Enabling Mass Customization for Your Technical Communication: A Paradigm Shift

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April 2005

Enabling Mass Customization for Your Technical Communication: A Paradigm Shift

CIDMIconNewsletter Yves Rombauts, Trisoft

This article will discuss how technical communicators can break the fundamental trade-off between the need to reuse as much information as possible on one hand and the need to produce customer specific technical communication on the other. I will begin with a description of the fundamental trade-off between reuse and customized communication. I then make an analogy with the field of manufacturing, which has found ways to deal with a similar trade-off. Universal information modules are introduced as the solution, allowing the application of the manufacturing principle of mass customization to technical communication. The article ends by outlining the requirements needed for supporting tools to apply the notion of universal information modules.

The Fundamental Trade-Off Between Re-Usable and Customized Communication

Today technical communication departments are facing the challenge of producing a continuously increasing volume of technical documentation. Indeed, as companies accelerate the pace of new product launches in response to changing markets and competitive forces, so must the technical authors produce more, and faster, accompanying documentation for these new products. In addition, they must deliver multiple documentation sets in time for each product release. We also recognize that information users are not a uniform group; they have different product knowledge, different backgrounds, and may have different reasons for using a product. As such, they need specific, personalized documentation rather than a standard one-size-fits-all document.

As companies expand their product offerings into new markets and strive to broaden the range of offering and stretch the life cycle of existing products, so must the technical information producers manage and keep “live” more editions of the documentation. The translation and localization requirements that are unavoidably associated with globalization intensify the burden. Simultaneously, technical communication managers have to manage this ever-increasing workload with constant pressure to cut costs: “Do more and faster with less money” is high on the agenda of today’s technical communication manager.

To cope with the intensifying burden on their teams, technical communication managers realize that they have to promote the reuse of existing content. In a world of ever-increasing volume, one must avoid writing the same information twice. Instead of writing lengthy, singular documents, technical authors have started to break down their documents into pieces or modules which they aim to use in different documents. This works well provided that the modules are written in a general way to make them applicable for a broad set of purposes. For example, to make a module concerning the dashboard functionality of a car applicable to several models of a car, the author may choose to describe in such a module all possible dashboard options. Consequently, the generic module can be deployed in every manual. No matter which car models or options are concerned, the relevant explanation is available somewhere in the document.

This approach allows the technical authors to maximize the reuse of content and helps them cope with the increasing volume of deliverables. However, it does not provide the ultimate consumer of the information with a workable solution. The information consumers are now faced with the burden that they must search and scan through a variety of information, which is often irrelevant to their product. They simply do not have all of the options that are included in the documentation. Imagine the frustration one experiences when having to program a DVD player for the first time using a manual thatprovides lengthy explanations on buttons and functions that are simply not available for the product at hand. Things get even worse if that product is an expensive industrial system, such as a truck, for which up-time is key. In these cases, the repair engineers should have the information immediately on hand for the specific product they are dealing with without losing time searching through irrelevant information.

The challenge that companies face represents a fundamental trade-off between re-usable and customized communication: either they produce standardized, easy to reuse modules which are not customer specific or they produce specific information modules which are not suited for reuse. Figure 1 depicts this trade-off.

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Breaking the Trade-Off: Adopting the Trend in Manufacturing

The trade-off between keeping something re-usable and having the ability to make it specific is not new. In the field of car manufacturing, for example, companies struggle with the same trade-off. In their need to produce large volumes of car components to realize economies of scale, car manufacturers aim to reuse the same car components across broad ranges of car models. Standardization of product components is the key enabler for this reuse. At the same time, car manufacturers aim to differentiate their car models to reach a broad customer base. Car owners are not a uniform group; they have different transportation needs, different budgets, and might prefer different product characteristics. Accordingly, marketers segment their target market and develop a specific, personalized offering for each of the identified segments.

Car manufacturers have found ways to accommodate the trade-off between standardization and personalization. They have enabled mass customization by using standardized components that can be personalized at the very end of the production process. In fact, they add intelligence to the car component so that it can be personalized to the specific context (the car model) in which it is used. The reuse of a car engine across various car models is a good example of this approach (See Figure 2). To reach a high production volume and realize economies of scale, the same mechanical engine (in terms of number of cylinders, ccm, stroke/bore and so on) is deployed for two different car models. Yet, because these models target different customer segments, the performance criteria in terms of power and torque are set differently for each of the car models. This customization is made possible by adding intelligent software components to the mechanical engine so that it can be tuned to the specific needs of the context (the car model) in which it is deployed. This way, marketers can still differentiate the end product (in terms of the power the engine can produce, for instance) and market it as a custom product. This approach effectively accommodates the trade-off between reuse and personalization: one universal mechanical engine is reused across different car models while its performance characteristics are personalized for the specific context in which it is used. It truly enables mass customization.

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Creating Universal Modules: Concept and Benefits

Following the old saying that one should not reinvent the wheel, technical communicators should adopt the mass customization strategy already applied in manufacturing to break the trade-off between reuse and personalization.

Indeed, by adding intelligence to the information modules, technical communicators can also produce universal modules that can be reused easily while maintaining the ability to personalize the modules. In technical communication, the key enabler for adding intelligence is XML. When producing the modules in XML, the technical communicator can add intelligence to the modules by means of XML conditions. Specific information can be put in a conditional structure (conditions on XML tags). When reusing the module in a specific publication context, the non-relevant information can be filtered away enabling the information module to be fine-tuned for a specific context (See Figure 3).

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It is important to note that the approach of using universal modules is very different from other techniques for reuse such as working with small granularity or creating siblings or clones (sometimes also called variants). Working with small granularity aims to cut documents into very small pieces to stimulate their reuse (the idea here is that the smaller the granularity of information modules, the less specific the modules will be and the greater the chance will be that the modules can be reused for other purposes). The problem, however, is that as the grains become smaller, the information producers are no longer able to find the small information modules easily and the desired reuse will simply not happen. Creating siblings or clones aims to break the trade-off between reuse and personalization by duplicating existing modules and then adapting them to meet specific information requirements. This technique does not achieve real reuse, because the duplication process ultimately results in two information modules with their own version management, translation processes, and so on.

One can conclude that only the development of universal modules effectively accommodates the fundamental trade-off between reuse and personalization: a real paradigm shift for technical communicators. Indeed, through this approach, technical communicators can start to develop universal modules and consciously design them for reuse. They do not have to compromise on the specific information needs of their audience because specific information can be added to the universal module in a conditional structure. There is no need to cut the modules into small, uncontrollable pieces or to duplicate the modules. The benefits are clear. Since only one universal information module is created, the technical communicator will more easily retrieve and manage the information and, as such, maximize its reuse. Additionally, the information users will be more satisfied because they do not have to scan through lengthy, standardized documents with lots of irrelevant information. Universal modules accommodate the fundamental trade-off between reuse and personalization. Universal modules enable mass customization for technical communication (See Figure 4).

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Implications For Your Content Management System (CMS)

The basic requirements for a good CMS remain valid when applying the notion of universal modules. Such tools must provide technical communicators with powerful, single-source repository management, version management, workflow, publication management, localization capabilities, and so on.

In addition, the creation of universal modules sets out specific requirements for the supporting tools used by technical communicators. Because the technical writers have to add conditions to the XML tags, the supporting tools must provide authors with an easy-to-use mechanism to create valid and consistent conditions. If not, there is a real risk that a random set of inconsistent conditions will emerge that no longer make sense and are not applicable in a valid publication context. A powerful condition-management tool ensures that all conditions are consistent and relevant. Also, the supporting tool must be able to interpret and resolve the conditions. It has to know the context in which the information module is used and automatically apply this context to all conditions. It is also important that the tool can keep track of the publication context so that the same document can identically be republished in the future.

Although the notion of developing universal modules is still new for technical communication, supporting tools are already available. Readers who want to know more about such tools are free to contact the author of this article. Also, the author would appreciate receiving any feedback on how technical authors today experience and deal with the trade-off between reuse and customization. CIDMIconNewsletter

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