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October 5, 2011

You don’t have to bet the farm…

A wise man once told me that the goal of marketing is to frame the question so that what you are selling is the best possible answer. In the world of tech comm publishing, the default question has been: “What tool should I use?”

That is the wrong question. When you start by asking about tools, you immediately go down the rabbit hole of software usability, vendor longevity, and operating system support.


Here is a better question:

What is the best way to deliver information to my customers?

Unfortunately, this is also a hard question to answer, and the answer changes from year to year. Right now, we have a lot of customers looking at ePub output. Two years ago, browser-independent web help was hot. Next year, it’ll probably be HTML5.

If you don’t know what deliverables I need, and you expect the requirements to change, how can you choose the best tool?

You can’t.

You need to reframe the question. A better question is:

How can I store information to support current and unknown future requirements?

The answer to this question is XML.

An XML-based workflow means that you don’t have to choose a winner among the various authoring tools—if your authoring tool goes away, you just take your toys (er, source files) and move on. You also don’t need certainty on output formats. Do you need XHTML, web help, HTML5, PDF, ePub, or a player to be named later? From XML source files, you can change your output formats as needed.

This approach is, of course, in direct conflict with the raison d’être of the various authoring tools. Software vendors have a vested interest in getting you locked into their particular tool for the long term. (And remember that consultancies have a vested interest in complex solutions that are too technically challenging for you to implement on your own.)

If you choose software with a high degree of lock-in, you give the software vendor the power to set your publishing strategy. Your strategy will be established based on the limitations of your toolset and the vision of the product team.

You must reverse this approach. Set your strategy first, then look for tools that support your strategy.

And don’t forget the power of the tech comm community. Some tasks look impossible on your own.

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