Michelle Corbin and Jana Jenkins
IBM Corporation

In the past decade, information development teams in companies of all sizes have started to deliver most of their product information as web-based, topic-based information. As printing costs rise for both the companies that produce a particular product and those that use that product, and as users become more comfortable with online information (from searching and reading information on the Internet), this type of information has become a required, and critical, information deliverable. Technologies, such as the XML-based Darwin Information Typing Architecture1 (DITA) and help system display tools such as JavaHelp, HTML Help, and others, were created in recognition of this requirement, to support the authoring, processing, and delivering of topic-based online information.

Although information development teams must embrace and master technologies such as these to satisfy the information requirements of our users, information development teams must not lose sight of the real user requirement: useful, clear, and accurate information that helps users get their jobs done successfully. “Content is king,” or so says the cliché (a Google search unearthed over 22 million hits on that phrase, with Bill Gates’ essay2 from 1996 topping that search list). From web sites, to help systems, to any other topic-based information delivery system, the user really only cares about the content that is provided within that information system. The more information development teams are able to make the technology invisible—and the content visible—the more satisfied our customers will be.

We use the set of guidelines outlined in Developing Quality Technical Information3 to develop focused, concise, and precise topics of information. In making the shift from more traditional linear-based writing to topic-based writing, technical writers have realized that their writing must be even more concise and precise. The crafting of sentences, paragraphs, and topics deserve and require more focus than ever. Each and every word must count because users are searching, skimming, and scanning the online information looking for that one nugget of information they need. Technical writers must continuously focus on the content to ensure that it meets the users’ needs.

For information development teams to realize the added benefit of information reuse, each topic really must stand on its own as a readable, pertinent, relevant, and usable entity. Because each topic must work successfully as an independent form, the writing must ultimately be higher in quality when compared to more traditional linear formats. Technical writers must consider the user first, and everything else second, to be able to achieve these quality goals.

So, how can information development teams deliver on the promise of high-quality topic-based writing? Information development teams, now more than ever, need technical editors to help provide the necessary quality assurance4 processes. Technical editors ensure that templates, guidelines, and style guides are followed to provide consistency and to enhance consumability of those individual topics. Technical editors support and promote the vision of the information architecture—the navigation, the structure, and the content—in a concerted effort to satisfy the users’ goals, support their required tasks, and provide relevant context within the perspective of their work scenarios.

Getting caught up in the minutia of each topic or collection of topics that are in an online information system is a common trap for both technical writers and technical editors. Technical writers must partner with technical editors to step back and look at the total user experience. Technical editors are the first readers of the content, studying the information and editing it all from a user’s point of view. Although they can and sometimes do focus on a smaller collection of topics, editors must always consider those topics within the context of how the users will interact with and use those topics across the bigger information set. From technical edits, to usability edits, to copy edits, to simple policy edits, technical editors consider both the micro and the macro characteristics of the information to ensure a high-quality, integrated, meaningful, and accurate set of topics.

Topic-based writing, and the technologies that support it, provide the promise of reuse and many other panacea for producing high-quality product information more quickly, more cheaply, and more easily. However, with this promise comes the caveat or prerequisite that technical writers must remain focused on the content itself, allowing the technology to enable the development of high-quality content for their users and not just using the new technology for new technology’s sake. To that end, information development teams must employ technical editors to provide the quality assurance, the perspective, and the insight necessary to support and enthusiastically promote the crafting of high-quality content that users require, demand, and deserve.

 

** IBM is a trademark of International Business Machines Corporation in the United States, other countries, or both.

*** Java and all Java-based trademarks are trademarks of Sun Microsystems, Inc. in the United States, other countries, or both.

 

1 For more information about DITA, see this web site: xml.coverpages.org

2 You can read this essay at this web site: www.microsoft.com

3 For more information about this book, see the Prentice Hall web site: vig.prenhall.com

4 To read more about technical editing as quality assurance, consider the article, “Technical Editing as Quality Assurance: Adding Value to Content,” by Corbin, et al, and available at the Society for Technical Communication web site: www.stc.org