We were contacted last week by a SaaS developer who wanted to know if their solution might be of interest to companies needing to write and host their product’s user manual or online Help content. So what capabilities do Technical Authors look for in an authoring tool?
There were a few features that sprung to mind:
Multi-channel publishing (for example: publishing to the Web, Microsoft Word and PDF). PDFs are still important as a publishing option, as people still like to read good quality printed content.
Separation of look and feel from content.
Content re-use (write once, re-use many times). This is different from simple cut-and-paste.
Variables (so it’s easy to change product names).
Conditional text (content that can vary depending on the type of user or type of product).
Link management (being able to find content in the project quickly, as well as being able to manage the dependencies among links and topics).
The ability to handle larger documents (200+ page documents with screenshots on most pages)
Expanding/collapsing table(s) of contents (and even different tables of contents for different types of users).
A user-friendly authoring environment.
Version management of the content.
Ideally, there would also be:
A way for occasional users to add and edit content without breaking formatting styles, using a User Interface that didn’t overwhelm them.
Access to and shared management of the content. This is so that writers could collaborate with each other, working on different topics for publications at the same time.
Our method for creating online courses involves making an audio recording of the presenter, transcribing it, editing the script and then recording the final, video presentation. We’ve tried using speech recognition software to create the transcribed script, and it has been a deeply frustrating experience.
While speech recognition is proving successful for searching and issuing commands (using Siri, Google Voice and Amazon Echo), we’re not sure it will replace the keyboard as the way we create written content.
James Somers is releasing an add-on for Google Docs, Draftback, that enables you to play back and analyse the creation of any Google Doc you have permission to edit.
It means you can see how a writer created the document, the sections they spent time rewriting and rearranging, the elements that were pasted into the document from elsewhere, and so on.
From an organisation’s perspective, the graphs Draftback that produces potentially could be used to show when and where the writer spent most of their time:
I could see this illustrating the impact of last minute changes to a product, review comments and other external factors. Potentially, it could also highlight areas where a writer might need assistance or training.
HyperCard was a hypertext program that came with Apple Macintosh in the 1980s. It allowed you to create “stacks” of online cards, which organsiations used to create some of the first online guides. It also contained a scripting language called HyperTalk that a non-programmer could easily learn. This meant HyperCard could do more than just display content: it could be used to create books, games (such as Myst), develop oil-spill models, and even dial the telephone.
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.
This is an opportunity to join a technical writing team within a fast-growing, independent software company. Our client develops Web-based financial trading software for the world’s largest financial institutions. They have an immediate vacancy for a Technical Author with a passion for technical communication.
You will developing end-user documentation for a range of products, producing user manuals, online help and API documentation.
Red Gate Software’s Dominic Smith mentioned in his presentation at UAEurope conference that the company had found Technical Authors were ideally suited to take on the role of Project Manager for small Agile software development projects. In fact, Red Gate had morphed most of its Technical Authors into to a hybrid Project Manager role.
Dominic made a strong case why Technical Authors made good Agile software project managers:
They are focused on the user
They understand the user
They understand a lot of the technological aspects
They are used to delivering projects on time
They are more extravert and people-orientated than programmers (yes, this is broad generalisation)
They ensure User Assistance isn’t forgotten in the project plan, and that it is considered from the very start
They can provide a business focus to the project, and are able to kill projects that don’t make business sense any more.
Here are some new tools we’ve found that might interest Technical Authors.
Google Ripples is a tool that enables you to watch how posts get shared on Google+. If you publish user assistance or support information via Google+, it could help you track how far and wide it gets distributed. It could also help you see who are the most influential people, when it comes to transmitting a message.
Anthologize is a free, WordPress plugin that enables you to publish the content as electronic texts.
Grab posts from your WordPress blog, import feeds from external sites, or create new content directly within Anthologize. Then outline, order, and edit your work, crafting it into a single volume for export in several formats, including—in this release—PDF, ePUB, TEI.