JoAnn Hackos, PhD, Comtech Services, Inc.
In March and early April, 493 people responded to our latest CIDM survey of publishing practices and information management techniques. We want to thank everyone who contributed to a superb level of response.
Our goal was to learn if you and your organizations have made changes in the way you are publishing content, especially to the web. The last time we ran a similar survey, few of you were publishing to the web. Instead, nearly all of you were publishing PDFs of your printed manuals. Well, times have changed, at least a bit. However, less progress has been made toward flexible, web-based delivery than I would have expected in 2008. Perhaps that is the consequence of having so many publications groups understaffed and pressed for time and resources. Little time seems available for innovation.
The demographics of the 493 people held few surprises:
Among the 14% with other titles, we heard from usability consultants, translation and localization coordinators, illustrators, instructors, tools specialists, and even a few product developers.
Content on the web
A full 98% of you are making content available through one or more web sites to your external customers. 95% are making content available to internal customers. Surprisingly, most of you have some password-protected content in both instances, 81% protect some external customer content and 80% protect some internal content.
Nearly everyone supports the major browser, Internet Explorer, with 48% supporting Firefox and 25% supporting Netscape. Other browsers are supported with declining percentages.
Print versus web content
Probably the greatest surprise for me was the shift to web content from print content. Fully 86% of the respondents explained that web content is not identical to print content. Sixty-two percent said that additional content is available on the web although some content is still printed. Twenty-six percent have all content available on the web with no content printed. Only 6% of respondents report that all content is both printed and available on the web. Another 5% print all content but make some available on the web.
Web content administration
We wanted to learn who is responsible in your organizations for planning, contributing, and managing web content.
Responsibility clearly varies:
Of other responses, the most frequent areas of responsibility for web content lay with the support and services organization (58) and with a wide variety of departments (26).
Although technical publications produces content, the look and feel of the website is often in the hands of marketing (50%) or webmasters (40%), continuing an earlier finding that technical publications organizations often cannot control how technical content is delivered on the website. Only 26% of the respondents indicated that technical publications was itself responsible for the look and feel of web content.
Most sites are administered through the IT organization (49%) or the webmasters (40%), with only 25% of technical publications respondents indicating responsibility for website management.
We also learned that content is updated, in most cases, “as needed” (56%), with only 20% reporting daily updates and a combined 11% reporting weekly or monthly updates.
Still doing PDF
Now here is the discouraging news – particularly in light of the continuing interest in topic-oriented authoring. PDFs of technical manuals are provided by 85% of the respondents, with only 39% reporting that they make the technical manual content available as web pages. However, 38% do provide e-learning or other tutorial content through the web. I’m still looking forward to a move away from PDFs and toward more flexible and easily consumable content. Forty-four percent of respondents reported the PDF as their most used method for making content available and 31% reported PDF to be their second most used method. Only 27% reported web pages as their most used method of providing information, with another 27% as a second choice.
Respondents did provide a long list of other content made available through the web, including white papers, release notes, presentation slides, help files, code samples, case studies, and datasheets.
We looked deeper at the publishing methods of those respondents who deliver a physical product rather than software. Of these 66% provide a PDF on a CD-ROM, while 52% deliver at least some printed content. We then asked what content is being provided in print:
|Content||Number of respondents||Percentage|
|Parts removal and replacement instructions||77||22%|
Other information included as print copy with physical products include Read Me files, quick reference and getting started guides, release notes, pre-installation checklists, registration information, system overviews, and many other types. One interesting response noted that the content depended on the regulatory environment of the target country.
Wikis and blogs
Few reported sponsoring wikis and blogs, at least not under the watchful eyes of technical publications professionals. While 52% use wikis and 19% use blogs to make content available to internal users, only 9% use wikis and 13% use blogs to make content available to external customers. Only 8% solicit content from external customers through wikis. Interestingly, 36% use wikis to solicit content from internal providers of information. CIDM members have reported using internal wikis as a first stage of experimentation in soliciting content of information providers. If the process proves helpful internally, they hope to try it for external content development.
Perhaps because of the ubiquitous PDF publications, the major search mechanism remains “full text search,” despite the fact that full text search returns the most irrelevant content of all search tools. Only 12% of respondents include a natural language search capability, 38% include an index, and 32% rely on at least some metadata to support findability of the most relevant content.
Finally, we asked about translation of technical content, an area that often leads organizations into single sourcing, minimalism, and content and translation management. We found that 41% of the respondents translate all of their technical manual content. However, 31% of the respondents do not translate at all. Of the language count, we learned the following
|Number of languages||Percentage translating|
Many reported that they had translated only some of the content, including some sections of the technical manuals, the online help, the user interface, or the training materials. Some translations are handled by distributors rather than the publications department. Probably most unusual were the reports of people who did not know if the manuals were translated.
Web content is also not always supported in multiple language. Forty-six percent reported that the web content is delivered in more than one language; 54% said it was not.
I hope that our field can learn to move in new and innovative directions in providing content to customers. Certainly, some customers do prefer a manual in the box. But, how many customers prefer a manual on a CD or on the web with no alternative but to find an entire book? From our customer studies, we find that many people would like the option of finding just the topics they need, especially if those topics are standalone. With the topic-oriented approach of the DITA standard, that capability is more easy to achieve than ever before. We need to take advantage of the capabilities of the web to deliver more searchable, findable, and usable content.