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21 Mar 2012

Mobile is Just the Beginning – Part 3 [NF2]

imageRecap up to Part 3: Mobile is not “the new format for which we must be designing content strategies and content”.  Mobile is actually various formats* that need tackling.  Taking a short list of key ones we have:

  • HTML
  • Kindle
  • eBook
  • multimedia eBook
  • PDF
  • ePub

We should approach mobile delivery solutions such that they are stepping-stones to scalable, maintainable, multi-platform content strategies. 

The thesis of this three-part article is that we need to stop eating up articles debating “App or Mobile website: which is best for your customers?” and invest in getting ready for the real scary answer: you need to be ready for both, and many more formats, contexts and applications too.

*Thanks to Rahel Anne Bailie for pointing out that eye-opening link!

What you can do

Here is a list of high level content steps required (not in any order, and clearly only a starting guide) to tackle mobile “properly” (as I’ve defined it so far):

  • Modularise: Design content that's clearly info-typed in a modular way. A module is  allows flexible recombination. High level types like ‘Article’, ‘User Guide’ ‘Report’, ‘Review’ and ‘Announcement’ are not granular enough to be split up and re-assembled. To tell new stories from existing assets, you need your assets to be sufficiently small components.  We call this ‘monolithic’

    I really like the way the Wall Street Journal page that Rachel Lovinger pointed me to that links small components about other movies into the main story flow (down right hand column “Films Mentioned In This Article”). The main story isn’t designed to be broken up in this case, but the side components are great examples of content that would slot into various other stories sites, or even print articles nicely.

    Also, think about the difference in reusability between a single, discrete FAQ or How-To vs procedural information that’s mixed up with some concepts and reference data in the flow of a larger deliverable.  You can’t extract it cleanly, so how can you reuse it?
  • Enrich: Metadata is not optional anymore. To be able to sort, filter, and rebuild things with the help of automation, we need to look at making taxonomies, folksonomies, and structural metadata all work together.

    This is several blogs on its own, so for now, just know you need to know about it.
  • Stop building into one format and converting: There are some print folks today who are still looking for a piece of software who allows them to take content that was created, laid out and conceived completely for print, press a button, and get a good mobile experience out of it.  It can’t happen.  It’s asking the question, "How can I hammer the square peg of my paradigm into the round hole of the market requirements? Must need a bigger hammer..."

    We need to design format-agnostic content as early as possible in the content lifecycle (I and many others recommend XML formats for this). Content is not deliverables. Deliverables encapsulate content for one context, time and format.
  • Build a standard process for re-casting content into new “stories” (See part 2 for “stories”): Some XML helps you describe modules and maybe break content apart, but doesn't help you stitch stuff together with new relationships, new metadata/keywords, or new hierarchies for the diverse new scenarios. It's this standardising of both in a format-agnostic way that really makes it usable.

    Whatever way you mark up your content, you will need a standardised, agreed way that you can define the stories, not just add metadata to individual modules.  Why?  Because even if you’ve made content format-independent, if you only structure the modules and not whole navigation models and flows between modules – whole stories - then you’ve just locked yourself deeply into your current management tool.

    These stories are the way your content relates and interconnects is critical to it. Otherwise it’s just a ‘pile’ not a website or a publication.  That metadata is the intelligence that makes the content consumable.  If a big chunk of your content’s intelligence and structure is only described in the software that manages it (the CMS), not inside the content itself, changing software would mean extensive rebuilding of your content to just make it work like it did before and make any sense to anyone.

  • So, although some feel we can just refer to 'XML' or 'structure' because there's lots of options - HTML5, Dublin-core, or myriad others. I disagree. I think that not all format-neutral / metadata standards are created equal.  Without standardising on the story-telling, we’ve only got a portion of what’s really needed to deliver content.

  • Realise that change is change: XML and structure aren't magic. There are complications and issues and ways to screw it up like anything else. Again, Rahel Anne Bailie talks about this a lot, and she and I are on the same wave-length: if users are still avoiding learning how to use Word styles or not thinking about content in a strategic, structured and process-oriented way, then XML will be harder to wrap their heads around.

    To thrive in an environment with this must change happening, we need to not fight to maintain the status quo but meet the challenge head-on.  We must find out how we can learn, partner, beg, borrow or steal the necessary capabilities to deliver solutions.

The Marketing Content Conundrum

A lot in the web content marketing world (a lot of content strategists) are concerned that single sourcing and structure are hard or even don’t work for marketing content.  I’ll wrap this up with a bit specifically for them as my techcomms readers will no doubt have been hearing about structure, reuse and XML for a good while by now.

I do agree that marketing overall is the hardest nut to crack. Everything else, including sales proposals or enterprise content, deals with more hard facts.

Marketing is the most "nuanced" of the content areas, but it's not impossible. The low-hanging fruit is the things that are small, structured, and/or repeatable - catalogues, brochures, small hand-outs and data-driven ads, emailers. I'd need some more specific examples to talk about the relative difficulty of each scenario, but the idea is that because some aspects of marcomm are still very difficult doesn't mean that marketing generally should ignore the trends.

The 'facts' areas of marketing are the easier ones to tackle. Feature lists, product overviews, offer conditions and details, disclaimers and media are the things that can get most easily reused into myriad deliverables. However, that's already lots!

Single sourcing is realistic, but a strategy for reuse needs to be tailored to the business context. It's just one more facet of your overall content strategy.

I’ve mentioned Ann Rockley a lot, probably because I’m in the middle of reading the Second Edition of the MEC, but also because she has had one of the most diverse backgrounds in structural publishing in the market including marketing solutions. She listed problems in this area as:

- Marketing sees marketing content as creative, but structure as restrictive. Structure appears to be a technical scary thing. Structure doesn’t have to be restrictive. I love what one of my clients said “Structure sets you free!” (Noz note: I’ve been saying that exact quote for years too. So true! You’re free with structure to focus on the content, with the machinery around it taken care of for you)

- Everyone is blinded by format. Everyone is so focused on how the content will “look” on the Web or on the page and there is a strong belief that content written for one format does not work well for another format. Not so, well written content designed to be modular works well in any format.

- Many see conversion as the answer to their problems. Conversion doesn’t work because the paradigm for print is different from web which is different from mobile. It should be content first, channel/device second.

Single sourcing, structure and reuse are applicable in all industries and as mobile kicks more of us into action, the skills and tools required will only become cheaper and easier to source.  Content professionals and contents strategist today need to get plugged in and linked up.

Learn More – Go To Events

For more on this, networking and conferences are great. For example:

Our topic on the night will pick up on one of the main themes to emerge from [the] CS Applied conference: namely, how do we, as content strategists, help organisations plan for useful, usable content in a multichannel world?

We're going to talk about separating content from presentation, get a crash course in authoring and publishing standards (don't worry, until quite recently, I thought DITA was Marilyn Manson's ex-wife ;), and discuss the finer points of content structure.

Check out the EU CS Google Group for more.

  • We’re also regularly doing webinars and live events over at trying to bridge the technical communication and web content strategy worlds. 

Please do let me know in the comments where and how you’re seeing the format explosion impact your content strategies!

Mobile is Just the Beginning – Part 2 [NF1]

imageContinuing on from my previous post about the state of multiplatform content strategy, here are some reasons building “for mobile” can actually hurt your content’s long-term usefulness and some notes on how you can tell if you’re headed for trouble, and ideas on how we need to think differently in a multi-platform age.

Part 3 will look at more concrete actions to take and areas to consider when jumping to mobile content. 

But before taking any action, my meta-message for the series is for us to start seeing mobile not as a new format to move your content to, but to consider mobile as the motivator – the  opportunity in fact – to move your content out of the format churn and into format-neutral territory. 

Why Building Content “For Mobile” is Dangerous

As discussed in Part 1, mobile is a series of new presentation formats.  ePub, HTML5, the Kindle .mobi format, and the other mobile formats are all designed to describe to devices and applications how to display content.  The standards are built specifically for presentation, and specific platforms issues, not around designing the content for user’s actual needs and desires across formats and platforms.

If you build content strategies for format-based processes, you’ll always be playing catch-up as new formats come out.  This concept applies equally to web publishing, technical communications, traditional publishing. All have content that can get “locked-in”. The trap has many tell-tale signs, of which I’ve selected a tiny set of examples:

  • You’ve got your print deliverable but it’s awful online or on small mobile format screens
  • You’ve got your iPhone app but don’t have all your content ready to go in it
  • You keep having to pay for expensive ‘Content migration’ initiatives and spend ages prioritising what gets converted and what doesn’t.
  • You changed management platforms and now the content has all been flattened and disconnected – not even worth trying to move it…
  • And so on… 

Telling New Stories

When content is locked in a single format or inflexible structure, it is very hard to break it apart and leverage it to tell new ‘stories’ for multiple contexts on multiple formats.  New formats are everywhere.  New stories could be a condensed how-to manual, a brochure, a microsite, a campaign, a ‘expert’s guide’ (that cuts out lots of fat that newbies need) and so on. New ‘contexts’ might be:

  • I’m learning about a product… while on the bus to work (User
  • We’re announcing a product in multiple geographies simultaneously (Brand)
  • We’re / I’m evaluating a product for purchase (Could be User’s private consumer research in B2C, could be Corporate due diligence for B2B)
  • I’m using a product right now (User or staff that works for the Brand)
  • I’m answering questions about a product (Brand Staff, 3rd Party Partners/Trainers/Retailers, maybe even certain Users who are community experts/evangelists)

Each might require different arrangements or subsets of core content, or different relationships or ‘paths’ through the content.  How do you prepare your content to be ready to accurately appear in all these different ways, optimised for the device and context?


Slide from CSA Presentation: We can write for one flow, but if properly structured, different arrangements, navigation and deliverables should be able to be created easily, if not 100% automatically. 

If your content isn’t modular, you can only tag whole content objects (articles, posts, manuals, service bulletins), say for example relating them to a ‘high tech’ or an ‘iPad 3’ category, that’s great for making links between objects in category, but not very useful for helping you build a new deliverables from reusable bits inside those objects.

Sometimes a whole object is too big to be reused effectively. Sometimes you just want the company slogan, or a product overview, or a feature list, or one procedure among several on a “page”, and so on to tell a new story with it somewhere else, for someone else, on some other device.

CaaS: Content As a Service

To be able to move fluidly across formats we need to design content not with a deliverables mentality, but a service mentality.  Like Cloud Computing is computing services shared across a network or grid, like a utility grid, Content as a Service (CaaS) is a paradigm shift where reusable content assets are available to different applications that in turn deliver the actual consumables from wherever they are to wherever they need to be. 

Confused yet?

In blog form this is hard to get across, but it is not that it is that complicated, it’s that it’s simply different than the way we work today.  The technologies and methods have been in place for years, but we needed a certain series of events to bring us to today:

  1. The printing press (seriously) to make mass publishing possible
  2. The (social) web to make mass publishing available to the masses
  3. Mobile to hit the masses on the web and drive them to go multi-platform

Once all three happened, we now have a critical mass of content, managed by a critical mass of people to make the situation, well… critical. 

The reassuring bit is that none of us have all the answers.  I can’t code a mobile app to save my life, or layout a page in InDesign.  We must work together. This is a message that me, Kristina Halvorson, Rahel Anne Bailie, Ann Rockley, Karen McGrane and more have all be quoting specifically.  Don’t be concerned if you can’t create, much less implement, an entire multi-platform content strategy by yourself.  Start pairing up with those who can, and let’s learn from each other.

We’ve still been covering conceptual material. In Part 3 we'll look at specific recommended tactics for approaching mobile-ready, multi-platform content strategy.

PS - Slides from CSA here:

Mobile is Just the Beginning – Part 1 [NF0]

imageI recently led three conference sessions in one week.  They were for two communities trying to move off two different types of “pages”. 

I did two sessions at Publishing Expo (generally very print-page oriented crowd) organised by Mekon, and then on the Friday at Content Strategy Applied (a very web-page oriented crowd) in the track headed up by Rahel Anne Bailie and hosted by the great folk at eBay and RLYL

It was a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast the mentalities regarding publishing, and mobile of course was high on the topic list.

The ‘guts’ of this 3 part post are in Part 2 and Part 3, which detail the issue and how to approach resolving it, but I think Part 1 is important scene-setting.

Web enters Print’s Victim Support Group

By the Content Strategy Applied session at the end of the week, I was very comfortable dropping into my session the comment: Web's lull is over.

The process of communication enjoyed a 550+ year lull where we enjoyed unchallenged, single-format paradigm: the printed page.  Technology moves faster now, and the desktop-web-focused paradigm is now shifting with the introduction of mobile after only 10-ish years of real dominance. 

But we online publishers must now adapt exactly as print publishers before us did and, as they did, accept that a paradigm-shift, not format-change, is happening.  Interestingly, many print-oriented folk are still adapting to web, which shows just how long paradigm shifts can take.

Lily-pad Hopping: What’s the New Master Format?

My belief is that we have to be careful to not seek the new 'dominant' format.  I have heard some folks talking about mobile being the new thing (as if an iPad, Kindle, and blackberry were somehow just one thing).  Something along the lines of "We must now design our content for mobile and adapt back to desktop (and it goes without saying that print can take a hike)," but there's not a lot of detail supplied after that.

Mobile as we know it today is just the tip of the iceberg.  On the CS Google Group, Ann Rockley chimed in on this topic, fresh off her new release of the seminal Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, she said:

The scary thing right now is that we are having a lot of device wars. Everyone is jockeying for ultimate supremacy. In some ways this is good because we get a lot of innovation, but in a lot of ways it is bad because we can’t just do one thing and expect it to work everywhere.

In my sessions I talked about all the various technology companies out there tripping over themselves trying to provide new, better, cheaper ways to interact with content.  Smart phones and tablets that seemed like science fiction in 2000 don’t even raise an eyebrow today.  It’s the responsibility of the contents strategist to think strategically for the brand.  That is, not for the course of a project lifecycle, but the life of the content and the brand.  We need to think long-term and act short term to prepare.

My favourite examples of the potential to come are the video where we see the same screen technology that is used in the Kindle get folded, hit, submerged, burnt, and more, and still keep on ticking (take that Timex), and Corning’s Day Made of Glass:

In short – content is REALLY going to become king.

When access becomes this ubiquitous, we’ll be designing content for a vast number of scenarios and contexts we’re not even thinking of today.

If we keep trying to find the new format or tool that is going to magic away our issues, we’re jumping to a lily-pad, waiting until it sinks under us and then desperately trying to time our jump to the next one.  Jump too early and you splash down in the water, jump too late and you sink and drown by simple inaction.

Side-Step the Format War

We must design for maximum agility (intelligence, nimble-ness, reusability, adaptability, etc) in the content itself so we can tackle X number of formats. 

This was the warning that the XML/structure folks were giving 20 years ago. XML folks said. "We'll be ready for whatever may come if we bite this bullet today."  It's those folks who transitioned their content AND their people a decade or more ago who are most ready to take on new formats now. 

They analysed their content models, built mark-up based, platform-agnostic ways of structuring and storing it, and proved their content was future-proofed, as promised. 

Now web needs to bite that same bullet.  Our customers don't want PDFs or websites or mobile apps, they want them all.

It’s not so bad

You may be suitably concerned by now, but it’s not all fire and brimstone.  Content folks should know that mark-up is the easiest bit. You learn some tags. Boom. Done. Most of us have a reasonable grip on HTML and many get CSS, even if we can't code CSS ourselves. It’s the other parts that are difficult and need collaborative, multi-disciplinary approaches

Writing reusable, info-typed modules and thinking format-free is harder than the mark-up. New editorial processes and managing things against a taxonomy is harder. Information modelling to decide how and when to use what tags is harder.

All content folks of various specialisms need to adapt to new format-neutral processes. There's challenges but by no means impossibilities. The world move from pen to typewriters to computers. In the 70s, executives couldn't type, and there was such a thing as a 'typing pool'. Now typing is not a specialist skill. People learned. They'll learn this too. The worms, however, will go to the early birds.

So What Do We Do?

The following parts of this post will discuss some more specific techniques and things to think about when going mobile-ready:

20 Mar 2012

Tech Comm 2.0 - Article Thoughts [NF0]

I just read (devoured) the new article by two ragingly clever and engaging personalities in the Content World: Jack Molisani and Scott Abel.  The article was entitled: Tech Comm 2.0: Reinventing our Relevance in the 2000s.

image The central thesis is that Technical Communicators have to rethink and re-market themselves in the wake of overwhelming market changes if they want to thrive and survive.
The advice for is Tech Communicators / Tech Writers to stop envisioning themselves in these terms (you’re not valuable because you write words good n’ stuff) and expand their footprint into “professionals who solve business problems”.
Or as they put it:

To be successful, technical communication professionals must present themselves in a way that clearly describes the value they bring to organizations.

I think the article was good.  In fact, it reminds me very much of my own personal term war, not against the word “Writer”, but the word “document”.  I find “documentation” to be a passive and retrospective act.  It seems by definition to not be part of product development, but something that simply reflects – documents – the facts of the product in a text-based form.  That’s all sorts a’ awful. 
Scott and Jack even singled out my favourite pet hate, documents that say things like “Enter your name in the name field”.

Communication Spectrum

So although I’m sympathetic to the cause, my only criticism is that finishing it I felt the TC community was given instruction and impetus to act, and a helpful and reassuring catalogue of the tools with which to take action, but what they’re supposed to do wasn’t quite clear. 
In the "TC as a profession" section there was a list of jobs that are typical in product companies. Everything from Product Manager, Business Analyst and Product Architects to Marketers, Sales Reps and Tech Support.  All of which used skills that were listed as being similar to core technical communicator skills. 
In the "Lather, rinse, repeat" section, it almost seemed to me TCs should pick from the list of the jobs whichever they feel like and go be one of those instead of being TCs/TWs.  I know Scott and Jack and, as said, they’re both very clever.  I don’t think they’re saying TCs should go be Sales Reps or Dev engineers per se (but if you have those skills why not), so some differentiation and clarification at the end would have been good. 
The reason I’m blogging this particular article is put in my support, but also to highlight the difference between “most” (always dangerous to generalise") Tech Writers and the people who staff these other jobs. The difference is that most tech writers are strongest in written communication.  Tech Writers who can deliver strong live presentations, engaging training or a compelling sales pitch are more rare.
There’s a sort of skills spectrum between live, real-time and persuasive communications and supporting, asynchronous communication – some of us are really good live but can’t write, some are great on paper, but PowerPoint and a microphone are our worst enemies.  I think this distinction got left out of the article.
My own two cents here are that if you are a writer branching out, it’s good to try to establish where you are on that communication spectrum, and match yourself to the specialism that works best.  If you’re good with words, but need to rehearse and be well prepared to deliver them orally, you can probably do great video voice-overs or tutorial scripts or even write training material, but delivering training material or handling angry customers on tech support lines is probably not for you. 
I’m only adding some detail to the main message: know thyself.  That’s not limit thyself, but put your efforts into something that’s leveraging your core strengths. The idea that technical communicators need to specialise and market themselves differently is, for me, a no brainer.
If you haven’t already, read the article right now.

Footnote: Doc-to-Help

The first page of the article is a full-page ad for Doc-to-Help’s “multiplatform” solution.  I find the ad placement incredibly ironic. I'm assuming that was the publisher's decision (as opposed to the author’s or ComponentOne’s).
Scott and Jack are breaking it down as to why TCs need to think outside the box, get ready for really new scenarios and ways of operating, and Doc-to-Help are essentially saying, "Screw it! Just do the same ol' junk in Word and we'll automagic it into future-proof multi-channel content for you! TADA! Put your heads firmly back in the sand reassured by the wonders of software tools!"
It’s a whole other blog as to all the reasons that that approach and way of thinking are wrong, wrong and also very very wrong.  It is the Tech Comms equivalent of traditional publishers who think that saving a magazine as PDF is effectively preparing their content for mobile delivery.
The article mentions XML in the first few lines and gives the example case-study of, another XML-based platform.  What is core to XML and multi-platform deliver is modularity.  ComponentOne (the irony just won’t stop) are encouraging you to keep going with linear, ‘book—style’ documentation, and just pressing a button and making them into mobile deliverables. 
Your documents are never “one component”, they’re a rich combination of different entities that are of interest to different users in different contexts at different times… I don’t want to go into it here, but read some of the books on the reading list, especially those by Ann Rockley, and you’ll learn why this approach has no future.
The future is not in multi-platform tools, it’s in multi-platform thinking.  More on that in my recent presentation at Content Strategy Applied in London.