October 2000

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos

The SingleSource 2000 conference attracted more than 200 information designers and developers to Chicago in early August. Let me thank all of you for making the program a success by attending yourself or sending your staff members.

To close the conference, the speakers joined Ann Rockley and me in an open forum with everyone who did not have to leave for the airport (and more canceled flights). What amazed me most at the forum was how strongly the conference’s main theme had gotten across: It’s the content, not the tools.

All of the speakers and many of the listeners underscored their presentations and questions with a focus on being certain that the content is right. They discussed restructuring their information, finding ways to minimalize the information, breaking the strangle hold between authoring and publishing, and re-establishing their connections to their audiences. They warned again and again that technology is not the whole solution but only a part of the solution. They noted the danger of selecting tools too early or expecting tools to do the work. We heard that the real work of single sourcing is content design.

I’ve been surprised and pleased by the exploding interest in single sourcing and the seriousness with which information managers approach the task. If we have ever been on the brink of a paradigm shift in technical communication, it is now, and single sourcing is at its heart.

The move to desktop publishing which dominated the 80s simply allowed us to transfer work done by outside resources (typesetters and printers) to the information developers inside our organizations. Desktop publishing did not change the nature of the information we delivered to our audiences.

The move to online help systems and CD-ROM delivery which dominated the 90s has had, in some cases, an effect on information design. Following Microsoft’s lead, some information developers began to simplify procedures so that they were more accessible to the user immersed in a software application. Information developers began to understand that brevity is firmly in the camp of usability. Others, unfortunately, looked for the easy way out by delivering the same content and format from their print documents in electronic format. We continue to note the dominance of the ubiquitous PDF on CD-ROMs and on the Web.

Unfortunately, neither movement seemed to have much effect on the development of content. As I mentioned in the August issue, many information developers remain quite happy writing about subjects they do not fully understand for audiences they have never met. Then-along comes single sourcing, driven by the need to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

The single-source movement has been strongly influenced by the move to global markets and the subsequent need for the localization and translation of interfaces and information. The single-source movement has found even more motivation in the renewed stress on time-to-market initiatives, pushing information developers to develop content faster than ever, under shorter deadlines, accompanied by delivery mechanisms that can be instantaneously changed. Faster time-to-market means that we no longer have the leisure to prepare fastidious print deliverables. We are being forced to find ways to automate publishing tasks and recognize, finally, that customers want content more than format or finesse.

Single sourcing does not perforce require that we redesign our information or pay any more attention to our audiences. However, it does provide a substantial incentive to do so. The better structured the information, the more minimal the writing style, the more likely information content units can be reused. The higher the percentage of reuse, the more efficient, less costly, and faster does our information development become. Redesign for maximum reuse not only reduces development costs and time-to-market, it reduces the cost of localization. Reusable content units, written in a tight, consistent style are more receptive to the effective use of translation memory systems which significantly help reduce localization costs and time.

Nonetheless, all this focus on efficiency does not necessarily mean that the audience is better served by our information, even though readers are known to appreciate consistent structure and style, less verbiage, and greater consistency. Single sourcing also provides an opportunity to increase audience effectiveness. If we can increase our efficiency, we can shift the preponderance of activities away from publishing tasks toward audience and task analysis, usability, and content management.

We’ve spent too many of our resources during the past 25 years (which saw a tremendous increase in the number of technical communicators and the resources devoted to technical communication) on publishing. Our resources have gone into desktop publishing, online help tools, and multi-platform delivery of identical content. Now we have an opportunity to recover lost ground by turning our focus toward the user experience and the development of effective and minimalist content. We owe it to our audiences to stop writing documentation and go to work for the user. Let’s use the gains we can make by single sourcing to become effective communicators once more. CIDMIconNewsletter