August 2002

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Dear Friends,

It’s all about content.

As publication professionals, we find it remarkably easy to focus on the publishing process. We worry about “getting the books out the door,” making certain that all the page breaks are correct, tables don’t split in unfortunate places, words are spelled correctly, and grammar errors don’t turn good sentences into nonsense.

The technology we use pushes us to concentrate on the document’s appearance. Desktop publishing, which brought typesetting in house in the mid 1980s, is all about the look of the page. Property sheets in FrameMaker and styles in MS Word focus our attention on formatting. Even in job announcements, we are more likely to see requirements for technology skills than anything else. In fact, I recall receiving a critical comment in my project management book from an individual who disliked the style used for bulleted lists but said nothing about the ideas.

I suggest that the emphasis on production and publishing values is a significant mistake. Although attractive publications certainly add value, they do so only when they enhance information design and content. As I have often argued, we need to focus our efforts on making a difference for our customers rather than on publishing books.

A customer orientation is all about information design and content. The information that we present must be effective in promoting learning and performance. It must be free from errors of fact and interpretations. It must function to increase productivity and enhance job performance. If our information fails to meet real customer goals, its appearance does not matter.

I find it instructive to use the touchstone of technology to reflect on the values inherent in technical publications today. In most organizations I visit, technology supports publishing, not information design and content. Absent are information design tools. Even in the single-source movement, the buzz on the listserv often centers on technology that allows us to move easily from one presentation format to another through help systems or HTML generators.

It’s challenging even to imagine what technology to support information design and content development might look like. We might envision design guidelines built into template tools that encourage writers to consider the four tenets of minimalism.

  • Take an action-oriented approach
  • Anchor the tool in the task domain
  • Encourage error diagnosis and recovery
  • Promote reading to do, to know, and to learn to do

We might create a Document Type Definition (DTD) that requires a complete troubleshooting discussion before a document is considered complete or produces error messages whenever a writer tries to write a heading that is not part of the user’s agenda. To produce such an error message would require that writers reference a database of user goals, duties, and tasks.

We know that information design is important in communicating effectively, but information design is not enough if we don’t deliver the right information. In a content-management environment, we can use technology to facilitate content development. Here are some ideas that we will try to clarify and develop in the next issues of Best Practices.

  • Assign staff to key subject areas to become subject-matter specialists
  • Assemble teams of subject-matter experts from support, training, development, and consulting
  • Include customer experts on the teams
  • Investigate the best ways to use your products to support performance
  • Focus on processes and workflow before documenting more granular tasks, especially product-oriented tasks
  • Build a repository of information objects
  • Design information packages that support workflow and facilitate “learning to do”
  • Validate your information design with typical, not expert, users
  • Produce readable, usable, and, certainly, attractive outputs

I must admit that there is nothing new about this content-oriented prescription. It has been practiced by expert technical communicators and instructional designers for many years. Unfortunately, best practices about content are more difficult and costly to implement than devoting time and effort to page layout and fonts. CIDMIconNewsletter