Can a Technical Author be a master of more than one trade?

Technical Authors are normally seen as masters of writing user documentation, but their skills are not often applied to other areas of the business. For example, it’s usually the case our clients for software documentation are different from our procedures writing clients.

However, we’re currently working for a client where we began by editing a white paper, and this has led us on to other projects across departments. Work has included developing customer journey maps, a terminology database, as well as the online Help. The role is morphing into that of a content editor role: checking for consistency, spotting errors in marketing copy, rewriting copy, and so on.

So what is different? What has led to this wider scope? It may be due to us being recommended to them by word of mouth, and they had greater confidence in our abilities. It may be because they are a start up. It could be because many of the staff are not native English speakers.

We suspect it’s because the first project was the white paper. They had something that was very useful to them, for promoting the company. They also included us in their in-house chat system, which meant we could see other areas where they had issues with content. This led to us intervening more than usual, making suggestions in a proactive way. The growth of chat systems, such as Slack and Socialcast, within companies could open up other opportunities for other Technical Authors, as long as they take the initiative.

Do you need DITA?

Judging by Social Media last week, there were many strong opinions at the tekom tcworld conference towards the DITA authoring standard and the associated tools. It seemed, as the philosopher Swift once said, “Haters gonna hate”, and, by inference, “Hypers gonna hype”.

Eliot Kimber provided an interesting summary in a post to the DITA users group forum (Trip Report: Tekom 2015, DITA vs Walled Garden CCMS Systems):

“For background, Germany has had several SGML- and XML-based component content management system products available since the mid 90’s, of which Schema is probably the best known. These systems use their own XML models and are highly optimized for the needs of the German machinery industry…These products are widely deployed in Germany and other European countries. DITA poses a problem for these products to the degree that they are not  able to directly support DITA markup internally, for whatever reason, e.g., having been architected around a specific XML model such that supporting other models is difficult. So there is a clear and understandable tension between the vendors and happy users of these products and the adoption of DITA…
…It’s clear to me that DITA is gaining traction in Europe and, slowly, in Germany but that the DITA CCMS vendors will need to step up their game if they want to compete head-to-head against entrenched systems like Schema and Acolada. Likewise, the DITA community needs to do a better job of educating both tools vendors and potential DITA users if we expect them to be both accepting of DITA and successful in their attempts to implement and use it.”

This may have led those who are asking, do I need DITA?, to come away from the conference more confused than before. So, we thought it might be useful to provide a rough guide to whether it’s worth adopting DITA:

You probably don’t need DITA if:

  • The way the content looks to the user is the most important issue.
  • You have fewer than four writers.
  • You write narrative content.
  • You have limited budgets for tools, training and migration.
  • You don’t have the time to deal with the issues around changing working methods.
  • Your content has a “shelf life” of less than two years.
  • You use a lot of graphics with annotations.
  • You need to customise outputs [added] for individual documents [added] (such as PDFs).
  • The cost of migrating existing content will be expensive.
  • You want the presentation layer embedded with the content layer.
  • You don’t want to work within strict rules regarding how topics are written (where content is marked up semantically).
  • You need to put JavaScript code directly inside topics.
  • You need to use the tools used by developers or the marketing department.
  • You want a simple information architecture.

You might need DITA if:

  • You need to write to (and enforce) a standard.
  • You need to localise content into many languages.
  • You have more than four writers.
  • You want to write semantically.
  • You need a more efficient authoring, [added] reviewing [added] and publishing process.
  • You create many variations of the same document.
  • You want intelligent content that can adapt to different users and contexts.
  • You are spending too much time on formatting content.
  • You need to re-use content in different projects and different contexts, and make those topics accessible to other writing teams who might want to re-use them.
  • You need to establish a controlled vocabulary and taxonomy.
  • You want content validated for consistency.
  • You want automated publishing.

You probably do need DITA if:

  • You need to share content with other organisations.
  • Your content will need to last more than 30 years.
  • You want content to be stored in an open data standard, independent of any tool.
  • You don’t want to be tied into a specific authoring tool, content management system or publishing/rendering engine.
  • You need transclusion (where an element can replace itself with the content of a like element elsewhere) across a range of media.
  • You want to have a way of generalising back to a common standard.

 

Do you agree?

Please share your thoughts below.

Technical communication as a brand – The CEO and the technical communicator

The CEO and the technical communicator ebookSince I wrote the post on Technical communication as a brand, we’ve been working on an idea we had for promoting the profession. The end result is another story, another free graphic novel you can download, called The CEO and the technical communicator.

It’s published under a Creative Commons licence, so anyone can forward it on, as long as they don’t modify it or sell it.

There’s a lot of factual evidence about the value of technical communicators to an organisation (such as the ROI calculators on our website), so we thought we’d see if we could appeal to the heart as well as the head by using a story-based approach.

Technical communication comes in many forms, so there were some challenges in coming up with something that was representative of the whole profession. Partly to get around this, the document shows people’s reactions to the content created, rather than showing the content itself. It also uses the word “content’ as a catch-all for document, manual, book, Help file, Web page, illustration, and so on.

We’ve also developed an ISTC-branded version that the Institute for Technical Communicators could use itself to promote the profession. We’ve sent it to to the ISTC Council for their consideration and comments. The document might be modified if they ask for any changes to be made; for example, we’re wondering if there should be greater emphasis on the writing aspect of the role.

You can download the Cherryleaf version from our website. Let us know what you think, using the comments below or by email.

Technical communication as a brand

Flickr image by Ruper GanzerOne of the tea break discussions at the Congility conference I spoke at last month was over the need to improve the awareness of technical communicators and technical communication as a profession.

I suggested the profession would benefit from having (and promoting) a simple positioning statement that explains the profession as if it were a brand. This is something I believe Tekom, the German professional body, did in the early 2000s. Tekom carried out some research in Germany that suggested as many, if not more, people were carrying out a technical communication role as part of another job, and that they were not aware the profession of technical communicator existed. So they aimed some of their marketing efforts at these groups, to make them aware of the profession. They wanted to see if they could bring these people into the Tekom membership.

In fact, I think there should be two statements to improve awareness of the profession:

  1. One saying there are these people called technical communicators who could help your business.
  2. One aimed at people who are writing technical documentation, but don’t realise it is a profession, with a professional body, standards etc. that could help them do it better.

Looking at the STC and ISTC sites, there are some useful simple descriptions of the profession. I’ve used content from these two sites to come up with the following description for the first statement:

“Technical Communicators are professionals who take technical and complex information and make it clear to people who need to understand and use it.

They have skills in providing the right information to the right people, at the right time. They communicate by using technology such as Web pages, Help files or printed content.

Having clear instructions can make all the difference to users of products or staff carrying out tasks. That’s because the need for accurate and accessible content has never been greater.”

We hope to progress this idea a little bit further, and produce something that the ISTC, the professional body for UK technical communicators, and ourselves could use.

Do you think the description we’ve used could be improved? If so, please use the comment box below.

Reputation Management – Can user documentation help quash rumours?

Photo of a tiger in the streetIn the ‘Whispers’ episode of BBC Radio Four’s Digital Human programme, Aleks Krotoski explores how rumours spread both online and in the physical world.

As an example, she looked at how two people were able to spread a rumour that a tiger was running loose in London during the 2011 riots.

Aleks claims we are now in a world of misinformation. For organisations, this means they now have to pay attention to any misinformation or rumours about their products and services, an activity that is often called ‘reputation management’.

Seven minutes into the radio show, Nicholas DiFonzo of the Rochester Institute of Technology states groups believe rumours typically because there is a lack of information from official channels, they don’t trust official channels, or because their friends believe it. People use rumours to figure things out.

This means if there is a gap in information, then rumours may fill that gap. For this reason, it’s important organisations publish their Help files or equivalent on the web, so that there isn’t any uncertainty over what your product can and cannot do. If you don’t, whatever Google serves as an alternative source of information will fill in the gap.

Where people might not trust the official marketing content, they are more likely to trust the technical, instructional information. It’s seen as more ‘truthy’.

What do you think?

Please share your thoughts, using the comments box below.

Slides from the Adobe Day Europe discussion on “Assisting the millennial user – challenges and opportunities in the decade ahead”

Here are the slides the panel put together for the Adobe Day Europe discussion on “Assisting the millennial user – challenges and opportunities in the decade ahead”. We didn’t get time to cover all of the topics in the time we had available (unfortunately some of the previous speakers overran their time slots).
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Proving your technical content is the most important content on your website

In yesterday’s post, How technical content on the Web is turning traditional marketing strategy on its head, we discussed the importance of technical content to today’s marketing funnel. You might be thinking, show me more evidence.

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How technical content on the Web is turning traditional marketing strategy on its head

Kathy Sierra famously summed up most marketing departments’ approach to content in this slide:
kathy sierra - How we treat customers

To paraphrase her, the website and brochure are a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom.

Today, the way people use the Internet means this approach to marketing needs to change

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