Tools and Technology: Are They Taking Our Focus Away From Managing Content?

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October 2006

Tools and Technology: Are They Taking Our Focus Away From Managing Content?

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

“Can’t we just buy something and do what it says?” I remember being asked that question by an information-development manager who was immersed in an argument between documentation and training on a new cross-discipline information model. My response: “Content management systems just sit there; they don’t do anything that you don’t tell them to do.”

During workshops and conferences as well as discussions with information-development managers and teams, I hear people acknowledge that tools should not be the focus. They understand, for the most part, that tools will not make information more readable or usable or relevant to the reader. Yet, when I look at how resources are allocated and what gets priority in organizations, the tools and technology hold first place. Managers elect to purchase tools training rather than training in structured authoring. Staff members find time to follow online chats and forums on tools but not on information development. The STC special interest group on single sourcing devolves into a discussion of FrameMaker, Word, or a help system, not on how information should be structured so that it can be used in multiple contexts.

Since the middle of the 1980s, technical communication has been defined by its tools. First came desktop publishing systems. They allowed us to present information in an attractive way without the expense of typesetting. Desktop publishing gave us typographic fonts at our fingertips and allowed us to create page layouts that enhanced readability. But instead of using the desktop publishing tools as efficient solutions for readability, we made them an end in themselves. I recall a fierce argument with members of the Silicon Valley chapter when the STC annual conference was held there in 1990 (as I recall). Even though desktop publishing had been in place for six or seven years, chapter members insisted that it remain as part of the Advanced Technologies program track.

Unfortunately, desktop-publishing skills became, for many information developers, more important than information-design skills. The research that I’ve seen quoted notes that many information developers spend as much as 50 percent of their time on layout tasks rather than on planning, design, and, most importantly, customer studies. The same holds true for help systems. If we review the online discussions, the focus is again on the tools and their intricacies rather than a debate about the utility of help systems. Our research and that of many other organizations often reveals that customers don’t use help systems because they don’t find them helpful. The presentation of the help topics isn’t even on their radar. They are only concerned with the content and accessibility. When is the last time we had presentations or workshops on the design of help? We debate the tools but not the content or its effective management.

Tools have followed us into content management. In workshops and presentations on structured authoring or DITA or minimalism, people want to know what tools to purchase. XML-based editors and content management repositories can make structuring and managing content more convenient and less costly, but they can’t help us create sound information models or repositories that support search and retrieval, content assembly, or usability. Content-management systems support but do not help us define effective workflow. They provide us with project data, but they cannot ensure that we are creating the right content for the customers.

Last but not least, XML-editor and content-management systems cannot convert a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I’m probably most disturbed by an acceptance of vendor promises of simple, easy conversion of mountains of legacy information into beautiful XML. We must first acknowledge that the mountain of legacy may not be doing customers any good. Much of it can be relegated to the archives without anyone even noticing that it’s gone. Every time that people in my minimalism workshop use the minimalist checklist to review their existing content, they are stunned at the lack of clear, concise instruction and relevant background concepts. They easily find opportunities to cut the content in half.

What then is the solution? Where do we place tools and technology in our panoply of resources? What should our focus be if not on buying something that will magically do all the work that we’ve neglected for years?

The solution is not easy. There are no magic bullets. Here’s my partial list of actions that we must take to make information development more relevant in the future:

  • Understanding how our customers use information in their working environments
  • Deciding on the most relevant content that our customers need and spending most of our time ensuring that we make it available and accessible
  • Collaborating with other content providers in our organizations to avoid duplication of effort and inconsistent or contradictory messages
  • Working with those who manage information websites for us to ensure that content is truly accessible
  • Ensuring that our information developers spend the greatest percentage of their time on understanding the content and transforming it in ways that increase its value to our customers
  • Obtaining feedback from customers so that we can modify content that is not understandable to them and add content that is missing
  • Developing a structured, minimalist information model and then implementing it consistently across the entire information-development community in our corporations, which usually means more than the technical writers
  • Defining a strategy to reduce the amount of content that we manage in whatever repository we have so that we have less to update or translate
  • Work together to estimate and plan the content to be developed by skilled writers who know the customers well

My list keeps getting longer, but notice that it doesn’t include tools. The tools are the supporting cast; they don’t write the script. Anyone can use tools, including people who earn much less than we do. Almost no one can understand the needs of the customers and become expert in developing relevant and valued information for them. Beware of reducing information development to formatting output. Automate what can be automated so that you have time to devote to the most highly valued activity—producing content that satisfies customers’ needs and make them productive users of our products and processes.