From the Director
Oh! The Changes We’ve Seen! Comtech celebrates our 30th anniversary!
As of February 2010, Comtech Services, Inc. will be officially 30 years old. Of course, we actually began activities about two years earlier but 1980 was our official incorporation as a company.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the changes we have witnessed in technical communication over 30 years. Perhaps the technology changes have been the most dramatic.
- We purchased an Apple 2 at home in 1978 but it had no word-processing capability until the introduction of Easy Writer about 1980. Easy Writer allowed me to create a 5K file, which meant that a longer document consisted of several 5K files.
- The first program that Bill Hackos wrote for me was for automated index sorting. Freed up the dining room table from stacks of index cards.
- After we incorporated and opened our first office in Lakewood, Colorado, we did a lot of writing with pen and paper. The first major word processor was a DEC dedicated machine handled by our word-processing operator. She transferred handwriting to word processing. The results were printed on a line printer so that the text looked pretty much like a typewriter.
- We continued to purchase Apple computers as we added staff but the output still looked like a typewriter. Not until the Apple Macintosh arrived on the scene did we have a selection of typefaces to implement.
- To spruce up the typewriter copy, we added rub-on letters for headings. Pretty tedious, as you might imagine, until we acquired a little plastic device that let us create labels with entire words and phrases. Amazing!
- When a colleague acquired an Apple laser printer, we sent files to him for printing until we could afford one ourselves.
- Working with a very talented and clever local typesetter, we succeeded in sending files through a dial-up modem (anyone remember putting the telephone receiver in the modem cups?) directly to the typesetter. They added the typesetting code, and we delivered typeset documents to our customers. What a break through for readability!
- Through the 80s, we used paste up and a light table to prepare documents, especially newsletters and marketing-oriented pieces. It wasn’t until the next decade that we could finally abandon the hot wax machine.
- Our second decade saw a move from the Apple to the PC. We were perfectly happy using Apple computers but most of our customers were on PCs. The software was becoming increasingly incompatible, especially for slide development. I recall traveling with both a PC and a Macintosh to teach workshops because I had material that would work on only one of the machines.
- We finally capitulated and changed to a PC-dominated company. And, we had to hire someone full time to maintain the PCs, something we never needed as a Mac shop.
- With laser printers now ubiquitous, we could take advantage of better page design and presentation. The downside was the amount of time the writers began devoting to tweaking the layout.
- We then shifted all the layout work to a production manager. Notice the work division taking place! We had a variety of solutions for desktop publishing. We were the first in Colorado to use Interleaf. Then there was the amazingly inexpensive and capable Venture publisher. It had one major flaw, however. It would periodically lose content, like figure captions, from the files with no way to get it back except by retyping.
- Today, we use more complex technology than ever before. We have more than one content management system installed. We use one to machine our websites and others to emulate customer environments so that we can help them solve problems and test new functionality.
- More of our authoring is now in XML and DITA, even though we have not written manuals since the mid-90s. We do produce electronic and print newsletters, proposals, reports, and marketing materials, all requiring good design and ease of authoring.
- We have moved into research, testing, and implementation of complex publishing solutions, including developing XSLT, XSL-FO, CSS and others for multiple languages. We now combine text, graphics, and data from formal databases into complex final publications with the push of a button (most of the time). We are experimenting with dynamic graphics to reduce word count and increase the usability of instructions for reluctant readers.
- We are thoroughly engaged as a consulting team in the developing of the OASIS DITA standard with chairs and membership in the various committees and subcommittees.
- We aid hundreds of clients each year in moving away from traditional desktop publishing to DITA and content management. Our focus is to help them find ways to increase efficiency and productivity and reduce costs throughout the information-development life cycle.
I would love to hear your stories about technology changes that have made your lives easier or more difficult. It would be fun to combine those stories into a record of the changes we’ve seen in 30 years or more.
When I started to work in publications, I was 9 years old and the 3rd-grade reporter for our grammar school newspaper. By the time I reached the 8th grade, I was the newspaper editor and had to learn typesetting and layout. Reading strips of typesetting code and using hot wax were an early part of my education.
Later, I was editor of my high school paper and responsible for the photography and layout of the senior yearbook. When I began teaching English at the University of Texas, I got the students involved in producing a literary magazine. They too had to learn the basics. We’ve come a long way with the technology, but I’ve never regretted the hands-on education in what makes text readable and usable.
Despite the technology changes we have experienced over the past 30 plus years, the real work of information development has actually changed very little. We still must understand how our users work and think and how information can enhance their job performance and make them more productive and successful.
As a young company in 1980, the very first computer-documentation project for which we were engaged involved developing user manuals for a hospital information system. Since I had never developed a user manual before and had absolutely no idea what a hospital information system was, I told the company’s CEO that I needed to spend time understanding the users
and their working environment. Sounded like a good idea to him.
Together with the head trainer, I spent about three months visiting the hospitals and sitting with the people who registered patients, handled billing, and kept records. We became very knowledgeable about how the work was done and who did that work. None of the people had ever worked on computers before.
What we produced as a result of firsthand experience with customers in their environment was a set of standalone topics that could be assembled into a variety of deliverables. The topics were in print, of course, and they could be copied into booklets as required for the attendees of each new training class. We even provided an introductory section about how to use the computer for our complete novices. To make the assembly easier, we supplied each training department with a plastic binder machine. They assembled with topics, added the introduction, developed a title page, and voila—they had custom manuals.
My point is that we began from the start putting customer knowledge at the top of the requirements list. Without knowing the customer and the customer’s work environment, we could not produce usable and useful information.
Our focus on the customer led us to develop one of the first independent usability labs in the US. The only other one was Ginny Redish’s at the American Institutes for Research. Later we collaborated on the first User and Task analysis book for the industry.
As you can see, the basic concepts of information development have changed very little while the technology has marched on. Today we can produce much better documents more easily and less expensively than any time in the past. But the quality of the information is still dependent on our understanding of our customers and how they learn. Without that, we will continue simply to make the product specifications look nice.