*** This article also appears in the STC-Central Iowa Newsletter. ***

JoAnn Hackos, PhD, Comtech Services, Inc.

We’ve been told to do “more with less” for at least 15 years now. One would think that the message was getting old. But, no. The same message remains at the center of technical information development today, with increasing emphasis on moving work to lower cost economies.

The difference in 2008 and looking forward is a technology change akin to the change in the mid-1980s brought about by desktop publishing. Our technology change today moves us away from the tyranny of the page to the management of structured content in databases. Preparing database content is strikingly different from preparing printed books. It is also significantly different from developing help systems. Database publishing provides us with the opportunity to publish future content in ways that go beyond our current methods without knowing exactly what those future methods may look like.

Many publications organizations, whether they’re producing technical manuals for products or technical content for website consumption, still think about their processes from a print-centric point of view. Writers develop chapters and sections with complex hierarchical structures that result in multiple content levels. They combine chapters and sections into book structures and use output mechanisms that preserve the linearity of the book. They assume that people will read from the beginning to the end.

None of these practices and assumptions account for the profound differences in how people take in technical content today. The primary vehicle for technical information is no longer the book or even the PDF. The primary vehicle is the topic—one standalone and self-consistent chunk of information delivered on a web page or a cell phone screen. The topic, while self-consistent and self-contained, comes with links to other bits of content that readers may decide to consume if they meet their immediate needs.

We learn, for example, that many consumers of technical content access it through search engines like Google and Yahoo. They seek access to specifics rather than tomes. They don’t want to download huge files when they can get only what they need at the moment. They frequent listservs, blogs, and wikis, looking for solutions to specific questions from experienced colleagues rather than selecting potentially out-of-date and product-centered information on company websites.

Not only are the delivery methods changing. Our methods of planning and developing technical content must also change to accommodate trends in topic-based authoring, continuous publishing, and just-in-time delivery. So—we encounter examples of technical publishers that are designing and developing

  • database-stored content that can be mixed and matched in new ways to respond to customer needs
  • information that is updated continuously as it changes and as writers respond to customer queries and problems
  • content that is developed only after users indicate that they expressly require that content to do their jobs or solve their problems
  • content that can be translated quickly in topics so that worldwide consumers are better served

Indeed, then, less continues to be more. Except that we have redefined the “less” to ensure that we devote our scarce and scarcer resources only to the technical information that is truly useful to our consumers. We are beginning to understand, or at least I hope we are, that our information is only useful when it is used.