Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Is your content overhead or a customer delight?

June 20, 2016 by

Delight is the difference between what you and your team cost, and the revenue you directly (or indirectly) produce (or protect). This concept is as important to charities as hedge funds.

Andy Kessler & Bruce Clarke

You may not think that “delighting” customers is part of your content creation responsibilities. But when customer delight is defined in terms of revenue and costs, it suddenly becomes a critical part of your job.

Determining whether your content is merely overhead or a customer delight may seem like a losing fight: it’s too subjective! However, there are questions you can ask to measure how delightful your content is, including:

  • Does the support team repeatedly answer questions addressed in the content? If customers are contacting support with queries that are (or should be) addressed in content, your content doesn’t explain things well, is hard to find, or both.
  • Where does your publicly available content show up in search engine results? If your content is not at the top of the search results, that means someone else’s content is getting all the attention. Your content probably needs an SEO tuneup. (I know some companies cannot open up their content on the web for competitive and security reasons. Even so, those companies may need a web page to direct users to an official resource, such as a customer-only portal.)
  • What do web analytics show? Web stats can show what content is popular and what isn’t getting any attention. If content isn’t getting read, can you do something to make it more useful, or should you refocus your efforts on the content customers are reading?
  • Do you have a customer feedback loop? Is there a way customers can send comments and questions about specific content? The mechanism can be as basic as a link to an email address that sends the comments to particular content creators. If you do a formal analysis of your content, be sure to include customers as part of the discovery process. Interviews with customers can be very illuminating, particularly when done by a third-party consultant (like me!) who may elicit more candid responses.
  • How do your partners or resellers use your content? If they are writing their own “cheat sheet” versions of official content for their customers (or are translating it because your company does not), your content is failing. You also lose control over how your product/service is being presented.

Measuring content use—and customers’ satisfaction with that content—is critical in how you prove delight. Without that customer delight, your job as a content creator is expendable overhead.

Content strategy patterns in the enterprise

June 13, 2016 by

What factors affect content strategy decisions? Every client has a different combination of requirements, and of course there are always outliers. But based on our consulting experience, here are some factors that affect content strategy decisions.

Is the content the product?

detail from Book of Kells

Book of Kells // flickr: Patrick Lordan

If yes, the content design will be relatively more important. The organization will want content development and publishing workflows that provide for maximum flexibility in order to deliver the highest possible quality in the final product.

Are the writers professional writers?

Full-time content creators may have a preferred way of doing things, but they usually have experience with a variety of tools, and understand that different tools are appropriate for different organizations.

Are the writers volunteers or paid professionals? Does writing the content demand specialized knowledge?

Domain knowledge is always important. If your writers have extremely specialized knowledge, are volunteering their time, or both, then they effectively have veto power over the authoring environment. Tread with care.

Are there regulatory or compliance requirements?

If so, you can expect a company that is relatively more willing to invest in content (since a failure could mean Serious Consequences), but these companies also tend to move slowly and be risk-averse. Review workflows will be relatively more important for regulated companies.

How many languages are supported or need to be supported?

More languages means more interest in governance because mistakes and inefficiencies are multiplied across each language.

Can misuse of the product injure or kill people?

If the product is potentially dangerous, the organization will look for ways to minimize the risk. At the most basic level, this results in documents with pages and pages of hazard warnings. More advanced organizations work on product design to minimize operational hazards and design their content to support correct product usage. Compliance and regulatory requirements may also come into play.

How many people contribute content? Are they full-time or part-time contributors?

A huge pool of part-time content contributors usually means looking for a lightweight, easy-to-use authoring tool that does not require per-seat licensing. A large group of full-time writers usually means investing in automation because even small productivity gains are valuable.

SubjectScheme Explained

June 6, 2016 by

Your project is coming along nicely. You have your workflow ready, your style guides are composed, and things are looking up. However, you have complex metadata needs that are starting to cause problems. You need a way to ensure that authors are only using valid attribute values, and that your publication pipeline isn’t going to suffer. This is a situation that calls for a subjectScheme.

In a note element, the type attribute only allows specific values.

In a note element, the type attribute only allows specific values.


Normally, most DITA attributes can have any text value. If you have very specific needs for your attribute metadata, it can be helpful to make sure that you only allow certain values. A subjectScheme allows you to define a list of values that are then associated with a specific attribute. When you include a subjectScheme in your map, it acts like an editor, going through your document and ensuring that your attribute values are valid.

Anatomy of a subjectScheme

A subjectScheme map consists of a root <subjectScheme> element that contains the following:

  • a <subjectdef> element, which defines your allowed values
  • an <enumerationdef> element, which binds your allowed values to a specific attribute

Take a look at this sample subjectScheme:

<subjectScheme>

  <subjectdef keys=”apps”>
    <subjectdef keys=”internal”/>
    <subjectdef keys=”external”>
        <subjectdef keys=”allowedex”/>
        <subjectdef keys=”disallowedex”/>
    </subjectdef>
    <subjectdef keys=”all”/>
  </subjectdef>

  <enumerationdef>
    <attributedef name=”app”/>
    <subjectdef keyref=”apps”/>
  </enumerationdef>

<subjectScheme>

We need to assign values to an attribute named app. The <attributedef> element identifies that attribute, and the <subjectdef> element after it assigns the allowed values. The nested <subjectdef> elements above the <enumerationdef> list five values (internal, external, allowedex, disallowedex, and all) that we consider valid. If we take this and reference it in a map, any app attribute containing anything other than those five values will cause the document to fail validation.

Also, notice that the <subjectdef> elements that define allowedex and disallowedex are nested in the <subjectdef> element that defines external. This indicates that allowedex and disallowedex are types of external apps, creating a semantic link between these types.

To use a subjectScheme in a map, you need to use the following format when referencing it:

<topicref href="filename" format="ditamap" type="subjectScheme"/>

Effects on conditional filtering

We’ve already discussed conditional filtering in a previous blog post. If you’re using a ditaval filter file to conditionally process content, the relationship between values defined in your subjectScheme map comes into play.

Let’s say that you have a ditaval file which includes the following:

<val>
  <prop action=”include” att=”app” val=”internal”/>
  <prop action=”exclude” att=”app” val=”external”/>
  <prop action=”include” att=”app” val=”all”/>
</val>

If you run your content with this filter, elements that have an app value of internal or all will be included, and elements with an app value of external will be excluded. However, values of allowedex and disallowedex will still be included in your output, and you would need to include specific handling for those values.

If your map included a subjectScheme, though, the only elements that would come through would be those with an app value of internal or all. This is because of the semantic relationship that is defined within the subjectScheme. Because external apps are excluded and because the subjectScheme defines allowedex and disallowedex as a type of external app, allowedex and disallowedex are also excluded.

By using a subjectScheme map to enrich your attribute metadata, you not only gain a way to define valid values, but also a way to create relationships between them.

Localization testing: it’s not just translation

May 30, 2016 by

It takes considerable planning and effort to run a successful localization project, from following best practices to evaluating vendors to finding and fixing the weakest link in the localization chain. But the localization process does not end when you receive the translations. Localization testing is necessary for ensuring that your content and products are ready for a distributed global release.

People commonly assume that a quick proofread of the localized content is all that is needed before release, since it’s “just a translation” of the completed source material. This assumption is wrong. In fact, localized content needs to be treated with as much care and attention as the source from which it was derived.

test tubes

Testing is critical for achieving successful results. (image source: wikimedia)

When developing your source—whether it’s a manual, marketing material, or even an application—you likely (hopefully!) test it in some manner. As Jake Campbell recently blogged, product and content need a test bed and use cases to test with. Your localization testing should be conducted using the same criteria and scenarios as your source material.

Functional testing

The first step in localization testing is to ensure that everything is correct and is functioning properly. After a thorough content review and approval of the translations, the content needs to be applied to the products and content deliverables for functional testing.

During testing, check the following:

  • Does the content render? Make sure that the correct language displays, that there are no encoding issues, and that there are no special characters dropping out.
  • Does it render properly? Check for layout and formatting issues, text expansion concerns, font use, and so on.
  • Is it easy to navigate? Ensure that all navigation controls are clearly labeled and understandable in the target language, that any alphabetically sorted lists are in the correct order, and that content flow and usability conform to the target language expectations (particularly important for right-to-left languages).
  • Do all features work? Finally, make sure that everything functions as expected. Check all menus and dialog boxes, test the index and search features using terms and phrases common to the target languages, and proof all content in context to make sure it is still correct and understandable.

For subsequent translations, much of this can be smoke tested. But the content itself should be reviewed for completeness and correctness every time, in every language.

Testing against use cases

Once the localized content passes functional testing, it must be tested for usability and relevance. These tests rely on use cases and scripted scenarios.

The use cases you employ may vary from language to language and from location to location, but they should generally follow the same contexts used for the source language tests. These tests will ensure that your localized content and products are relevant, understandable, and useful.

Use real-life scenarios that people will encounter while using the products and content. All of these scenarios need to be tested in every language to make sure that the experience is very similar from language to language (some differences may be required depending on local requirements), and that instructions and next steps are clear.

Plan accordingly

Be realistic about scale, timelines, and effort when factoring localization testing into your project cycle. Every test designed for your source language needs to be applied to each target language. Some aspects of localization testing can be expedited based on known validity of content and the extent of changes from release to release. However, proper testing—even when expedited—takes time and effort to conduct.

If you are using third parties to conduct the testing (such as partners in your target markets), they need to follow the same test scripts and validate on the same criteria as you. This is critical for tracking quality and pinpointing the source of any issues.

Do you have other tips for localization testing? Please share them in the comments!

Do you know a content strategy concrete head?

May 23, 2016 by

In lean management, a concrete head is someone resistant to change. In my years working on content strategy projects, I have noticed many people are resistant to changing how they develop and distribute content—sometimes without even knowing it.

Easter Island head statue

Don’t be a content strategy concrete head (flickr: William Warby)

If you hear any of the following things, there is a good chance your team includes a content strategy concrete head.

Disclaimer: I have heard the following thoughts expressed by multiple people working for different clients. This list is not focused on a particular client or two. Believe me.

“I don’t mind copying and pasting content.”

Copying and pasting is more efficient than writing something from scratch—in the short term. But creating another version of the same (or nearly identical) content sets up another maintenance headache. When a feature or product name changes, authors have to track down every mention and make the change. What are the chances they will miss one? Or two? Pretty high, especially if the information is across departments and developed in different content tools.

Reliance on copying and pasting is a sign your content needs a reuse strategy.

“I won’t give up the authoring tool I’m using now.”

It’s great that an author has mastered Tool You’ll Pry from My Cold, Dead Hands™. Yes, that tool may have served the authoring team and the company well. But business requirements change, and if a tool no longer supports the company’s overall requirements, it’s time to consider other options.

Ferocious loyalty to a tool can be a career-limiting move.

“The minute you put in a real process, things become unmanageable.”

The ad hoc processes in place may be working for individual authors, but probably not for the company as a whole.

Implementing consistent, repeatable processes can be inconvenient. But content creators must balance the short-term pain against the need to adapt for company growth.

Automatic dismissal of any process as “unmanageable” is really code for “I don’t want to be bothered.”

And speaking of not being bothered…

“Changing process is fine as long as it doesn’t affect what I’m doing.”

People are not really supporting change when they shift the burden of change onto others. Successful content strategies encompass the entire organization—not just a department or two. No department is an island.

“We put a PDF file out on the web. It’s searchable and easy to use.”

The PDF file is a dependable format, and it will likely be around for a while. However, reading a letter- or A4-sized PDF on a smartphone is not optimal. Also, searching a PDF for specific information is more difficult than, say, using a search field to find information across a set of web pages.

Putting a PDF file, help set, or any other content deliverable on the web is not the same thing as making content findable and useful. Find out how customers are accessing your content (or would like to), and adjust your content distribution methods accordingly.

What else have you heard from a content strategy concrete head? Put it in a comment, please!

QA in techcomm: creating use cases

May 16, 2016 by

A few months ago, I wrote about how you could benefit from having a test bed for your content. I made mention of use cases several times, but what are they, and how can you make them effective?

When you’re drawing up requirements for a project, a use case generally means the situation in which an element of that project is useful. In QA, though, a use case is an example or procedure to verify a feature.

Just knowing what you need to test isn’t enough, though; having use cases that are too narrow in scope or that are poorly constructed can complicate testing. This can lead to missing issues or inefficiency in testing.

Types of use cases

Not all use cases are created equal. When I put together test materials, I try to include a few different kinds of use cases.

  • Simple: A standard implementation of a feature which answers the question “does this work?”
  • Complex: An implementation where multiple use cases interact, verifying whether that interaction causes problems. This is useful if you have a platform or environment that requires a flattened document structure, as opposed to a nested document structure like XML.
  • Failure: An implementation where the use case is either not allowed, or set up incorrectly. This is useful if you want to test things like error reporting or fallback processing.

Keep them separated

When you set up a use case within your content, whether at the document or block level, try to keep it clearly separated from other use cases. This is important because you can locate and verify your use cases more easily if they’re self-contained.

By keeping them isolated, you can also add or remove your use cases without having to worry about the impact that this will have on the rest of your test bed. There’s nothing more frustrating than removing an obsolete use case only to find that it’s tangled up with other content.

Keep it real

Lorem ipsum text is a useful way to fill large swaths of space to check general formatting. When setting up a specific use case, however, it is often more useful to create content that more closely approximates your actual content.

The most immediate benefit is recognizability. It’s not unusual for the eye to slide across the page when trying to read placeholder text. This will complicate things if you need to focus to check a use case.

Pictured: your validation team trying to check your use cases. Flickr: Kevin Krejci

Pictured: your validation team trying to check your use cases. Flickr: Kevin Krejci

The other benefit is organization. Seeing nearly-real content when verifying your output lets you know that this section needs more attention than just general formatting. Also consider ease of locating specific cases: you need to check a use case within a large test bed, but if it’s all lorem ipsum, how do you find it?

With use cases that are well-constructed, you’ll find that your test bed can serve as an even better asset than before.

Virtual meeting etiquette

May 2, 2016 by

Let’s take a break from content strategy and talk a bit about virtual meeting etiquette. I’ve heard plenty of virtual meeting horror stories from friends and colleagues. There are tales of barking dogs, screaming children, loud ambient office noise, and yes, even the dreaded toilet flush (I have no words). But I haven’t heard of any cases quite like a recent one I experienced…

My virtual assistant—Siri—interrupted my meeting.

Me: Please don't interrupt me. Siri: OK, maybe not.

Thanks?

The majority of my meetings are virtual. Prior to a meeting, I turn off all notifications, set any messaging applications to Do Not Disturb, and silence my mobile phone.

Well into one recent meeting, Siri suddenly piped in, trying to be useful. LOUDLY.

My phone was on silent at the edge of my desk, but at some point someone must have said something that sounded like “Hey Siri”. I had completely forgotten about that feature (mainly because it never works when I try to use it).

Me: Will you please be quiet? Siri: I'm just trying to help.

You’re not helping.

I quickly fumbled for my phone, turned it off completely, and then proceeded to apologize to the other meeting attendees. While it certainly raised some chuckles, it was embarrassing and highly annoying. Fortunately the meeting continued with no further interruption.

No matter how much you prepare, something can always go wrong. Fortunately, the bizarre cases (I’m still not talking to you, Siri) are easily forgivable, though not always forgettable. The blatantly preventable interruptions and faux pas are neither forgivable nor forgettable.

Here are some guidelines for proper virtual meeting etiquette:

  • Arrive early, especially for web meetings. You may need to download a meeting client or update. Even if your virtual meeting is a conference call, everyone arriving early ensures that the meeting starts on time.
  • Turn off all audible notifications and silence all devices. We all use some combination of Skype, Slack, Messenger, email clients, phones, or other tools during our work day. Silencing them reduces interruptions and allows you to focus on the meeting at hand.
  • Act like it’s a face to face meeting. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in a conference room with the attendees. If you must make noise, please mute yourself first.
  • Use video appropriately. While video can help keep all attendees on their best behavior, it can cause bandwidth issues. Also, remote attendees in other time zones may no longer be in the office, and might appreciate some degree of privacy while in the meeting.
  • Only invite those who absolutely must attend. Too often, virtual meetings include far more people than necessary. Any type of meeting takes time and attention away from other responsibilities. Be mindful of others’ schedules and only include those whose presence is critical.
  • Plan your presentations well. Make sure everyone who is expected to present is given ample notice prior to the meeting. Conduct a dry run using the virtual meeting software to ensure that the presentation will display properly and that everyone running the presentation knows how to use the interface.

And yes, disable your virtual assistants!

Do you have other etiquette suggestions for virtual meetings? Have you experienced poor etiquette in a virtual meeting? Please share your stories and advice in the comments!

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.