Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Content strategy: first steps (premium)

November 24, 2014 by

Content: You’re doing it wrong. That’s easy for me 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.

Delivery formats

Newborn fawn

Baby steps // flickr: slopjop

Are you delivering content in the format that your readers want and need? Are there delivery mechanisms that would better meet their needs? Can you implement new formats in your existing toolchain?

Many of our clients are delivering content in PDF only. A move toward HTML and especially mobile-friendly HTML can be a good first step in improving the situation for readers.

Streamlining print publishing processes

Most print-heavy environments can benefit from improvement in the print production processes. Look for opportunities in the following main areas:

  • Templates.
    Are you using templates efficiently? Your print production tool should, at a bare minimum, provide page templates and paragraph templates. Many tools go further with inline styles, table styles, object styles, and more. Building out a template that supplies correct formatting and teaching everyone to use the template can save hours and hours of production time.
  • Appearance versus reusability.
    Be careful about print-specific tweaks that damage the usability of your content in other formats. The canonical example of this is hyphenation. When reading a book on my e-reader, I often encounter words that have hyphens in the middle of a line, like this:

    Why is there a hy-phen here??

    The hyphen was almost certainly inserted into the original document to improve the line breaks in the printed document. A better solution is to use a discretionary hyphen (better print publishing programs support them). Discretionary hyphens are displayed only when a word needs to be hyphenated (occurs near the end of a line). Random hyphens scattered through the ebook are artifacts of a print-centric process.

    The content creation process needs to address appearance requirements and reusability across different formats.

Appropriate content

Are you providing the content that your readers need? You can explore this question by reviewing web analytics (if you have web content) and by examining the technical support situation. Does the tech support organization have a list of frequent problem topics? Is tech support creating additional content to address deficiencies in the technical content?

Accommodating translation requirements

If your content is translated, you can greatly improve the translation/localization process with some simple fixes to the source content. (Bill Swallow has a great article on five localization problems.) Start thinking about the following:

  • Consistent wording
  • Template-based formatting
  • Use of culturally neutral graphics
  • Technical quality of files (how are files assembled? Are language layers separate from images?)

All of these steps will improve your content without a requirement for a major strategic initiative.

Here are some things you probably cannot do without a big project (and maybe help from Scriptorium):

  • Implement intelligent content
  • Build out sophisticated reuse with metadata and a formal taxonomy
  • Reassess your tools/technologies and overall workflow
  • Get buy-in across the organization for a major content initiative

Adapting content for the U.S. market (presentation summary)

November 17, 2014 by

In this presentation delivered at tcworld 2014 in Stuttgart, Alan Pringle and Sarah O’Keefe discuss several factors that are required to adapt content for the US market. This presentation is especially relevant for European companies that want to enter the US market.

Language

The primary language of the United States is English. For business-to-business sales, use of British English might be good enough, but consumer products typically need U.S. English. The more personal the product, the more important it is to get the nuances of culture and language exactly right. Cell phones, for example, are very personal whereas accounting software used in an office is less personal.

In addition to English, it’s important to take into account the other languages spoken in the U.S. Approximately 60 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, and half of them don’t speak much English. (Source: slate.com article with lots of fascinating language maps)

Culture references

Be very careful with culture references. The people and concepts that are immediately familiar in one culture are often unknown in a different culture. Even within a single country, there can be vast cultural differences–New York City residents have very little in common with Flagstaff, Arizona residents.

Regulatory requirements and legal issues

The U.S. regulates content for a few industries, such as aerospace, nuclear power, and medical devices. The regulatory framework in the European Union is much stronger. In the U.S., product defects and product liability are mainly handled through the legal system. Providing content with extensive warnings and cautions is often a defensive legal strategy rather than an attempt to deliver useful information.

The content standards that are commonly used in Germany are unknown in the U.S.

Audience

In an industrial setting in Germany, content providers can assume a certain level of training and/or certification. Germany has a strong apprenticeship program and vocational training. In the U.S., it is very common to have only minimal training in an industrial setting. It may be necessary to provide basic information in the U.S. content that is omitted for the better-trained German audience.

The audience for a U.S. product is likely to be more diverse than a European audience. Expect much wider variance in experience levels, language skills, literacy, education, and training.

Customer experience

A renewed focus on customer experience in the U.S. has led to the following assumptions:

  • Technical content is not just post-sales content. Around 80% of U.S. customers research products before buying them, and their research often includes technical information. Therefore, technical content can drive (or hinder) sales.
  • Repeat business is contingent on customer satisfaction. If the technical content delivered with the product is not of high quality, customers may think twice before buying again.
  • The line between marketing content and technical content is blurring.

    Customer support

    Technical content is often used in customer support. Consider the needs of the support organization in building out the technical content.

Risky business: The challenge of content silos

November 10, 2014 by

At Information Development World, I delivered a keynote on the challenges of content silos. The silo problem emerged as a major theme of the conference.

Presenters such as Janice Zdankus of Hewlett-Packard provided data that explains how silos affect customer experience and how those negative experiences in turn result in lost revenue. My job was to tell the story of bad customer experience.

Buying a roof rack

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 1.59.59 PM

Yakima has a wonderful product configurator. You tell Yakima the make, model, and year of your car, along with the type of item you want to convey (bikes, kayaks, skis?), and it tells you exactly what components you need for your car.

And of course there is a big shiny Buy button at the end of the process.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 2.04.02 PM
After you buy the rack, the pieces show up at your door, and it appears that Yakima’s interest in a delightful customer experience ends. After all, they have my money. The product installation is ugly and requires a tedious lookup in other documents.

The contrast with the sales content is quite marked.

Yakima does provide a web-based lookup tool for the needed measurements, but I did not see a reference to this utility in any of the documents I received with the roof rack parts.

Obvious bad service

Another customer experience example comes from Comcast (of course). In a lengthy and entertaining rant, Staci Huckeba has this to say:

Nobody in the “the customer has a problem department” can do everything like they can in the “the customer wants to buy something department.”

Broken web sites

Recently, the Internet at our office stopped working. We tried the usual, obvious stuff (reboot the router), but that didn’t work. So the next step was to see whether the provider (Windstream) was having a wider outage. It turns out that finding the network status/outage reports on Windstream’s site was nearly impossible. A simple Google search eventually revealed that Windstream does in fact have an outage page, but it was thoroughly hidden from the normal site navigation.

The problem here is that the web site is intended as a sales tool and not as a support tool. Even though Windstream has a “support” area on its web site, it does not provide easy access to the outage information.

In the recording, available in a link at the end of this article, I provide some more details and examples of cases where content silos result in inconsistent and generally infuriating customer experience.

What to do

I have three major recommendations to address the content silo problem:

  • Integrated content development and delivery
  • Break down the organizational barriers
  • Break down presentational barriers

These are simple concepts, but executing them well is of course challenging. If you need help, contact us.

The recording of the session is available on the Content Wrangler’s BrightTALKchannel. Janice Zdankus opens the session, followed by Lee LeFever of Common Craft, and then my part starts at around 72 minutes.

Content strategy vs. the undead

November 4, 2014 by

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.

Folklore and Hollywood portray the undead as hideous, evil creatures that we should fear and avoid. Unfortunately for content strategists, the undead that we encounter are unavoidable and need to be dealt with. Ignoring them or working around them can be detrimental if not fatal to your strategy. As silly as it may seem to compare workplace challenges to the likes of zombies and mummies, the similarities in their basic traits are uncanny.

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

When battling the undead, make sure you have the right tools for the job.

I recently spoke at LavaCon about these ghoulish nasties, and afterward several people approached me to relay their own stories. While they found the undead comparisons amusing, it did help them identify and categorize some of the issues they had faced or are faced with now.

So what are these so-called undead creatures in the content strategy world? I’ve broken them down into five categories.

Zombies represent a persistent resistance to change and comfort in monotony. Their will is strong and mindset is contagious. Rather than spending your energy battling them, find out what drives them and harness that in your content strategy. They may have good intentions that you can build upon.

Vampires are very charismatic and feed off others for personal gain. They are often influential and will make promises so long as it benefits them to do so. As with the traditional monsters, the vampires we face in the content strategy world can be kept at bay if not defeated by shedding a bit of light on the situation. Connect your strategy to your company’s core mission and bottom line, and redirect the conversation back to this core intent.

Mummies are sleeping guardians that awaken when they perceive a threat to their charge. If you plan on replacing existing technology or significantly changing workflows, you may find yourself faced with opposition. Rather than confronting these mummies directly, acknowledge the successes that the outdated tools or workflows have brought. Ask the mummies to assist you in furthering that success.

Frankenstein’s creature can best be described as a patched-together mess of a solution that can become extremely unwieldy without constant attention and care. The creature could manifest as tools or files that are being used (or misused) beyond their intended capabilities, or as a workflow that is more convoluted than beneficial. Whatever they may be, they have one key thing in common: someone at some point thought it was a good idea and implemented it. As a content strategist, you need to undo the harm that these implementations have caused. Perhaps even more important, you need to prevent yourself from being a mad scientist like Victor Frankenstein when implementing your own strategy.

Ghosts are the fears and regrets that haunt us. We all have them in some form. It could be a past mistake that you hope not to make again, the fear of change or how it might be received, or the realization that the strategy you are implementing needs to change. Remind yourself that your strategy will certainly change over time as new tools emerge and as new information is discovered. As for the ghosts from past experiences, set them free by acknowledging and learning from them.

Have you grappled with the undead? Please share your stories in the comments.

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.

DITA localization for output (premium)

October 20, 2014 by

The first step in DITA localization is to translate the actual content of your DITA files. The second step is to address DITA localization requirements for your output. This article provides an in-depth explanation of the localization support in the DITA Open Toolkit.

The DITA Open Toolkit (DITA OT) includes several DITA localization features. When you set up your publishing system (and whenever you add new languages), you need to do the following:

  • Check the language-specific strings files
  • Ensure that language- or locale-specific images are accessible
  • Select typefaces for the target language

(Most of the information in this post applies to all versions of the DITA Open Toolkit. Information about specific file paths applies to the DITA OT version 1.8.)

Trays of Chinese movable type.

Not all translatable strings are found in your content [Flickr: othree]

Check the language-specific strings files

When generating output, the DITA OT inserts text strings, such as “Chapter” or “Appendix”, types of admonitions (“Note”, “Warning”, “Caution”), text and slogans on the cover pages, and copyright messages. When the output is intended for a specific language, these pieces of text must match the output language. You want “Chapter 4” to render as “Capítulo 4” in Spanish, as “Chapitre 4” in French, or as “第4章” in Japanese.

To handle this, the strings used by the DITA OT are externalized, that is, they are stored in language-specific files that are separate from the rest of the XSL transforms. Each language (or language and locale) has one or more separate files. Usually, a core plugin provides a base set of strings, then plugins that are built on that core plugin can add their own strings. Within these files, each string has an identifier, which is not translated, and the string itself.

A large number of these strings are provided by the core DITA OT. For HTML-based transforms, the DITA OT supplies strings files for over 50 languages and locales; for PDF, support for 14 languages is included.

The default translated strings may not meet your needs. The words used in the strings may not align with the word choice, tone, emphasis, or punctuation your organization requires. Also, the PDF strings files are not consistently populated; all of the strings in the English strings files may not be translated in the strings files for other localizations.

Additionally, there may be some strings for which there are no definitions in the core plugin strings files.

Work with your localization team to check the locale-specific strings files provided by the DITA-OT. You may have to do this for strings used with core HTML and PDF plugins. If the editor or language checker recommends a change, you (or the localizer) should:

  • Identify the strings in the core strings files that you need to change.
  • Copy the elements that define those strings to the corresponding plugin strings file.
  • Change the string definition in the copied element to the new string.

When generating output for new localizations, check the DITA OT log file for missing string errors. These will be in the target “transform.topic2fo.main” with the task identifier “[xslt]”. If you find that there are missing strings, you’ll need to add them to the plugin strings file, using the English definitions as a basis for the translation.

File structure for HTML strings files

As of DITA OT version 1.8, the language-specific strings files for the core HTML-based transforms are stored in %DITA-OT%/xsl/common. The file names are in the form strings-xx-yy.xml, where xx-yy is the language identifier as defined by IETF RFC 4646 and implemented by the ISO 639-1 language codes (this is the same language code as used in the xml:lang attribute). An additional file strings.xml (in the same folder) lists the language files that are currently in use.

Each HTML strings file has the form:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<strings xml:lang="xx-yy">
   <str name="identifier">String</str>
   …
</strings>

Note that the file’s root element (<strings>) contains the xml:lang attribute, which specifies the language (as does the name of the file). Within the root element are one or more <str> elements. Each <str> element has a unique identifier (name attribute); contained in the <str> element is the text that is pushed into your output. The contents of the name attribute should NEVER be translated.

The file strings.xml has the form:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<langlist>
   <lang xml:lang="xx-yy” filename="strings-xx-yy.xml"/>
   ...
</langlist>

The strings.xml file contains one lang element for each supported language.

File structure for PDF string files

As of DITA OT version 1.8, the strings files for the core PDF-based transforms are stored in %DITA-OT%/plugins/org.dita.pdf2/cfg/common/vars. The file names are in the form xx.xml, where xx is the language identifier as defined by IETF RFC 4646 and implemented by the ISO 639-1 language codes.

Each PDF strings file has the form:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<vars xmlns="http://www.idiominc.com/opentopic/vars">
   <variable id="identifier">String</variable>
   ...
</vars>

Each file contains one or more <variable> elements. Each <variable> element has a unique identifier (id attribute); contained in the <variable> element is the actual string. Some PDF strings may include one or more parameters which allow the transform to insert text into the strings. For example, the Italian strings file contains this entry for a figure title:

<variable id="Figure"> Figura <param ref-name="number"/>: <param ref-name="title"/></variable>

Note that the variable id attribute and the param element’s ref-name attribute should NEVER be translated.

Make sure the translator understands that their job is only to translate the contents of the <str> or <variable> elements. They should not translate the attributes (apart from modifying contents of the xml:lang attribute), nor should they translate the comments (any text surrounded by “<!–” and “–>”).

Additionally, within the strings, there may be spaces or non-breaking spaces (usually represented with the entity “&#160;”), these should remain just as they are in the original (as much as possible).

Most strings files contain comments and notes to the translator. In particular, some strings files contain paths to images; most of these are accompanied by a note NOT to translate the paths.

Additionally, the strings files may contain URLs for partner organizations or language- or locale-specific web sites. You may want to examine the contents of the strings files and determine which URLs should be made locale-specific and which should be left untouched.

When the strings files are returned from the translator, add the translated (and renamed) strings file to the plugin folders as described.

For HTML-based plugins you must also:

  • Ensure that the translator correctly modified the xml:lang attribute to the <strings> element in the file containing the translated strings.
  • Update the plugin-specific strings.xml file so that it contains a reference to the translated strings file. (You should run the integrator after updating this file.)

For PDF-based plugins you must also:

  • Ensure that all strings in the English strings file exist in the strings file for your localization. If they don’t you’ll need to provide these strings in your plugin’s string files.

Ensure that locale- or language-specific images are available

Just as the DITA OT inserts strings into output when necessary, it can also insert icons and other images as required; for example, icons for admonitions (notes and hazard statements) and company logos in page headers or footers.

Most icons and images are intended for use in all languages. But sometimes, specific icons are required for a locale or language. These reasons may include:

  • Icons or images that include language-specific text
  • Icons or images that are culturally sensitive

What do you have to do?
If you need to substitute images based on the output language, do the following:

  • Ensure that locale- or language-specific image files are available in the appropriate artwork folder
  • Ensure that the paths to the output location of these image files are saved as strings in the language-specific strings files. Generally, the path to each image will be the same except for the file name.

Select typefaces for the target language

To generate PDF files, the transforms need typeface specifications. The DITA OT allows us to define classes of typefaces (“logical fonts”) that are associated with specific types of text. For instance, you might define that your body text uses a serif font, titles use a heavy-weight sans serif font, and that running heads use a lighter form of that same sans serif font.

Each of the logical fonts is associated with a physical font. The physical fonts are often determined by the style guidelines for your company or organization; they ensure that your information products project a consistent look and feel.

The fonts you select must support all characters used by the target localization.

If you are creating a localization for a language that requires extensive use of a non-Western character set, you may need to:

  • Identify typefaces that are associated with your organization’s look and feel in specific locales.
  • Specify how those typefaces are to be associated with specific text applications. That is, the fonts that will be used for body text, titles, heads, and so on.

Summary

When localizing your DITA content, remember that DITA OT plugins do contain localized information. The strings, images, icons, and fonts that are a part of your final work products must be translated or localized with the same care and cultural sensitivity as your content.

For more information about localizing your plugins, localizing your content, or developing a content strategy to facilitate localization, contact us at www.scriptorium.com/contact-us.

The case for XML marketing content

October 14, 2014 by

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say “XML and content”? If large technical documents and back-end databases pop into your mind, you’re in good company. But many content-heavy groups can benefit from adopting XML. Marketing is one of these groups.

If you’ve ever worked in or with a marketing department, you are painfully aware of the vast amount of content that’s produced. From web and social media to brochures, catalogs, and product sheets, marketing content comes in all shapes and sizes.

To be effective, marketing content needs to echo similar information yet cater to varying audiences or suit different purposes (product sheets, web content, and other promotional material, for example). The design of the finished content may widely vary, but the information needs to be current and accurate.

This can be quite a lot to manage—regardless of how large or small the team—and takes time and diligence to ensure that the correct information is used at all times. Even with centralized project folders and shared information sources, the chance of human error is high. One change, such as a version number or a small product update, may need to be made in dozens of places. Chasing all of these uses down is time consuming and inefficient.

One benefit of XML marketing content is the separation of form and content. This allows you to focus on the message and not the look and feel of one particular final product. Through meaningful tagging, you can mark up your content in a meaningful manner (“product tag line” vs. “14pt italic”) and then render it in a variety of ways. The focus is on the content itself, leaving the look and feel to templates and transforms. Once you flow the content into the template, you can still modify the formatting while reaping the benefit of managed, centralized content.

Batman slapping Robin; XML marketing content can help you break the copy/paste habitAnother benefit is content reuse and the conditional inclusion and exclusion of content. Not all content is created equal; sometimes you need to omit some information in favor of other content. You could certainly manage this with cut and paste and a bit of editing, but then you’d be managing multiple sets of content. With all content in one place and tagged for specific uses, you can assemble what you need through content references and conditionally exclude portions that you don’t need.

If you localize your content, you’ll benefit from significant cost savings. Content reuse not only reduces the number of words requiring translation; it can reduce the chance of fuzzy matches against translation memory that are usually introduced by formatting inconsistencies and manual line breaks. And, since XML is raw text, there are no DTP-associated costs or delays accompanying your translation.

An XML workflow can benefit any group with many content deliverables, hefty translation requirements, and the need to reuse information in multiple places. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your existing workflow, contact us to see if XML might be a good fit for you.

Content strategy and engineers

September 29, 2014 by

When developing a content strategy, you consider marcom, techcomm, and other groups whose primary role is creating content.

But don’t forget about engineering. Just ask the NASA Mohawk Guy.

Bobak Ferdowsi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—a.k.a. NASA Mohawk Guy of the Curiosity mission—recently pointed out how important communication and content are in his job:

Most people don’t realize how much…communication…an engineering job requires. I think about the things I end up sometimes spending a little more time on: for example, PowerPoint, making slides. … You still have to tell other people what you are doing, try to convince people of a certain approach to something, or demonstrate why one decision is more important than other. That communication skill is a real part of the job that most people don’t see.

self-portrait by Curiosity Rover

Self-portrait by Curiosity Rover (photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems via Wikimedia Commons)

Ferdowsi recognizes the big part content plays in engineering and other departments perceived “as always cranking away on things, and turning wrenches.” Unfortunately, a lot of employees in the more content-heavy groups (marcom and techcomm, in particular) don’t always share his wisdom.

It’s too easy to follow stereotypical thinking: Engineers aren’t professional writers, so their content is of little value. I’ve encountered that attitude often in my career, and I’ll admit to succumbing to such stupid thoughts on occasion myself.

Bottom line: you cannot implement a successful content strategy without considering the content contributions of engineers, support, and other groups who create content as a secondary part of their jobs.

It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Content strategy burdens: cost-shifting

September 22, 2014 by

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.

Pain points are areas where an organization is inefficient or has unpleasant workarounds. When department A choose a workflow without consulting department B, it may create an internal pain point. For example, a software engineering group might use practices that cause a lot of trouble for their QA group. HR creates a policy, but IT has to enforce it—and the infrastructure isn’t available to do so.

Over and over, we see this pattern in our client companies. We discover that one department has a tremendously inefficient approach to one of their responsibilities. As we dig into the issue, we discover that the efficient approach is blocked to them because of another department’s lack of cooperation.

“Wait, you retyped these specifications? Aren’t they in a database somewhere?”

“Yes, but the product manager refuses to give us access to the database because he doesn’t want to pay for another database license.”

“How much is the license?”

“$500.”

“How many hours did it take to retype this information?”

“40, and we have to redo it every quarter.”

So…the process takes longer, costs more, and is less accurate. But the other manager saves $500.

This is a trivial example of a potentially huge problem. In content strategy assessments, we look for high-value information that flows through an organization. Common examples of this include the following:

  • Product specifications (developed by product management; used by engineering to build products and in customer-facing content)
  • Repair procedures (used by support organizations, quality organizations, and in customer-facing content)
  • Product descriptions (used throughout the organization)
  • Technical illustrations (used in a variety of customer-facing content and in the product design/manufacturing process)
  • Product interface labels (used in the product interface and customer-facing content)

The goal for each of these items is as follows:

  1. Store information in a known location (“single source of truth”).
  2. When information is reused, reuse is automated and accurate (no copying and pasting, rekeying, manual editing of copies, and so on).
  3. Make information updates in the original content, not in the downstream copies.

Managers must be held accountable not just for the performance of their individual departments, but for their cooperation and collaboration across the organization. This requires executive management to understand the dependencies and conflicting priorities, not just to tell a line employee to “do some content strategy.” If one department refuses to make information available in a format that other departments can use efficiently, that’s a problem.

The organization’s content strategy must be defined and agreed to at the executive level. Executives are responsible for making sure that their departments have the resources they need to implement the strategy. Otherwise, the content strategy burden will fall disproportionately on the department with the least political clout.

And here, for your listening pleasure, is something VERY related…