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November 21, 2022

Misconceptions about structured content (podcast)

In episode 132 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Alan Pringle and guest Jo Lam of Paligo dispel misconceptions and myths about structured content.

“Science and history shows us that structured content, structured authoring, is actually very intuitive. And if I may rewind back to, say, the paleolithic era where we first started using a lot of symbols, and then eventually converting them into what we now know as letters. Understanding patterns on an extremely micro level, and that’s how we actually learn to read and write.”

—Jo Lam

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Alan Pringle:                     Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we discuss misconceptions about structured content with special guest Jo Lam of Paligo.

Hi everyone, I’m Alan Pringle, and we have a guest for this episode. It’s Jo Lam of Paligo. So Jo, introduce yourself.

Jo Lam:                              Hello, my name is Jo. I work at Paligo. That’s intentional, for all of the rhyme. I’m a solutions engineer, and I generally work as someone who helps figure out the best approach and the solutions, if you will, for people moving into a structured authoring environment. And as suppose I should tell you what Paligo is…

AP:                                     Yes.

JL:                                       Since I just mentioned that’s where I work. So we at Paligo, we are a CCMS and content… Sorry, whoops. Component Content Management System, where we use the DocBook standard as our base. And really what we strive to do is provide the perfect entry point for people moving from unstructured to structured content by being as user friendly as possible and making the entire process very intuitive for them.

AP:                                     Well, that is actually perfect for what you and I are about to talk about, because we’re going to talk about the misconceptions people have about structured content. And having worked with structured content decades myself, I can guarantee you there’s lots of apprehension and misconceptions about it, and I am sure you’ve run up against them, as well. So I’m going to throw the first misconception out there about structured content. And by the way, I will post in the show notes a link to a white paper about structured content and structured authoring for those who want a little more background about structured content.

So let’s go and talk about the first misconception, that structure is hard. What do you have to say about that, Jo?

JL:                                       Well, science and history shows us that structured content, structured authoring, is actually very intuitive. And if I may rewind back to, say, the paleolithic era.

AP:                                     Okay.

JL:                                       Where we first started using a lot of symbols, and then eventually converting them into what we now know as letters. What this is, actually, just understanding patterns on an extremely micro level, and that’s how we actually learn to read and write, is through systematic training of our brains. Because our brains weren’t actually evolved to read and write naturally. Language and speaking it, yes, but reading and writing is not natural for our brains. So through this whole process of learning how to read and write, we actually have employed the basics of structured authoring.

So to give you an example, if I have, on my desk, maybe a very far distance from you, on the other side of the room, two sheets of paper. One is a resume and one is a cover letter, and all you can see from a very far distance is the blocks of the ink, but you don’t know what letters they are. But you can already tell which one is the cover letter and which one’s the resume. And that’s because there’s structured authoring employed in there and you naturally know those structures are associated with those particular types of documents.

AP:                                     Yeah, that makes a great deal of sense. It’s like intuitive, almost built in for us. That makes a lot of sense. And also too, beyond intuitive nature, any time someone is doing any kind of process change, and that includes moving from unstructured content to structured content, if you do not put in basic change management practices, of course it’s going to be hard. You can’t just say, I’m going to do structured authoring, or this company, this department’s going to do structured authoring, and then not consider all of the business requirements that drive that decision. And then buying the tools such as Paligo for that, training people on how to use them and keeping those lines of communication open.

So merely just saying, I’m going to do structure and not thinking about what that entails, yeah, structure will be hard, as any process change would be. So yeah, I’m trumpeting the change management mantra again, and I’m sure people listening are tired of hearing about it if they listen to any other episodes, but it’s a huge component here. It is not just about structured content, it is not just about the tools, it is about change management and people, as much as all those things.

JL:                                       100%.

AP:                                     Yep. So here’s another misconception. I’m going to have to write code, I’m going to have to type pointy brackets and slashes. Don’t make me do this.

JL:                                       There’s a lot of fear behind that there.

AP:                                     Yeah.

JL:                                       Well nowadays there are a lot of different interfaces that hide all that. But let’s say you do have to write with the pointy brackets. I really like that, the pointy brackets. Let’s say you do have to use the XML tags. Well, I would like to think of it as using identification labels for what we are writing. I mean, we tag everything as it is. We all use social media, we tag exactly what that thing is about. And in a lot of senses, it’s kind of the same thing. If I have a list and I tag it, hey, this is a list, I’ll tag it within those brackets, now we don’t have to think about how that looks like. So you’re not thinking about, oh, well it is indented plus a dot in the front of it, and you don’t have to think about all of those formatting things, you know immediately it’s a list.

And typically in structured authoring, you have all the look and feel of the document handled somewhere else.

AP:                                     Exactly.

JL:                                       So you really don’t have to do anything beyond, say, it is identified as a list or identified as a table, and I know exactly what that’s going to be when it gets pushed at the other end.

AP:                                     Yeah, I think that’s an important distinction to make. When you’re talking about structured content, structured authoring, you basically have a predefined organization hierarchy for your content, and then you tag things to follow that hierarchy, that organization. And what you’re talking about is, there is no thought about formatting. The structure content itself is, shall we say, formatting agnostic. What it cares more about, like you said, is this is a list item and an unordered list, or this is a paragraph and a note. When you build in that kind of intelligence with the tagging, then wherever you publish to, and these days we all know print pdf, everything, eBooks, E-learning, websites, I mean, you name it, it is anything.

And things can look slightly different, even though you’ve got an unordered list in all of these things, they may not be formatted exactly the same. That is not the concern of the author. All that author needs to do is just be sure and say, this is an ordered list, this is an unordered list. And then the processes later take on all that formatting that you’re talking about.

So let’s go to the next misconception. There’s a lot of content here and we’re going to have to convert it to structure. I don’t have time to do this.

JL:                                       Yeah, so the time thing is a huge concern for large organizations, especially if you have a massive amount of documentation, maybe spanning back the last 50 or so years. That’s actually a nightmare for any technical lawyer. That’s horrifying. I don’t want to dream about that. So what most of the tools now have, just the good news here, is there’s a lot of import tools already built in, and if not there’s a lot of import tools outside of CCMSs is that can help you with that, that into integrate with a CCMS.

But generally you’re going to be hard pressed to find one without one built in already. And the great thing is, generally, whatever you’re working in is likely something that spawned out of the original SGML. So SGML went to evolve into XML. Well, not evolved, but we derived it from SGML.

AP:                                     Yes.

JL:                                       And then from that we derived a lot of other things such as, well, everybody knows HTML, and a lot of other [inaudible 00:08:47] formats are derived from that. So meaning the conversion is actually relatively simple, and you don’t have to do it yourself because so many tools out there already know that and will bring it in for you.

AP:                                     Exactly. And your tool’s one of them that will do that. And even if the tool doesn’t, there are third party vendors, that is all they do. They write scripts and automate that stuff, and it means less dirty work, really, for the authors.

And one thing that we have learned at Scriptorium, and we really advise people not to do this, don’t let conversion be your content creators first exposure to XML, or structure, or whatever, because they may end up resenting it because of the amount of work that they have to do just upfront, converting. They should be putting their focus on creating content as efficiently as possible. So anything you can do with an import tool like you mentioned, or with a third party vendor who can automate that for you, I highly recommend it. It is money well spent and it will keep your content creators far happier than they would be otherwise.

JL:                                       You know what, that exposure to conversion there, I thought my example was a nightmare, that is a true nightmare, right there.

AP:                                     It is.

JL:                                       I would not wish that upon anybody.

AP:                                     No. We’re on the same wavelength there. It is not a good thing to do. And it is something, if you’re going to move to structure, be sure to budget time, money to do this, but use tech to do it. Don’t make people manually do it if you can avoid it.

JL:                                       Absolutely.

AP:                                     Yeah. So let’s go to number four of our misconceptions. And that is structure is just for technical communication and other technical content.

JL:                                       That it is very much not. I mean, earlier I talked about the resume versus a cover letter. How about we think about what we usually use on a regular basis. And I love food, I am actually very hungry right now. And so I will think about recipes.

AP:                                     Sure.

JL:                                       And we all know what recipes look like.

AP:                                     Yeah.

JL:                                       There’s always going to be, near the top of that recipe, an ingredients list followed by procedures. Nowadays, we’ll also usually see yield times or how many servings, and then you can toggle that back and forth. Now every single part of that is identified. So the procedure, well that’s a procedural element. And the ingredients list, well that’s a list element. And that’s all actually structured authoring right there. And that tells us the difference between, well this will tell me how to make a dish versus, oh, that page with the five paragraphs that’s telling me concepts I should understand about the culinary world, or something like that.

AP:                                     Yeah.

JL:                                       So those distinctions between that structure is in our everyday stuff, even your social media post. We know it’s a social media post, it’s only two lines long. We know that’s an update, so that’s like a reference topic, per se. And we know what we get from that is just a, oh, you should know this, not, oh, I have to do something about that. Right? So very different kinds of information in very different structures every single day, in every aspect of our lives.

AP:                                     Sure. And I know from working with many clients that people are now applying structure to marketing content. They are applying it to learning and training content. It is not just about technical information anymore, especially considering we’re seeing these trends where these lines between different kinds of content are blurring. So it would make sense that structure would start to kind of seep out and work for all different kinds of content. So let’s talk about our last misconception. Readers don’t care how we author this content.

JL:                                       I think all the people working in tech support, what customers coming to them after not understanding the documentation, would disagree.

AP:                                     Yes, they do. And often.

JL:                                       Very often, yeah. Readers do care, even if they don’t know it, they don’t know it’s structured authoring. But again, it’s all about intuition. If someone wants to know how do I do something, they’re going to look automatically for numbered steps, procedures. And if you give them a paragraph, yeah, they’re going to be pretty angry.

Or even just on a more casual level, let’s go back to my resume versus cover letter. Let’s say in the resume, you can derive from that, what are the skills. And you can look exactly for that because we have these filters in our brains, the patterned thinking actually helps us with applying these filters. So you’re using contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity, these principles, to really figure out what’s on a page before even seeing the very first letter. And that’s going to tell you, oh, I want skills, I’m going to look on the resume for a list. And you’re going to ingest that differently than say, I want to learn more about this person’s personality and therefore I’m looking at the cover letter for the biggest paragraph, and you switch gears in your brain to absorb it very differently. So if you imagine writing that paragraph in point forms, how would you process that, how would you prepare your brain to actually start reading that? And then you’re going to just be very confused and get frustrated and start all over again.

AP:                                     Yep, yep. Exactly. I think this is a great place to end this conversation. I think you’ve given some really good examples and kind of dispelled these myths about structured content. So I want to thank you for this, this has been a great conversation.

JL:                                       It’s been fantastic and a lot of fun. Thank you very much, Alan.

AP:                                     Absolutely. And we’ll include a link to Paligo in the show notes. Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.