Do we need a content strategy?

In pursuit of the ultimate techCom information architecture

Today, companies must launch products to global markets faster than ever before if they want to remain competitive. R&D organizations within those companies are continuously improving the development processes and ways to produce products to enable this possibility. This means that technical communication teams are also faced with a challenge. The content volume that we must manage is growing and we must be able to in parallel manage content for multiple product configurations and release manuals in shorter time frames using the existing staff.  DITA helps us to be more effective since we can single source content to avoid duplications. But we need to look into other areas to improve, to allow us do more with existing resources. One such area is the strategy we use to determine what content to write and manage (the content strategy). I will give you my view on what a content strategy is before we enter the discussion on improvement possibilities.

What is a content strategy? A content strategy reveals who the end users are, the goals they are pursuing and what tasks they must do to reach the goals. The content strategy explicitly describes what type of information end users need to do the tasks, which gives us the content to include and not include in a manual and how to organize it to make content searchable. A content strategy shall answer a number of questions (for example, open the document via link "information design questions" On The answers are sometimes referred to as the information model. In this blog I’m focusing on the macro perspective, meaning the needed DITA topics and how they are arranged in maps. I’m not focusing on the micro perspective, meaning how to write individual topics including the rules for terminology, grammar and style. Of course the micro perspective must be included in the same content strategy (as the style guide etc). The content strategy shall also deal with areas such as metadata, reuse strategy, creation and release processes, publishing mechanisms, content ownership and responsibility, tools etc.

Do you have a communicated content strategy? I have understood that there is a great diversity regarding how well the content strategy is communicated and understood, if one exists. Let us elaborate two types of content creation organizations within the technical communication domain: Explicit and implicit organizations.  In the implicit organization there are no content strategy written down. Each member (technical writer, SME etc) has their own view on what content they believe end users need. In the best of worlds these views are aligned without the members having discussed it. In other implicit organizations an information designer has taken the role to plan and design the content (together with the team or not). But the strategy and principle that the information designer is following may not be communicated or understood by the technical writers or SMEs. So the information designer has to be consulted every time a new manual is developed or a macro content change is proposed in an existing manual. In explicit organizations the strategy and principles are written down and communicated. The content creation team, including SME that provide input or do review, understands and are committed to the strategy.

What impact does lack of a content strategy have? In the implicit organization much time is probably spent on planning, discussing and arguing about the macro structure (TOC) if a manual is a joint effort between several equal strong team members. This is especially true in DITA environments since several writers can work in parallel and contribute to the manual. If each technical writer in a content creation team is responsible for only one (1) manual, where no reuse or coordination is done between the different manuals, the result is probably manuals with (very) different content design. The principle is: “The design is up to the individual writer”. This approach has impact on team efficiency, quality and reuse potential, looking from the company perspective. The end user, trying to understand the logic behind the manuals, may also have some remarks.

An information designer solely responsible for the design is a key resource. Problems occur when the work load increases due to multiple product releases at the same time or if the individual is on sick leave. To allocate the information design task to someone else is not an easy task since the design principles are in the head of the information designer. In explicit organizations every member knows the content strategy and time is not wasted on arguing or discussing or attending countless planning meetings. A lack of content strategy has impact on the reuse possibilities. If each technical writer writes content according to own ideas it probably becomes more difficult to reuse content across manuals. Using DITA is a safety net since the vocabulary and the “DITA approach” is a great support for writers. But it is what is written between the tags that are essential.

A lack of content strategy may also lead to that too much information is created. If you do not know exactly what the end users need it is a safe move to create all possible type of information and say “The information is out there somewhere – good luck in finding it”. Furthermore a lack of a content strategy may lead to that the documentation structure becomes functional oriented since SMEs with high ranking will influence the content structure.

What benefits is possible to see from having a content strategy? Content creation teams are spending less time or planning and developing the content specifications, which helps team be more efficient which allows the company to launch the new products faster on more markets. The writing process is likely to improve since it is clear who the end user is and what type of information is needed. The content strategy also reveals the requirements and expectations a company imposes on the content creation team. Also the end user can benefit from an explicit content strategy since it helps the user to understand the logic behind what type of content is available and how it is organized, which probably will increase the search performance.

What technical domain knowledge must technical writers have? Are all problems solved if we hire engineers as writers? No, a content strategy is needed even if writers have engineering background. A content strategy does not pop up just because we hire engineers. But, the content strategy can reveal the type of domain knowledge that writers must have. The content strategy shall state the required domain knowledge end users are assumed to posses. The technical writer is then saying the things that the end does not know. Thus the content strategy can be used to predict what domain knowledge the writers must have.

What does it cost to develop a content strategy? How do you develop a content strategy? From my point of view there are no generic or robust content strategies available on the technical communication market today; DITA does not include a content strategy and it should not either. IMAP includes a content strategy to some extent but IMAP is not designed for technical communication. ILS/S1000D has maybe the strongest content strategy “built-in” but it is targeting defense and aviation domains. Each organization has to adapt or develop an own strategy, which is costly. The fact that there are no generic standards available for technical communication, that an organization really need one to be efficient and that it is costly to develop a strategy, has been the driving forces behind the development of SeSAM ( Use SeSAM as your content strategy! Focus Areas: BPEL | DITA | ebXML | IDtrust | OpenDocument | SAML | UBL | UDDI
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