Print workflow incompatible with new requirements


“Super Cygnets Corporation” has been producing printed manuals (yes, manuals) for their line of heat lamps since the 1960s, when people first started raising baby swans as a hobby. Somewhere in the 1990s, the organization shifted from printed manuals over to PDF files on a CD, which is included in the heat lamp box. But the entire content development process is geared toward producing sophisticated print/PDF deliverables.

The technical writers at Super Cygnets pride themselves on the high quality of the documents. They have complex graphics with embedded callouts, photographs, and more. They use drawings from the CAD system, but they modify them heavily to make them easier to read. Each chapter title page has a picture of a different happy swan family. Efficiency of content production has never been discussed.

The problem

Customers are demanding electronic deliverables. They want the ability to read documentation while they are standing in front of the heat lamp in their backyard swan coops. This means Super Cygnets needs to deliver information for tablets or smartphones. Super Cygnets is concerned about maintaining their position as the leader in baby swan heat lamps, which is a $5 million/year business.

The first attempt at a solution—pushing the existing PDF files onto a web site—is a disaster. The tables are very complex and impossible to render on a smaller screen. Graphics are high-resolution and do not render well on a smaller screen. The PDF files are huge, so they take forever to open, especially on a slower connection.

The Super Cygnets authors are experts at copyfitting and print production. They have no experience with other media, and they think that HTML is worthless because you can’t control page formatting or your reader’s fonts.


The solution

For information delivered on a smartphone or mobile device, you need adaptive HTML content, which will render nicely on a variety of devices. But the current workflow is intended to produce the best possible printed output and not HTML content. The source files are full of formatting overrides, so a conversion from the existing content directly to HTML will not yield good results.

Adaptive content

The answer is to do a few things:

  • Simplify the source content so that it will render properly in HTML. Get rid of fussy formatting, and replace it with something attractive but straightforward.
  • Eliminate formatting overrides. Educate authors on how those little tweaks that made the PDF files prettier are going to wreck their HTML output. (For example, the use of an invisible two-column table to present a long list of short bullet items in two columns.)
  • Evaluate the current authoring/publishing workflow and figure out where to introduce the option to generate HTML output. Most page layout tools have a path into HTML; this may be a good interim solution that limits the disruption to the authors. Another option is to replace the page layout tool with something less print-oriented.

Publishing workflow for content on multiple devices

In a scenario like this, you can expect change resistance to be extremely high. Authors will resist a change in workflow that takes them out of their comfort zone (print production). They are immune to the argument that HTML is needed; they only see the negatives of diminished print quality. Some companies actually resort to eliminating the PDF output and making a clean break with the past.

The business case

Super Cygnets can continue using its current authoring software, paired with an HTML converter, so the software costs are smaller. The big expense will be the process of rewriting and reorganizing information to improve its implicit structure.

Table 1. Estimated costs
Item Implementation cost (one-time)
Author training on writing modular content, using templates, avoiding overrides, and other single-sourcing concepts $5,000
Rework content to eliminate formatting overrides, implement new template-based approach, and topics (1,000 pages x 30 minutes per page @ $50/hour) $25,000
Clean up formatting template in print production tool $2,000
License HTML conversion tool $1,000
Design adaptive HTML output $5,000
Implement HTML design in conversion tool $5,000
TOTAL $43,000

Super Cygnets cannot directly justify this expense with reduced costs, although there will be some cost savings from the use of templates rather than one-off formatting and page-by-page copyfitting. Instead, they are calculating that an investment in mobile and tablet-based content will increase their market share.

Table 2. Cost savings and revenue generated
Item Cost savings and revenue generated (per year)
Less formatting time, two full-time writers (150 hours per writer per year @ $50/hour) $15,000
Improved market share/competitive advantage of providing mobile/tablet documentation (0.5% of $5M product) $25,000
TOTAL $40,000

A more drastic solution, in which the entire workflow is replaced, would be very expensive to implement, incur enormous conversion costs, and be impossible to justify without assuming a steep market share increase (approximately 5%). One key to successful content strategy projects is to scale the solution to match the business drivers.


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