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February 28, 2022

Quick fixes in your content equal long-term problems

Even when you put an excellent plan for content strategy and solid content operations in place, you can be sure that there will be surprises. Your authors will come up with weird outlier content that your current formatting and your current information architecture can’t accommodate. Faced with a deadline, a quick and dirty solution is appealing.

But those quick fixes have hidden costs that add up over time, especially if the workaround gets popular.

Formatting and reuse are two places where the plan often doesn’t accommodate the real-world requirement.

Custom formatting

Your author discovers that the templates provided don’t allow for some needed (or maybe just wanted) formatting. She finds a workaround that involves lots of layered tags, or perhaps just adds a custom tag or attribute to identify the content.

In a structured content environment, “tag abuse” is a common problem because authors will find a way to get the result that they want. To minimize this problem, you have a couple of options:

  • Provide a detailed style guide and documentation for your templates that explains best practices and worst practices. If there is a specific type of formatting that is not supported or discouraged, spell it out.
  • Make sure that authors have a process for getting new formatting added to the system with minimal overhead and fast turnaround.
  • Identify common (unapproved) workarounds and periodically audit your content to find and eliminate them. Be sure to provide a reasonable alternative where appropriate.

Uncontrolled “spaghetti” reuse

“Spaghetti reuse” is a bit derogatory, but it refers to ad hoc reuse that makes your content look like a plate of spaghetti. Everything is knotted together and it’s hard to draw out a single strand of content and control your reuse.

The best practice is to avoid direct reuse from topic to topic and instead creating a collection of content (often called “warehouse topics”) with shared information. For example, you might establish a standardized list of notes, cautions, and warnings and ask authors to reference that list instead of cross-linking among individual topics. Glossaries are also common fodder for warehousing. 

You also need a process to help authors identify candidates for reuse and promote them into the standardized reuse bucket.

And again, a content audit can help you find rogue reuse and determine how best to handle it.

Long-term consequences

Faced with a deadline and a template or system that doesn’t accommodate the writing need, every author will occasionally use a quick fix or a workaround. Over time, these fixes pile up into technical debt or, more specifically, content debt. Your overall content strategy and content operations should acknowledge the cost of these fixes and provide for a governance strategy to mitigate them. 

Minimizing quick fixes 

If your content is full of workarounds and quick fixes, it means that your templates and your processes don’t match how authors work. You need to bring your people, processes, and technology into better alignment. Possibilities include the following:

  • Modify your existing templates or information architecture to provide better support for the formatting that authors really need.
  • Audit content periodically to identify and remove workarounds.
  • Consider additional training to ensure that authors are aware of the best practices. Sometimes, workarounds result because a particular feature or best practice isn’t documented–the authors have no idea that it’s even possible.
  • Pay attention to release dates. One week before a huge deadline is not a good time to discuss the niceties of controlled reuse.

In short, make sure that your system supports the real needs of the authoring team.