Structured topics, taxonomies & lightning at #STC14

More than 600 technical communicators met for the annual STC Summit in Phoenix, AZ, to demonstrate and expand the many ways in which they add value for users, clients, and employers. In a series of posts, I describe my personal Summit highlights and insights that resonated with me.

The journey to structured topics

I’ve framed my presentation “From Unstructured Documentation to Structured Topics” as a journey to a fjord precipice: Daunting, but nothing you cannot achieve with a some planning and a little bit of confidence.

Concluding slide for my presentation on structured topics

The summary outline during Q&A, photo by @dccd.

In this “project walk-through mini-workshop”, I outlined how we can combine core tech comm proficiency, such as topic-based authoring, with content strategy and project management skills to master the migration to structured topics. The applied skills and the resulting content architecture can be a solid foundation for a full-blown future corporate content strategy that highlights technical communicators and their skills.

The engaged Q&A afterwards showed that the ideas resonated with the 80+ attendees. Many technical communicators are comfortable and well qualified to expand their topic-writing skills into information architectures and content modelling.

The trip to taxonomy

In her session “How to Create and Use a Functional Taxonomy“, Mollye Barrett told of a similar challenge: She was originally brought in to create the documentation for a highly customised implementation of financial software. When it became apparent that not just the software needed documentation, but also the workflows and processes which it was supposed to support, she wound up creating a taxonomy!

As she laid out her case study, Mollye showed how technical communicators’ core skills of task analysis and task-oriented documentation qualify them to create a taxonomy of business functions that maps a software’s functions to specific user tasks.

The project essentially consisted of explicating the company’s multi-faceted tacit knowledge and connecting all the pieces:

  • Create a consistent terminology by defining the standard financial terms in use.
  • Describe and classify the various functions of the software.
  • Identify and describe the users tasks which need documentation.

Mollye studied disparate, unstructured legacy documents, examined the software, and worked with specialists from the business and IT sides. Her main driver was her persistence to eliminate ambiguity, her goal to define clear terms – or put more simply: to create order out of chaos.

Lightning strikes twice

A popular staple of the STC Summit is the two lightning talk rounds, moderated with understated wit by Rhyne Armstrong.

Liz Herman drove forward the multi-skilled tech comm theme with multiple costume changes in her talk “Perfecting the Hat Trick, Why My Hair’s Messy“. She demonstrated how tech comm’ers don the hats, caps, and helmets of sailors, fire fighters, cowboys, football players, the Irish, something I’ve forgotten and many more in just five minutes:

Liz Herman wearing different hats

Liz Herman dons diferent hats, photo by @dccd.

And Viqui Dill showed us how to use social media right in “Social Media is not the Devil“, her rousing karaoke performance to the tune of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”:

Viqui Dill's karaoke lightning talk

Photo by @marciarjohnston.

 

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Skill map, wicked ambiguity & influence at #STC14

More than 600 technical communicators met for the annual STC Summit in Phoenix, AZ, to demonstrate and expand the many ways in which they add value for users, clients, and employers. It almost sounds like a non-theme for a conference, but that was a common impression I took away time and again, prompted by my personal selection of sessions, no doubt!

This thrust is actually very much in line with the STC’s revamped mission statement (scroll down a bit) which includes these objectives:

  • [Support] technical communication professionals to succeed in today’s workforce and to grow into related career fields
  • Define and publicize the economic contribution of technical communication practices […]
  • Technical communication training fosters in practitioners habits […] that underpin their ability to successfully perform in many fields

I’ll describe my personal Summit highlights and insights that resonated with me. For the mother of all STC Summit blogging, visit Sarah Maddox’ blog with a summary post which links to posts about no fewer than 10 individual sessions!

Connecting across silos with diverse skills

A good illustration for how easily tech comm skills and tasks connect with and seep into other job roles is Red Gate Software’s Technical Communication Skills Map. It appeared at least twice at the STC Summit: In STC CEO Chris Lyons’ opening remarks and again in Ben Woelk’s lightning talk.

Tech Comm skill map from Red Gate Software

Depending on a tech comm’ers talents and tasks, he can collaborate closely with – or develop into – a product manager or project manager, a UX specialist or tester.

Standing united against “wicked ambiguity”

Jonathon Colman, content strategist at Facebook, took a very high-level view of our profession’s challenges in his keynote address on Sunday evening. Technical communication that travels millions of miles on NASA’s Voyager or that must last thousands of years unites us against ambiguity – regardless of our different skills and various everyday tasks.

Jonathon Colman at TC14 keynote

Such ambiguity can become “wicked” in fields such as urban planning and climate change, because it makes the issue to be described hard to define and hard to fix with limited time and resources. The solutions, such as they exist, are expensive and hard to scope and to test. Still we must at least attempt to describe a solution, for example, for nuclear waste: Tech comm must warn people to avoid any contact in a message that is recognizable and comprehensible for at least 10,000 years.

Jonathon ended on the hopeful note that tech comm’ers can acknowledge wicked ambiguity, unite against it, race towards it, embrace it – and try the best we can.

Wielding the informal power of influence

Skills are not always enough to connect us tech comm’ers successfully with other teams and departments. Sometimes, adverse objectives or incentives get in the way. Then we need to wield the informal power of influence. Kevin Lim from Google showed us how with witty, dry understatement – a poignant exercise of persuasion without resorting to rhetorical pyrotechnics.

Kevin Lim on Influence Strategies

Influence, Kevin explained, is the “dark matter of project management” that allows us to gain cooperation with others. We can acquire this informal power by authentically engaging colleagues with our skills and practices. (The “authenticity” is important to distinguish influence from sheer manipulation.) To optimize our chances for successful influence, we need to align our engagement with the company culture, a corporate strategy, and the objectives of key people, esp. project managers and our boss.

Put everything under a common goal and engage: “Don’t have lunch by yourself. Bad writer, bad!” – appropriate advice for the Summit, too!

– Watch this space for more STC14 coverage coming soon!

Preview my STC14 session about structured topics

If you are curious about moving from unstructured documentation to structured topics – or if you cannot decide whether my session at the STC Summit next week is for you – here are the slides, maybe you find them helpful:

Moving to topics? Join me at STC Summit!

If you’re moving to topic-based authoring (or considering the move), join me next week at the STC Summit in Phoenix for my presentation “From Unstructured Documentation to Structured Topics“.

The format will be a “project walk-through mini-workshop” in a regular session slot of 45 minutes. That means you won’t get a detailed project plan or silver bullet for a successful migration to topics. But you will get plenty of information about the involved methods, options, and risks. Most importantly, you will get a chance to improve your confidence – and hence your chances for success – for such an important project!

Here’s the abstract:

You’re sold on the benefits of structured content, but don’t know how to begin? This session shows you how to implement topic-based authoring by converting existing unstructured documentation into structured topics, even in regular office software such as Word.

The underlying process works for online help, user manuals, but also other content, such as wiki articles, training materials, etc., as long as you know which deliverables you need to create and their approximate purpose.

There are several stages to the process:

  1. Identify topic type or types per content section, for example, concept, task, reference, or use case. Content which mixes topic types can be sorted out with a little care.
  2. Re-chunk your sections to turn them into stand-alone topics. You can delete redundant or obsolete information which does not belong into a topic. Or you can spin it off into a topic of its own or integrate it with another, more suitable topic. Special strategies help you to deal with topics that are too complex.
  3. Re-sequence your topics, so they flow nicely when users read not just one or two of them, but need to follow a complete process. If the topic sequence doesn’t flow nicely, you may need to add some auxiliary topics which orient readers and ensure a good flow.
  4. Rewrite headings to guide readers to give users enough orientation when they read just one or two topics. Rephrase them so users can quickly dip in and out of your documentation.
  5. Add links between related topics to ensure that the structured topics work in various use cases, even if users refer only to few topics.

This presentation emphasizes practical tasks; you will

  • How and why to create a content model
  • How to identify topic types in existing content
  • How to re-chunk content into true topics
  • How to sequence your topics
  • How and why to write good headings for your topics
  • How to link related topics

We’ll meet on Monday, 19 May at 9:45 in 106 BC in the Phoenix Convention Center. Hope to see you there!