At TCUK12 this year, I chatted with several people about authoring tools. Vendors, other technical writers, managers, I asked the same two questions, again and again.
What authoring application do you use, and why do you use it?
The answers were illuminating, interesting and always useful. There are many, many options out there, catering to many different needs, and all of them have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Alas, no matter how hard I tried, regardless of how many ways I tried to bend our requirements, all of those conversations led me to the same conclusion.
No-one out there builds what we want so we may have to build it ourselves.
As part of improvements to our content, one of my team has led the charge to restructure our information. She has a passion for information architecture and devised a three pronged approach to our content. You can either navigate in by role, by product area or… by something else we haven’t yet decided upon.
We’ve audited the topics we have and applied some simple structuring decisions and it is looking good so far. The problem we will soon have is that we will need to build this new structure and make it usable by our customers.
What we would like is to be able to tag our topics, and use those tags to present a default structure to our information. The tags would also allow users to filter the topics they see and, either by addition or subtraction, create a unique set of information for their needs. Ultimately this would lead to personalisation of content in a basic form, but that could easily be enhanced to provide a smarter take on content for each user.
Alas it seems that, without doing a lot of customising of an XML (most likely DITA) based system we won’t get near that and even the products that get close require a compromise somewhere. Most of the time it would be, for the team of writers, a step back to a less friendly interface, and more exposure to the underlying technology of the tool they are using. At present Author-it provides a simple authoring environment that allows the writers to concentrate on writing content.
But perhaps that is the point. Maybe it’s time to try a different set of tools, adopt new working practices, take on a the bigger challenge.