A technical communication user’s hierarchy of needs

At the TCUK 2015 conference, Rachel Johnston mentioned the idea of a content maturity model. We thought we’d take this idea and ask:

Could we develop a model that illustrates a hierarchy of needs for users of technical communication (and in particular, User Assistance)?

A model of what?

We suggest calling this model a technical communication user’s hierarchy of needs. This is because we’re considering the different points where a user interacts with technical communication content, the information they need, and value it gives to them.

It takes a similar approach to the content maturity model Rachel suggested (shown in the photo below), with the least mature organisations providing just the legal minimum, and most mature content systems contributing to branding and evangelism.

content maturity model diagram

A user’s hierarchy of needs also enables us to compare this model to similar models from content marketing and product design. For example, the categories in our model’s hierarchy roughly correspond to Peter Morville’s “User Experience honeycomb”, as well as the key elements in product design.

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Building Information Modelling (BIM) for content

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is an increasingly popular technique used in the construction industry. It involves creating XML digital models of buildings and tunnels during each stage of a project. However, these are more than just 3D animated models, as they also embed information about physical objects in the building. According to Wikipedia:

“A building owner may find evidence of a leak in his building. Rather than exploring the physical building, he may turn to the model and see that water valve is located in the suspect location. He could also have in the model the specific valve size, manufacturer, part number, and any other information ever researched in the past, pending adequate computing power. “

It means architects and engineers can “see” behind walls and discover if there are any pipes or cables that might be affected by any planned works.

This concept of an intelligent model that can be shared between stakeholders throughout the whole lifecycle is also the future for content. Organisations want the ability to know how different items of content are related, what is the structural and metadata information behind the presentation layer and how content has developed chronologically. They want the ability to use a model to plan and modify before they start the more costly work of implementation.

BIM could perhaps provide a useful analogy for Technical Authors, procedures writers, and others developing text-based content, when they are explaining the purpose and value of structured content, single sourcing and Component Content Management Systems.

Is it possible for Technical Authors to write content more quickly?

Approximately 50% of a Technical Author’s day is spent writing. However, when Technical Publications teams look for efficiencies, they tend to focus on the 50% of time spent on non-writing activities, such as researching, reviewing and planning. They assume the content itself cannot be written more quickly. To an extent, they are right, as the querty qwerty keyboard is not an optimal layout.

We’ve been going through a process of transcribing our early e-learning modules, in order to have scripts upon which we can base future course updates. As part of this project, we’ve been using a free application called Plover to help us write the content. With Plover, you have the potential to create content (in Word, RoboHelp, Flare, Oxygen XML etc) at up to 225 words per minute (wpm).

Plover is based on chorded typing. You press more than one key at a time to create words. Chorded typing isn’t new – for example, it was demonstrated in Douglas Engelbart’s famous “The mother of all demos“.

Below is a five minute lightning talk on Plover and some of the emerging hardware:

So far, in my case, I’ve been able to double my typing speed. Realistically, those of us participating in this project at Cherryleaf aim to get to 180 words per minute. The reason for this is that most people speak at 160-180 wpm. At that speed, you are able to transcribe subject matter experts in real time – which means there’s no need to record an interview and then type it up at a later date.

There is a learning curve to this method, but it is based on over 100 years of theory and practice. It is tremendous fun – a bit like learning to use a querty qwerty keyboard for the first time.

SharePoint for documentation projects

Most of the Technical Authors I have met don’t have a good thing to say about Microsoft SharePoint. In many ways, it represents how not to publish content online. It is seen as encouraging people to move print-optimised documents (Blobs) around, rather than units of content (Chunks), and users are typically left to rely on search to find which document contains the information they are looking for.

For all those issues, SharePoint may still have its place – for managing documentation projects.

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Issues for developers moving from on-premises software to Software as a Service.

On Monday, I spoke at the Visma Developer Days conference in Riga, Latvia, about some issues software companies have to address when migrating from developing on-premises software to Software as a Service.

One of the of the biggest changes is that the revenues are spread over the lifetime of customer – they pay on a monthly basis rather than an initial up-front payment. It becomes vital customers don’t give up on using the software after only a short while, because you won’t have earnt much income from that customer. If the software is difficult to use, and if users cannot find the answers to questions when they need them, there’s a good chance they will stop using the software, and stop paying their subscription fees.

We’re seeing a number of software companies changing their approach to providing user assistance (user documentation). More companies are thinking about it at the start of the project, so they can do a better job of delivering user documentation than they’ve done for on-premises software. They’re seeing documentation as part of the customer journey, and part of the design process.

This is welcome news, although it requires development teams to combine product design with information design. I wonder if there’ll be similar trends emerging at the next conference I’ll be attending – MadWorld 2014.

Getting information from Subject Matter Experts

Flickr photo an interview by illustirInterviews with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are some of the most useful sources for Technical Authors when they are gathering information about a product or procedure. This often involves asking a developer or departmental manager a series of questions focused on the types of questions end users are likely to ask.

Interviewing is one of those dark arts that Technical Authors pick up over time – techniques for getting SMEs to find the time to speak to you and review your drafts, ways to avoid conversations meandering away from what the user will want to know, tools for capturing the interview, and so on.

So what tools should you use?

Coming armed with biscuits (cookies in the USA) is probably the most effective tool! After that, the most useful tool to have is a voice recording device. If you have a smartphone, in effect, you have a digital voice recorder. There are many voice recording apps for both iOS and Android, but the one we like is Recordium.


In addition to recording audio, Recordium also enables you annotate the voice recording. You can highlight and tag certain parts of audio recordings (for example: to indicate a new topic or to mark sections that relate to definitions of terms etc), and add attachments to those sections as well. You can use it, in effect, as an audio-orientated note clipping application, similar to Evernote.

Recordium also enables you to vary the playback speed. We’ve found this useful when SMEs are using specialist terminology – you can slow down the recording to check what it was they actually said. Listening at a faster speed is also a useful way of reviewing a recording quickly.

Technical Authors still need to transcribe sections of the interview, so it becomes text. Unfortunately, Text-to-Speech applications still have some way to go. Dragon Dictation is available for Apple devices, and ListNote offers similar functionality for Android. However, even if you are just a two fingered typist, you’re probably better off transcribing the audio yourself.

Are there any other apps you’d recommend? Let us know.

Assessing the potential savings from single sourcing

One of the main benefits from single sourcing is the ability to reuse existing content. Different departments can avoid duplicating work, which means they can save time and money.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to quantify these savings before you move to an authoring or content management system that enables you to single source. Analysing all the existing documents in a business can be overwhelming, which means often organisations only quantify the savings after the single sourcing content management system has been implemented.

There are a few software applications that can help you analyse your existing content and determine how much duplication exists. You get a sense of how much time and effort was wasted in the past, which is a pretty good indication of how much waste you’d avoid in the future.

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The best Documentation Manager vacancy we think we’ve ever had on our books

We’ve been asked to a find candidates for a fabulous permanent vacancy at one of our clients.

You need to lead and develop their vision of the role of User Assistance and content. This means treating content as a function of design (and user experience), with the appropriate information provided to users at all points during the customer journey. Your role will be discover and incorporate the best ideas and practices from other leaders in content creation into your team.

In effect, this means they are looking for someone who is currently:

  • a content strategy manager (media manager/editor) with experience of developing user assistance for software, or
  • a documentation/technical publications manager with experience of content strategy.

You can work in Buckinghamshire or in Cambridge, and you can work part of the week from home if you wish.

For more details, see:

#4144 Documentation Manager/Content Strategy Manager, Bucks/Cambs,£55K-£70K DOE