so that everyone shares the pain of the occasional 11 p.m. meeting) are important to show some respect to your team members.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in China, and I was delighted to meet a few of the people working in technical communication across the country. I also made a significant dent in the country’s dumpling inventory. Many thanks to Michael Fritz at tekom for the invitation!

Dumplings!

Totally worth the trip.

 

The last mile: getting approval for your content strategy

April 18, 2016 by

You’ve thought about your content strategy. You have a business case. You have a plan. What you don’t have is a budget and approval to proceed. What can you do?

First, recognize your accomplishment. A solid strategy, business case, and plan already put you in the top 25 percent or so. But how do you get over this new hurdle and actually get a funded project with a green light to proceed?

At this point, it’s important to understand that the game has changed. Until now, all of your plotting planning has been inside your content world. To get funding, you need executive approval, and executives by definition work on a broader scale.

go_boardTo get funding, you have to show the value of your project (with a business case, and yours is beautiful). But that’s not enough. Organizations have limited budgets and lots of different projects are competing for scarce funding. You have to prove that your project is more deserving than the other projects. Otherwise, it’s a shiny nice-to-have that gets cut in the first round of budget negotiations.

Can you prove that your project is in fact mission-critical? Here are some factors to look at.

Return on investment

Can you show that the investment will yield increased revenue or cost savings? How long will it take for the organization to recoup the proposed investment? Are you arguing for efficiency and therefore lower cost, or are you arguing for an investment that will result in more revenue?

Another way to show return on investment is by accelerating time to market. If your proposal can speed up delivery of content in a global market, you have a compelling argument. Can you reduce a localization delay currently measured in months down to weeks?

Time

Why are you asking for funding now? What happens if this project doesn’t happen until the next budget cycle? If the answer is “not much,” you can expect delays.

Perhaps you have a window of opportunity in which to make changes and think strategically before your next major product? Or perhaps your products are being redesigned in a way that makes the current strategy unsustainable? If you are increasing the number of required languages every year, the cost of inefficient content development is increasing quickly.

Keep in mind that implementing any sort of major change in content strategy is going to take at least six months. When your executives tell you that “oh, we don’t need that until January 2017” that means you need to get started absolutely no later than June 2016.

Timing is everything. Successful managers learn how the budget cycle and the project allocations really work, and figure out how to work the system. For example, you may have a CFO who responds well to efficiency and isn’t interested in innovation. Your CTO, on the other hand, may want to engage in a detailed discussion of nifty technology. Understand their priorities and work with them.

Customer journey

Technical writers are allergic to buzzwords. But tying your strategy into the current Next Big Thing is smart. With attention focused on the customer journey and the customer experience, your pitch for content strategy should include a focus on these concepts. How will your strategy support them?

Getting approval for your content strategy project requires you to understand how decisions are made in your organization, and then work within that process to get what you want. Some technical communicators feel that the quality of their work should speak for itself, and that these types of games are beneath them. We call them People Who Don’t Get Budget for their Projects.

Creating a unified customer experience with a content fabric

April 11, 2016 by

Coauthored by Anna Schlegel (Senior Director, Globalization and Information Engineering, NetApp) and Sarah O’Keefe (President, Scriptorium Publishing)

This post is also available as a white paper, which you can read in PDF format.

The interest in customer experience presents an opportunity for enterprise content strategists. You can use the customer experience angle to finally get content proposals and issues into the discussion. Ultimately, the challenge is in execution—once you raise awareness of the importance of content synchronization, you are expected to deliver on your promises. You must figure out how to deliver information that fits smoothly into the entire customer experience. At a minimum, that requires combining information from multiple departmental silos.

You need a customer experience that does not reproduce your organization’s internal structure. Customers need relevant, usable, and timely information—they don’t care that the video was developed by tech support and the how-to document by tech pubs. When customers search your web site, they want all relevant results, not just documents from a specific department. Furthermore, they assume you will use consistent terminology and will provide content in their preferred language. To meet these expectations, you need a unified content strategy.

At NetApp, the Information Engineering team uses the term content fabric to describe this unified approach. In the content fabric, customers get seamless delivery of the right information based on their needs. Multiple departments are involved in creating and delivering content. The processes are complex, but customers only see the end result. The content fabric aims to deliver information for each customer at the point of need.

Weaving a content fabric

To deliver a content fabric, you need the following key features:

  • Search across all content sources
  • Content in appropriate format(s)
  • Content in appropriate languages

Each of these requirements expands into significant implementation challenges. To provide search across all content sources, for example, you have to solve the following issues:

    • Provide search across more than a single deliverable (such as a PDF file)
    • Provide search across all deliverables from one department for one product
    • Provide search across all deliverables from all sources for one product
    • Provide search across all deliverables from all sources for all products
    • Align product classification schemes across the organization
    • Align product terminology across the organization
    • Align content localization across the organization

content fabric

Several teams typically share responsibility for content development and delivery. You might have the following:

  • Technical publications for technical communication
  • Technical support for knowledge base
  • IT for web site infrastructure
  • Digital experience for web site architecture and appearance
  • Marketing for technical white papers
  • Training for job aids and e-learning

Each group has a different perspective on information, a different tool set, and a different set of expectations from their content creators. But somehow, you have to ensure that their content works in the big picture.

Unifying content organizations is important

Delivering a seamless content fabric means that different organizations must deliver compatible information. There are two main options to achieve this goal:

  • Consolidate the content creators in a single organization
  • Ensure that diverse content creators use the same content standards

Consolidation makes sense for similar roles. For example, most organizations put the entire technical communication function in a single team. Technical support and marketing have important content to contribute, but their functions and priorities differ from those of tech comm. In this case, the sensible approach is to share content infrastructure, including the following:

  • Terminology and style guides. All content creators must use agreed-upon terminology to refer to the same thing. Everyone uses the same corporate style guide.
  • Taxonomy. The classification system for content is shared across the organization. For example, the organization defines a set of categories, such as product name, release number, and content type, that label products and information.
  • Content structure. A reference document always has the same structure, no matter who created it. Similarly, knowledge base articles always have the same structure across the organization.
  • Content formatting. Content formatting matches corporate branding standards. All company content looks related, and all content of a particular type matches. For example, videos always include the company logo in the lower right corner, use the same types of visuals, and include standard introductions and conclusions. These formatting standards are enforced throughout the organization for all videos, not just in a single department.
  • Search. All website content is searchable through a single search interface.

Connecting content development systems

The content fabric provides the reader with a single point of entry for information. This simple premise requires us to rethink how we develop and deliver information. The easiest way to deliver consistent information is to move all content creators into a single content development environment. Realistically, it’s more likely that you loosely connect multiple systems to produce a consistent end result. Challenges include different content development systems, taxonomies, search, and update cycles. Align these aspects to ensure that each content development pipeline delivers information that fits into the content fabric.

Adding translation to the mix

Globalization adds yet another layer of complexity to the content fabric. You must ensure that your unified delivery extends across all supported languages by making careful decisions about what, when, and how to translate. For example, if an organization wants to increase sales in South America, audit the content assets available in the local languages. Are you providing enough information? Is the content of high quality in the local language? Are you delivering Brazilian Portuguese (as opposed to Portuguese for Portugal) to Brazil? Is information being developed in the local languages or are you translating? If you are translating, what is your strategy for translation, localization, and transcreation?

The value of the content fabric

Why should organizations consider a content fabric like the one proposed at NetApp—a unified content strategy in which content efforts are carefully aligned across the enterprise? After all, it’s challenging to have consistency in a single department, let alone half a dozen groups across a far-flung organization.

The value of the content fabric is two-fold. First, you improve the customer experience. Instead of repeatedly transferring customers from one group to another, you provide the customer with a consistent, high-quality experience, in which questions are addressed in a single location. Second, you improve the overall content development process with less content redundancy and a single set of content development standards. In manufacturing terms, you are reducing waste and improving your quality control.

First steps toward your own content fabric

To begin the move toward your own content fabric, start with some basic questions:

  • What information do you need to deliver and where?
  • How is that information created and by whom?
  • What standards are needed?

Once you understand the current environment, you can look at improving two major areas:

  • Content development: Ensure that all content developers have the tools, technologies, and support they need to produce the right information.
  • Content delivery: Ensure that information is presented to the customer in a unified interface.

Scriptorium and the Information Engineering team at NetApp are collaborating on NetApp’s journey to the content fabric.

Author: Anna Schlegel

Anna SchlegelAnna Schlegel leads the Information Engineering team at NetApp as well as its Globalization Program Strategy Office. Anna is a native of Catalunya and a linguist at heart. @annapapallona is her twitter account. She loves tomatoes and eggplant. She does check baggage.

New LearningDITA course: Using maps and bookmaps

April 4, 2016 by

More than 900 people have signed up for our free DITA courses on LearningDITA.com—thank you! You’ve had a basic introduction to DITA and learned how to write concept, task, reference, and glossary topics. Now you can learn how to collect those topics and establish relationships among them with our newest course: Using maps and bookmaps.

The course and supporting videos were created by a Scriptorium team: Simon Bate, Jake Campbell, and me. The supporting slide deck on DITA maps was created by Pam Noreault, Tracey Chalmers, and Julie Landman.

Flickr: Tom Stovall at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Flickr: Ducklings by Tom Stovall at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

This course includes four lessons on:

  • Creating a map
  • Creating a bookmap
  • Advanced DITA map and bookmap concepts
  • Relationship tables

You’ll learn how to create maps and bookmaps in DITA and add relationship tables to these maps. With guided step-by-step practice and on-your-own exercises, you’ll gain hands-on experience and familiarity with maps.

You’ll also learn about the ways maps can enhance the publication process. Sprinkled throughout each lesson are tips and best practices for publishing your DITA content using maps and bookmaps. There will be more information about publishing in future LearningDITA courses, so stay tuned!

Got any feedback or suggestions for future courses? We welcome any content you’d like to contribute to the ditatraining GitHub repository! Check our project roadmap for information on current and future courses and let us know what else you’d like to see. For notifications about new content on the site, sign up for LearningDITA.com announcements (you can also sign up during site registration).

Special thanks to our LearningDITA sponsors: oXygen XML Editor, The Content Wrangler, and easyDITA.

Webcast: The technology is the easy part! Leading through change

March 28, 2016 by

Change is constant in technical communication. Whether dealing with new technology, shifts in organizational structures, or growing business requirements, content creators must be able to adapt. In this webcast recording, a panel of content experts—Jack Molisani of The LavaCon Conference and ProSpring Staffing, Erin Vang of Dolby Laboratories, Sarah O’Keefe of Scriptorium, and moderator Toni Mantych of ADP—answer questions and give advice about dealing with change in the industry.

(more…)

Do I need a content strategy consultant?

March 21, 2016 by

Do you need a content strategy consultant? If the following signs are uncomfortably familiar to you, the answer is yes:

  • You have contradictory content across departments. Customers get frustrated when the specifications in product literature don’t match what’s in the sales content they read earlier. They then call support to clear up the contradictions. It’s much more efficient to create the content once and reuse it across departments. Increased consistency and accuracy follow.

  • Content lags product releases, particularly in international markets. Gaps between the releases of a product and its content indicate your processes aren’t nimble enough—especially for the globalized industries of the 21st century. See our premium post about localization strategy (free registration required).
  • Content is not in formats the users want. You need to give customers options in how they engage with your content. And merely switching from PDF to some online format is not the best way to handle that.
  • Oh, please. Can’t I solve these problems without a consultant?

    Yes, you can solve these issues on your own. But your chances of success are far greater with help from a content strategy consultant:

    • A seasoned consultant has solved the same kinds of problems for multiple clients. That experience means you get an informed solution. You avoid pitfalls you wouldn’t have anticipated on your own.
      owl giving side eye

      Oh, please! (flickr: Steve Brace)

    • Consultants who have worked with many vendors know which tools and technologies are good fits for particular requirements and corporate profiles. A content strategy consultant can also act as a firewall against less than accurate claims from vendors about solution capabilities. (But be aware of any reselling agreements a consultant has with vendors.)
    • Developing a content strategy requires a dedicated effort. Strategy (and implementation later) cannot be done in the margins of day-to-day work. Often, it’s not feasible to shift internal resources away from existing work to the new strategy. Hiring a content strategy consultant will expedite strategy development without sacrificing resources for existing projects.
    • If a new content strategy requires you to convert source content from one file format to another, a consultant can help you more quickly identify and implement the best migration paths. A good consultant will also keep exit strategies in mind when developing your new processes. It’s smart to have an escape hatch, even if you don’t use it until years later.
    • Change management is the key to any successful project, including content strategy projects. A consultant will recognize the warning signs when people aren’t excited about the project and will have techniques for mitigating change resistance.
    • Often, executives are more receptive to recommendations coming from an outside party—even when the recommendations are identical to what employees have suggested. Is it fair? Not really. But don’t rely on this increased receptiveness to get a content initiative approved. Instead, work with your consultant to hone a strong business case with specifics on the return on investment. A consultant’s project experience can ensure your business case is realistic and compelling.

    So, do you need a content strategy consultant? Contact us.

    QA in techcomm: you need a test bed

    March 14, 2016 by

    When I first started as a QA tech at a small game company, I was immediately thrown into the QA test bed. It was a place where we could test production-ready content without being interrupted by ongoing development or server restarts. Functionality was well-documented and could be used to test against our users’ bug reports.

    When I started working at Scriptorium, one of my first tasks was to develop a content test bed to run alongside our PDF transform to help improve it. For example, one part of our test bed is a massive thread pitch table. It will readily flow across multiple pages, includes both vertical and horizontal straddles, and has varying column widths. If we run into a problem with large tables, I can run that content through, confident that I’ll be able to reproduce the issue and deal with it accordingly.

    Making a test bed

    A test bed is a useful tool when managing your content. In the context of content strategy, a test bed is a set of topics that represents a broad section of your content. However, a test bed is more than just a sample of your production-ready content; to be truly useful, a test bed should be:

    • Modular: You should be able to add and remove chunks of content from your test set. This allows you to quickly set up use cases to verify your output. You also need to be able to quickly trim the size of your test bed to cut down on processing time for tests, unless that test involves a large document.
    • Well-maintained: As your content grows and changes, so too should your test bed. Otherwise, you run the risk of missing critical errors that can creep in when you do your testing.
    • Representative: You should have examples of all major requirements for a particular publication. If you have a table that needs to be formatted in a specific way depending on its context, make sure that you have that example in your test bed. Also keep in mind errors that turned up in the past, so you can keep an eye out for bugs that might creep back into your workflow.
    • Content-neutral: Make the actual content of your test bed generic. While it can be useful to have your actual content in your test bed, it can also make it problematic if you need to hand that test bed off to an outside entity, like a friendly consulting group. If you need to have “real” content in your test bed, make sure that it’s already publicly available or otherwise non-sensitive.

    Using a test bed

    Once you have a solid test bed in place, it can provide benefits both internally and externally. Internally, if you’re using a platform to generate output, you can run your test bed through it to verify any changes made to that platform. Conversely, if you implement a major change to the format of your content, you can use your test bed to more accurately scope the impact of that change. You can also use it as an example to familiarize new authors with your content. Externally, you have content that you can hand off quickly, without spending time compiling a set of appropriate documents that represent your project needs.

    With a bit of maintenance as your documentation needs change, your test bed can become a versatile and powerful tool when both developing and maintaining your content.

    Translation and the complexity of simple content

    March 7, 2016 by

    Translating content for foreign markets can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. While it’s important to keep costs in check, the critical element to watch is quality. The only sure-fire way to ensure quality in translation is to build it into your source.

    GIGO: Garbage in, garbage out

    Storm Trooper action figures startled by a Storm Trooper trash bin

    That’s not what we meant! (flickr: JD Hancock)

    Developing content is often seen as a necessary evil. It’s easy to justify cutting corners to deliver it quickly or create it using fewer resources. After all, it’s just content, right?

    Not quite.

    More often than not, even technical content is being used in the pre-sales cycle. People want to evaluate a product or service before purchasing, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by searching for information online. Content quality in this case might make or break a sale.

    Content quality is also a major factor in retaining existing customers. People are extremely happy when they can easily find answers to their questions without having to call support. Likewise, the easier the answer is to understand, the better.

    So there’s a logical fallacy that content is a necessary evil. It plays a critical role in attracting and retaining happy customers. It is a business cornerstone. This is true in all markets. Despite your translators’ best efforts, the quality of their translation work is a direct reflection on the quality of your source content. And to keep translation costs down, you need to make that effort simple.

    The complexity of simple content

    Simple content does not mean dumbed-down or bare bones. In this context, simple content means streamlined content.

    • Messaging is clear and concise
    • Words are carefully chosen
    • Content is written in discrete chunks (topics)
    • Those chunks are written once and reused wherever appropriate
    • Content is consistently formatted (or better, tagged in XML)

    In short, the entirety of content development is closely monitored and skillfully performed.

    The effort involved is anything but simple, but the benefits far outweigh the work. All of the heavy lifting is done on the source content side, simplifying the translation process.

    When your source content is clear, concise, and complete, it can be translated easily. When content is written once and reused, translators only need to translate it once. When content is consistently tagged, formatting translated content becomes automatic.

    As a result, your content quality is consistent across all languages, your translation costs are reduced, and the translation work is completed quicker, allowing you to accelerate your time to market.

    Considering the true costs of customized structures: DITA specialization

    March 2, 2016 by

    Balancing the standardization of structured content against creative requirements is not just about formatting. When companies choose an XML standard, such as DITA or DocBook, they must evaluate whether to use the default structure or modify it to better fit requirements. The discussion about such changes is a creative process itself. When should a company change default structures?

    This is the third of three case studies about balancing creativity and standardization in XML workflows. This content first appeared in tcworld magazine.

    A company implemented DITA to improve the control over conditional content, support responsive designs for phones and tablets, and manage increasing localization requirements. Content was previously developed with desktop publishing software and distributed in print and PDF. Guides contained procedures with more than 100 steps, which included substeps and sub-substeps.

    By default, the DITA standard does not permit sub-substeps in the task structure. The content creators requested the addition of a sub-substep element.

    Scriptorium’s information architects suggested evaluating the efforts required to either modify or maintain the default structure.

    man using magnifying glass

    Evaluate structure customizations from every angle (flickr: Casey Fleser)

    Modifying the default structure (through a process called specialization) would entail the following work:

    • Developing and testing the structure customization
    • Implementing the change in authoring tools, the component content management system, and stylesheets for each type of output (PDF, HTML, Help systems, etc.)
    • Distributing the customization to localization vendors and ensuring their tool chains support the change
    • Training new writers familiar with the default structure on the customized structure

    Preserving the default DITA structure for the procedures would require the following effort:

    • Rethinking the structure of procedures so that they did not include sub-substeps
    • Rewriting many procedures to follow the new methodology, which would break up lengthy procedures into smaller related procedures

    The content creators were immediately resistant to the idea of rewriting content to match the default structure. They argued that the effort would be too significant due to the large number of procedures. The writers’ bias against the new approach was likely increased by the perception that rewriting was an implicit admission that the current procedures were poorly structured.

    The information architects acknowledged that rewriting the procedures would require great short-term effort. However, they believed that the overall benefits of maintaining the standard outweighed the rewriting effort. There would be no costs for implementing and maintaining structural changes for the company or for its localization vendors. New writers with DITA expertise would not need training on custom elements.

    More importantly, adhering to the standard offered compelling long-term benefits. The information architects rewrote some procedural content in the default structure. The samples demonstrated how shorter procedures increased opportunities for content reuse, which would reduce writing time and improve consistency. Also, the information architects believed it was essential to consider users reading content on the small screens of phones and tablets. Phone and tablet owners would more easily comprehend shorter procedures.

    Breaking up three layers of steps in procedures to just two layers

    Breaking up long procedures into smaller chunks (image by Gretyl Kinsey)

    Ultimately, the content creators and information architects were not able to agree on an approach. The structural changes were not implemented in the pilot project to stay within the project’s budget. However, after the pilot was completed, the information development group hired its own full-time information architect and intended to reevaluate the customization with that resource in place. (Not every consulting engagement has a happy, tidy ending, unfortunately.)

    Content strategy for technical communication

    February 22, 2016 by

    Content strategy is planning to use information to advance an organization’s goals. Your organization should have an enterprise content strategy that covers all customer-facing information, both persuasive content and informational content. Marketing content is generally persuasive, and technical content is generally informational.

    First published: October 19, 2010
    Updated: February 22, 2016

    For marketing content, an enterprise content strategy means creating information that supports the organization’s communication strategy and aligns the voice and tone of content with the corporate branding across all channels.

    For technical content, an enterprise content strategy means identifying business goals and then setting up a content development and delivery system that supports those goals.

    Common business drivers for content strategy in technical communication include:

    • Compliance with legal and regulatory requirements
    • Controlling costs
    • Improving marketing and product visibility
    • Speeding up delivery (reducing time to market)
    • Integration with other content and data sources in the organization

    Compliance

    In many industries, compliance with legal and regulatory requirements is the first priority. Failure to produce content as required in a given market leads to expensive problems and, in extreme cases, the inability to do business at all. To support compliance requirements in technical content, consider the following steps:

    • Clearly document compliance requirements in each market. Requirements will vary by geographical location, product type, and other factors.
    • Pay particular attention to localization requirements. Failure to plan for localization in the product and content planning phase is expensive.
    • Identify critical regulatory differences among markets and develop a strategy to create and manage related content.
    • Ensure that content developers can easily identify approved content.
    • Provide an efficient workflow for compliance review.
    • Provide traceability—the ability to trace back data to its point of origin

    Controlling costs

    Nobody wants to waste time or money, but many organizations have huge inefficiencies in content production and localization due to outdated technologies, convoluted workflows, and general neglect. If you localize content, efficiency gains in the source language(s) are multiplied across each language–two hours fixing page breaks in English might be acceptable, but repeating that process in 20 languages would take a week.

    To manage costs, consider the following:

    • Ensure that content development is efficient. You can apply lean principles to reduce wasted time and effort in content production.
    • Invest in content quality to reduce churn. For example, consistent terminology in content development results in more efficient localization.
    • Reuse content to reduce the total amount of content that you must manage.
    • Automated formatting, especially in multichannel workflows, lets you ensure consistency and timely delivery of the final output formats.
    • Capture metrics related to content costs. For example, a technical support organization might improve technical content to reduce the number of expensive technical support calls.
    • Invest in the right toolchain for your requirements.

    Marketing support

    Technical content is traditionally considered post-sales information, but potential buyers often seek out technical information to help them make a buying decision. Perhaps they want to understand how a specific feature works, or find out the exact production dimensions. Therefore, low-quality technical content can result in lost sales. Like marketing content, technical content is available to the customer throughout the customer journey, not just as an ugly piece of paper in the product box. A company that sells a luxury product needs all aspects of the product to support the premium branding. Technical content can either reinforce the marketing message or contradict it.

    To provide marketing support, consider the following:

    • Ensure that the corporate branding guidelines are followed in all content. Marketing and technical content do not have to use the same exact design, but they should look as though they were created by the same organization.
    • Recognize that any customer-facing information has a de facto role in the sales process.
    • Ensure that localization strategy is aligned across the enterprise and not established department by department.

    Reducing time to market

    Reducing time to market can also drive a content strategy effort. By improving how content is created, managed, and delivered, you can deliver content faster. This tactic is especially important for localization. Many products cannot ship until their documentation is available in the local language. When you speed up the delivery of localized information, the organization gets revenue sooner in localized markets.

    To reduce time to market, consider the following:

    • Look for opportunities to create content in parallel with product development.
    • Look for opportunities to localize in parallel with content creation.
    • Identify process improvement areas, especially those that eliminate delays.
    • Focus on smoothing out the critical path for content.

    Integration with other content and data

    Content and data need to flow across an organization. For example, CAD files produced by engineering are used in technical and marketing documents. Procedures created in technical communications are used by the training group. Knowledge base information moves into technical communications. Inventory information is connected to repair procedures. A focus on integration means understanding where information originates and how to share it efficiently and accurately with the people who need it.

    Technical communication, training, support, and others in boxes, all interconnected with arrows. Below that, a list of possible deliverables with arrows going from the functional areas to the various output boxes.  It's a hot mess, which is basically the point.

    Technical communication content integrates with other content functions across the organization. Graphic: Gretyl Kinsey

    To integrate with other content and data, consider the following:

    • For each information type, understand its lifecycle in the organization: how is it developed and by whom? Where does it go? How often does it change?
    • Assess storage and exchange mechanisms to ensure you can transfer information as needed (hint: if it’s copy and paste, you’re doing it wrong)

     

    Content strategy in technical communication requires you to align content development with business priorities. Instead of focusing on technical content as an expense, understand that it can be an asset. Like any major asset, content requires strategic planning to ensure that you extract maximum value from it.