Topic-based authoring: The undiscovered country

NT Live Hamlet Many software companies, when they start out, provide user documentation as downloadable PDFs or as web pages. As they develop more products and versions, and as they expand into countries that use different English spellings, the amount of documents can grow until it becomes hard to keep all of these documents up to date.

It’s at this point that they tend to call a specialist technical writing company (such as Cherryleaf) to see if they can fix the problem for them. We find they’ve usually had a brief look at a Help Authoring tool, such as Flare or RoboHelp, and can see that it would solve a lot of their problems. However, they’re often not really sure how to use these tools in the best way.

Although topic-based authoring has been around for over twenty years, for many people it’s a completely new concept. It is, to quote from either Hamlet or Star Trek VI, an undiscovered country. Our meetings with them often end up focusing on the benefits of topic-based authoring.

Topic-based writing is an approach where you write a piece of text (or topics) that typically contains a paragraph or two about a single topic. These topics can be combined to create a page in a PDF document, and they can be organised in a sequence to create an online Help system ( See topic-based authoring page in Wikipedia). It’s a modular approach to creating content. The main advantage of this approach is the topics are often reusable; you can save time by reusing topics across different documents, and you can publish the same content to different media. For example, you could use a topic in training courseware, in a user guide and in marketing information.

As each topic is usually about a specific subject, and has an identifiable purpose, it can also help the writer write more clearly. If you need longer articles, you can build these up from the topics you’ve created.

It’s easy for professional Technical Authors to forget sometimes that many people have never come across this approach to writing before.

Design-led technical documentation

Peter J. Bogaards posted a link on Twitter yesterday to an article and a press release on how IBM is adopting a design-led approach to software design.

“IBM Design Thinking is a broad, ambitious new approach to re-imagining how we design our products and solutions … Quite simply, our goal — on a scale unmatched in the industry — is to modernize enterprise software for today’s user who demands great design everywhere, at home and at work.” (Phil Gilbert, general manager, IBM Design)

I understand the IBM Design Thinking approach will affect everything it does: product development, processes, innovation, and, interestingly, the technical documentation/user assistance associated with products. Both design and traditional technical communication share the same goals – to deliver something that is very usable, robust and aesthetically pleasing – so it makes sense to have the two teams aligned closely.

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Our next Advanced Technical Writing Techniques course – 24th April 2014

After a short break, our Advanced Technical Writing Techniques training course has returned. We’ve scheduled a public course for Thursday 24th April 2014, in South Kensington, central London.

Past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger and Visa International. One delegate commented:

“The way in which customers consume our content is changing, as are the different expectations customers have regarding user assistance and support. Your course provided further insight and ideas regarding how to review and adapt to ensure content is relevant and appealing to our customers.”

This course is ideal for Technical Authors and those developing assistance for users of software.

Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication. Don’t get left behind. You can book a place via the webpage Trends in Technical Communication Workshop – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques.

The conversation confusion in technical communication

Flickr CC image by Search Engine PeopleWe noticed last week a few tweets in our Twitter stream about how technical documentation and user assistance will be turning into a conversation.

A dictionary definition of conversation is:

1. The spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings; talk.
2. An informal discussion.

 

Informal, verbal, interactive, spontaneous communication is quite different from pretty much all forms of User Assistance you’ll see today, so what do technical communicators mean by “conversation”?

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