Manager’s guide to single sourcing: What’s the problem, why is there a need?

I thought it might be useful to look at a simple question: Why is there a need for single sourcing technical documentation? For people who aren’t technical authors, it’s often unclear why technical authors talk so much about “single sourcing”. Isn’t that just cutting and pasting? What’s the problem?

In later posts we’ll look at the possible solutions, but this post will focus on the need to change things.

What’s the problem?

Many documentation departments produce detailed and well-designed documentation. Increasingly, however, one manual is often not enough.

Users are rarely all the same. They have different product knowledge, different backgrounds and they may have different reasons for using the product.

Customers don’t want to search and scanning through lots of information that’s irrelevant to their situation. They often need specific documentation rather than a standard one-size-fits-all document.

In addition, as companies expand their product offering into new markets and strive to broaden the product offering and stretch the lifecycle of existing products, so the producers of the technical information must manage, at the same time, more than one edition of their documents.

Internationalisation intensifies the burden even more, with the need to provide translated versions of documents. Indeed, it’s illegal to sell a product in the European Union if it doesn’t have documentation written in the language used in that country. That’s not to mention the  risk of out-of-date legal, safety and compliance information being sent out to customers.

This means there is often a need to produce lots of documents that are only slightly different from each other.

If these new documents are created by cutting content from one document and pasting it into another, you do not have an automatic way of keep each version of these documents up to date and consistent to each other. Someone has to remember to change “Document B” whenever “Document A” is updated – and have the time available to do it.

When many versions of the same core document exist, they have a habit of becoming more and more different from each other. Differences in wording and content start to creep in, which can lead to confusion in the minds of both your customers and your document authors.

It also means that same information can be written and translated more than once. Translation costs, even when “translation memory” software is used, can be very very expensive, so it makes sense to re-use existing content as much as possible.

In short, poor and inefficient management of content is expensive. Staff can spend hours dealing with content that’s unstructured, disorganised and unable to be reused. The company can waste money on unnecessary translation costs. As for the poor old customers – they can end up with  documents that just don’t meet their needs.

Email issues overnight

We moved email providers overnight, and some emails sent to us may have bounced back to the sender during this period. We are currently receiving email, and the new system seem to be working correctly now. If you did get a failure notice for an email you sent any of our staff, please resend and this time we should receive it.

Cherryleaf joins Intellect – the leading trade association for the technology sector

Cherryleaf is now a member of Intellect, the UK’s largest and most influential technology trade body.

Formed in 2002, Intellect was created to give a single powerful voice to the information technology, telecommunications and electronics industries in the UK. Highly respected by both the public and private sectors alike, Intellect members work together to help shape markets and develop new thinking in the technology sector, whilst working closely with Government to influence policy and improve industry best practice. 

Cherryleaf is keen to use its membership to help promote the need for good user assistance and documentation, and raise its profile within the technology industry as a whole. Our membership with Intellect will also help us to keep at the forefront of all UK technology industry developments.

Cherryleaf to host mentoring meetings for Documentation Managers

Cherryleaf will be hosting, half-day peer group meetings for documentation managers and leaders. These afternoon meetings will be held initially on a quarterly basis in Russell Square, London, under the Chatham House Rule basis of confidentiality.

These will be run in a similar way to the peer group meetings run for Chief Executives by organisations such as Vistage – in a trusted, confidential setting, leaders from diverse industries meet on a regular basis in a peer-to-peer environment to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities. A Chairman leads each meeting, guiding both process and content to ensure members achieve real results. 

These meetings are intended to complement the ISTC regional group meeting initiative. They differ in that there will be an emphasis on problem solving rather than networking, and they are aimed at a different audience.

Contact us for more details.

Cherryleaf’s article in “Communicator” – Benchmarks for High Performance

Copies of the Institute for Scientific and Technical Communication’s magazine “Communicator” should be arriving through member’s letterboxes today. This edition is special in that contains an article on page 22 by me, entitled “Benchmarks for High Performance”. I hope people like it.

We noticed this Spring 2009 edition also includes two articles by authors we’ve placed and another by a customer of ours.

We’ve also been asked to write an article for Society for Technical Communication’s “Intercom” magazine. Their July/August 2009 edition will be on the theme “Technical Communication’s Value Proposition: Providing Value and Return on Investment.” Our article, if accepted, is provisionally titled “A different perspective on measuring the value of technical communication.”

Will SEO be replaced by AEO (Answer Engine Optimisation)?

Internet psychologist Graham Jones has just posted an interesting Blog called “Search is on its deathbed…bye, bye SEO“.

In it he states:

“They (Search Engines) would like us to think that we are constantly “searching” for things online – but we aren’t. We are “locating” stuff we already know about, a lot of the time.”

“We are merely locating things that we want to find following some offline trigger… Add to that the fact that people are now seeking answers to questions rather than searching for general information, it means that traditional search engines are going to have their work cut out in the months ahead.”

This sounds an awfully lot like the behaviour of people using Help files – typically they know WHAT they want to do, but they don’t know HOW to do it. They ask questions, in many cases. Navigating and locating become more important than searching.

Perhaps this means the strategies and technologies adopted by technical authors when creating Help files should be adopted by Web developers. Content may need to focused on answering questions, as people migrate towards “answer engines” rather than search engines, such as Google. For software companies, this may simply be a case of adding the content of their Help files to their Web site.