Analyzing existing information products

 

A content audit helps you determine what information you have and how useful it is. Begin with a list of current information products.

Table 1. Inventory of existing information products
Title Pages Last updated Source format Delivery format
Widget User Guide 400 2009 FrameMaker PDF
Widget online help 400 2011 RoboHelp, but originally derived from User Guide CHM
Widget Administrator’s Guide 800 2012 Word PDF
Widget API Reference 500 2011 Wiki (many pages are stubs without actual content) Wiki
Video tutorials 20 minutes total 2011 Camtasia Flash

A strategy for 2,000 pages is going to look very different than a strategy for 20,000 pages, so an order-of-magnitude estimate for page count is helpful. If you find yourself providing information about updates not by year but by month, that tells you that content is updated frequently. The update dates will also give you an idea of how much content is actively maintained as opposed to content that is static or rarely updated.

The source and delivery formats are interesting because they help you see what the status quo is. If 90 percent of your content is stored in a single authoring tool, your strategy looks different than if content is divided equally across four different (incompatible) tools. Often, the source formats reflect political divisions within the organization. The use of two competing, incompatible toolsets may be because of a merger (the technical content organizations never aligned their processes), a lack of collaboration (different managers chose different tools without consulting their peers), or simply different content requirements.

If your content is translated, you need a list of languages.

Table 2. Localization inventory example
Languages What is translated?
French, Italian, German, Spanish All technical content
Russian, Hebrew, Arabic User guide and online help
Chinese (simplified and traditional), Japanese, Korean API reference, user guides, and online help
(future) Greek, Turkish, Vietnamese Planned for 2013: User guide and online help
In addition to the content produced by technical communicators, you may have high-value content produced elsewhere in the organization, such as the following:

  • Training materials (instructor guides, student guides, e-learning content)
  • Proposals
  • White papers
  • Knowledge base articles (usually technical support)
  • Videos with tutorials
It is quite common for other departments to use technical content as a starting point, and you need to determine what that workflow looks like. A visual representation (even scribbled on a piece of paper) can help you identify problem areas where reuse occurs but is done inefficiently.

Technical content flow

Those dotted copy-and-paste lines represent hours of work. You could further refine the analysis by looking at the volume, frequency, and work required for each arrow.

Table 3. Shared content assessment
Content Quantity Frequency Destination Method
Task information from Widget User Guide 200 pages Major new versions Student guide for intro training Save FrameMaker to Word, then copy and paste
Error messages in software source code 600 error messages and explanations (message plus one paragraph) Yearly Admin guide Copy and paste
Product descriptions 10 sentences Weekly Proposals Sales team has their own copies; check for updates occasionally
Basic tasks 30 pages Twice yearly E-learning content Save as XML; import

The preceding example would tell you that the task information for training and the error messages probably take a lot of time and should be high priorities for improved automation.

Your goal is to get a reasonable idea of the following:

  • Total volume of content (page count, topic count)
  • Types of content (books, manuals, videos, help, web content)
  • Update requirements (yearly, quarterly, monthly, daily?)
  • Versioning requirements (do some documents have variants, such as customer-specific versions?)
  • Language support (what languages is content translated into?)
  • Source formats (in what format is the content stored?)
  • Output formats (in what format is the content delivered?)
You also need a more qualitative assessment of the content. You need to determine whether the content is:

  • Accurate
  • Current
  • Complete
  • Concise
  • Audience-appropriate

After reviewing the existing information products, you should have a list of content challenges and ideas for improvement. Here are some common scenarios:

Reuse between technical documentation and training materials
The training department uses reference and task information created by the technical documentation team, but the instructional designers copy and paste instead of linking because the two groups use different, incompatible content creation tools. If the two teams standardized on a single workflow, they could share content seamlessly and avoid lots of tedious reworking.
HTML output is needed in addition to PDF
User guides and reference materials are delivered as PDF files with hundreds of pages. Readers, especially the technical support staff, would prefer HTML content because it provides a better search experience and faster access times.
Technical content is outdated because of inefficient updating process
The book production process—generating tables of contents and indexes, checking pagination, creating change page logs, and similar tasks—takes a significant amount of time. As a result, books are only updated twice a year. But the product is changing quarterly or even monthly, so the technical documentation is almost always out of date. Readers are complaining about the lack of synchronization between the product updates and the content updates.
Better content sharing is needed between technical content and technical support groups
The articles in the knowledge base and the information in the technical content often overlap or contradict each other. The groups creating that content need a system that enables sharing of information.
Content does not meet readers’ needs
Content is poorly written and organized, not appropriate for the audience, or both.

 

 

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