Efficient technical content development

The process of creating technical information includes writing text, creating graphics, recording audio, and the like. A basic prerequisite for good content strategy is that the content should be of good quality—accurate, concise, and complete.

An efficient workflow with professional technical communicators creating high-value information is typically the least expensive option (better, faster, and cheaper). This correlation is explained by the following factors:

  • Reuse versus copy and paste. Copying and pasting is quick and easy initially, but it is hard to maintain over time because of information duplication. Formal reuse, where a linked copy of information appears in multiple places, is easier to maintain. Given several thousand pages of content, the savings on content maintenance add up quickly.
  • Formatting. “Quick-and-dirty” formatting is also unmaintainable. Investing in content standards, such as templates, means that content creators spend more time writing and less time formatting. Better tools also mean less time wrestling with pagination, tables of contents, and similar components.
  • Production. Instead of converting content from one format to another manually, a professional workflow generates the proper outputs automatically. A one-time configuration effort replaces the repeated conversion task.
  • Localization. Better-organized content and automated production result in much lower localization costs. The “cheap way”—slamming everything into a word processor and throwing it over the transom to the translation vendor—results in escalating translation costs because content must be reformatted in every language. Also, translation costs skyrocket when source files for content are duplicated to accommodate even slight variations in similar products; systematic reuse of content eliminates the expense of translating shared content again and again.

A rough estimate is that writers spend around 20 percent of their time on formatting tasks in less-efficient content development environments (although we have seen much higher numbers).

For mature audiences only

One critical aspect of content development is to understand the maturity level of the process used to develop the content:

  1. Crap on a page. There is no consistency in content. For example, two white papers from the same company are formatted inconsistently, are often badly written, and do not use consistent terminology. Two audio files might be encoded differently or have wildly varying levels of audio quality.
  2. Design consistency. Content appearance is consistent, but the methods used to achieve the look and feel vary. For example, two HTML files might render the same way in a browser, but one uses a CSS file and the other uses local overrides.
  3. Template-based content. Content appearance is consistent, and the methods used to achieve the look and feel are consistent. For example, all HTML files use a common CSS file, or page layout files use the same formatting template. Graphics are created, scaled, and rendered the same way.
  4. Structured content. Content is validated against a template by the software. This usually means that XML is the underlying file format. Information is organized in predictable, consistent ways.
  5. Content in a database. Information is stored in a database and can be searched and manipulated in interesting ways.

The bigger the gap between the current authoring environment and the environment needed to implement your strategy, the more difficult the transition will be. For example, if your content strategy requires structured content (level 4), and authors are currently producing whatever they want (level 1), expect significant training challenges, change resistance, and probably staff turnover.

A high maturity level for your process is the means, not the end. The goal of your content development efforts is to support your business goals. A mature process, indicated by template-based content, structured content, or database publishing (levels 3–5), can support business goals because of the following:

  • Consistency in development and delivery results in a consistent user experience for the content consumer, which increases their trust in the product. Put another way, if the documentation looks terrible for a premium product, the appearance of the documentation undercuts the premium positioning.
  • Accelerating the content delivery process means that you can provide information to end users faster, which makes it more relevant to the end user.
  • Formatting is automated, which reduces the overall cost of developing content. This effect is multiplied for each delivery medium (PDF, HTML, and the like) and each language.

For example, a less mature, ad hoc approach (typically, a collection of messy Word files) may be feasible for 500 pages delivered in PDF and HTML in two languages. But once you have more than 2,000 pages, add another output format, or need more than two languages, you need to pay attention to your process and your content quality to ensure that you can scale up to this level—or expect costs to balloon and quality to decrease.

For scalability, you need efficient workflows and high-value content

This book concerns itself mainly with the upper right quadrant—creating high-value technical content efficiently.

The right tools and technologies will make your content development process more efficient. (The less pleasant corollary: The wrong tools, even when they are “free,” can be very expensive.) An efficient process is one where the tools and technologies that are in place help you produce the content you need, in the formats you need, and when you need it.



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