Get ahead as a lone tech writer with a STC webinar

A compact 1-hour STC webinar gives you the low-down about getting ahead as a lone writer, from tools to strategy – plus two words every lone writer should know how to use.

What?

Writers are often the only person in a company who create and maintain documentation. Lone writers who operate without a dedicated budget or specific managerial guidance find it hard to excel in their work. In this webinar, I will draw on my experience and explain how to make the most of this “benign neglect”:

  • Develop your skills—and your career
  • Raise your profile with management and colleagues
  • Contribute to a corporate communication strategy
  • Help your company to turn documentation from a cost center into assets

When?

Wednesday, 29 February 2012, wherever you are, right at your PC via the web:

  • 10:00-11:00 PST – Los Angeles
  • 11:00-12 noon MST – Denver
  • 12:00-1:00 pm CST – Chicago
  • 1:00-2:00 pm EST – New York City
  • 18:00-19:00 GMT – London, Dublin
  • 19:00-20:00 CET – Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, Rome
  • 23:30-0:30 IST – Mumbai, Bangalore

How?

Available as webinar, live or recorded, via the STC’s webinar site:

  • STC student members: US$ 29
  • STC members, sale price: US$ 59
  • Not yet STC members: US$ 149

I hope to see you there!

Half-way DITA: Why some is better than none

If DITA seems like a good idea, but you cannot make the case for it, you can move towards structured writing and make your documentation “future-proof” by meeting the standard half-way.

At the company I work for, we tech writers created manuals in parallel, but separate to online help. Over time, this gave us a documentation set that was inconsistent in places and hard to maintain to boot. Topic-based authoring which reuses topics in print and online can fix that, of course.

First, a documentation standard

Deciding on the method is one thing, but we also wanted a consistent structure that made the documentation easier and clearer to use – and easier to maintain for us writers. That required a model that specifies which kinds of topics we want to offer, how these topics are structured inside and how they relate to one another.

As we looked towards a documentation standard, we had two options:

  • We could create a content inventory of our documentation, analyse and segment it to tease some structure from that.
  • Or we could rely that others had solved a similar problem before and see if we can’t use the wheel someone else had already invented.

Turns out the second option was quite feasible: The DITA 1.2 specification gives us about all the structure we need – and more. We left out the parts we didn’t need (for example, some of the more intricate metadata for printed books) and adopted a kind of DITA 1.2 “light” as our information model.

Second, the tools

Note that I haven’t mentioned any systems or tools so far! Even though it happened in parallel to the rolling out topic-based authoring as our method and DITA light as our information model, the tool selection was mainly driven by our requirements on documentation workflows, structure, deliverables, and budget.

The tool that suited us best turned out to be MadCap Flare – even though it doesn’t create or validate DITA!

Using our information model in Flare, we believe we get most of the benefits of DITA – and considerable improvement over our less-than-structured legacy content. And speaking to people at WritersUA 2011, it seems that we’re not the only one to move from less-than-structured writing to XML and something “close to DITA”.

Technically, we’ve defined the DITA elements we need as divs in the Flare stylesheets, but otherwise use the straight Flare authoring-to-publishing workflow. Flare is agnostic to whether a topic complies with DITA, is somehow structured but not complying or totally unstructured.

The benefits of DITA, half-way

To us tech writers, the largest benefit of DITA, half-way, is that we can actually do it. We could not have gotten away with DITA, the full monty, which would have required a much longer project, a much bigger migration effort and hence, uncertain ROI.

For new topics, we are committed to writing them structured, so they follow the information model. To migrate legacy topics, we’ll have to ensure they have an identifiable topic type and a suitable heading, but we can cleaning up their insides in a “soft fade”, moving them towards structure one by one. This gives us a quicker win than cleaning up literally thousands of topics before having anything to show in the new method, model or system.

So we will have been working in Flare and with our home-grown information model for a long while, before all topics actually comply with the model. But then we will have a documentation set which we can feasibly move into real structure, whether we opt for DITA or some other XML-based CMS, with or without a CMS.

This post is an elaboration of a comment thread on the “Why DITA?” guest post on Keith Soltys’ Core Dump 2.0 blog.

Tech comm trends 2012, mashed up and commented

2012 is the year when tech comm’ers need to understand business processes and align documentation with new technologies, say tech comm pundits – and yours truly.

What I expect for 2012

Tech comm’ers need to understand business processes.

Okay, so this trend is not exactly new, but I expect it will gain traction this year. Scott Abel thinks so, too. Business processes are crucial for us tech writers in more ways than we might think. Ideally, we understand them in three domains:

  • In tech comm, we need to understand business processes to do our job efficiently, to improve how we work and to measure if (or prove when) we are understaffed.
  • In our employer’s business (or whoever has ordered the documentation we provide), we need to understand processes to contribute to the bottom line and to get out of the cost center corner.
  • In our customer’s business (or whoever uses the documentation we provide), we need to understand processes to ensure these customers or users are efficient and happy with both, the product we describe and the documentation we create.

In a nutshell: We need to know business processes, so we know which are the right things to do, whether it’s moving our documentation to a CMS, aligning our deliverables with the corporate content strategy, or updating our personas. At the same time, we need to hang on to our tech comm skills, so we know how to do things right.

What others expect for 2012

Here are two trends predicted by Sarah O’Keefe and Connie Giordano that resonated with me. (And I recommend you follow the links to get the experts’ predictions first hand!)

Creating documentation moves to the cloud.

Documentation will follow other content production to the cloud, such as collaborative Google Docs, blogs, and wikis. With this trend, I’m wondering:

  • Compelling event? Will cloud-based tech comm creation take off now – or do we need a more compelling event than ubiquitous access and the (alleged) lower operational costs?
  • Whose market? Will conventional HAT vendors be the major players, so their customers can keep their sources and move them to the cloud – or will HAT vendors (and tech comm’ers sources) be disrupted by other providers?

Documentation design aligns with mobile UX.

Tri-pane web sites are too large for effective user assistance on mobile devices which require new, condensed documentation designs. These will in turn feed back into other documentation formats. Here, I’m wondering:

  • Turf wars? Will tech comm’ers and UX designers engage in turf wars – or pool their skills and resources for better user assistance?
  • Innovation? Will the reduced real estate lead to genuinely new ways of presenting user assistance – or to a resurgence of minimalism?

What no one expects for 2012

The survival of the classical tech comm job profile

Virtually all tech comm predictions and trends for 2012 are driven by external forces of change: The cloud, mobile devices, or new social media habits which expect collaborative documentation and user-generated content.

At the same time, the trends and predictions I’ve seen show little initiative to define or advance technical communications as a profession around a set of skills and tools, methods and processes. The classical tech comm job profile (as described in the Occupational Outlook Handbook by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example) that is centered around deliverables and tools, formats and styles seems to wane.

In many sectors, technical communications has instead become a function that contributes to corporate assets and the bottom line. Technical communicators provide it, as do content strategists, information architects or UX designers. And whoever pays them doesn’t necessarily care who does it – or even know the difference.

In a way, this is the other side of the coin of the trends above. Scott Abel points out:

The real value we provide is not our mastery of the style guide. Rather, it’s our ability to impact the customer experience in positive ways.

And Connie Giordano calls for the evolution of “integrated technical communications” to coordinate and integrate

all technical communication processes, tools, functions, and sources within an organization to convey information and knowledge relevant to optimizing the users’ product experience.

So I believe technical communications is here to stay – but we may have to look for news ways of selling what we do and deliver.

What do you expect for 2012?

Will you follow the trends above? Are there others in your future? Please join the discussion, leave a comment.

Top 3 tech comm lessons in 2011

2011 was an eventful year for me as a tech writer. Here are the three most important lessons I learned this year.

Content strategy can change tech comm in 2 ways

… and only one of them is up to us tech writers:

  • Tech comm departments can engage in content strategy bottom-up, connect with stakeholders in training, customer services, marketing, and producct management to try to break down silos, reuse content and make content a corporate asset. One way to do this was the topic of Ray Gallon’s webinar “Content Strategy for Software Development”.
  • Corporations can can engage in content strategy top-down and essentially change the way the organization works. The objective is essentially the same as above, the main difference is who’s driving it. While tech writers cannot do it without management support, managers may decide to relegate tech comms to one of many stakeholders – which I think would be a pity. tekom’s Content Strategy day offered several sessions which discussed corporate content strategies.

The “big disconnect” is closing

The “big disconnect” is the difference in IT innovation between consumer IT and corporate IT. Geoffrey Moore coined the phrase in an AIIM white paper and presentation: “How can it be that I am so powerful as a consumer and so lame as an employee?” Earlier, I wrote about exploiting the big disconnect as a tech writer.

The reason it’s closing in tech comm is that consumer web sites have appropriated help systems and all their benefits, so the use cases and business models finally catch up with user demands and technologies, as Scott Abel pointed out in his tekom keynote address.

Content migration is about people first

In summer, our team of writers embarked on the journey towards structured authoring. One of the surprises to me as we proceeded was that metaphorically speaking, for every hour I spend moving content, I’m spending another hour moving minds.

Your turn

What did you learn about tech writing in 2011? Feel free to leave a comment.

Auditing Documentation and Processes at tcworld11

Auditing your documentation, and your processes, can help you to gauge estimates and issues as you prepare for localization or content migration. That’s what I learned in Kit Brown-Hoekstra’s useful 2-hour workshop at tcworld (tekom’s international half).

You can easily do the audit yourself: Take a little time, step back from your documentation, and identify weaknesses and areas for improvement. Acting on your audit results, you can

  • Improve customer satisfaction
  • Decrease localization costs
  • Establish a baseline and a direction to develop your documentation
  • Calculate costs and benefits of changes

If you don’t have an express mandate for the audit, it can be worth it to do sort of a “draft audit”. It may come out a little patchy in places, but I think it can give you a first idea of where you stand. With the initial results and measures you can more easily get the time to do an in-depth audit. (But don’t be surprised if colleagues or managers hold you to the improvements you’ve uncovered… :-))

What to audit

The organization level

Perform a strategic SWOT analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of your role in your organization. Internal strengths and external opportunities (mainly) will give you useful arguments to get buy-in from management for changes and further developments you plan. Internal weaknesses and external threats (mainly) help you to assess and manage risk as you proceed.

  • Strengths, for example, may include technical expertise and an understanding of user needs and tasks.
  • Weaknesses, for example, are poor self-marketing or resistance to change.
  • Opportunities, for example, can include agile development (which gives writers a better position in the process) and social media (if you adapt to them and moderate augmenting user-generated content).
  • Threats, for example, might be smaller documentation budgets or social media (if you do not adapt or cannot keep up with user-generated ontent).

Note how threats can be turned into opportunities, if you tackle them wisely! Or vise versa…

The process level

Assess your documentation process through all stages:

Requirements > Design > Writing > Review > Edit > Localization > Publication > Feedback > Modification > Deletion

Answer the following questions:

  • Are all stages well-defined?
  • Is it clear when and how you get from one stage to the next?
  • Do all participants in a stage know what to expect and what to deliver?
  • Can you measure the success of your process?

For the sake of an efficient process, imagine each hand-over between participants or stages as an interface and try to define what’s handed over when and how as well as possible.

The product level

Identify qualities and issues of the product you document to distinguish them from those in your documentation. Weaknesses in documentation often mirror weaknesses or issues in the product, e.g., a poorly designed user interface or a workaround that’s required to complete the user workflow.

You need to know about these issues separately, because they hurt your documentation, but you usually cannot fix them yourself. You can only supply band aid.

The documentation level

Assess the structural quality of your documentation (not the quality of a manual or each topic). Answer these questions:

  • Do you have a suitable information model? This is an architecure that defines the structure of your documentation on the level of deliverables (such as a manual or online help) and on module level (such as a topic or a section).
  • To what extent does your documentation comply with that information model?
  • Do you write documentation so the topics or sections are reusable?
  • Do you reuse topics or sections to the extent that is possible?
  • Do you write documentation so it is ready and easy to localize?
    • Do you use standardized sentences for warnings and recurring steps to minimize localization efforts?
    • Do you leave sufficient white space to accommodate for “longer” languages? For example, German and Russian require up to 30% more characters to say the same as English.

Also assess the content quality of your documentation (now look at some manuals and topics):

  • Is it appropriate for your audience and their tasks?
  • Is it correct, concise, comprehensible?
  • Remember to audit localized documentation, too.

It’s usually enough to audit 10-20% of them to spot 80-90% of the issues.

Audit for efficiency

  • Be objective. …as objective as you can, if you’re auditing your own documentation.
  • Collect issues. You can use a simple spreadsheet to collect your findings: Enter the issue, its impact, its current cost, and the cost to fix it.
  • Prioritize improvements. Ensure that a lower future cost makes the improvement worth doing, after you’ve added up the current cost and the cost to implement the improvement. Start with changes that cost the least and will save you the most.

Bonus tool

To really dive into quality assessment of your documentation, you can totally combine Kit’s audit process with Alice Jane Emanuel’s “Tech Author Slide Rule” which focuses on content quality. Use both and you have a good handle on your documentation – and more improvement opportunities than you can shake a stick at!

Your turn

Do you find this helpful to audit your documentation? Do you know a better way? Or do you think it’s not worth it? Feel free to leave a comment.

Join me for “Getting ahead as a lone writer” at tekom

If you’re attending the tekom conference in Wiesbaden, consider joining me for my updated presentation “Getting ahead as a lone writer” on October 19 at 8:45 a.m. in room 12C as part of tekom’s international, English-speaking tcworld conference.

tcworld conference at Wiesbaden, Germany, in October 2011

My presentation will be an updated version of the session I did at TCUK 10. I will talk about how to overcome neglect and raise your profile by running your job (more) like a business with best practices. Here’s the abstract:

Lone writers are often the only person in the company who creates and maintains documentation. They often operate without a dedicated budget or specific managerial guidance. In this presentation, Kai Weber will draw on his experience to show lone writers how to make the most of this “benign neglect”:

  • How you can still develop your skills – and your career
  • How you can raise your profile with management and colleagues
  • How you can contribute to a corporate communication strategy
  • How you can help your company to turn documentation from a cost center into an asset

Twitter meetup afterwards

Join us on Wednesday at 9:35 am on the upper floor in the foyer in front of rooms 12C and D for a #techcomm meetup after the session! @rimo1012 and I, @techwriterkai, are presenting at the same time in adjacent rooms, so if you know us from twitter, stop by and say hi!

I’ll be blogging from the conference, so watch this space…

Favorite tech writing dogmas

I’m usually wary of dogmas, but some just won’t go away, they assert their eternal truth in uncanny ways. I’ve recently found some new ones, so I now have four five tech writing dogmas:

  1. A new tool will not fix broken processes.
  2. No matter how cool you are as a software company, don’t build your own help tool – it’s not worth it.
  3. Don’t invent yet another universal standard. – from xkcd’s How Standards Proliferate
  4. Following a style guide will not make you a good tech writer (unless you understand methods and processes such as topic-based authoring and single sourcing as well) – from Scriptorium’s The latest style for tech comm: adding value
  5. “No matter how much you try, you can’t stop people from sticking beans up their nose.” (This metaphor can apply to customers who use your documentation or to non-documentation managers who make decisions about documentation.) – from Jared Spool’s highly entertaining and insightful post

Your turn

What do you think: Are these some of the eternal truths in the world of tech writing? Have you encountered them? Or are dogmas inherently silly and evil? Please leave a comment.

All aboard! Onwards to structured authoring!

Our team of technical writers is embarking on a journey towards structured authoring. With 10 writers, we’ll move from an unstructured Word to PDF/CHM environment to a structured Flare to WebHelp/PDF environment. Or I should say “semi-structured”: We do have an information model based on DITA, but we won’t actually be able to enforce it with Flare (which we knew before we chose the tool).

It’ll be an interesting cruise, to be sure! Four writers already apply topic-based authoring rather than the previous free-form documentation guided mainly by common sense. The others have had training, but no real opportunity to write topics continuously. We have drafted tighter new processes to draft, write, review and edit topics to replace the previous loose processes of writing and reviewing, but they are not in place yet.

And then there’s the new tool, of course. Only one of us has worked with Flare before. Many of us are excited about getting Flare. Some really like it – what we’ve seen in several demos so far. Others just really loathe the current writing environment.

“Regarding the pain of others”

So as we’re about embark, I’ve been looking out for others who’ve taken the trip before. Scriptorium’s State of Structure webcast has been very helpful: Its results of a survey among 200 tech communicators helps to position us in relation to others who are currently implementing structured authoring or considering it. It also collects some mistakes respondents have gone through. I’ll just be quoting a few select points, but the whole webcast by Sarah O’Keefe is totally worth checking out, so thanks to Scriptorium for making this webcast available!

Reasons

The top reasons why survey respondents (consider to) move to structured authoring made us nod emphatically: Reuse, consistency and cost savings are also at the top of our wish list of achievements. Looking ahead, it’s promising that the majority of respondents achieve these goals.

We’ll also take other goals that respondents achieved, whether it’s to automate processes or to reduce content (oh, yes, please, we’re not even exactly sure how much redundant, almost identical content we have). So far we’re confident, we’re not only doing the right thing, but doing it for the right reasons, too!

Efforts

Savings have their own price, of course. Sarah’s survey confirms several cost points we’ve already identified in the project.

  • Converting legacy content is a biggie for us, simply because we currently have a lot of stuff.
  • Redefining output layout will take time, but will be worth it given what Flare is capable of doing with CSS in both web and print outputs.
  • Integrating a new system with its writing and publishing processes into our product and workflow systems will also take some time.

Mistakes

Mistakes have been made by others before us, and we’ll have plenty of chances to make our very own mistakes. If we’re lucky, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of others:

  • Planning and project management cause problems, maybe because most companies lack the experience of major documentation overhaul projects. Sarah specifically mentioned the lack of understanding of the project scope and of the need for testing. So we’ll look through our project plan again and ensure that the estimates are plausible.
  • Converting legacy contents can also get you into trouble, especially when you convert something that’s less than structured. It doesn’t help if you reserve too little time to do it or get inexperienced people to do, whether it’s off-shore labor or student helpers. That’s sound advice: GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”) can certainly endanger the expected benefits. A new tool can help us be more efficient, but we still have to learn and apply structured writing in topics. So this confirms one of my two tech comm dogmas: Don’t get a new tool to fix your processes!

Setting out

What do you think? Is our crew well-equipped, given a tried and proven method, well-defined processes, a new tool and the words of warnings above? If you have additional advice, please leave a message.

Keeping your documentation stakeholders happy

Don’t forget your stakeholders and their practices as you improve and change documentation. – That was the humbling lesson I learned (once again) as I presented our revamped documentation to non-tech comm colleagues.

Reporting on progress

The company I work for currently moves its documentation towards more structured writing and topic-based authoring. We’ve already rolled out redefined processes and several topic-based user manuals, so it was an opportunity to present to  non-tech comm colleagues what we’d done already, why and how we did it, and what else was in store. I talked about topic-based authoring and how it’s chunked, task-oriented, reusable, and independent of delivery format. Then I talked about the benefits and challenges:

  • For users, topic-based help can be updated more frequently, it is easier and faster to use online, though it breaks the narrative flow
  • For everyone working on our module, it means easier contributions
  • For the company, it allows to leverage* content after one-time migration efforts

* I know “leverage” is not a verb, but there were managers present who love the word… 🙂

I thought I was pretty clever for presenting how cool the new documentation was not primarily for writers, but for users, my colleagues and the company as a whole. And it did go over well on the whole. But there was…

The thing about trains

Person reading by a track in a railroad station

The most contentious issue turned out to be an unexpected use of the documentation: Current user manuals sometimes contain flowing prose walk-throughs of sample setups with many screenshots. When they are written well, they are nice to read. And allegedly users like to print out the PDF files and read them on the commuter train.

The problem of prose

There are several problems with the narrative manuals for users:

  • They are hard to use and search in, unless you want to know exactly the one thing they are describing.
  • Any sample setup is bound to miss what they need by a little or even a lot, because our product is highly configurable (you can even customize field names in windows).

There are problems for writers as well:

  • The prose is really hard to update when functions or processes change because the narrative flow may require small or large changes in several places.
  • The screenshots take longer to update and localize than mere text.

I gave these reasons, invited colleagues to check out the manuals done in the new fashion and cited survey findings that most of our users consult the documentation when they have a specific problem, though very few actually read manuals end-to-end.

But the ultimate lesson for me was that I could focus on our mission all I want, I also need to address the change with my stakeholders not only in rational terms, but also in terms of their habits and expectations.

Your turn

Do you think the customer is always right, even if he asks for documentation that is harder to maintain and harder to use in most cases? How can you promote change among stakeholders which you are sure will benefit everyone in the long run? Please leave a comment.

How to convince managers of topic-based authoring, part 2

To get managers behind a migration to topic-based authoring (TBA), focus on benefits and savings. This is the last post in a two-part series. Find the beginning and background in part 1.

I present the speaker notes and explanations instead of the actual slides which only contain the phrases in bold below.

Benefits and challenges for writers

Make documentation efficient. For technical writers, the structure within topics and across all topics makes writing topics more efficient because you spend less time stressing over what goes where and over layout.

Make documentation transparent. The structure of the topics collection as a whole makes content more transparent: It’s easier to spot a missing topic, if each setup procedure (how to set up stuff) is accompanied by an operating procedure (how to use what you’ve just set up) and by a concept topic (what is that stuff you’ll set up and operate). Thanks to their structure and smaller units, documentation efforts also become easier to estimate – though maybe more tedious to report on in their details.

Collaborate more easily. The structure also makes it easier and faster for writers to collaborate on writing, reviewing and editing each other’s topics, again, because it’s quickly obvious what belongs (or is still missing) where.

Assume new tasks and responsibilities. Challenges for writers are learning a whole new range of tasks and responsibilities, from “chunking” subjects into topics and making sure there is one (main) topic for each subject to interfacing nicely with the topics of colleagues to peer-editing other people’s topics. On the other hand, most writers no longer have to double as layouters and publishers, since that role is usually in the hands of a few people.

Migrating legacy content. Another challenge is, of course, to migrate all existing contents into topics. However, this is a one-time effort, while the benefits of clearly structured topics keep paying off.

Benefits and challenges for companies

Of course, the benefits and challenges for writers affect the company as a whole. But there are additional effects to the company owning topic-based documentation.

Leverage corporate content. Cleanly structured (and tagged) content in topics is much easier to leverage as part of a corporate content strategy. (Did I mention this was a presentation for managers? Hence the verb “to leverage”…) After all, there are other teams who may well hold stakes in some documentation topics or parts of them:

  • Product management or even Marketing may want to reuse parts of concept topics, such as use cases.
  • Training could reuse procedural topics.
  • Quickly searchable documentation can improve customer services – or any type of performance support your company may offer.

Make recruitment more efficient. Clearly structured, topic-based documentation will make it easier on a company to find and hire professional, qualified technical writers – and help new writers get up to speed faster.

Savings from topic-based authoring

Your mileage will vary, depending on your current deliverables, processes and tools. However, from the case studies I’ve seen around the web and at conferences, our numbers are not unusual. Savings are in hours for writers who apply topic-based authoring compared to their earlier efforts without TBA.

  • Writing Release Notes as usual – saving 0%
  • Writing Online Help, largely reusing Release Notes topics – saving 45-60%
  • Writing new User Manuals, by reusing some topics from Release Notes or Online Help – savings unknown
  • Updating existing User Manuals, by reusing Release Notes topics – saving 60-75%

Complementary information

To read more about measuring efforts and costs, see my previous posts about:

About topic-based authoring, I recommend these two books:

Your turn

Would these arguments convince your managers to support you in moving to topic-based authoring? What other arguments might it take? Should such an initiative to restructure documentation come from writers or managers? Please leave a comment.