Transitioning to new publishing processes? Release your greatest hits collection first!
Transitioning to new publishing processes? Release your greatest hits collection first!
Does this sound familiar?
One reason for lack of accountability is the we-meeting. You know the one: “We need a new process for handling customer service issues.” Lots of discussion follows, but no clear direction is given, nor is any responsibility taken.
Bruce Clarke (The View from HR column) referencing consultant Kathleen Kelly
Over the weekend, a friend showed me an episode of a reality show that featured some commentary by a “style expert.” This expert offered his advice while dressed in an outfit that would work well as a costume in a production of Oliver Twist (and that’s being charitable).
It’s time for my (apparently biennial) predictions post. For those of you keeping score at home, you can see the last round of predictions here. Executive summary: no clear leader for DITA editing, reuse analyzers, Web 2.0 integration, global business, Flash. In retrospect, I didn’t exactly stick my neck out on any of those. Let’s see if I can do better this year.
Everyone else is talking about the cloud, but what about tech comm? Many content creation efforts will shift into the cloud and away from desktop applications and their monstrous footprints (I’m looking at you, Adobe). When your content lives in the cloud, you can edit from anywhere and be much less dependent on a specific computer loaded with specific applications.
I expect to see much more content creation migrate into web applications, such as wiki software and blogging software. I do not, at this point, see much potential for the various “online word processors,” such as Buzzword or Zoho Writer, for tech comm. Creating documents longer than four or five pages in these environments is painful.
In the ideal universe, I’d like to see more support for DITA and/or XML in these tools, but I’m not holding my breath for this in 2010.
From what we are seeing, the rate of XML adoption is steady or even accelerating. But the rationale for XML is shifting. In the past, the benefits of structured authoring—consistency, template enforcement, and content reuse—have been the primary drivers. But in several newer projects, XML is a means to an end rather than a goal—our customers want to extract information from databases, or transfer information between two otherwise incompatible applications. The project justifications reach beyond the issues of content quality and instead focus on integrating content from multiple information sources.
Is the hype about social media overblown? Actually, I don’t think so. I did a webcast (YouTube link) on this topic in December 2009. The short version: Technical communicators must now compete with information being generated by the user community. This requires greater transparency and better content.
My prediction is that a strategy for integrating social media and official tech comm will be critical in 2010 and beyond.
The days of the hermit tech writer are numbered. Close collaboration with product experts, the user community, and others will become the norm. This requires tools that are accessible to non-specialists and that offer easy ways to manage input from collaborators.
There are a couple of interesting changes in language:
What are your predictions for 2010?
Other interesting prediction posts:
Clay Shirky has a fascinating post on the concept of algorithmic authority; the idea that large systems, such as Google PageRank or Wikipedia have authority (that is, credibility) because of the way that the system works. In other words, a page that is returned first in a Google search is assumed by the searcher to be more credible because it is ranked first.
That made me think about authority in technical content.
As an in-house technical writer, your words have authority and your content carries the corporate logo. But although this should theoretically increase your credibility, it seems that the reverse is true. Consider, for instance, the following hypothetical book titles:
Which of these books would you turn to for help? What are your expectations of each document?
I believe that credibility and thus authority increases with distance from the product’s maker. In other words, the third-party book has more authority than either of the other two. Credibility is compromised by close association with the organization that makes the product.
When we apply this concept to information on the web, the implications are troubling for professional content creators who work inside corporations. If corporate authorship decreases authority, we get this result:
online help < user forums on corporate site < user forums on third-party site
Will people looking for user assistance gravitate toward independent third-party sites? What does that mean for in-house authors? How can you increase your credibility as a corporate technical communicator?
* Feel free to substitute your favorite book series title: XYZ for Dummies, XYZ: The Missing Manual, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to XYZ, XYZ Annoyances, …. I should probably also mention that I have written both a Dummies book and a Complete Reference.
[Disclosure: Scriptorium is a Certified Flare Instructor.]
[Full disclosure: We’re also an Adobe Authorized Training Center, a JustSystems Services Partner, a founding member of TechComm Alliance, a North Carolina corporation, and a woman-owned business. Dog people outnumber cat people in our office. Can I start my post now?]
These days, most of our work uses XML and/or DITA as foundational technologies. As a result, our interest in help authoring tools such as Flare and RoboHelp has been muted. However, with the release of Flare 5, MadCap has added support for DITA. This review looks at the DITA features in the new product. (If you’re looking for a discussion of all the new features, I suggest you wander over to Paul Pehrson’s review. You might also read the official MadCap press release.)
The initial coverage reminds me a bit of this:
(My web site stats prove that you people are suckers for video. Also, I highly recommend TubeChop for extracting a portion of a YouTube video.)
Let’s take a look at the most important Flare/DITA integration pieces.
New output possibilities
After importing DITA content into Flare, you can publish to any of the output formats that Flare supports. Most important, in my opinion, is the option to publish cross-browser, cross-platform HTML-based help (“web help”) because the DITA Open Toolkit does not provide this output. We have created web help systems by customizing the Open Toolkit output, and that approach does make sense in certain situations, but the option to publish through Flare is appealing for several reasons:
I took some DITA files, opened them in Flare, made some minimal formatting changes, and published to WebHelp. The result is shown here:
Not bad at all for 10 minutes’ work. I added the owl logo and scriptorium.com in the header, changed the default font to sans-serif, and made the heading purple. Tweaking CSS in Flare’s visual editor is straightforward, and changes automatically cascade (sorry) across all the project files.
Ease of configuration
Flare wins. Next topic. (Don’t believe me? Read the DITA Open Toolkit User Guide — actually, just skim the table of contents.)
The Open Toolkit wins on volume and for right-to-left languages; Flare wins on easy configuration (I’m detecting a theme here.)
Out of the box, both Flare and the Open Toolkit provide strings (that is, localized output for interface elements such as the “Table of Contents” label) for simplified and traditional Chinese, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portugese, Spanish, Swedish, and Thai (I have omitted variations such as Canadian French).
Beyond that, we have the following:
Thus, if you need Hebrew or Arabic publishing, you can’t use Flare. The Open Toolkit also provides default support for more languages.
I imported a map file into Flare and published. Then, I changed the map file to include a simple nested ditamap. Here is what I found:
I generated the output for my map file (the nested map is the “The decision to implement” section in this screen shot) through the DITA Open Toolkit and got the following XHTML output:
Then, I imported the same map file into Flare, generated WebHelp, and got the following TOC output:
<topicref href="introduction.xml" navtitle="Introduction" type="topic">
Inside the file, you find:
The inconsistency between the two implementations is annoying.
In part 2 of this review (coming soon), I’ll look at cross-references, reltables, conrefs, specialization, and conditional processing.
by Sheila Loring
Full disclosure: We’re an XMetaL Services Provider and have no particular affiliation with oXygen.
I’m in the fortunate situation of having access to both XMetaL 5.5 and oXygen 9.3. Both are excellent XML editors for different reasons. I’d hate for Scriptorium to make me choose one over the other.
From the viewpoint of authoring XML and XSLT, here are my top five features of both editors:
oXygen and XMetal have so many other strengths. I’ve just chosen my top five features.
What I’d like to see in XMetaL: The ability to indent code, the ability to drag and drop topics in the map editor.
What’s I’d like to see in oXygen: The ability to view a table–lines and all–in the WYSIWYG view instead of just the element tags.
So how do I choose which editor to use at a particular moment? When I’m casually authoring in XML, I choose XMetaL for all of reasons you read above. The WYSIWYG view is more user-friendly to me. But when I’m writing XSLT or just want to get at the code of an XML document, oXygen is my choice.
I’m thrilled to report that two deficiencies I reported in oXygen 9 are now supported in the latest version of oXygen — 10.2.
Two more reasons to love oXygen!
I am pleased to announce the publication of our newest white paper, The State of Structured Authoring in Technical Communication. In early 2009, we conducted a survey on structured authoring; this document presents the results of the survey along with our analysis.
Those who participated in the survey are entitled to a free copy of the report. If you requested a copy via email, you will receive a message within the next 2 business days with download instructions. If you requested a printed copy, those will go in the mail tomorrow.
The report is also available for purchase and immediate download. The cost is $200 for the 38-page report (plus 18 pages that reproduce the survey questions, so the file is 56 pages long).
I’m also delivering a presentation at next week’s STC Summit in Atlanta, which discusses the results of the survey. If you’re attending the conference, I hope you’ll join me on Monday, May 5, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in Regency V for “The State of Structure.”