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So Long, Farewell!

Hello, fellow communicators!

For my final paper, I covered various best practices for content management. My abstract is as follows:

Content management is a sophisticated process comprised of various components. Such components include writing/editing, image implementation, page analytics, user feedback, and information sharing (Rdymek). Accordingly, an organized system must be implemented for creating and maintaining content through consistent action. This type of system is referred to as a content management strategy.

Within an organization, ideally, content management is handled by a multi-person team. However, for the purposes of this paper, we will explore content management as handled by an individual content manager.

It has been an absolute pleasure working with and getting to know each and every one of you throughout this semester. I truly enjoyed this course, through which I’ve gained and developed knowledge and skills that will suit me throughout my career in communications.

Please feel free to stay in touch via social media:

Facebook: facebook.com/delwij74

Twitter: @TheBarrelMan

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/jeffreyjdelwiche

Google+: plus.google.com/+JeffreyJDelwiche

Email: jdelwiche12@alumni.uwosh.edu

Please note that I am always happy to write LinkedIn recommendations for my fellow classmates. For those unfamiliar with the process, a LinkedIn recommendation can be displayed on your LinkedIn page for current/prospective employers to see. Please let me know if you would like me to write a LinkedIn recommendation for you.

Best fishes!

Best Fishes

Sincerely,

Jeffrey J. Delwiche

Content Management: Simply Complicated

I enjoyed this week’s assigned readings from Rachel Spilka’s “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication”, which I found to be quite thought-provoking. However, between the three chapters, I was most intrigued by Chapter 5, William Hart-Davidson’s “Content Management: Beyond Single-Sourcing”.

Hart-Davidson defines “content management” as “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (p. 130). While this basic definition accurately summarizes my general understanding of content management, I appreciate how Hart-Davidson thoroughly explores the process while detailing its evolution.

Content Management 2

Image courtesy of Das Tor News

As Hart-Davidson explains, a Content Manager has many responsibilities, making him/her an integral cog within an organization. However, before a Content Manager can take on such responsibilities, a content strategy must first be devised and implemented, preferably by the Content Manager AND his/her colleagues. If this crucial first step is skipped, the content will not maintain consistency with regard to format/style, organization, or placement. Sure, the organization’s decision-makers may provide free rein to the Content Manager, allowing him/her to make executive decisions with regard to content. However, I have firsthand professional experience that suggests this could greatly backfire.

Just over two years ago, I was hired as a Content Editor for a reputable pipe & supply company on the south side of Chicago. Though a Content Editor is not the same as a Content Manager, the former belongs under the proverbial umbrella of the latter, with the two sharing several of the same responsibilities. In my role as Content Editor, I was responsible for creating and maintaining product descriptions/navigation for this company’s new eCommerce website. However, having not previously worked in the supply chain industry, I blindly stumbled into this role without a clear blueprint in place.

Regardless, having received minimal direction, I did the best I could in this role, having surprised myself and others with how well things turned out. However, despite some positive feedback from my colleagues, there were several others who were displeased with my product layout. Accordingly, this layout was reworked several times over by me and others as we aimed to create something that everyone would be satisfied with. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly), this did not happen.

I have to imagine that no work-related project will ever appease all employees within an organization, regardless of how much time and effort goes into it. However, I firmly believe that, had my colleagues and I worked to establish a blueprint that (most of us) agreed on, this product layout would have required far fewer redos thereafter. In other words, had we actually executed the first step, the subsequent steps would have been far smoother.

Content Management 1

Image courtesy of GetRedtie

In summation of Chapter 5, my general takeaway is that the larger an organization is, the greater the amount of pressure on the organization’s Content Manager. While this may seem like common sense, I do think such an individual’s performance could “make or break” an organization’s, productivity, workflow, results, and bottom line.

Technical Communication is Multifaceted

Ever since I joined the MSTPC program, I have noticed a repeated theme throughout technical and professional communication literature. Technical communication often doesn’t seem to know what it is, what it does, or why it matters. I have read many research papers that seem insecure about the profession and try to pinpoint what technical communication is and who it is for. Notable technical writers like Tom Johnson have even tackled this issue in posts like “Why is there a divide between academics and practitioners and tech comm?”. In my Theory and Research class, I wrote my final essay about why researchers seem to explore the identity of the technical writer more so than other professions. I understand all professions do research about about their own field, but technical communication is one of the first fields I’ve run into that seems unsure of itself. 

I saw some of these themes of identity in Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.” However, these authors seemed more sure about what technical communicators do and seem to be okay with the fact that technical writers are a diverse bunch with a wide skill set. They focus less on “What is a technical writer?” and instead, “What does a technical communicator do?” I particularly enjoyed and agreed with this quote from the piece, “In other words it is not enough in a Web 2.0 world to ONLY write effectively, you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.” Blythe, Lauer, and Curran explore these many skillsets and tools throughout the paper and it inspired me to create my own list of common writing tasks and tools I use in my day-to-day job as a technical content writer: 

Most often used types of writing Most often Used Tools
1. White Papers 1. Google Drive (Doc, Excel, Slides)
2. Case Studies 2. Sketch
3. Blog / Syndicated Content 3. Slack / Email
4. Website / Landing Pages 4. UX Research tools like Ethnio
5. Blog / Syndicated Content 5. HubSpot
6. Press Releases 6. Asana
7. Advertising 7. WordPress
8. Strategy / Planning / Internal Sales documents 8. Survey Tools


Most Often Used Types of Writing

I decided to create two different list of my writing tasks / tools to show the multifacetedness of technical writing. For instance, many of my “most often used types of writing” involves doing more than just writing (especially the higher ranked types). To create a strong white paper or webpage requires knowing design skills, information management, and UX expertise. Sometimes, I spend more time designing white papers and case studies with design tools than I do actually writing. This often makes me feel more like a visual designer than a technical writer, but I would argue that you would need to know skills from both trades to make a compelling document that is exciting to read. 

A case study I created for work

Case Study Design

I created this document above to explain how Jacuzzi is using my company’s platform to create a connected hot tub. One of the biggest challenges with case studies is they offer a lot of information and most clients don’t have time to read them. As such, I believe it is important to create a document that would excite clients and can be read quickly. For this case study, I create a document that is easily scannable with data visualization and short paragraphs, while adding visual interests with color contrasts and visuals. I had to use design tools like Sketch to make visuals that draw the reader’s attention and use information management skills to organize the information in a way that is compelling. 

The Importance of Tools

In “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making,” Longo discusses how technical communicators must become masters of ICT technologies. I would add to that and say that technical communicators must master more than ICT tools nowadays, but also must become a master of design, information management, task management tools, and more. The number of tools required to be a become a proficient technical communicator is only increasing too. However, while mastering all of these tools is helpful and certainly increase career opportunities, I wouldn’t say a technical communicator must be an expert at all of them.

The Bottom Line

As a marketing technical writer, it makes sense why I see visuals and design tools as such an important element of being a technical communicator. However, a technical communicator who focuses on creating internal documentation may not need to know the same number of design tools as I do. They may prioritize other skillsets and tools that I may not even know about. And that’s the benefit of being a technical writer – there is so many different routes and paths to specialize in. These wide range of skillsets and purposes make it hard to define what a technical communicator is, but it is certainly not a weakness. It’s something we should celebrate more. 

My blogging experiences and motivations

The article, “Why we blog” discusses people’s motivations for writing blogs, which got me thinking about my motivations. I have a couple of experiences writing for blogs and I have learned different lessons (about myself and writing) from each of them.

The Tech Ladder – Blogs as muse

Occasionally, I write original tech content for my own website, the Tech Ladder. When I first started this website, I used it as a place to practice writing articles that focused on trending tech content. I practiced because I had tons of experience writing academic essays, but hardly any experiences publishing my own articles.

From this experience, I quickly learned blog writing was drastically different than academic writing – the purpose and style of writing serves different means. I learned that readers didn’t want to read long blog posts, they wanted something quick that educated them. I could use bullet points and needed to find images to make my writing compelling. I learned how to make the visual structure of articles (headlines, headers, and paragraph length) visually compelling so readers would stop to read certain sections. I no longer had a professor who was going to read it no matter what I wrote or said – it was my job to make it interesting and compelling for all sorts of readers.

My main motivation from this blogging experience was to become a better writer. In that sense, I used blogging as a means to educate myself on how to write on the Internet. While this doesn’t seem like an incredibly vulnerable act, it kind of was. Writing my first blog post on this website was slightly nerve-wracking and exhilarating as the same time. While the article wasn’t about me, (and I don’t think I’ll ever be the type of person who blogs about my personal experiences because I just don’t find this type of posts enjoyable/cathartic), it was about me becoming a stronger and more proficient writer (which can be a vulnerable act). I learned that I enjoyed article writing and took my tech content to other websites, which helped spark my career into technical writing.

Blogging for school – Blog as a community forum

The article “why we blog” discusses using blogs as community forums and comes to the consensus that they are not that effective for creating meaningful communities. I believe this is true and not true – it depends upon the needs and goals of the community.

I once created a community blog for an undergraduate class that was particularly difficult. Other classmates joined the blog because they also knew the professor was no easy grader and they were going to need all the help they could get. While we worked together to share study guides and such forth, there was definitely a group of classmates who contributed more to others. Regardless, there was some engagement. Classmates actively posted questions about homework, and sometimes used it as a place to vent their frustrations about the difficulty of the class. At the end of the course, many shared their final grade they got back, whether it was good or bad. I was surprised by how some were so willing to share their personal thoughts about their grades and other experiences in the course.

Afterwards, one classmate created a new blog for us to continue communications with each other even as we parted ways. This blog was not successful, mainly because the need for a community was no longer there. Before, we used the class blog because we felt we needed it to pass the class. Now that the need was gone, there was no reason to use this website or visit it to see what was new. This showed me in order to create a community, you need to have common need or goal in order for it to stay alive.

Particle Blog – Blogs as commentary

I currently publish tech content on my company’s blog. We mainly use this as a place to inform our engaged audience about trends in our industry, and product-related posts. Our main motivation is to provide commentary on our piece of the tech space and show that we are thought leaders in the industry. Writing for a company has taught me the challenges of continuously publishing relevant content. While there is plenty to write about – it can be challenging to stick to a schedule, which can be hard to build an audience when you post infrequently. It has taught me that blogs must contain more than just words these days. You must include images, videos, and other forms of interactive content to keep content engaging. It has also taught me about SEO, and making blogs findable via google search.

At the same time, it has taught me this is probably one of my favorite forms of writing. I like being a thought leader in a space and being able to show how things are evolving in a given industry. It allows me to put my writing in a public place, and receive reception to my work. I can consider myself as a published writer, which was always my dream growing up.

I look forward to blogging with you guys in this class. Even if I don’t wants get to comment on everyone’s post, know that I am reading and enjoying your posts.

Content Management in Job Searches

It can be almost funny when you find connections between real life and content in your assigned coursework. After reading Chapters 3, 4 and 5 in Digital Literacy I found myself in an ironic situation. My husband and I had to work together to create content. On Friday my husband came home from work and I asked him how his day was. He said it was fine and then I heard the real story. Corporate human resource represenatives came into the plant in our small town and said that all 40 employees would be laid off sometime between January 1 and April 1 2018. The company has a much larger plant about an hour and a 1/2 away that employees around 200 people. The employees were told they would be making 1/3 of the positions available in the larger plant but it would be open recruitment.

My husband hasn’t updated his resume since the last time he was job hunting 5+ years ago. Knowing there is such a high demand for these positions I stressed how important it would be for us to have a professional looking design with quality error free content.

My search for a new resume template started with Google search for free creative resume templates. Some pages I was afraid to click on because I was worried about the sources. Other pages had nothing but ads or still required payment. I spent a number of hours using a variety of search terms to find this content. There was very little if not zero content available that was professional, modern and clean designs.

My next search was to try to find content that was very low cost. I remembered seeing digital content such as clip art on ETSY and thought it was worth a shot.  I was able to find just what I was looking for using Etsy.com search for instant download resume templates that cost between $1 and $2

Screenshot_003.png

To my surprise all it took was paying $1 instead of looking for the content for free. The template I picked had three templates with it. One for the resume, one for a cover letter and one for references. It included instructions and templates in a variety of formats. Both for the Apple software Pages and for Microsoft Word.

I think this taught me a lot about the availability and cost of content. No one wants to give up content for free. Even if it is just a dollar per download that adds a lot to the professionalism and quality of the product.

Content Management Systems and Digital Literacy

Hart-Davidson hits the nail on the head, Content Management Systems (CMS) “do not do that work by themselves” (p. 14). A CMS can give a company what they are willing to put into it. They are not a solution, they are a tool. They are exactly what we make of it. Hart-Davidson states that “technical communicators typically come to play many different roles and deploy diverse sets of skills over the course of a career” when using CMS (p. 134). The roles mentioned must be assumed, but to successfully integrate the CMS into the company, the company must also integrate one or more company processes into the system to really benefit from it.

Training or some kind of education on how the company uses a CMS is a key to success. I’ve used quite a few systems and have seen excellent and poor uses of them in companies. When companies don’t have any rules around how a CMS is used, it becomes a free-for-all of good and bad information. It’s confusing. There is a plethora of online content available online for learning how to use and manage CMS systems online. However, even if you know how to use the system, this may not be how the company uses it.  The video below only touches on some common mistakes in administrating SharePoint itself and it’s over an hour long.

Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski both discuss “mapping” and “signposting” in information design (pp. 112-114). These concepts are a big part of UX and extremely important to ensure users can become literate in a system. I’ve found these levels of user interface designs are not well applied to most CMS. At one of the companies I worked for I had to redesign the front-end of a SharePoint site to make it more accessible and simplified for others in the company. This tells me that we have a long way to go in our design of CMS from a design perspective. Confusion in using the interface itself will almost surely create inconsistent data, especially when most people will have access to the system.

Process in how you use a CMS is key to making the system useful. Yes, it can allow versioning of documents, but when people are not required to update or sign off on documentation, it can create data that looks trustworthy but is not. Most systems have workflows integrated into them, but unless going through that workflow is a part of a sign off process for the deployment of a product, then why would people go through the hassle?

To make sure our documentation is trustworthy, my team and I will link our documents to specific releases of software. This way it will be clearer in what context you can assume a document may be relevant for. In terms of metadata we make sure that everything is under our team’s section in the system. We also have the option to tag certain customers if the document is specifically relevant to that context. The process we employ around this ensures that we do not have to continually maintain every document, but instead deploy documentation at our own pace and as needed.

I don’t think I could live without a CMS at a company these days, because the alternatives are much worse. But literacy in these systems remains a problem. This is probably due to the fact that the users are not the same as the customer. Additionally, I see many systems treated as a golden solution instead of a platform. It will be interesting to see how these systems and their usages evolve over time.

From Stories to Cartography

At my company, customers access much of our documentation by searching a central repository. Far and away, the most frequent feedback that we receive about our documentation is “I can’t find what I’m looking for.” So I was very interested in “Informational Design: From Authoring Text to Architecting Virtual Space” (Salvo and Rosinski) and their discussion of the necessity of search and retrieval and of designing our documentation for better navigation.

map

Findability

Salvo and Rosinski talk about envisioning documentation spatially to help users’ navigate and find their destination. They give the example of knowing user context when searching for “broccoli” in order to return the best results. There is no question that findability is hugely important in how customers locate and use our documentation, and search engine optimization (SEO) has become a big business. It doesn’t matter what we write if the right audience can’t find it at the right time.

Interestingly, I saw this user-context-based search engine patent filed by Google in 2006 (published in 2013). They discuss the known limitations of search engines and their invention to return search results by categorizing the information based on external context clues. The example that they give is figuring out that a given web site is an encyclopedia based on the surrounding words, and then using information about the user to determine whether they are looking for an encyclopedia.

I think having more context-aware searches would be a boon to technical communication and continue to accelerate our path from content creators to content managers, who look beyond the sentence level to strategic documentation processes.

The second piece of findability is not just locating the right document, but then navigating within it. The Wired article “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business” talks about both halves in the context of marketing your business, but I think the same is true for helping readers through technical documentation. The tips on providing user-relevant content and appropriate links (as well as the astounding statistic that 30% of visitors use site search) are certainly relevant to how we create and envision documentation.

Ambience

Salvo and Rosinksi make a closely related point about using genre conventions and creating a document environment that orients the audience and primes them for a response. By using signposts and making it clear what kind of document they are reading, we can set expectations so the audience knows what to look for and how to respond.

The diagram below actually comes from a SEO company, but the accompanying article “Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” makes a surprisingly counter-serving claim that the best strategy to getting read online isn’t just tricking search engines but creating high-quality content. Documentation that is designed for the audience and understands their needs is more effective in boosting overall findability of both the website itself and particular information within it.

findability

In “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” Dave Clark also addresses genre theory and how we can create standards and templates that help users know what to find. Although perhaps not as obvious as a wedding invitation, what are other ways that we can be using signposts and ambience tools to define the genre of each document and subconsciously cue the audience on what to look for and where to find it?

Salvo and Rosinski quote Johnson-Eilola as saying “the map has started to replace the story as our fundamental way of knowing.” In light of human history, that seems a shocking thing to say, but I do see it being borne out, at least to some degree, as the amount of information grows exponentially and the challenge of navigating it becomes more important. I still fancy myself as a writer about a cartographer, but managing documentation for findability is an increasingly key part of the role.

References:

“Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” KER Communications. 29 June 2010. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://kercommunications.com/seo/marketing-search-engines-people/

Hendron, Michael. “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business.” Wired. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/02/findability-will-make-break-online-business/

Organizational Ethos in Crises Management

Crises Management in the Shadows of Self-Promotion

Melody Bowden’s Tweeting an Ethos:  Emergency Messaging, Social Media, and Teaching Technical Communication focused on the ethos that organizations encourage through their social media posting.  Her viewpoint that such groups have a duty to put their audience’s needs first was eye opening.  Meeting the reader’s expectations contributes to the organizational ethos, but Bowden also suggested that organizations have some responsibility in facilitating an informed community.

I think that most of us anticipate that an organization or corporation, when communicating via non-cyber media, will put their own agenda first.  Oh, sure… We expect them to spin their message so there is the appearance of truly caring about the audience; but, we still notice the shameless plugs, the product placement, or the solicitation for a donation.  We get glimpses of what the organization is really after and usually it isn’t just to be helpful, devoid of an ulterior motive.

Bowden’s study revealed that in a time of crises the Twitter posts by both CNN and the American Red Cross had the highest concentration of tweets fall into the category of “self-referential posts designed to promote the organizations’ programming and accomplishments” (P. 46).  I am not surprised.   But reading about Bowden and her student’s surprise, made me reexamine how I think technical communicators and the groups they represent should present themselves in social media and why social media is different.

Questioning How Social Media is Different 

She suggests that, for the sake of ethos, organizations should not focus so heavily on self-promotion.  She explains, “Technical communication scholars need to continue to study…how these forums can be used to promote a safe and informed citizenry as well as the objectives of corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies” (P. 50).  I find it interesting that she mentions “a safe and informed citizenry.”  This statement seems to be referencing the internet as a community.   This “community” concept has been a subject of controversy in many of our readings.  So, if we accept the internet as a type of “community” does this really make these groups responsible for fostering it?  Or, is she only referring to the specific real world citizens of the community where the crises is occurring?

Additionally, if she is saying that organizations should abandon self-promotion to focus on the needs of an actual non-digital community in crises, then why don’t we have those expectations of the communication that occurs in those communities offline?  Why is this study about the organizational ethos as it applies to social media and not championing organizational ethos as it pertain to all media?  For instance, I lived in Florida for the last 28 years.  I am no stranger to hurricane season.  The television stations, newspapers, radio stations, local organizations and even home improvement stores, grocery stores and convenience stores would get involved in storm preparedness outreaches.  And when disaster struck, they had a plan for reaching out to the community, but you could always see the company promoting itself alongside those efforts.  It was expected.

I am also wondering how an organization can afford to not take advantage of these situations. Perhaps they should not be so overt in their self-promotion, but they may not have this exact audience in front of them except in times of crises.  If they don’t get their message to them now, when will they?  The audience is using the organization for something they need.  Why can’t the organization saturate it in their own message?  Annoying?  Yes.  A bit uncouth?  Probably.  But expected?  Understandable? Kind of.

An Inspiring Future

Before anyone misunderstands my Devil’s advocate type thought process, I am not disparaging or arguing her ideas.  Bowden opened my eyes to a whole set of possibilities.  I actually like the idea of a technical communicator as a facilitator of community who provides a service-oriented message to the reader.  The questions about how to go about it and how to preserve ethos are fascinating.  I think serving the community while somehow satisfying the objectives of an organization sounds both challenging and inspiring.  The questions that I have shared are ones that I continue to play around with in my head.  I rather like this new vision of where technical writing can go and I look forward to seeing how these concepts evolve.

My very own manual!?!?

Every once in a while, I open a product I have just bought, and feel a little nostalgic for the days of paper manuals.  I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that I can seek out instructions regardless of whether I am online.  The truth is, when a question does arise, it is second-nature to sit down and search the internet.  And, honestly, when am I offline anyways?

I do remember the days when online help wasn’t so easy to come by.  If a manual did not have an answer I needed or I didn’t understand it, I was stuck with the time-consuming tasks of doing my own research.  Other times, I would come across mistakes in the instructions or information that became outdated after a software update occurred.

So while I think I “miss” the days of paper documentation accompanying products, I don’t miss all that they represent.  I like that I can search for specific issues quickly.  I love that outdated or inaccurate information is usually wiped away.  And, it’s super convenient that customer support is often a click away, instead of requiring a call to the customer support line.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still print out a lot of the instructions that I look up in customizable searches.  I do this because, in many cases, it is easier for me to follow directions on paper.  (It is an annoying personality quirk of mine that costs me untold amounts of money buying ink and paper.)  I also find that I often look up the same issue repeatedly.  I have certain applications that I use on a regular basis.  There is usually a function or two that I only use occasionally, so I find that when that rare occasion comes up, I need a refresher on how to do it.

Along with my printing habit, I like to cut and paste chunks of helpful or interesting information from help sections, and put them into a Microsoft document for future reference.  I bookmark a lot of pages too.  There is a problem though.  This inconsistent data collection makes it very difficult to access the information.  I have to search my saved documents which leaves me trying to remember if I saved it on my laptop or desktop?  Hard drive or memory drive?  If I bookmarked it then I have to search through all the bookmark and Chrome and Internet Explorer.  This is assuming that I actually recall saving it in the first place.  Often I go look up the same information again, only to notice I already had it, when I go to save it.  Sigh.

The idea of being able to customize my own instructional text on a site is an incredibly exciting concept (Spilka, 2010, p.206)!  I imagine all those topics that I go back to time and time again at my fingertips.  No more haphazard organization of all the information I want to retain.  No more wasted time looking for information, only to realize I already have it documented somewhere.  Just one site to go back to, the source.  Not only would all the information that I need be structured in the way that best meets my needs, but I could also add more information or remove what I no longer need.  That would be the ultimate user experience!

Until that becomes widely available, I will continue to appreciate the ways that digital media is enabling writers to provide better and more targeted content.  The use of digital media has not lead to a homogenized audience, but has instead given many new opportunities for writers to tap into the specific needs of the reader.  They no longer have to make assumptions about the reader’s needs and can instead utilize a variety of user information absorbed from observing the user directly.   In many ways, the move to greater use of online documentation, defies the image of the internet widening the distance between people.  In this instance, online media allows for a greater personal connection with the audience.

Mapping Life

My house, could be run by librarians.  I have always had a little bit of insanity when it comes to cataloging information and trying to make it easy for others to access.  For instance, once upon a time, all of my household manuals were kept in one location.  Trial and error made me realize that this didn’t make sense.  The kitchen appliances seemed to have a greater need for me to be able to quickly access the manuals.  I moved them all to a special location in my kitchen and the rest of the manuals go in my laundry room.

And, if you don’t think that is particular enough, I have a sitemap.  In the event that a family member is watching my child, I don’t want them hopelessly frustrated trying to figure out the dust-vac.  I have a “map” of every appliance and the room where someone would need it.  It then cross-references where the accessories are for that appliance and where the instructions are.  Weird.  I know.

When I was younger, I actually thought I may need some sort of intervention because of how specific my brain was in categorizing the information that came into my house.  I used to file every article that crossed the threshold.  That got to be exhausting.  I literally had giant binders for topics.  It was a bit OCD.  I now realize that I don’t need to retain all information I come across as the internet is able to relocate almost all of it.  I have to keep myself away from magazines and let the internet (and the document designers) do what they do best, catalog the information for retrieval.

As I read chapter 4, I was all over it.  I have been doing most of it for years, even if I didn’t realize it.  My binders of information actually take a lot of work to cross-references.  While I know that I will only need some information, like when I’m cleaning or in the kitchen, for instance, I know my parents will access it randomly when watching my child.  I make sure that they can find the vacuum manual more readily than I would require it.  It is the first manual in my household binder.

This is much like the approach for structuring a website.  I know my audience.  I know what they need and I know where they will get lost trying to find it.

Trying my best to not spoil the broth!

As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization.  When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”.  But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization.  At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it).  But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs).   And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.

cartoon

I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs.  In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking.  Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say.  But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).

I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world).  In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.

I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.

inforgraphic-learnmax

This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training.  But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.

As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about.  Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need.  It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication.  Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).

  • This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
  • Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
  • We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.

Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above.  It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience.  Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61).  But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.

For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages.  The content, design, and layout was all brutal.  In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff.  Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle.  At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.

So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?

References

Dicks, S. (2010).  Digital Literacy for Technical Communication.   In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81).  New York: Taylor & Francis.

The challenge of separating content from presentation in a CMS

William Hart-Davidson defines a content management system (CMS) as a “set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (pg. 130). Basically, a CMS sits on top of your content and assists with the following functions:

  • Topic management: searchable, reusable content
  • Single-source publishing
  • Translation/localization workflow
  • Collaborative development and version control
  • Central output format management

Furthermore, Davidson claims that a best practice of content management includes the

“Need to separate content from presentation (pg. 130).”

But just how difficult is it to separate information from presentation and design?

In my experience, it is very difficult. While it is relatively easy to use the same chunks of content (e.g., single XML files) in multiple output formats, it is not easy to customize the design, format, and style of an information product. Let me explain.

We are currently implementing SDL LiveContent as our CMS. It is very expensive, and due to budget restrictions, my manager went with the basic, out-of-box implementation. In addition, we are required to provide two types of output—PDF and HTML—for every major software release. To create PDF output, we must develop stylesheets to transform our XML to XSL-FO. XSL defines the presentation of XML objects and properties that specify the page format, page size, font size, and paragraph/table/heading/list styles. However, since we went with the basic SDL LiveContent implementation, the difficult, time-consuming task of developing stylesheets for XML to XSL-FO transformation must be done by ourselves. (SDL LiveContent offers services to create the stylesheets, but it is very expensive.)

If we don’t develop stylesheets, we will have little control over the presentation (also referred as “signposting” in chapter 2) of our content. This is unacceptable to my manager, as she expects all of our content to continue to have our professional, company-branded formatting.

If this wasn’t complicated enough, SDL LiveContent recommends a different professional formatting solution from the one that we currently use (and have already spent a lot of time customizing that stylesheet). We all agree that we do not need to have two or three publishing tools to generate a PDF or HTML. We also don’t want to have a complicated, manual workflow process that takes the content from our CMS, generates output (PDF and/or HTML), and then stores it back in the CMS. We don’t have someone on our team who can write scripts to do that and there isn’t a bridge to connect the CMS with our current publishing tool.

Ideally, we want to have our content stored in one repository, and from there, we want to be able to generate output on an ad hoc, as needed basis. We want to click a button—have all the magic happen—and then view the PDF that has a beautiful, professional layout. How we get there is my responsibility over the next few months, but I’m convinced that we will have to ditch our current publishing tool and will have to develop brand new stylesheets.

We’re the assembly line

William Hart-Davidson’s article on content management was the most readable of our texts this week. Honestly, I didn’t really understand the first two, or when I thought I did, then I read more and completely lost what I had grasped. But Hart-Davidson’s piece was surprisingly a piece that followed technical communication practices and actually made sense (sidebar: anyone else disillusioned by how we’re reading articles by renowned experts about technical communication, the art of talking to users in the layman’s terms, only it’s all garbled academia? And yes, I know the audience is also academics; I just see the irony).

But good on Hart-Davidson when he said that “companies live and die based on how well they communicate” (p.135). And how he says communication is “why they [companies] operate” (p. 135). Yes, please! The challenges he outlines when it comes to a successful content management system are ones that I encounter daily at work.

While we have a network (two, actually) and shared folders, we do not have a company-wide protocol set in place to find the information needed. My day has at least one request for me to email a document to someone that is already on the shared drive. There is no documentation in place to determine where different content pieces have been placed (online, different ad pieces, etc.), and after reading the article, my takeaway is to organize our assembly line, to make it more efficient so that we can be a better end product for consumers.

Content Management Systems, I use those!

I like the definition of Content Management that Spilka provides in Chapter 5. Content Management is a set of practices for the handling of information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted and styled for delivery. It usually has the following four goals: Distribute tasks and responsibilities among members, Author and store content that enable multiple-audience adaptation, Author and store content to permit multiple output and Author and store content that allow for reuse by multiple organizations. Spilka also recommends creating CM as a separate discipline and teach to other technical communicators (Spilka, 2010, pgs 130-131). This definition really is what I do on a daily basis in my current position of QA Specialist, who is also responsible for the majority of customer educational resources for our Home Care product line.

Where I work currently, we use a few different content management systems, most of which were created by in-house staff for our use. The one that looks the most like this definition is our SIETE product. This is the product that we use to track the tasks being completed by the developers, that guide our release notes and user guides, as well as our Knowledge Base which houses the release notes, user guides and other customer-facing educational resources. I was not included in any of the design aspects of this product, it does work nicely for our customers.

KnowledgeBase

 

The image above is an example of our customer facing portion of SIETE. This is accessed through the application and the content visible on the right-hand side is content specific based on the page the accessed the Help from. In addition, there are additional materials that the user may find useful based on this page. It would include FAQs, User Guide Pages and Videos that were created. This can be updated by our staff immediately if issus or corrections need to be made. This page really encompasses goals 2, 3, and 4. It allows for multiple audience adaptation, permit multiple outputs (html, videos) and reuse within and across organizations.

According to Chapter 4, we, as technical communicators, organize the written communication for future use (Spilka, 2010, pg 123). This SIETE product does assist with this. The search feature within the Customer Facing Knowledge Base will search content and tags that are added to each item. At this time tags need to be manually managed on each task, but helps with searching when the customer may not know the correct term. We can add additional terms that customer might use, even if it does not match the terminology that we use.

Task
The image above shows that Goal 1 can also be used in our SIETE Application. There is a module called Project that has Projects, Outlines and Tasks. Each task can be assigned to a specific person and it can detail what needs to be done, when it should be done and what other assets are needed to complete the task. Often times I will spend a day or two reviewing the User Guide for changes that need to be made. Simple changes will be made immediately, but longer changes will get a task. Once all tasks are assigned I, or my supervisor, can set due dates, priorities and estimate the time to complete. As time allows, these are updated and immediately available for our customers.

healthcare.gov: A “crash” course for this week’s readings

"The system is down at the moment," from healthcare.gov. is not the sort of message digitallandfill is hoping to inspire in its "5 new rules of customer engagement" post.  Read the entire post at http://www.digitallandfill.org/2013/09/5-new-rules-of-customer-engagement-gd13.html

“The system is down at the moment,” from healthcare.gov. is not the sort of message digitallandfill is hoping to inspire in its “5 new rules of customer engagement” post.
Read the entire post at http://www.digitallandfill.org/2013/09/5-new-rules-of-customer-engagement-gd13.html

I would rather avoid a discussion of health care policy and politics, and I don’t plan to address those for the most part, but this week’s reading and the healthcare.gov. “hubbub” seem too convergent to ignore.Michael Salvo and Paula Rosinski remind us that “As soon as a design is out of the author’s hand and launched into the world, we see how effective that design can be in use … We make our information spaces, and then these spaces make us and impact our communication―always returning to the human genesis of the space, yet not always under the immediate control of the users (or designers) of that information space”  (In “Information Design”).

As Moore put it in “A Sea Change in Enterprise IT, “organizations are facing an avalanche of information” as they change from systems of record to systems of engagement and “Best practices in this new world are scarce.”

Well, they seem to be scarce this month for sure.

"We have a lot of visitors on this site right now.  Please stay on this page." From slate.com http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/bitwise/2013/10/problems_with_healthcare_gov_cronyism_bad_management_and_too_many_cooks.html

“We have a lot of visitors on this site right now.
Please stay on this page.”
From slate.com
http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/bitwise/2013/10/problems_with_healthcare_gov_cronyism_bad_management_and_too_many_cooks.html

What went wrong with Healthcare.gov?

But, back in the spring and over the summer, experts involved in the development and elsewhere were talking about the potential of the Website in much the celebratory tone of Qualman in Socialnomics, without some of the cautionary tones of Moore’s white paper.  Both are very clear about the speed of change, but Moore’s quotes from a number of CIOs in 2011 (“We are grappling with this”; “Nobody has figured this out”; and “whether we want it or not, it is coming in”) suggests more trepidation and is somewhat predictive of healthcare.gov.

As I’ve confessed and lamented often, I’m not terribly tech savvy, but from what I can gather, there were some missteps in creating the “information architecture” that characterizes the site. What the developers and designers were celebrating back in the spring was that the site would have a content management system-free philosophy that would make for a “completely static website,” using Jekyll and Github, which was supposed to result in an “incredibly fast and reliable website,” according to an April 10 post at the HHS.gov blog site by David Cole, one of the designers from Development Seed, one of the websites designers.

According to Brian Sivik, Chief Technology Officer at HHS who was quoted in an article in The Atlantic Monthly, its use of social coding is built in a way that’s “open, transparent and enables updates. This is better than a big block of proprietary code locked up in a CMS [content management system].” I mean, the very title of the Atlantic Monthly article is celebrating democracy: “Healthcare.gov: Code Developed by the People and for the People, Released Back to the People.” (See the full article at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/06/healthcaregov-code-developed-by-the-people-and-for-the-people-released-back-to-the-people/277295/)

So, as I read through any number of articles trying to figure out “what went wrong?” I tried to keep my focus on the role of technical communicators, rather than policy makers, politicians, self-interested CEO’s and CIO’s, software developers, and code writers, but then I started thinking that my thinking is antithetical almost everything I’ve been reading in my classes for the MSTPC program: “We are not merely writers anymore.  Now we are editors, information architects, project managers, client liaisons, and more” (135) as Hart-Davidson reminds us this week in “Content Management.”  So, there are probably many technical communicators caught in this morass or, alternately, learning opportunity, depending how you view it the current problems at healthcare.gov.

John Pavley at the Huffington Post does see it as an opportunity for the “bi-directional” experience Moore, Qualman, and others have described. “If they want to live up to their initial promise and completely open-source the code on GitHub.com, I’d bet thousands of developers would volunteer to fix all of their bugs for them. That’s the power of open source and open government: Other people are invested in fixing your problems for you!” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-pavley/obamacare-website-problems_b_4057618.html)

Content Management Meet Up in Milwaukee

The Content Management System Meetup in Milwaukee began with  "Let's get ready to rumble!" Image from http://anything-digital.com/blog/events/what-cms-is-best-cms-showdown-results-after-milwaukee-meetup.html

The Content Management System Meetup in Milwaukee began with
“Let’s get ready to rumble!”
Image from http://anything-digital.com/blog/events/what-cms-is-best-cms-showdown-results-after-milwaukee-meetup.html

So, all that reading about the CMS-free healthcare.gov experience got me curious about what are considered “good” content management systems, so I tried to root out some reliable information and came across this CMS “Showdown” in Milwaukee in May.  It’s not an “academic” source, but I found it enlightening in that it shows how such providers think it’s important to talk about CMS. The showdown was between 6 CMS providers: Sitecore, ModX, WordPress, Drupal, Concrete5, and Joomla.

The Fight Club meetup metaphor was funny but not really typical of the communication, according to the write up by Jessica Dunbar at anythingdigital.com (May 14).  It seemed to me to be pretty communal, in a sense, with quick pitches for each product (3-5 minutes), perhaps a little tag line or branding (ModX – “Creative freedom”; “We like to say that WordPress is both free and priceless at the same time”; “Come for the software, stay for the community” [at Drupal]).

This was the only visual aid used at the CMS Milwaukee Meetup, which I found odd for a bunch of "information architects" who should be visual thinkers.   The article from allthingsdigital.com also includes a YouTube video for the Drupal Song.  I'm thinking those guys might want to keep their day jobs.

This was the only visual aid used at the CMS Milwaukee Meetup, which I found odd for a bunch of “information architects” who should be visual thinkers.
The article from allthingsdigital.com also includes a YouTube video for the Drupal Song. I’m thinking those guys might want to keep their day jobs.

A representative for Joomla declared, “Joomla! is a extremely customizable and adaptable for Enterprise, SMBs, NPOs and beyond.”  Joomla was the only representative to bring a comparison chart, so perhaps that’s why it won. At the same time the writer of the article declared himself the only judge, so maybe that’s why it won.

The good news for me?  I’m actually starting to understand what some of this means….

A Giant Digital Filing Cabinet

Information design and content management are two terms that I knew existed, but they never would have crossed my mind.  Technical communicators write and create their documents, but must also design the way they distribute information and manage what they write.  Most people only consider the writing part of a technical communicator’s job, but these are tasks in which technical communicators have always engaged.  Before the Web grew in popularity, technical communicators kept track and managed their writing in hard copy formats.  However, with the enormous increase of documents being created and distributed online, somebody must be responsible for maintaining it: “Search and retrievability – or findability – as well as navigability become increasingly important as the information age produces more documents than ever before” (Salvo & Rosinski, p. 103).  A document is useless if the user cannot navigate it or cannot properly access it.  I imagine a digital filing cabinet and a technical communicator working diligently to keep it organized.  I have created a visual to aid with my giant digital filing cabinet analogy.

Image

I took a stab at defining the two terms:

  • Information design – creating or establishing a text using a set of principles to improve the readability of a document
  • Content management – maintaining the usability and searchability of a document so that it can be accessed by users

So, in terms of information design, technical communicators “[design] information in written documents so that those who put ideas to work can access content when needed” (Salvo & Rosinski, p. 105).  With the increase of electronic documents, it is important that technical communicators consider the format of their document.  If they want their users to be able to open up an electronic file and type their information directly into the file, they must design it in such a way.  Design in a key element in helping readers understand the document.  Also, technical communicators are “charged not merely with the activity of writing, but also with […] looking after the information assets of the organization” (p. 128).  Increasingly, technical communicators are responsible for keeping the information they write organized so users can locate it.  If a graphic designer creates a company logo, it will fall on the technical communicator to keep a digital copy of the company’s logo managed so that the marketing department, and any other departments, can locate it for their work.

Technical communicators use various systems for designing information and for maintaining documents.  InfoDesign is a blog that provides technical communicators with current information and communication strategies.  Technical communicators can use the tags to search for posts about a relevant topic.  Companies have many options in terms of managing their content.  CMS Matrix allows users to sort through a list of 1,200 content management systems and compare selected systems.  Top Ten Reviews contained numerical data comparing the most popular content management systems.

So does this giant digital filing cabinet create more work for a technical communicator?  I don’t think so, unless the technical communicator is not properly designing and managing his content.  I think properly designing information and managing it correctly can actually help a technical communicator be more productive in the long run.

Enterprise IT: From paper trail to online footprint

This week’s readings discussed at length content management and information design. With the rapid changes and growth in the use of digital technologies, both of these areas have changed drastically. These changes include:

  • How we store information (paper vs electronic)
  • How we design information (memo vs email vs social media messages)
  • How we collect information ( paper surveys or comment cards vs tracking IP addresses)
  • How we interact with users of the information (one-way transaction vs synchronous engagement)

Going back to my internship during college in the early 2000s, I realize now that I was involved with an early form of capturing data electronically. I worked for a global heater company that had endless numbers of user manuals for all its brands of heaters, even some they no longer made, but still serviced. One of my first projects as an intern was to scan the manuals into PDF form and save them to a folder on the shared server. It was tedious work, but, looking back, I can see how beneficial it was for them to have me do this. At the very least, they wouldn’t lose those user manuals if the building started on fire!

Today, I work for a company that operates a specialty retail pharmacy that is required to keep paper records for seven years. Despite the 10+ years that have gone by, it feels like a step backwards in the world of enterprise IT. However, with all the changes in healthcare (most notably EMR/EHR implementation at hospitals and clinics), I wonder how long it will be until other healthcare facilities (like a pharmacy or nursing home) will be required to go digital with their records as well.

It’s not just the pharmacy that can be dubbed a tree killer at our company. Our #1 marketing activity to bring in new business is direct mailings. Most recently was a postcard mailing to over 1000 allergists on the East Coast. The postcard was to advertise a webinar so the information delivery will be online and paperless, but any follow-ups to those that participate will very likely involve mailing paper documents, including a 100+ page manual that outlines the specific allergy modality that we promote. Is this a waste of paper? I think you have to weigh the pros and cons. This manual is not something that we mass distribute; it only gets sent to those truly interested in our services. If we were to allow access to it online, would we be able to prevent its dissemination to those we don’t want to have it, like competitors?

I am happy to report that our company has made at least a few efforts to reduce the amount of paper we use – the customer portal that I mentioned in last week’s post is one of them. One of our goals for implementing this website was to give clients access to a number of the patient education materials that we normally print and mail to them. We actually just had to review which ones we needed to reprint as our inventory was getting low on a number of them. We ended up deciding not to reprint a number of them. We want customers to get them online instead.

portal image

Customer portal
Rott, L. (2013). Snipped from portal website.

This online portal acts as more than just a way to reduce paper cost – it also acts as a type of content management system as it gives us a place to organize,  store and communally update a large amount of information for clients, but it also allows us to track usage and activities on the admin side, which I think this week’s readings showed us is just as important as the storage and organization of the content. From Moore (2011), one step he recommended for B2B enterprises (like the one I work for), is to “mine community content to extract insights to enhance the business” (p. 7). With our portal site, I can see when users log in and track what areas they are visiting most often. This can be helpful for updates to the site because we can see what people use and like. It’s not as sophisticated as how Google tracks our online footprint, but it works for us.

Speaking of content management, I also work with an online customer relationship management system called Salesforce CRM, which some of you may be familiar with. Salesforce is a fully customizable, on-demand program that I have been able to mold into what the company needs to track sales and customer growth. It truly embodies the definition of content management. It gives us a turnkey solution for “handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 130).

Salesforce CRM Rott, L. (2012). Created with SnagIt.

Salesforce CRM
Rott, L. (2012). Created with SnagIt.

From a generic framework, I added custom fields, inserted formulas and stages to predict closes on new sales, built new pages and sections, and created reports. We now use Salesforce to not only record all basic account information, but also as a reminder system to stay on top of daily, weekly and monthly activities. It also helps us monitor marketing campaigns and the progress of specific growth strategies. Additionally, it has document storage capabilities and allows us to build email and letter templates to create a uniform method of communication delivery. Finally, we have been able to build both basic and in-depth reports to help with sales analysis and communications. For example, we can run reports to see how many leads are in the sales pipeline, or create mailing lists to customers that have signed up to receive our quarterly e-newsletters.

Essentially, this program allows us to mine data on current and prospective customers, stay on top of our communications to these audiences, and plan future communications, whether it is a mailing, email blast or marketing push. It is the backbone of the account management, sales and marketing departments.

Like one of the CIOs said in the Moore (2011) article, “We are grappling with this” (p. 6). In some areas, my company has transitioned into the new era of enterprise IT quite well, but, in others, we are still figuring it out. I long for the company to be more technologically adept, but, in the grand scheme of things, I think we’ve made a lot of great strides, especially considering the small size of the corporation. It also made me feel better to read how many companies are struggling with this transition, so we are not alone. Overall, I think that as long as we keep trying to move in the right direction, we’ll be okay.