Content scalability: Removing friction from your content lifecycle
First published in Intercom (October 2020) by the Society for Technical Communication.
Scalable content requires you to assess your content lifecycle, identify points of friction, and remove them.
Company growth magnifies the challenges of information enablement. When you grow, you add products, product variants, markets, and languages—and each of those factors adds complexity. Process inefficiencies in your content lifecycle are multiplied for every new language or customer segment.
As a result, content scalability—increasing content throughput without increasing resources—becomes critical. Consider a simple localization example: when you translate, you have a few manual workarounds that require 1 hour of work per 100 pages of translated content. So if you translate 100 pages of content into 8 languages, you have 8 hours of workarounds. But as your content load grows, you are shipping 1,000 pages of content per month and translating into 20 languages. Suddenly, you are facing 200 hours of manual workarounds per month—the equivalent of one full-time person per year.
Scalable content requires you to assess your content lifecycle, identify points of friction, and remove them. Typically, these include the following:
- Content creators rewriting information instead of reusing available content
- Content editors correcting basic mistakes in terminology and usage
- Content production workflows that require manual intervention
- Content delivery mechanisms that require manual intervention (for example, a person zipping a file package and moving it from one place to another)
- Content archiving policies that require human reviews
The greater the volume of content you are working with, the more critical it becomes to remove these roadblocks.
Avoiding content duplication
The least scalable part of the content lifecycle is the content author, who creates information in text, graphics, audio, and/or video. For maximum productivity, authors need to have existing resources at their fingertips, so that they can see what information assets already exist and focus on closing the gaps. It is common to have authors create the same piece of information over and over again because they don’t know someone else already wrote it. Content duplication is a waste of limited (and expensive) authoring resources–and worse, it tends to result in two similar pieces of content that don’t quite agree.
Maximizing content reuse
After eliminating content duplication, organizations should focus on reuse. Reuse means that, for example, a product description is written once and then made available to all of the content assets that need it. But deeper reuse is possible, especially in technical content. Technical documents often have standardized information that is repeated through a document, such as notes, cautions, and warnings, or common steps (“1. Back up the database.”) A well-developed reuse strategy will let authors reuse this type of information instead of recreating it.
Content scalability for authors maximizes use of available content to reduce the workload on writers.
Content needs to use consistent terminology. Product names should be consistent, and a technical term should always mean the same thing no matter where it is used. Technical editors are excellent at identifying and fixing these issues, but terminology software is a good first line of defense. Terminology management systems can scan a document, identify disallowed or deprecated terms, and suggest corrections. Grammar software and other pattern-recognition software is helpful to ensure that writers are following the basic rules, such as a minimum or maximum number of words for an abstract or flagging headings that are problematic for search engines (“Overview” or “Introduction” are too generic).
Production and delivery
Content production is the process of moving content from the authoring environment into its finished format. This could be as simple as clicking a Publish button (as in WordPress, for example) or require converting content to PDF or other formats. For most organizations, content production and delivery should be completely automated after information is approved.
Consider manual intervention only if you can justify the cost and effort for your business. For example, a textbook producer or someone who makes award-winning films would consider manual production a good investment to maximize the quality of the end result. But if you are producing high volumes of business content, it is very unlikely that the cost of manual production and the slow-down in your content production processes is justifiable.
Archiving and governance
Some content has a short lifespan. For example, a technical support document that explains how to work around a bug could be deleted once the bug is corrected (assuming a web-based system so nobody can run the old, unpatched software!).
The need to archive or delete content is often overlooked in the content planning process. Here are some factors to consider:
- Does the content have a limited lifespan? Does it have a known expiration date?
- Can the content be taken down automatically when it reaches the end of its lifespan?
- If the website includes documentation for several versions of a product, then how do you identify the current version and ensure that content gets search priority? How can a reader specify that they want to search and/or access an earlier version?
- When content becomes obsolete, does it get deleted? Archived? Does it remain on a site with a clear indication that it is out of date?
As companies grow, they need scalable content operations. The alternatives are to fall behind on content delivery or to significantly increase content resources. If you are concerned about a rapid rise in content demands, take a hard look at where you can improve content scalability.