Content is a service, not a product

A couple of days ago, an intriguing tweet taught me a lesson about content – and the search for its source taught me another lesson about the benefits of twitter. It all started with this:

Content is a service, not a product. For consumers, less a thing they buy, more an experience.

This tweet by Scott Abel on Feb 23, 2010 made sense to me immediately. That day, I wondered how much content I had actually produced, compared to serving existing content to people who need it: I had converted a legacy document to a new template. A colleague had needed a use case which I told him could be found in the release notes. And some existing documentation needed to be made available in a new channel. So my readers needed me to supply content, not to create more of it.

Then I noticed Scott’s tweet RT’ed a less telegraphic tweet by Aptara from Feb 17, 2010. Attached to it was a link…

… which led to a blog post by from Feb 9, 2010 that ended in a link to its source…

… which was an article by Kevin Keller in Business Week from Feb 7, 2010, “What Murdoch Still Doesn’t Get About the Internet”: Content isn’t a product anymore, it’s a service. Because for consumers, content is less and less a thing they buy and more a thing they experience. It turns out the sentence paraphrased and quoted…

… a blog post by Andrew Savikas from July 13, 2009, “Content is a Service Business”: … what you’re selling as an artist (or an author, or a publisher for that matter) is not content. What you sell is providing something that the customer/reader/fan wants. … media companies are in the service business, not the content business. An update at the end of the post mentioned…

… a talk by Jim Lichtenberg at O’Reilly’s TOC conference on Feb 8, 2008: Book publishing is moving from bringing physical commodities to market, to offering services that delivers content in a variety of modalities based on consumer choice. Jim mentioned as his inspiration…

… the seminal article by Tim O’Reilly, “Publishing Models for Internet Commerce” from June 19, 1995: The actual content is valuable–but far more valuable [in publishing] is the relationship with the people…

I had read O’Reilly’s article years ago, but I couldn’t remember that point as clearly as Scott Abel made it. The phrasing is, of course, different, but most likely, the timing or the context wasn’t right either.

Then I noticed how the very idea proved itself: Here was content that was available and essentially known to me, like the unused coffee-maker at the back of my pantry. But it took Scott’s service to make it valuable as a new and fresh insight that summed up my experiences of that day.

Certainly, Scott didn’t plan to teach me a lesson with his tweet. But the scattershot distribution is part of twitter’s design and success, so my insight is not an isolated accident, but intended. In my case, twitter was effective because the tweet was applicable and good, not because it was a new idea.

What do you value more in twitter and blogs: What’s fast and new or what fits for you?

And, to come full circle, what’s your experience: Do you feel like you create or curate content?

P.S. To read more about good vs. new, check out Scott Berkun’s first article for Business Week, “Good beats innovative nearly every time“.


Portable apps for tech writers III: Dictionaries

I don’t just write and take screenshots with portable apps, I even use them to look up words, despite Wikipedia and countless online dictionaries. I like the seamless lookup from other applications with a click and don’t want to rely on being online. Fortunately, there are some very useful and usable apps out there. Here are my favorite portable dictionary apps.

“Lookup Central”, all in one

WordWeb combines a portable offline dictionary and thesaurus with tabbed browsing to look up words in popular web sites. Entries are displayed in two frames, with definitions and examples in one and the thesaurus in the other. (To see the full screenshot, just click it.) The free version of 30 MB comes with Princeton University’s WordNet wordbase of about 150,000 entries – and an unusual license agreement: “WordWeb free version may be used indefinitely only by people who take at most two commercial flights (not more than one return flight) in any 12 month period…” The paid “pro” version gives you more definitions and pronunciations, you can add online sites and buy extra dictionaries, thesauri and word lists. Click the screenshots to see a comparison of WordWeb and TheSage:

The “language reference system”

TheSage combines a portable offline dictionary and thesaurus with tabbed browsing… – Yes, just like WordWeb does. As far as I can tell, it even uses essentially the same wordbase. The main difference is the layout: You can expand and collapse the results by definitions, examples and thesaurus entries. You can also customize the online lookup sites. With 210,000 definitions taking about 20 MB, it has an edge over the free WordWeb version – if you can get used to the interface.

For a second opinion, the Freewaregenius has an older review of TheSage with a comparison to WordWeb in passing.

The multilingual dictionary

LingoPad translates words between German and English or other languages. I must admit this one doesn’t get much use when I’m online because WordWeb links straight to LEO. But it’s a reliable tool, especially when you’re mainly working in translations from or to German.

The classic dictionary bookshelf

Lingoes is a dictionary platform that lets you add all kinds of dictionaries. Of all the apps, it’s most similar to the long defunct Microsoft Bookshelf – which was, of course, neither free nor portable, but a cool solution in its time. Lingoes is a bit out of scope, though: Its license agreement limits use to “non-commercial purposes in non-business, non-commercial environments”, and it seems unclear whether the dictionaries download packages are properly licensed.

Which dictionaries do you use? Do you prefer online or offline?

The rights of the reader

Some lighter fare today from Daniel Pennac. The French novelist formulated “10 Rights of the Reader”, plus one warning. They are aimed at readers and writers of fiction, but no doubt readers of documentation take several of these liberties, too:

2. The right to skip.
3. The right not to finish a book.
8. The right to dip in.

Find all of the rights on a cool poster by illustrator Quentin Blake, available as a PDF from Walker Books. For more about the “bill of reader’s rights”, check out the review in the British Guardian.

Familiar is easy is ‘true’

The success of easy-to-read fonts and familiar sentences may have psychological reasons – and far-reaching consequences for professional writers.

The Boston Globe recently ran a piece by Drake Bennett called “Easy = True“: According to psychologists, people are more likely to perceive something as true when it’s familiar and hence easy to think about. The underlying measure is called “cognitive fluency”. (Now, I’ve never heard of that, and it seems so incomprehensible, I don’t think it’s true… 😉 ). It’s not so much the principle that’s the big news, but rather its effects.

Clear and Easy

For the written word, this means:

… when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities.

Of course, writing that’s clear and easy to understand has long been a standard objective of technical writers. It’s simply more efficient and lets our users get on with their tasks.

But apparently, there are additional effects: Documentation can shape users’ opinion of a product and its manufacturer (my employer, that is). ‘Clear and easy’ documentation is seen as truthful, the product as reliable and the manufacturer as professional. The inverse seems true, too: As the medium is the message, readers struggling with obscure fonts “unwittingly transfer that sense of difficulty onto the topic they’re reading about.”

Confident and Alert

‘Clear and easy’ documentation can also increase user confidence in product which can in turn contribute to a product’s success. (For more on boosting user onfidence, check out Kathy Sierra’s brilliant “Kick Ass Curve” that shows how to overcome the “Suck Threshold”.)

Studies also make a case for texts that are not clear and easy: If you want readers to be alert and attentive and “to prevent them from making silly mistakes, make them work to process the question: make the font hard to read, the cadence awkward, and the wording unfamiliar.” – The example relies on answers to inconsequential test questions, so I’m not ready to apply this to writing obscure warning and danger notes just yet…

What do you think? Is this a new and applicable insight – or merely science catching up with industry practice?

Two things to know about art and process

Know how to start. And when to stop.

– Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 207.

In her book, Tharp comes to terms with creative processes. Yet this particular insight applies also to successful processes. (And I don’t mean knowing when you’re deadline is…) It translates directly to Steve McConnell’s power of process: Know to start with some “thrashing”, i.e., unproductive work. And know to stop before trashing and project efforts drown out any productive work you might achieve.

To read up on Steve McConnell’s ideas, see his article “Power of Process“.

I first heard about McConnell and how he’s relevant for tech writers in ITauthor’s blog post “It’s not about writing … it’s about shipping“.

Focus on language or technical skills?

Over on Ivan Walsh’s blog, Ivan started a fruitful discussion which takes you further as a tech writer, language skills or technical skills. Check out the two posts and their comments, some of them by me:

Update Feb 22, 2010

The discussion continues on Scott & Aaron’s blog DMN Communications:

Portable apps for tech writers II: Screenshots

Suppose you’re wise to portable apps and how to tweak text with them, with or without the apps mentioned in my previous post Portable apps for tech writers. But how about screenshots? Anything portable there? – Oh, good! I thought you’d never ask… 🙂

My top 3 portable screenshot apps

Top prize: PicPick Tools is my #1 screenshot app. It’s got everything I need: Quick and easy screenshots of desktop, window or screen area, quick change of output setting, auto-save to my project directory, a screen ruler and magnifier and a simple image editor. Most of the time, I take straight screenshots without call-outs, so I want an app that lets me do that quickly and keeps out of my way. PicPick does this best of all the screenshot apps I tried; it runs in my task bar. The problem with this is that, according to the product web site, the “portable version of PicPick [is] only for private, personal and not commercial use”.

Runner-up: FSCapture is very similar to PicPick. The problem with this is that it’s no longer a free app. The link takes you to the last free version 5.3 of February 2007 which works fine. However, it excludes some of the features baked into the latest version 6.5 and PicPick Tools, such as the screen ruler and sending captured images directly to Word, PowerPoint and an FTP server.

Honorable mention: The unpronouncable PrtScr affords the stylish whimsy of an animated preview. You need to see it to believe it – check out the video below. It’s great for quick and dirty screenshots with markups, but its emphasis on free-hand drawing and cropping makes it less suitable for pedantic operations. The problem with this (and you knew there had to be one) is that you pretty much have to create your own portable version by installing it, copying the program files to your portable directory or stick and uninstalling it.

[Update: I just remembered that freewaregenius has written up PicPick and PrtScr so you can get exhaustive second opinions on them.]

What do you think, is it worth to pay for screenshot toolsfor the extra features when freeware basically gets the job done?

Here’s PrtScr’s cool demo rock video:

Portable apps for tech writers

We tech writers can benefit a lot from portable applications: They make us more productive, especially with nitty-gritty tasks that Windows utilities and bloatware are not good at. They are free and easy to “install” and remove – just dump the application folder onto your hard drive or a USB stick. They can run wherever you have an open USB port. Portable applications can be our friends!

To learn more and to get started, PortableApps is the best place. Their Suite with the most essential applications makes it extra easy for newbies. Or you just get the platform, which provides the start menu that sits in your task bar, and mix and match your applications. I’m now using the alternative Portable Start Menu, because I like its folder structure better.

You can get tried and proven portable applications from PortableApps. Or try The Portable Freeware Collection, though some of the apps listed there are a bit flaky: They might not be strictly portable, because they write to the registry. Or you may need to install them temporarily to create a portable version.

My favorite Windows-based portable tools for writing

A better NotepClipboardad: I use PlainEdit since I don’t do much coding. For plain text wrangling, it can’t be beat. You can convert text in more ways than I ever had use for, between special characters and HTML, between ANSI, ASCII and UTF-8. You can remove trailing spaces and lines containing certain characters. You can sort all lines from A to Z or inversely. And it can search and replace regular expressions.

If you are coding and want syntax support for programming languages, Notepad++ is your best bet.

Auto-complete text: With Texter, you type a shortcut and press a hot-key and out comes a common phrase or a product name: Type rtfm + Tab to get “For more information, please consult the user manual or online help.” Texter works system-wide, whereas Word’s auto-correct feature works, well, only in Word…

Add a history to your clipboard: ClipX will keep dozens of clipboard entries in a history, including images, even across sessions. This can also come in handy to retrieve accidentally cut text. (This one requires that you install it temporarily, so you can create a portable copy.)

“Paste Special” anywhere: You want to paste text from your clipboard, but without the formatting? PureText strips all formatting when pasting text. So it works like Paste Special in Word, but with a single hot key and anywhere in Windows. (This one is not strictly portable; it allegedly writes settings to the registry.)

Get text from system controls: One of the annoyances in Windows is that you can’t copy and paste system control text, such as a list of file names in Explorer or an error message. SysExporter helps you extract it – apparently with some exceptions, but it hasn’t failed me yet.

What portable applications do you use to tweak text? Your suggestions and comments are welcome!

P.S. This post is an updated, belated elaboration on my reply to the blog post Taking it with you by the guys at DMN communications from June 2008.

Not having way…

“Some people have a way with words….some people….not have way.”
Steve Martin in Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life