The New Year: Information Development in 2011

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

The Dec 6, 2010 issue of Information Week featured an article about iPad in the enterprise. In the article, David F. Carr recounts the experience of many organizations using iPads for a full range of mobile applications.

  • Needham Bank gave iPads to the committee responsible for checking on construction projects in the field, in addition to its senior executives.
  • Hyatt Hotels, Medtronic, Wells Fargo, and SAP have purchased iPads for employees.
  • Hilton gave iPads to 2,500 hotel owners for their October annual meeting. The device features two custom apps, one a virtual concierge for guests and the second a collaboration app for the owners that encouraged them to communicate. Hilton plans to expand their iPad use to senior executives for operations reporting and hotel owners for operations and customer information.
  • Managers have replaced their travel laptops with iPads, using apps as well as documents from the company’s document management systems.
  • Taylor-Made gave its 70 sales reps iPads so they could carry their marketing materials to customer visits.
  • The University of Chicago Medical Center issued iPads to their 150 medical residents. The doctors carry them in their coat pockets, accessing patient records from patient rooms rather than waiting in line for the computers at the nursing stations.
  • Edmunds.com, a site that helps people purchase automobiles’, found that consumers preferred an app to a PDF report. The app includes interactive visualization of the data.
  • Elkay Manufacturing, a company that makes sinks and counters, developed an app that allows its sales force to access their customer information, as well as a full Web version of the app.

Many of these organizations have discovered that users prefer custom-designed apps to traditional HTML or PDF versions of information. The native applications can “take advantage of device-specific hardware for graphics acceleration, motion sensing, and GPS location.” As a consequence, companies are developing native iPad apps for reviewing reports or using database dashboards. MicroStrategy, for example, has created an iPad app that “speeds up purchasing and personnel decisions.”

Delivering content and interactive experiences via iPad apps is taking off. At the September 2010 Best Practices conference, the attendees from Tweddle Litho showed us the new iPhone app they had developed. It contained the user guide information for the Jeep. You can find it in the iTunes stores under Jeep Grand Cherokee Vehicle info. One customer’s response:

“Awesome app. Step by step instructions. Much easier than flipping through an owner’s manual.”

I’ve already heard some discussion among information-development managers about delivering existing manuals to mobile devices. However, if you think that customers want to thumb through 500 pages of PDF on their phones or iPads, think again. Customers are not looking for traditional books on their mobile devices; they’re looking for apps—products specifically designed for online use.

We can certainly take advantage of the current momentum to move away from books to topics, part of the DITA adoption. We can certainly deliver content to mobile devices in HTML, giving users access to individual topics to answer their questions and help them reach their goals. We can create help systems for mobile devices, something I did for the Compaq Pocket PC back in 2000 by extracting essential content from the same source that we used to create the user guide as well as an interactive tutorial for the Website.

None of these solutions takes full advantage of the app concept. Developing an app requires new technical skills, such as learning the Objective-C programming language. More importantly, however, we need to think about

  • new ways of delivering information that make it accessible, interactive, and compelling
  • including dynamic 3D illustrations that allow a user to take apart a device and put it back together again
  • combining instructions with video that shows what it looks like to solve a real customer problem
  • take advantage of the high-definition screen real estate offered by the iPad and the group of emerging tablet computers
  • facilitate content updating by pushing updates to users through the app update process

In fact, we need to make a concerted effort to dig into our customers’ information needs, rather than simply documenting the product features and functions. We need to ask key questions, such as

  • What are our customers actually trying to accomplish when they use our products?
  • As they develop solutions to their problems, when do they need information and exactly what information do they need?
  • What is the best way to communicate with them at the critical times when information is most valued?
  • How much do they need to know to continue to make progress? How much is too much?
  • When do they want to know more and how can we make the “more information” most accessible?

Questions like these are just a start, but they do require customer contact and regular communication and collaboration. But, it’s possible to get started by working on a new idea (Remember innovation?). Information developers have invested in learning and producing videos without extensive customer surveys. They’ve simply tried it out using homegrown talent and simple implementations and then awaited the feedback. Once the customers weigh in with positive comments, funding and other resources are more likely to become available.

The same is likely to hold true for information delivered to mobile devices, with the iPad the current best seller to the business market. Brainstorm what an iPad app for your product would look like and get started right away developing it. Try out new ideas and invite reaction, both internally and externally.

I hope to find that 2011 will represent a breakthrough in innovative information development, one that will keep our field innovative enough to be protected from downsizing and outsourcing.

Start working on your 2011 New Year’s Resolution: To develop an information app that will take the customers and the industry by storm.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.

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