Scott Abel on Structured Content at TCUK12

Scott Abel delivered his keynote It’s All About Structure! Why Structured Content Is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity, Not An Option in his usual style: Provocative, but relevant, fun and fast-paced (though he said he was going to take it slow). He even channeled George Carlin’s routine on Stuff: “These are ‘MY Documents’, those are YOUR documents. Though I can see you were trying get to MY Documents…”

His style doesn’t translate well onto a web page, so I’ll restrict myself to his 9 reasons Why Structured Content Is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity:

  1. Structure formalizes content, so it can guide authors who need to make fewer decisions when writing it. It also guides readers who can find more easily where the relevant information is in the whole documentation structure or within a topic. And it guides computers which can extract relevant information automatically and reliably.
  2. Structure enhances usability by creating patterns that are easy to recognize and easy to navigate with confidence.
  3. Structure enables automatic delivery and syndication of content, for example, via twitter – and you’ll be surprised occasionally when and how other people syndicate your “stuff”.
  4. Structure supports single-sourcing which means you can efficiently publish content on several channels, whether it’s print or different online outputs, such as a web browser, an iPad or a smartphone.
  5. Structure can automate transactions, such as money transfers, whether they are embedded in other content or content items in their own right.
  6. Structure makes it easier to adapt content for localization and translation, because you can chunk content to re-use existing translations or to select parts that need not only be translated but localized to suit a local market.
  7. Structure allows you to select and present content dynamically. You can decide which content to offer on the fly and automatically, depending on user context, such as time and location.
  8. Structure allows you to move beyond persona-ized content. This is not a typo: Scott doesn’t really like personas. He thinks they are a poor approximation of someone who is not you which is no longer necessary. With structured content (and enough information about your users) you can personalize your content to suit them better than personas ever let you.
  9. Structure makes it much easier to filter and reuse content to suit particular variants, situations and users.
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On being a tech comm influencer

MindTouch’s list of The 400 Most Influential in #Techcomm and #ContentStrategy does a great job of invigorating our profession, but has a few problems as well.

[This blog post is victim to my regular blogging schedule: It was written before, but published after David Farbey’s more elaborate post where all the action is in the comments and Aaron from MindTouch replies to some of the issues with the list!]

Here’s my play-by-play recap of my various reactions to the list:

  1. Hope — “Did I make the top 50?”
  2. Marvel — “Wow, look at the people at the top, they’re my #techcomm heroes, my personal all-star list!”
  3. Reality check — I came in at no. 69.
  4. Contentment — “Yeah, that’s a fair ranking, given my adjacent fellow influencers…” 🙂
  5. Wonder I — “‘Influencer’? Is that even a word?”
  6. Wonder II — “How did they come up with this ranking?” The accompanying process post isn’t none too clear how the ranking came about. MindTouch told me: “Yes, the social analysis tool used currently primarily analyzes twitter, but blogs also are a factor.”
  7. Joy — “I can totally extend my network and add people I’m not following yet!”
  8. Doubt — “Many people on the list don’t tweet a lot or have practically stopped months ago. Is it really worth following them (okay, it doesn’t cost anything if they don’t tweet…)?”
  9. Scepticism I — “Maybe the process needs some refinement before it produces a meaningful long tail – or maybe 400 is a bit too long?”
  10. Scepticism II — “Huh, here’s someone tweeting in Spanish – but wait a minute, just about anyone else on the list (myself included) writes in English. Where are the other languages?”

Most Influential Techcomm

On the whole, I think it’s a great service to the profession:

  • It’s galvanizing the community – and I hope it doesn’t alienate anyone (well, except Scott Abel, maybe, who wasn’t on the list – because he deserves the special mention as 2011 Internet Influencer… 😉 )
  • It’s boosted my twitter readership, active & passive, more than any other single event!
  • … and nobody else does something like this.

So thanks, MindTouch!

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.

Content strategy day at tcworld11/tekom11

Scott Abel hosted a full day of content strategy talks with many big shots of the industry at tcworld11 (the international half of tekom11). Strategies and case studies by Joe Gollner, Ann Rockley & Charles Cooper, Aaron Fulkerson (of MindTouch), Rahel Ann Bailie & Geoff Roberts, and Noz Urbina were followed by a panel discussion for which Ray Gallon joined them.

The content strategy panel, left to right: Scott, Joe, Rahel, Ray, Ann, Noz, Charles. Photo by @umpff, used with permission.

The content strategy panel, left to right: Scott, Joe, Rahel, Ray, Ann, Noz, Charles. Click to enlarge. Photo by @umpff, used with permission.

Highlights of the sessions

Joe Gollner on intelligent content strategies

Intelligent content, said Joe, is actionable information that exposes itself to people and machines. Such content (think tool-independent XML) is shareable, portable, resuable, findable and hence manageable. This makes content a strategic asset that can be leveraged to achieve business goals.

An integrated content solution requires 7 steps:

  1. Define the content strategy as a goal-oriented action plan
  2. Analyse what content you need
  3. Design how you put your content together
  4. Explore and learn about your content
  5. Transform your content to make it intelligent (and loop back to 4.)
  6. Validate your content to confirm it’s intelligent
  7. Deploy and use it (and loop back to 1.)

Aaron Fulkerson on help 2.0 strategy

Documentation should live up to marketing’s promise, said Aaron, but instead it’s too often a crappy pamphlet in the shiny box. A better, a 2.0 version of help lifts customers over Kathy Sierra’s passion threshold in a social help center.

Aaron presenting benefits and key features of the Social Help Center. Click to enlarge.

A social help center turns documentation into a social learning experience, and it doubles as your customer relationship management center. Supply the documentation basis and empower your existing client base to augment it: Enable peer-to-peer learning for all the unique search terms on the documentation long tail that your documentation does not or cannot cover. Once you install success metrics, you can even use documentation to find what customers use and need to drive sales.

For an example of a social help center (built using MindTouch), visit http://wikihelp.autodesk.com/.

To read more about Aaron’s argument, see his Forbes’ article “The Evolution Of User Manuals“.

Two dimensions of content strategy

I came away with a extended take on content strategy. I still believe that content strategy means to break down silos between different producers of content within an organization, for more efficient and effective communication with consumers, whether they are customers or colleagues.

But now I think there are two dimensions of content strategy, with different scope:

  • Breaking down content silos among content stakeholders is a daunting task for a technical communicator: You need to get product management and marketing, training and customer service, along with your colleagues, all in the same boat. But depending on your corporate culture, this might still be something that can be driven from inside tech comm, with enthusiasm and a clear mission.
  • Larger corporate content strategies, as Joe and Noz presented them, essentially change the way an organization works. You still need all stakeholders on board, but you also need a mandate from management, a budget, and most likely some consulting help.

I asked the panel whether such a corporate content strategy could be taken on from within the organization, for example, by the tech comm team. They replied:

  • Better not. You only get one shot, so you can’t afford to blow it. Better get the help of an experienced consultant who speaks management’s language.
  • Most of it. Because consultants don’t do the actual work, they teach and enable technical communicators.

In the end, I think I saw the vanguard of content strategy and learned as much about this exciting field in a day as possible. I may well have seen one future of technical communications and will benefit from knowing its principles and objectives.

But a mismatch between the message and the audience remains: Much of what I learned seemed directed at managers, but not something I could apply in my current job as technical communicator.

So for now, I’ll stick with breaking down the silos which is more within my reach. For a more applicable example, check my post on Ray Gallon’s webinar about “Content Strategy for Software Development”.

But I’ll watch out for the corporate content strategy, so I don’t miss the boat when it sails… 🙂

Your turn

How do you think content strategy applies to technical communicators? Feel free to leave a comment.

tekom11 & tcworld11: Two worlds under one roof

My first visit to tekom/tcworld, the world’s largest tech comm conference in Wiesbaden near Frankfurt, left me inspired and overwhelmed.

Two floors of tekom, photo by @donormal, used with permission

Impressive numbers

I’ve been attending the trade fair part of tekom for several years, but this was my first time attending the conference. 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the conference with impressive numbers:

  • 200 presentations, workshops and tutorials (78 in English)
  • 15 topical streams, ranging from content strategy and mobile documentation to localization, open standards and technical authoring
  • 2,500 expected delegates at the conference plus another 1,000 at the trade fair
  • 200 product vendors, service providers and associations exhibiting at the fair

Two worlds

The crowds mixed well, and I saw many Germans in English sessions (including my own). I talked to several people, and we all noticed that English and German sessions “felt” different, illustrating cultural habits I often find in documentation as well:

  • Corporate visions and innovations often drive English-speaking sessions which often seek to engage delegates with easy to digest images and charts. Some German-speaking attendees are skeptical of such entertaining fluff.
  • Methodology and processes often inform German-speaking sessions that seek to inform delegates of the right – or at least the best – way of doing things. Some English-speaking attendees find this staid or academic.

Axel Regnet also has a good analysis of this cultural rift in his German blog post.

My personal highlights

Understanding the Help 2.0 Revolution

Scott Abel’s keynote opened the first day. He presented a case study of ifixit, the socially-enabled “free repair manual that you can edit”. Their crowd-sourced documentation rewards authors with reputation, attention and a feeling of generosity. It drives sales of hardware parts and even allows to calculate ROI by product, manual, and author! There’s also a standard initiative of omanual.org, backed by guys behind ifixit.com and O’Reilly.

Scott Abel's keynote at tekom, photo by @donormal, used with permission

After some smaller or more theoretical examples of user-generated contents, it impressed me to see a working example on this scale. But then again, it’s like the cry from that vanguard to my own industry just got a little farther. More applicable to my own situation were a few insights from the next panel:

Have a question about TC? Ask the experts

Nicky Bleiel organized a panel discussion with Mark Clifford, Sarah O’Keefe and Scott Prentice. I had submitted a question that echoed Roger Hart‘s rant at TCUK:

Will technical communicators own content strategy or will they be overtaken by content strategists, information architects, UX designers who simply market themselves better? In other words, will influence (and jobs) follow skills or clout?

Some answers (to this and other related questions) were fairly obvious but, of course, valid:

  • Tech writers need to continue to hone their skills and to widen their turf lest they be pushed aside.
  • Tech writers must understand and argue their tasks and expertise in terms of the business.

Some arguments offered me a new perspective:

  • Follow the content: Technical communication, content strategy, information architecture, knowledge management all offer different paths and different approaches to ultimately overlapping or identical content. And we tech writers need to contribute to that content in a productive way.
  • Follow the role: Regardless of what the actual function is called in an organisation, we tech writers need to make sure we contribute to the efforts of the Chief Information Officer – or whatever that role is called.
  • The competition is fierce: Many tech writers are essentially up against everybody else, and their contents need to beat Google’s results.
  • The big disconnect is closing, as the distinction between retail and corporate information and user experiences disappears.

Content strategy day

Scott Abel brought eight content strategy experts to tekom for a full day of presentations and discussions, see the separate review.

Auditing your documentation

Kit Brown-Hoekstra presented a dense 2-hour workshop on the why and how to audit your documentation and processes, see another separate review.

Your turn

Whether you’ve attended tekom/tcworld or not: Feel free to leave a comment if you see things differently or to ask if you’re curious about a detail.

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 NewFiction.com 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“.