Different world views of content and content strategy

TshirtThere’s a wonderful German word, die Weltanschauung, which roughly translates as a view of the world. It suggests there is a framework of ideas and beliefs behind people’s descriptions of various things in the world. I was reminded of Weltanschauung at this week’s London Agile Content Meetup, where Rahel Bailie neatly summed up some of the different views of content, content strategy and single sourcing.

Baked v Fried content

Paul hollywood

CMS Wiki described baked content as “pages that have been generated by a Content Management System, but then moved to a static delivery server, which can serve them at high speed and high volume”. The word “baked” is used, because this approach means you cannot separate the content from the format afterwards. They are baked together.

“Fried” content is where the Web pages are built “on the fly” when they are requested by the end user. Rahel used the example of frying eggs: if you put too many eggs into the frying pan, you can always remove one. Fried content may take a little longer to generate than baked content, but this approach enables you to personalise and filter the content. It also means you can present the information in different ways, depending on which device a person is using.

COPE through technology v COPE through authoring

COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) is another way of describing single sourcing content.

“COPE through technology” is the view that the content is essentially data that can be managed through software. If you need to create a personalised or filtered view of the content, you get a developer to create that version. If you need to create a mobile-ready version of your site, again you get a developer to do this. Content is often created by completing forms, in order to create structured information.

“COPE through authoring” is  the view that the writers can do all of the fine-grain manipulation of content. If you need to create a personalised or filtered view of the content, you get the Technical Author to mark up sections for those different conditions in the content itself. To quote Rahel, “You can then run a transformation script run, which compiles the content into its final form, and uploads the content to the Web CMS, or other publishing platform, for consumption and presentation.” The advantage of this approach is it stops you from being tied to a technology or application. The disadvantage is it relies on your writers being able to mark up and structure the text correctly.

It’s important to be aware of these distinctions when you talk about content, content strategy and single sourcing, because your Weltanschauung may not be shared by the person you’re talking to.

See also: Introduction to Content Strategy Training – Classroom and Online Courses

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

The roofer who makes £400/day because he read the Velux installation guide

Mark the Roofer came round to replace a broken tile on our roof late last week, and he told us that the Velux windows we’d had installed were fitted incorrectly. Apparently, up until two years ago, Velux windows needed to be fitted to the rafters, but now they should be installed onto a batten.

The consequence of fitting the newer style windows using the old method is they aren’t set high enough on the roof. The result is rainwater doesn’t drain freely, and is only held back by the surrounding felt. As the felt degrades over time (he said it’s usually two to three years), water starts to drip through into the room below.

The Velux installation guides and videos are actually very clear and well written, so it seems the reason why some builders seem to be installing the windows incorrectly is because they haven’t read the instructions in the last two years.

This roofer has read them, and makes a habit of checking any Velux windows he sees on the roofs he’s working on. It means he is able follow up many of his small £20 tile replacement jobs with larger £400 Velux re-installation projects. Sometimes, reading the manual pays.

Book review: Every Page is Page One

Every Page is Page One book coverThere’s a joke in education along the lines that students are taught the notes their teachers wrote down at university 20 years earlier…without going through the heads of either.

I mention this because there have been a number of technical communicators who have started to question the technical writing best practices that have been taught to student Technical Authors for the past 30+ years. At Cherryleaf, we show on our advanced technical writing techniques course how some of the largest websites have been breaking the generally accepted rules for writing User Assistance – companies that test and test again to see what works best for their users. Ray Gallon of CultureCom has been developing his cognitive approach to User Assistance, and Mark Baker has been developing and promoting the idea of “Every Page is Page One” (EPPO) Help topics.

Mark has published his ideas in a new book called “Every Page is Page One“. I was asked to review an early draft of the book, and, over Christmas, I was sent a copy of the published version.

In a nutshell, Mark’s argument is that, with Web-based content, you don’t know the context in which people are reading a Help page. You cannot assume that they have read any other pages prior to reading this topic. Therefore, you need to treat every page as Page One, the starting point, and include more introductory, contextual information in your topics. He argues that most Technical Authors have misunderstood minimalism, and the EPPO approach is actually more consistent with how John Carroll (the creator of minimalism) recommended User Assistance should be written.

The book provides recommendations on the level of detail you should include on a page before you need to create a new topic, and when and where to create links to other pages. He also compares EPPO to Information Mapping and DITA, and outlines how EPPO can complement these standards.

Reading the early PDF draft with a reviewer’s eye was struggle at times, but reading the final version in printed book format was an easy and enjoyable exercise. Perhaps reading some sections for a second time helped, as well.

We agree with a great deal of Mark’s ideas. We agree with the general idea of self-contained topics that provide the context for a task. We agree with the need for mini-Tables of Contents and a bottom-up approach to writing. We agree that tasks should include some contextual information. We agree online content can be atomised too much. We also liked his analysis of why screencasts are so popular, and the secrets to their success.

We have a few minor issues. Mark cautions against duplicating content on more than one Web page, because it’s bad for Search Engine Optimisation. We believe you should write efficiently in a way that’s best for the user, and that it’s up to the Search Engines to improve their algorithms so they can differentiate between “good” duplication and “bad” duplication. Google should be adapting and learning from the way good content is written, not us having to create sub-optimal content in order to satisfy Google.

It’s a book for people involved today in writing online User Assistance. Although the book is very clear and well structured, you probably need to have some experience of creating User Assistance to fully understand everything that’s covered in the book. It’s an important contribution to the discussion over whether technical communicators have focused too much on production efficiencies to the detriment of creating content that’s actually of value to their users. It’s worth getting a copy of this book.

Every Sherlock Holmes needs his Watson (or Molly)

Sherlock wallpaper image from The Consulting Detective blog

Series 3 of Sherlock has just started on BBC One in the UK. As nearly everyone knows, Sherlock Holmes is a genius consulting detective. Yet, as the saying goes, every Sherlock Holmes needs his Watson (or, in the first episode of this series, needs his Molly).

Sherlock Holmes is only a part of a pair, and his partner (Dr John Watson or Dr Molly Hooper) is as an important factor in his success. Watson observes and translates Holmes’s genius so that others can understand and follow. He asks the questions on our behalf. He also has skills that Holmes lacks – technical knowledge (about medicine) and social skills. Watson is nobody’s fool.

In another situation (such as working in a software company), we might call Dr Watson a technical communicator, don’t you think?

Happy 2014 – we wish you (and ourselves) a productive and communicative new year.

Technical Author salary trends in 2013/14

Here is a summary of salary trends and demand levels for Technical Authors, derived from the ITJobsWatch website.

Demand for Technical Authors has risen

Vacancy sign - Flickr image by LOLrenThe demand has risen from 1 in every 1,000 IT advertised jobs being for a Technical Author in January 2013 to 2 in every 1,000 jobs at the end of the 2013 .The peak demand during 2013 was in the summer, when 2.9 in every 1,000 IT jobs were for a Technical Author.

This is still some way off the levels in 2004 and earlier, where 3.4 in every 1,000 advertised jobs were for a Technical Author.

Advertised salaries have risen

ITJobsWatch is reporting the average year-on-year salary change is currently increasing at 7.14%.

  • The national average advertised salary for a Technical Author in January 2013 was £35,000.
  • The average for the 3 months to 17 Dec 2013 was £37,500.
  • 80% of salaries advertised in 2013 were between £27,500 and £47,000.

Salaries have been static since 2010, with the occasional rise and fall back to the £35,000 level. We will have to wait a few months to see if this is a permanent rise in the salary levels.

See also: Cherryleaf Technical Author Recruitment Services

Documents Made to Measure

shirt

Content and documents written for users should be like a good fitting shirt – comfortable enough to enable the wearer to function in the most effective way possible.

Basic shirts are offered in only small, medium, large and extra large options. The collars can be too tight, the sleeves too long, and the body rarely flatters the wearer. At the end of the day, the wearer can end up itchy and tired.

At the other extreme, bespoke shirts from London’s Jermyn Street are handmade to your exact body shape and size – but a price.

In between those two choices, you can buy “Made to Measure” shirts.

Fit is everything

In gentlemen’s shirtings, fit is everything, and the same thing is true for content. Companies such as Charles Tyrwhitt and TM Lewin offer Made to Measure shirts where you can specify the collar size, the length of the arms, the slimness of the fit, the length of the collar, shirt pocket options, the type of cuff, and type of fabric (like iron or non-iron cotton). Marks and Spencer take it further, modifying the shirts to take account of your weight and age. You get something that’s a much better fit to the user, and it costs only a little more than a basic (S, M, L, XL) shirt.

Made to Measure content

Shirt companies are able to offer a wide variety of choice at an affordable price because they use standard modular components that can be interchanged for each customer. You can take the same approach to your documentation as well – delivering content that’s the best fit for different skill levels, use cases, locations, reading devices, configurations, and so on.

Marks and Spencer made to measure shirts

By taking a modular, Made to Measure approach to writing your content, your content can be more like Cary Grant and less like Jeremy Clarkson.

What would a Technical Author ask from Santa?

Santa Claus - WikipediaSaint Nicholas’s day has passed, which means Christmas is getting close. So what would a Technical Author ask from Santa Claus?

One thing we could request is the ability to embed one Google document inside another. That would mean that Google Docs could support some basic content reuse.

Another would be to request Madcap Flare’s DITA support to be extended, so that you could create edit native DITA files.

We could ask him to provide a standard technology format for providing Help for mobile applications.

We could also ask him for a way to use Siri and Google Voice Search to interact with our user guides.

So what would you ask Santa to bring? Please share your thoughts and ideas below.