bookmark_borderThoughts on HATT Survey thoughts

Tom Johnson has had a look at the survey recently published by the HATT matrix website on help authoring and, by pulling in the results of some other surveys in the same area, has extrapolated some good conclusions from them.

He rightly points out that surveys need to be taken with a pinch of salt (he goes into the detail of why this is so), and that whilst the numbers involved would seem to be high enough it’s likely that the questions themselves need further consideration in future.

That said, there are two things I took from his post.

1. Know the problem before picking the tool
You may not be in the position to switch authoring tools, but if you are and you have investigated the market then please make sure that you are buying a tool that addresses the problems you have.

The presumption here is that if you have a legacy tool (like we currently do, FrameMaker 7.1) and it still works and meets your requirements then there is no good reason to upgrade. I’ve been victim of buying into the ‘keeping up’ frenzy that software manufacturers like to generate but once a product is reasonably mature it is likely it has most of the features you need already.

I’d offer Microsoft Word as an example here, I could probably still use Word 2.0 for the few documents I maintain in that format as the newer versions add functionality I don’t need (and which has ended up intruding on my workflow at times!).

The X-Pubs conference a couple of years ago had a common, if not publicised theme. Almost all of the presentations included the advice to figure out what problems you had, before deciding IF single sourcing (using XML as the base format) will help and that’s even before you consider the tools themselves.

2. DITA is still a theory
Whilst it is true that the number of people leveraging DITA for their content is rising, the numbers remain low.

Partly that will be due to the fact that few organisations/teams/people are in a position to quickly switch just because a new technology has come along, but and I’ve said this before (in fact I’ve said that I’ve said this before!) rollout of DITA remains harder than rolling out a bespoke authoring tool.

When costing an implementation of a new tool there are various factors and it’s very easy to see that you can get MadCap Flare up and running quickly, where as a DITA based solution takes investment in developing the environment. This is beginning to change but, as yet, the phrase ‘DITA support’ really only means that you can output to a DITA formatted XML file. The tools aren’t constructed around the DITA concepts, so you immediately lose a lot of the benefits that DITA can bring.

Until there is a tool that fully leverages DITA, building it into the workflow of using the tool, and helping the concepts become part of your daily working practice then it will continue to be a marginal player.

Which, in a way, is how it should be. DITA is not a tool, it is a technology and methodology. It is there to support the toolset and the writer. It’s just a shame that tool vendors continue to believe that THEIR format is best, refusing to budge from that position and shoe-horning ‘DITA-esque’ features into their software.

Anyway, the rest of the survey write up is interesting and worth a read but, as Tom says:

“I do love these surveys, though; if for no other reason than they give us something to talk about”

bookmark_borderExplosions: keeping ahead of the blast

Is it just me, or are we seeing a notable growth in the tools and voices linked to our profession? Are we, the technical communicators (writers, authors, designers, whatever..) finally clued in to the internet and making the best use of the global space? Are the tools we use starting to touch other areas of our organisations, thus raising our profile, which raises the bar for the tools, which expands the reach, which raises the profile…

It’s just me, isn’t it?

I’ll happily admit that, a couple of years ago, I was growing apathetic with this industry. I dreamt of working in a zoo, tending to cute fluffy animals and having nary a worry in the world (and likely not enough money to pay the bills). Since starting a new job in January this year I’ve rediscovered my vigour and enthusiasm, and that seems to have been matched by the tool vendors. I would also try and lay claim to the growth in technical communications focussed blogs and websites but that’s a little generous of me I fear.

FrameMaker has launched a new version and a new suite, AuthorIT has launched a new version, MadCap blazed onto the scene (geddit) and ruffled some feathers, and the XML focussed single source arena seems far more active than it was. Now, I’m happy to admit that it may just be that I happen to be more aware of what is going on, but the coincidences are a little too high to ignore.*

Of course what this really means is that, at some point in the near(ish) future, people are going to start to select a tool. The XML guys are reasonably future proofed in that respect for, as they all share a common file format/standard, the choice of tool isn’t the locked in choice it once was. In a way, AuthorIT is in the same boat as they can roundtrip through XML, even though they store their information natively in a database.

But our dear old FrameMaker, despite the new version and a seemingly re-invigorated development team, now sits as the odd one out. When I heard that Adobe had launched a Technical Communications Suite I presumed, instantly, that it would mean “instant single sourcing”. Possibly a simple CMS backend, from which you could pluck topics and edit them in FrameMaker or RoboHelp. At the very least a proper roundtrip between those two tools and, as we now know, we don’t get any of that. In fact Adobe have introduced even tighter coupling between their two applications and I’m still trying to figure out if that is a genius move, or a final throw of the dice.

Regardless of which tool you choose, or which blogs you read, this profession is growing. Links are being established between other groups, and as software continues to increase in complexity the understanding of the need for good documentation is continuing to rise. I’m certainly spending less time explaining both what I do, and why it is needed and that can’t be anything but a good thing.

The ability to self-publish has created millions of “writers”, and an astonishing change to the way people view the written word, in a very short time. Some of those people write about technical issues, indulging themselves by sharing their hobbyist knowledge and, as such, they are both the subject matter experts and the technical writer of their niche.

As a profession, our ability to collate, filter, sort, and organise information, tailoring it for the right audience, providing that information at the right time, in the right place, will be the key differentiator. The playing field is levelling out, but we have some tricks up our sleeve yet.

* I’m deliberately ignoring the HATT arena, if you have any insights there I’d love to hear them.