Unfolding the Techcomm Box

[Originally posted on the Information Energy Blog, on March 29th.]

No doubt, the “techcomm box” keeps growing as we discover new dimensions of our digitally intertwingled lives. Without aiming to outline the history of technical writing here, I’d say we went through stages like typing, layouting, help authoring, single sourcing…

Folding-box template from templatemaker.nl

…and now, as we are still struggling to implement structured, semantic writing, we are unfolding one by one the sides of the techcomm box, extending our expertise towards multiple disciplines.

  • We are consolidating our roles as content experts through user research, information typing, minimalism, and instructional design.
  • We adopt standards that make our content interchangeable and part of the linked web of data for man and machine.
  • We collaborate across departments in our organizations, integrate with other systems and publish enterprise content.
  • We learn techniques from information architecture, UX, web design, and social media, to reach our audiences and accompany them along an intelligent, omnichannel experience.

Utrecht is the perfect place to meet and talk about information modeling and design. The infomedian gathering every June gets, as its name says, the information energy flowing and encourages us to think outside the box.

Looking forward to meet you in Utrecht and to discover further dimensions we need to explore as we “Design for Knowledge”!

Join the workshop, June 8 on “Modelling intelligent content” to experiment with a few research and analysis methods and to create a sample content project.

Redakteure beteiligen und richtig schulen

English >>

Es gab eine interessante Discussion auf dem Blog von Larry Kunz über Schulungsbedarf und Geschäftsziele während und nach einer DITA-Implementierung. Ich habe meinen Kommentar schon auf Larrys Seite hinzugefügt, ich trage aber auch hier die Übersetzung ein.

Vielen Dank an Larry, dass er nochmal die Aufmerksamkeit von Projekt- und Abteilungsmanagern auf die Notwendigkeit erregt, die Redakteure frühzeitig zu beteiligen und ihnen so viel Schulung anzubieten wie nötig, damit sie ihre Geschäftsziele erreichen. Diese Botschaft wird nicht oft genug ausgerichtet, obwohl späte Beteiligung und mangelhafte Schulung zu den Hauptgründen fehlerhaften Implementierungsprojekten gehören, egal ob es um CCMS geht, oder um andere Systeme, wie WCMS, CRM, ERP, u.s.w.

In seinen Kommentaren zum selben Artikel erwähnt Mark Baker, dass wir solche Content Systeme brauchen, die zu einer noch unvorhersehbarer Zukunft passen würden. Ich kann Marks Ideen zwar verfolgen, jedoch furchte ich, seine Vision würde nur schwer passen, wenn man sich für Redaktionssysteme einsetzt, die die Komplexität der Redaktionsaufgaben gleichzeitig verstecken sollten.

Meiner Meinung nach, sollte man die Expertise der technischen Redakteuren nicht unterschätzen und sie nicht auf Storytelling (spielt Jemand Trendwort-Bingo?) verringern.

Technische Redakteure und Redakteurinnen, die ihre Rolle ernst nehmen, sollte man anregen, endlich mal über ihre Komfortzone hinaus zu tretten, um neue Methoden für die Modellierung und für die Erfassung von Inhalten anzuwenden.

Ob Markup oder Markdown, das soll in der Zukunft keine Frage mehr stellen… Ideallerweise würden Autoren beide anwenden können, auch abwechselnd wenn es die Geschäftsziele so anfordern.

Also, ich stimme Larry zu – Redakteure beteiligen und richtig schulen!

Artikel von Larry Kunz: We’re in DITA – Now what?


Happy DITA in Germany

Deutsche Version >> Auf ein glückliches DITA Jahr!

The last months of 2015 have been quite tumultuous and there is a lot I’ve been meaning to share with you. I’ll catch up with the posts in January, but the most important message to start 2016 is: DITA is here to stay! I’ve said it some time ago and I say it again, because there is growing interest for DITA in Germany, as numerous presentations, workshops and panels proved once more in November at tcworld and DITA Europe. The community is taking shape, tools and systems start supporting DITA and the discussion is, well, passionate, to say the least.

Back in September, I was a bit disappointed and worried… for about five minutes 😉 as an anti-DITA “whitepaper” had been published by a group of German CMS providers. They also took some poorly founded slides meant to discourage DITA implementations on a roadshow through Europe. But as I read the material and tried to see beyond the tragi-comical dark force awakening (or FUD, as Americans name such attitudes: fear, uncertainty and doubt) I decided to ignore them and just concentrate on my commitment to support DITA adoption in Europe, especially in the German-speaking community, and each of you is welcome to contribute.

It is absolutely normal to face resistance to change and no expert would ever claim DITA was the best answer to every type of technical communication projects. However, if DITA fits the requirements and audit findings, professional consultants and system providers have to respect their customers’ business decisions and prove capable of change, instead of sending an arrogant, self-destructive message like “it’s how we’ve been doing it over here for twenty years, so we don’t see fit to change.

DITA experts and fans attending tcworld in Stuttgart, myself included, were reporting on social media about lots of interesting sessions, but also about a few misleading ones during the conference and shortly afterwards. They patiently and, unlike some “anti-DITA hosts”, politely commented on the misunderstandings.

I could write yet another review and provide lists of links to those discussions, but my feeling is: enough is enough! We should let such disputes aside. The competition between standards or CMSes should be healthy, maintaining a well-balanced market. We should all concentrate on the benefits for end-users and authors, instead of attempting negative awareness tricks. As consultants and tool providers, whether we work more with DITA, PI-Mod, or other grammars (I’ve also studied and worked with more of them), we should be proactive and show what we can do best for our customers and partners.

My message to the technical authors and content managers is: It is your team’s decision, never a system provider’s, what standards you choose to adopt, in Germany or elsewhere. Keep your eyes on the developments and requirements in user assistance and make informed decisions on your technical information. Involve your teams, test and select the tools that help you reach your business goals.

Thank you all for a wonderful 2015. Have a successful 2016 and keep your teams, customers, and end-users happy!

Have you planned for content rebranding?

As a tech writer, you get used to a number of changes along the years, like migration to new standards and tools, company and product renaming, rebranding, merger and takeover, localising for a new language or region. Such changes affect the entire organisation. The decision comes from above and it is seen as a top-down process, so unfortunatelly not all departments get a share of the attention.

Usually, a new styleguide is announced, along with launching a new website, mission statement and promotional materials. When it finally comes, you browse through the new guide, eager to see what the new image and vision of the company is, and how this change is going to apply to your work. Alas, the new guide mostly contains instructions for Sales, Marketing and Web.

I have so rarely seen a plan to identify and analyse the content across an organisation, before a rebranding and renaming endeavor takes place. Only after the new look has been decided and dictated, teams such as Support and Documentation are asked to commit to a deadline for making the changes in their content. The fact that the products themselves (meaning Development and Localisation) would also need to plan some changes, often comes as a surprise too, and they have to start hunting for the sources of phantom bannners and messages in the last minute.

Some companies are fortunate enough to have conscientious teams, who try to prepare ahead when hearing about big changes. They think of their content inventory and determine which parts of it would actually need to be updated, translated or restyled, thus even saving their company some time and money. They would be ready to commit to the change and all they’d need would be the new styleguide.

The surprise is, even after asking to make sure the guide would contain the styling needed by the Documentation and other teams, you wouldn’t find anything more in it, than the specifications for the logo, new colour scheme and maybe some PDF cover samples. Everything else is for marketing materials, website, MS Word and PowerPoint templates.

How about the styles and layout of the Knowledge Base, FAQ portal, Manuals or User Guides, Help files, Data Sheets and Specifications, API Reference, user forum, tester portals, etc.?

Not only are the users going to wonder whether the content belongs to the same company, when facing most of the Support and Documentation materials, but also why it still looks and feels so like… last century.

My DITA backlog

lists collage

Are you the list type? I know I am. I have all kinds of lists with things to do. I use Post-Its, note-books, cards, envelopes, apps, email tags… whatever comes in handy when the muse strikes, so every once in a while I need to aggregate the lists, categorize and check priorities.

It feels good when I can draw a checkmark next to a method or tool I tried, a book I read, a webinar, a workshop or conference I attended, but my DITA list is never shorter. Could be that I’m a DITAholic.

I’m surrounded by notes with things I have to research and try out in DITA, and while I try one thing, I think of two or three further issues to add to the backlog.

What’s your “DITA diet”?