Ena Arel, Ayantek

What’s the best way to train Content Developers to add value to your organization? Answering this question with your business goals in mind will impact how you hire your Content Developers, how you define their success, and how you communicate their value within your organization.

Many organizations have adopted DITA with varied results in content quality—probably because the structure alone cannot teach one how to select the words and phrases that populate the structure.

Many organizations say “Our content is too technical” or “Our content is special” and, therefore, “it’s hard to hire good Content Developers.” However, I firmly believe that effective Content Development is not about domain expertise. It’s about building a sturdy bridge between the user’s needs and the Subject Matter Experts’ knowledge. I do not believe that Content Developers must have PhDs in the area for which they develop content, but they do need access to Subject Matter Experts and learn toconverse with them.

I’ve been playing with the concept of an “immersion” technique specifically designed for training Content Developers and for training the organization at large to work with (and value) Content Developers.

I got the idea from the Dynamic Immersion Method used by Rosetta Stone software to teach foreign languages. Rosetta Stone’s method “activates your own natural language-learning ability.” This method also “eliminates translation and grammar explanations,” which are considered unnecessary middlemen between a concept and your ability to internalize, recognize, and express that concept.

Content Development vs. Foreign Languages—What’s the Connection?

You may ask, “What is the connection between learning how to develop technical content for a specific business and how to speak another language?” One natural connection I see is communication. Instead of learning a foreign language, you are learning how to express your company’s intellectual property in a way that makes your content’s users more proficient.

Another connection is the limited effectiveness of standard classroom training techniques that “tell” you how to be fluent in a language or to develop technical content, with some interspersed interactive exercises to get you to apply what you have learned.

Immersion Technique for Technical Content Developers

What is the immersion technique for training Content Developers? Here is where I diverge from Rosetta Stone. “Immersion” must make sense for Content Developers and their organization’s business objectives.

Content Developers should be completely immersed in the following aspects of developing useful content:

  • The software or hardware user’s mindset while using your company’s product, including likely pitfalls and points of frustration
  • Your organization’s mindset in providing the software and/or hardware solution, including likely blind spots in meeting a user’s needs
  • Content communication patterns that work, with first-hand experience of why they work
  • Content communication patterns that don’t work, with first-hand experience of why they don’t work
  • Real interactions with Subject Matter Experts, including how to set expectations for getting input to develop useful content and get the content reviewed
  • Practical experience in rapidly iterating on developing content and getting the content reviewed by a mentor who has mastered this Content Development method of training

How Long Will It Take to Train Content Developers in This Way?

Immersion will require some trial and error. However, my guess is about 10-15 working days are required, at the end of which a Content-Developer-in-Training will have produced some useful content.

What Must the Organization Do to Prepare for an Immersion Training Program?

First, the organization’s Information Architect (IA) and UX specialists create a set of experiences for the trainee to stimulate the Content Developer’s learning curve.

Further, the organization leadership help the IA and UX specialists capture the organization’s mindset in providing their software and hardware solutions (including known blind spots in usability), which will be converted into a set of immersion experiences for the trainees.

Next, the IA and the UX specialists (with the users’ help) develop exemplars of effective and ineffective content communication patterns to which the trainees must react.

Finally, the organization develops and provides mentors to the trainees who can work with the trainees intensively over several days.

How Is This Immersion Proposal Different From Any Other Intensive Training?

It has been playfully said that the “devil is in the details.” Picture the immersion experience as on-the-job learning, rather than in-classroom learning while on the job. Developing the interventions that support the trainees is no small task. These interventions must stimulate responses powerful enough to build new awareness of user and organization needs and to uproot misconceptions! Finally, the interventions must be customized to the specific organization.

I’ll end with a short story about the Mind-On-Physics project at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), which I learned about while working on a dissertation in Physics Education Research. I also had the pleasure of teaching the physics course to Honors Physics High School students. The program works on the basic premise that making someone aware of how they think the world works and then showing themhow it really works permanently challenges and dismantles previous misconceptions. I envision the Immersion program for Content Developers to aim for the same effect in shifting paradigms.