Month: October 2012

The Death of Tradition

Job titles are one thing, but what do you actually do? Are you a ‘traditional’ Technical Author or a modern technical communications professional? Is there a difference?

I think there is, I think there is a distinction between the two although I’m not quite sure where that line is drawn and, as with most things in this multi-discipline profession of ours, the line is probably blurry and not all that straight.

For me the line separates what I consider the old and the new, the line between traditional technical writing and the modern day technical communicator, and I think the distinction is largely around the approaches each type of professional take when it comes to managing content.

I realise this may seem a little contentious, and possibly a little divisive (pun intended), so let me explain.

At the recent West of Scotland Area Group meeting, a few of us started discussing this. We all agreed that the traditional notion of what a technical writer (author) does has changed and that the change was driven mostly through technological advances.

For most modern companies, gone are the days of the author, editor, and illustrator producing printed documentation. The rise of the internet has changed the understanding of information and so our job roles (if not our titles) have morphed into what we do today, we write, we draw, we collate, filter, edit and publish information from a wide variety of sources, we care about the user experience of the product, and we push all of that information and knowledge out in many different formats, to different devices in radically shrunken timescales. We write topics, not pages, and publish to online portals, not printed and bound manuals.

From what I can tell, and I’ll admit that I’m not best placed to comment on any of this, I’ve only ever worked in software companies, but chatting to people at conferences and so on it does seem like the more traditional (old-fashioned?) approach of having a team – where the technical author writes the words, the illustrator draws the diagrams and artwork, before their work is combined and sent to an editor before being printed en masse – is slowly shrinking. For me it seems like that approach is typically based around some level of regulation (or litigation) meaning the scope of the content, choice of format, and even the list of final deliverables is impossible to negotiate.

Meanwhile, freed of such constraints, many of us find ourselves free to choose not to document a small change in an obscure and little used part of our product, and able change what we deliver and how we will deliver it.

Is it fair to be so black and white? Is there really a line, a divide, within our profession?

After all, my exposure to other technical communicators is largely through online sources (blogs, twitter, articles) and as those of us in the software industry have a vested interest in understanding these different mediums, it makes some sense that we are the ones making more noise than our counterparts who work in industries that demand paper-based outputs.

I think the disciplines required to work in a regulated industry are starting to differ more and more from those of us who can have input into the scope of what we do (and what we don’t do). There is a risk that future professionals won’t be able to cross that gap, they won’t understand (or want to understand) why they have to have numbered paragraphs, or why every single change must be traceable to the root requirement.

Over time, the more traditional roles, or rather the industries within which they operate, will start to come more towards a more modern view, in fact they already are. Airlines are allowing iPads onto flight decks, more connected systems of documentation and information capture forms are being seen in car production factories, and as further industries invest in modernising their infrastructures, so to must the technical writers.

Reflection

It seems like no time since I was looking forward to the summer. The holiday in Singapore was months away, Pedal for Scotland was a spot in the distance and ohhh yes I was gonna get so much done.

In the past I think I’d now be sitting here saying “Christ, it’s almost November, what have I achieved?!” but these days things are different. Yes I could’ve done more but I’m more focussed on being happy than being productive (even though the two are inextricably linked), on getting the balance right between the stuff I want to do and the stuff I have to do, and generally I find myself calmer, more rational and more aware.

The darker nights bring a different focus, of course, and now is the time to be exploring new hobbies, creating new routines into which I can add a few more notches of self-improvement to my belt.

But there is no rush, no hurry. Not today.

I’ve given out this piece of advice a few times in the past few years, and I realise it’s something I’m more and more keen to make sure is part of my day. It can take mere seconds, but without it the world can seem a horrid and dark place.

So, today, stop and appreciate a moment of beauty. Whether it’s watching the raindrops race down a window, the elegant swoop of a gull on the breeze, or admiring the hazy moon at night there is so much more to life than the constant strive for everything now, faster, better, more.

Step outside all of that for a second, breath deeply and be content in the moment. Today is only today for a short while.

Content Strategy is easy

Why are we still banging on about Content Strategy?

Is it really that hard?

A strategy shouldn’t be that tricky to formulate, especially as it’s concerning an area of expertise for many us, after all it’s only content, right? It’s not like it’s something new that none of us know anything about? So why is it so hard and why do we spend so much time talking about the whys and wherefores and, seemingly, so little time actually doing it?

Content Strategy is an area of our profession I’ve taken an increasing interest in. As the value of information rises, making sure you have a sensible strategy that is concerned about getting the best content required, for the right person in the right situation at the right time, has become increasingly important.

Even before Content Strategy became an entry on conference buzzword bingo sheets, making sure the content you were creating was offering the best ‘bang for the buck’ was something on the minds of all good technical writers. Sure, we could write documentation that would cover every aspect of the product but not only was that very difficult to achieve, leaving aside regulatory requirements, would all of that content be needed and used? Probably not.

Looking further afield, beyond documentation, many companies today are starting to realise that information and knowledge have more value than they realised, and so they are starting to treat content as a commodity. That means, for those of us who spend the majority of their time thinking about, planning, creating, and delivering content, our stock has risen and we have opportunities to do more, gain a stronger position in our organisations and flex our information management muscles!

And so we get to the tricky bit. For many people who don’t spend a lot of time worrying about content, it seems a bit grandiose to have to have a strategy around something that has been taken for granted or, in the worst cases, ignored altogether. Once you mention that having good control over the content being produced, with a view to improving how it is created and delivered, will cost money, suddenly the picture changes.

As companies start to better understand the link between content and the experience their customers have during their interactions with the company and the product they are using, so the need for better content, supporting and driving better user experiences, will rise.

None of this is new, these ideas have been talked about and debated for several years under the guise of Content Strategy, and for far longer than that in terms of ROI of content (and the teams who deliver it).

If you’ve been on the edge of any of these conversations, and wondered how on earth you could get such an initiative in place at your company then good news! Two leading experts in this area, Rahel Baillie and Noz Urbina, have combined their talents to write Content Strategy for Decision Makers.

Interestingly, you can’t buy the book in printed format yet, but you can read it and comment on it on the book website: http://contentstrategyfordecisionmakers.com/

It’s only online for the month of October, so I’d urge you to hurry along! It will be in print soon regardless, and I know it’s already on my wishlist.

What is your job title?

In the past I’ve held the following positions:

  • Technical Administrator
  • Technical Writer
  • Documentation Specialist
  • Technical Communications Manager
  • Publications Team Leader

The first three have similarities as they were all grounded in the production of technical documentation. The latter two are essentially the same thing, leading a team of technical writers producing technical information. None of the job titles I had limited me, by my thinking, in what I could and couldn’t do.

My current job title, as confirmed on my new business cards which handily arrived just AFTER I’d been to TCUK12, is Product Information Manager. I didn’t choose this but, whilst talking through my role and responsibilities recently, I realised it’s pretty accurate.

The team I’m part of does a lot more than write technical documentation. We create many different types of information, mostly recently writing more chatty article style content, and we get involved in all manner of product related discussions. We’ve also driven the creation of a developer community website, and we continue to look for new ways to improve our offering to the product and the company.

As the onus and value of information shifts, largely influenced by the web, it’s been something that we’ve actively pushed. Whilst our work is still mostly based around the production of information (albeit in increasingly different styles and formats) we are also pushing into the area of user experience.

Having to step back to explain my roles and responsibilities was something I don’t do often enough. It’s sometimes easy to forget how far things have changed and improved, and it made me realise that my new job title is more accurate than I’d realised. My team is a product focussed team.

The realisation matters not, however, and we will continue to push to improve, try new things and if those things aren’t of benefit to us we will try others. Above all we try and keep in mind that we are working on a product, and that makes it all the easier for us to have conversations with other parts of the company.

Am I a “Product Information Manager”, not quite yet I don’t think. Whilst my team do offer various types of information about the product, we don’t yet have a hooked up strategy for the entire product, and that’s where content strategy comes to play.

Regardless, it is the first time I’ve really felt like my job description represents what I actually do and, more importantly, that is suggests that there is more to come.

What’s your job title? Is it a good representation of what you do? If you could, what would you change it to?

The single customer view

I just found this sitting in my drafts folder. The company name has changed (we are now Kana Software) but the premise is the same. Interestingly, the parallels between our thoughts on customer service and the thoughts in tech comms of better integration within a support system (providing information as part of call deflection) are striking. I’m going to try and pull these together in a future post.

I was asked to write an article for Credit Control Journal on behalf of the company I work for, and for the sake of historical archiving (and so I know I have it somewhere), here is that article.
Read More

The Five Year Plan

It’s a common question during interviews, “Where do you see yourself five years from now?”.
At that point some people will talk of how they want to have progressed in their career, have learned and expand their role, be able to look back with a sense of achievement and look forward in a clear direction.

The smart people will simply say they don’t know, but that they know that their natural ambition and drive will have moved their careers forward.

I was recently asked the reverse question by an interviewee, “Where do you see the team being in five years time?”.

My response was honest.

“I don’t know”.

And I truly don’t. I know what we have in front of us for the next six months or so, and where our main efforts will be focused in the coming year or two, but beyond that I have no clue.

I do know that we will continue to try and expand the level of services we offer the business (increasing our value), and that our unique knowledge of the product is becoming increasingly useful. I do know that we will continue to improve, and that in the past (almost) 6 years I’ve been with the company we’ve targetted the right thing at the right time. We started by focusing our efforts on the quality of the content we were providing, and currently we are turning more and more towards concerns over the structure and findability of the information. We’ve expanded the type of information we create from task-based content to articles and pre-sales information, and gotten involved in on-screen text and usability issues.

So what does the future hold? Possibly something to do with personalisation of content, definitely further enhancements and development of our taxonomy, and beyond that? I really don’t know. It would be foolhardy to pretend otherwise. I do know that I work with some very smart people and that whatever we do, whatever direction the team takes, it will be the right one for the time.

If pushed, I guess I could answer the question of where the team will be in five years time, I’d say “still trying to making the right decisions at the right time”.

One day I might learn

Like many people, I like to ponder self-improvement, how I will read more books, learn to play the guitar, exercise more and invest in myself more than I have.

However it seems that deep down I’m actually not that bothered, that I must be happy enough with where I am in my life at the moment. I know this because I keep on booking events, planning nights out and trips, and leaving myself with little free time to do much of anything.

OK, this is a bit of an excuse, I’m sure I COULD spend my free time NOT sitting on the sofa but rest is important too, right?

This is a bit of theme with me, all of a sudden I’ll realise I’m massively busy and overcommitted, that doesn’t seem to change but my attitude towards it certainly has. What I am finding, as I mentioned before, is that I’m putting more and more onus on how I spend my free time, making sure I get the most value from it, regardless of what it is I’m doing.

Looking ahead at my calendar for the next few months has me:
– in Birmingham this coming weekend
– in London at the end of November
– in Manchester at the start of December
– attending two comedy shows; Scott Capuro and Ada Vidal
– attending five gigs; Coheed and Cambria, Band of Horses, Band of Skulls, Simian Mobile Disco and Elbow – and it would’ve been six (Grizzly Bear and The Villagers) but we double booked the trip to Birmingham
– attending two ISTC events (one is in London, hence the trip)
– attending a few (five) other events

And that takes us to the second week in December.

Still, I’m managing to fit in a weekly game of basketball, work on the ISTC website, and so far I’ve managed to do a little more writing than I’ve managed all year so it’s not that I’m not getting things done!

Importantly I do feel like my work/life balance (and my life/love balance) is back on track, I’m enjoying being me!