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.

Teachers need content management systems, too

The Guardian has an article today called “Teachers and parents criticise ‘robotic’ software-generated school reports“. It explains teachers are finding report writing software isn’t meeting their needs:

“It often frustrated as none of the options would quite capture what he wanted to say about a child and the end product was never satisfactory.”

It states, as an alternative, some teachers have a comment bank, which they use to cut and past into school reports. One teacher said

“I’ve got a bank of literary comments, maths comments and general comments. You can pick one that sounds about right, whip it out and plonk it in.”

A better solution might be a content management system that could contain a single-sourced comment bank, templates and some advice of what to write where.

As the spokesman for the National Association for Head Teachers said:

“Headteachers invest a lot of time and effort into making sure this happens. Technology can help that process but it should never get in the way of a truly personal report for each and every child in the school.”

Common sense isn’t always common

Here’s some examples from Munich of what might seem to obvious and common sense to the one audience, but not to others.

Traffic lights that have four lights, with the symbols , O, I and K:

Munich traffic lights

Pedestrian crossing lights that have two people instead of one:

Munich traffic lights

The second set of lights is still comprehendible (hold the hand of the person next to you, whilst you’re waiting to cross the road 😉 ), but the first set didn’t make sense to even the (non-Bavarian) German members of our party.

The decline of the gerund in technical documentation?

Louise Downe, who works at the UK’s Government Digital Service, wrote a blog post (Good services are verbs, bad services are nouns), where she stated:

“After several rounds of user testing, the Home Office changed the name of ‘Immigration Health Surcharge’ to ‘check if you need to pay towards your health care in the UK’ – a service that allows visitors to the UK to pay for the cost of healthcare.”

Screenshot of Home office page, where  Heading uses "create"

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The Art v Science conundrum in technical communication

One of the common debates in technical communication is how much the profession is art or science. Can we take an engineering-like approach to assisting users, using tools like DITA, or does each requirement need a bespoke, hand-crafted solution? Can we quantify, using analytics and other means, the effect of technical communication, or do we just have to hope and guess it’s being useful?

There’s been a similar debate in advertising. Indeed, there is the famous quotation, attributed to various people, along the lines of:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

One organisation believes it has cracked this puzzle. On Wednesday, The Saatchi Institute announced a formula describing the correlation between the investments in the art and science of a brand and their financial impact. The new formula has been developed in conjunction with the London Business School, and is based on academic research conducted in partnership with Unilever and Nielsen Research.

Although the formula is presented as a way to predict cause and effect in advertising, and justify advertising budgets, could it be applicable to other forms of communication, such as that created by Technical Authors? We won’t know for a few weeks. According to a press release by M&C Saatchi, the new formula will be explained in detail by Lord Saatchi, Tim Duffy and special guests at a London Business School event on 3 July.

Protecting your brand using technical communication

Lisa Thomas

On BBC Radio 5 live’s Wake Up to Money programme today, Lisa Thomas, Chief Executive of advertising agency M&C Saatchi, said:

“We can’t just think about just one advert. We have to think about the brand and the relationship that consumers have with that brand, and be aware that consumers see your brand and your product everywhere now.

They can have a very direct relationship with that brand, whether that’s via Social Media, whether that’s via just by being more in more contact with those brands and the business, so there’s more imperative now to think holistically about the brand than before, and be more creative.”

The co-presenter, Mickey Clark, commented that he’d heard from David Kershaw (a director at M&C Saatchi)  that even the through the toughest economic times, companies are anxious still to protect their brands, even if they have next to no money.

Brand means the customer’s expectations of what they will get, or experience, when they use a product or service. Today, organisations have to protect the promise, that expectation, and make sure that promise is matched by what they actually experience.

Organisations that think more holistically, and focus more in terms of brand than simply advertisements and sales orders, need to ensure the brand image is consistent throughout the whole of the customer’s experience with it. In this context, technical communication, the instructional content that supports users as they use the product or service, becomes an important means of protecting the brand.

That’s because, when the customer has left the store, all the packaging has thrown away, and the customer is actually using the product, one of the few things left to sustain the brand’s reputation is technical communication – the User Assistance, the technical documentation. This will help support the user through the periods they spend using of that product or service.

Tips for writing in the business world

Writing in the business world can be difficult. We have to write Web pages, proposals, emails, policies and procedures and, perhaps, adverts. It can be hard to get going, and create something that’s clear and to the point. Here are some tips to help you get over these difficulties.

It’s not your fault

Let’s start by saying it’s not your fault if you find business writing difficult, because most of us are not taught how to do it at school. At school, we learn how to write stories and how to argue a case. That usually involves building to a big conclusion at the end.

In business, mostly we have to write to:

  • persuade
  • instruct, or
  • inform.

Those are different forms of writing.

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