Lyndsey Lynch, GE Healthcare
I was thrilled that my hometown, Seattle, hosted this year’s Content Management Strategies/DITA North America conference, April 28-30. Aside from a few relaxed moments enjoying the unseasonably warm weather, conference attendees kept very busy, with 19 sessions in four subject area tracks, plus a keynote, vendor showcase, and organized lunch discussion topics. The sessions I attended revolved around some key themes: customer engagement, collaboration, flexible content, and automation, all underpinned by DITA and soon a new ISO standard for content management.
Customer Engagement and Collaboration: No Longer Optional
Chris Malone, the keynote speaker, drew us in with stories of digital technology facilitating human connections with businesses that might otherwise be “faceless monoliths.” Malone, the Founder and Managing Partner of Fidelum Partners and author of The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products & Companies, described the shift he sees happening in business: away from interactions with impersonal organizations and toward something more akin to the face-to-face relationships of an earlier era. But in today’s environment, actions that a company (or an individual within that company) takes are broadcast globally within hours or even minutes. Chris encouraged us to seek opportunities to hear from our customers, to respond to them and earn their trust by demonstrating our willingness to put their interests first.
Other sessions echoed the same theme and described ways that writer teams had reached beyond their borders. Ben Whitesell, senior designer and social media content strategist for UPS Airlines, spoke about harnessing Twitter to encourage customer interaction and feedback. UPS Airlines examined their current Twitter following—aviation enthusiasts—and developed content to interest and increase that audience. Much of the content was visual: As Whitesell pointed out, tweets with inline images have a much higher rate of engagement and are much likelier to be retweeted. But the ultimate measure of success was the response of followers, measured in Twitter’s @mentions and @replies. As the audience grew, a conversation emerged. UPS Airlines can continue to develop and leverage this conversation with their increasingly loyal followers.
Many more conference sessions focused on collaboration between internal groups, for the ultimate benefit of customers. One such cooperative effort involves technical communication and the learning and training organization. Dawn Stevens, Senior Consultant at Comtech Services, made the bold statement that enabling this partnership through DITA could save a company as much or more than using DITA to optimize translations. So why hasn’t it happened yet? As many of us have experienced, organizational barriers are great: Different products, skill sets, media, timelines, processes, and tools all stand in the way. Stevens, who has experience in both tech comm and training, noted that rapid changes in technology have increased training organizations’ focus on “Performance Support”, the continued delivery of information to learners after they complete a class. With ever-burgeoning amounts of data available 24/7, learners are now more apt to retain information about how or where to find content than the content itself. Now more than ever, it is in the best interest of both tech comm and training to provide information that is consistent and easily accessible. Partnering also allows each group to leverage the skill sets of the other; for example, training is typically experienced with customer contact and “real-life” examples and scenarios, while tech comm often has a strong relationship with subject matter experts and sharp editorial skills. Stevens recommended that both groups share an information model and tool set, and that they should work together to establish a comprehensive support plan, communication plan, ownership agreements, templates, and processes. Finally, she shared many specific recommendations for leveraging DITA to benefit both tech comm and training. As a leader in a large business with robust tech comm and training functions, I am especially excited about unlocking the synergies in this area.
Content Needs to be Flexible
With so much emphasis on customer engagement and collaboration, it was no surprise that many of the sessions focused on flexible content that supports multiple delivery formats. Information architects Marie Girard and Isabelle Murru of IBM and principal content strategist Mysti Berry of Salesforce.com shared how they re-architected their content to better serve the user. At IBM, the team decided to deliver the type of content most likely to be used in a given environment. Calling their strategy “progressive information disclosure,” IBM’s information architects began with minimal, “on the spot” information delivered in the software user interface, and then added increasingly contextual and conceptual content “on demand”. Girard and Murru described how they built their solution using the context-sensitive help DITA specialization, and how they single-sourced the various output types with separate transforms. While the IBM information developers gained “ownership, quality, agility, and flexibility” from this approach, the end user gained “the right information, at the right time, in the right place, in the right language.” In other words, as Girard and Murru remarked, “We don’t spam the user with content they don’t need.”
Salesforce.com recognized a need to redesign content to improve reuse, in order to support a growing number of delivery platforms and devices. As Berry put it, “We can no longer afford to create content one device at a time.” She described the key requirements to support flexible outputs (an ability she called “API-ification”): Predictable structure within topics; well-defined taxonomy, subject scheme, and metadata; and “Magic API elves”—technical support for generating the various outputs. Content that lacks structure or appropriate metadata will be difficult to reuse. At Salesforce.com, inline links were identified as a reuse roadblock, and Berry explained how her team removed 4300 links (46 percent of the total number) from 4000 help topics. They replaced them with better alternatives, pointing readers to the right place in the UI, using conrefs instead of links to the content, and in some cases re-architecting the help topics to avoid the problem altogether. Berry emphasized that customer feedback fueled their efforts, describing it as “Step Zero.” But mobility is not just for our customers: Several of the tool vendors in attendance demonstrated their mobile apps, to support the development and review of content by teams who rely on mobile devices to stay connected.
Automation Adds Value
A number of presenters shared the innovative ways they had leveraged DITA to automate content development processes. Roger Fienhold Sheen demonstrated several options for automated documentation builds, using the principles and techniques of continuous integration (CI), a software development practice that requires developers to check code into a shared repository from which builds are generated automatically. “Why automate? Why use XML if you don’t?” Sheen quipped, following up with some of the advantages of this approach: more time for writers to write, new content available to stakeholders for immediate verification, faster time-to-market (even final drafts can be published instantly), opportunity for authors to discover mistakes early, improved quality (poor code cannot be checked in), and documentation synchronization with the software lifecycle. Alternatives for implementing automated builds vary depending on the environment; they can be as simple as a build run nightly using Windows Task Scheduler, or far more complex, using dedicated servers and services.
In a similar vein, Casey Jordan of easyDITA presented his team’s efforts to adopt another software development practice: automated verification. Automated testing tools can run test scripts generated from DITA task topics. This approach is ideal for web services APIs and command line interfaces. Like automated builds, automated testing allows issues to be caught early and improves the overall quality of the documentation. It requires text (rather than images or video alone—making the documentation more accessible), a consistent voice, and adherence to DITA structure. Jordan demonstrated the effectiveness of this “documentation-driven” testing when he related how he’d tested one of his demos that morning (a procedure for ordering a pizza on Dominos.com) and discovered that the UI had changed slightly, resulting in a failed test—and a need to update the documentation. Taken together with automated builds, the opportunity to routinely, automatically check for and catch those changes that all too often “fall through the cracks” was attractive.
Standards Lay the Foundation: ISO 26531
The DITA standard provides conceptual consistency in topics, a solid foundation for customer engagement and collaborative work. It also supplies the technical underpinnings for flexible content and automation. Yet when it comes to implementing the standard in a content management environment, we still see a great deal of (unnecessary) variation. So I was pleased to hear about the draft ISO standard 26531 for content management, which JoAnn Hackos and Casey Jordan presented at the conference. They co-authored the standard along with Bob Boiko of the University of Washington. Focused on XML rather than DITA, the standard’s goal is to define a content management process and requirements for an effective component content management system (CCMS). The process recommendations cover the early stages of business planning and requirements gathering, all the way through migration, workflow, publication, and localization. In addition to CCMS requirements such as support for single sourcing and topic reuse, Hackos and Jordan especially emphasized requirements that support interoperability to integrate the CCMS and its content with different systems and outputs. I look forward to the publication of the final standard later this year.
I left the conference refreshed and refocused on my team’s efforts to engage customers, collaborate more effectively, and leverage our CCMS to produce flexible content and automate publishing processes. September’s CIDM Best Practices conference will be held in Stevenson, Washington (near Portland, Oregon). Hope to see you there!