It’s a Great Time to be an Information Developer

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Dawn Stevens, CIDM Director

Approximately 300 people joined CIDM at the CMS/DITA North America conference in San Diego in April, which was kicked off by keynote speaker, Jared Spool. Jared’s talk, “It’s a Great Time to be A UX Designer,” set the tone for the conference by reaffirming the importance and value of user experience design in today’s market. As information developers, we are a part of the total user experience; in fact, we are a critical part as we are the touchpoint when users are frustrated with the rest of their user experience. Users come to our content stressed and impatient, looking for answers as quickly as possible. A good user experience at that time can save the day—we can reset our user’s attitude and help them end on a happy note.

Jared’s key take away was that design is the rendering of intent, so we must be intentional in all we do.  We must choose between innovation and imitation. In this battle, business leaders are on the innovation side. Imitation is a cheap form of intent and is not competitive, while industries disappear virtually overnight because of innovators who improve on the status quo experience. The payoff is huge when innovation is done right.  But we must remember that innovation isn’t about inventing things, it’s adding new value to an experience. Apple didn’t invent the appointment, it just used it in a new way to keep customers happy with their service in the Apple Store.

Jared mapped out the critical skills of a user experience designer, which include as we might expect information design, information architecture, copy writing, editing and curating, and visual design. But he went on to add that the skills that differentiate the best designs today are storytelling, critiquing, sketching, presenting, and facilitating.  He asserted that the industry does not need specialists or worse, compartmentalists, who excel in only one or two of these skills, but generalists, who possess all the skills required to map, measure, and design user experience.

Jared called these user experience generalists, “design unicorns”, and he advised that to become such a rare beast, we needed to train ourselves, practice our skills, deconstruct what others have done, gather feedback, and teach others. And with these words of wisdom, a total of 98 speakers in 76 sessions worked to provide opportunities for doing just that.  Sessions were grouped into a variety of themes to give attendees a chance to move in and out of a theme or spend a concentrated amount of time in one subject area:

  • New technologies. Speakers explored the future, talking about artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and content bots, and most importantly, how these new mechanisms impact technical writers and the content industry.
  • Lightweight DITA and Markdown. In the continuing discussion of the complexity of DITA, presenters looked at “easier” options, such as Markdown, in particular discussing how it might work in conjunction with DITA. Lightweight DITA representatives promised the finalization of the lightweight standard this year, and provided more information about what would and would not be part of that standard.
  • Content strategy. Participants were reminded that technology is not the be-all, end-all. Instead, it is a tool for delivering content that users really need. In order to do that, we must hold fast to basic skills – knowing our user, planning appropriate content strategies, and writing well.
  • Content reuse. Attendees heard many strategies for reusing and linking content effectively, hearing practical suggestions for basic conditionalizing and referencing, to a detailed implementation of the new keyscopes feature.
  • CCMS implementations. A variety of companies shared their experiences and lessons learned in implementing DITA and a CCMS solution, ranging from the newly implemented to organizations with more than a dozen years of practical experience in a CMS.
  • As the world continues to get smaller, more people must worry about their global and localization strategies. Presenters shared their solutions for effective, cost-saving approaches.
  • Participants heard a significant emphasis on the growing need for collaboration, certainly within our own organizations, but also across departments. Strategies for collaboration and negotiation are critical for future success.

In addition to the many excellent sessions, 14 exhibitors shared roadmaps and new features in the Technology Test Kitchen, providing demos and hands-on experiences for people interested in learning more about their tools. At the Monday reception, the exhibit hall maintained a loud rumble of discussion as attendees explored the capabilities of the tools and the service offerings of the vendors on display.

Finally, this year marked the end of an era, as about two-thirds of all participants gathered to wish Bill and JoAnn Hackos a happy retirement. Testimonials were numerous as people shared the tremendous impact the Hackos’ have had on our industry as a whole and on individual people as well. Comtech and CIDM will continue under the new direction of Dawn Stevens. CMS/DITA North America is slated for Denver, Colorado in 2018. We look forward to seeing you there, where you can count on a continued commitment to bringing relevant and dynamic speakers to share their experiences in content management strategies, supported by the premise that it is a great time to be an information developer.

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