Why EPPO and the Web are the Right Fit for Tech Comm

While most of tech comm has moved to digital media — either to the web or to the product media — tech comm information design practices have been far slower to change. A large part of the tech comm world is still writing and delivering books, even if they deliver them as PDF or burst them into hierarchically  linked help topics. This is a carry over from the design constraints of the paper world, and we need to move away from it.

Two of the key factors determining publishing strategy are the size and the time-frame of the content. Content may be large or small, and it may be topical (of immediate short term interest) or durable (of long term interest). In the paper world, different publishing and binding models fit different quadrants:

Quadrant diagram of paper world.Books took a long time to produce (two years was, and still is, typical) so they were useless for topical material. Their fixed costs also made them impractical for individual pieces of short material.

Pamphlets and periodicals worked for short topical material, but their flimsy nature and small size made them difficult to catalog and retrieve, so they did not work well for durable short material.

Durable short material was dealt with to a certain extent by bound and indexed periodicals and by encyclopedias, but both these forms were limited in their scope and availability. Most periodicals could not afford to publish material that was not topical because they were not set up for a long sales cycle for individual issues. Thus most periodicals were filled with topical content that quickly went stale. Only a few were set up to publish durable short content, and they tended to be expensive, specialized, and academic.

Given these difficulties in dealing with durable short content, much of durable content that was naturally short was gathered up with related material and pushed into books so that it could be produced, distributed, and found using the durable long model. Much durable short material thus became artificially long or artificially conflated with other material.

But if the paper world struggled with the durable short, it was positively lost in the world of the topical long. Paper simply offered no physical or economic model for the production and distribution of topical long material.

The net effect was that in the paper world, the only economical formats for most content were books and periodicals, and consequently most content was shaped for either the topical short world of periodicals or the durable long world of books. The topical long and durable short categories were poorly served and sparsely populated.

In the digital world, things look very different:

Quadrant diagram for the digital world.The web provides a medium that works equally well for the topical short and the durable short. For the durable long, we have eBooks, while both the web and eBooks provide effective avenues for the long and topical.

All four quadrants work equally well, both from a technical and a business point of view. There is no reason, in the digital world, to artificially re-shape content that naturally belongs to the topical long or durable short categories in order to force them into a more economically or technically viable quadrant.

This being so, where does most tech comm content fit on the grid? As with most subjects, there is some tech comm content that belongs to every quadrant, but the overwhelming mass of tech comm content is naturally short. Few readers sit down to read book-long accounts of the tools they are using. This is not to say that there is no demand for book-length tech comm, for there certainly is. But the bulk of tech comm content belongs to the short category, where people seek help or clarification on a single task or subject so that they can get back to work.

In the short topical quadrant, most technical communication takes the form of online interactions between users. Some of these may be of long-term value and become durable content, but at the time they are intended to serve a topical purpose. Professional technical communicators probably can and should spend more time on topical short tech comm, but most of their work naturally falls into the durable short quadrant.

One of the things that sets the durable short apart from the topical short is the need for organization. The topical short is, for the most part, inherently ad hoc in nature. Some of it may prove to be of lasting value, and may accordingly be brought into some form or organization. But in the durable short quadrant, the problem of organization must be faced up front. Without findability there is no durability. Some form of organization, whether static or dynamic, is therefore necessary for durable short content.

This makes the durable short the domain of the professional communicator, either as author or as coordinator of the authoring process. But most technical communicators learned the craft of organization in the paper world where short durable content was artificially fitted into the long durable form of books.

To realize the full advantages that the web offers in the short durable quadrant we must get our heads and our content out of the long durable format and start to think in terms of creating naturally short durable content and organizing it to work on the Web.

Every Page is Page One is the prescription for creating and organizing content for the durable short quadrant in online media. It stresses first that the content is naturally short, that it serves a discrete information need for an individual user at a particular time. It also stresses that for such content, organization is not based on sequence or hierarchy. There is no first and no last, no parent or child. Content is related to other content by context, by type, by category, and by subject, and it should be navigable on any and all of these axes.

This form of organization is natural to the web. Look at Wikipedia, and you will find it is organized in exactly this way. There is no first or last, no parent or child, only context, type, category, and subject.

No, when I say “Every Page is Page One”, I am not saying that there is no place for long-form narrative in technical communication. What I am saying is that the bulk of professional tech comm naturally belongs to the durable short quadrant, that it needs to be liberated from the durable long quadrant where is was imprisoned by paper, and that in the durable short quadrant, every page really is page one.

9 Responses to Why EPPO and the Web are the Right Fit for Tech Comm

  1. John Mulvihill 2012/10/24 at 03:14 #

    Durable short form quadrant need not be restricted to words. Sometimes a 30-second Presenter movie can say more — far more — than a thousand words. We are drowning our profession in a sea of verbiage that will never be read — not by today’s users. They want short videos. Adobe now supports video embedding in Captivate and Presenter. Would it be TOO condescending of us to give the users what they want?

    • Scott Abel 2012/10/24 at 15:26 #

      Amen. I just completed a very detailed survey of the technical communication industry and am in the process of analyzing 6,000 anecdotal comments. So far the major trend is adopting video to explain (in short form) many types of challenges and solutions — from configuring servers to installing hardware or learning to use software or consumer electronics. Video is going to play an increasing role in our lives. And, ironically, some folks are wrapping DITA around video and reusing it to create customized video instructions.

      We are getting ready to see some big changes in our little industry.

      • Mark Baker 2012/10/24 at 22:55 #

        Scott,

        Structured writing has generally treated graphics as objects that get inserted into books or topics as illustrations of the text. But in a topic-based writing system (and here I mean Every Page is Page One topics, of course) a video is in many ways more like a topic than an object, so a video as an Every Page is Page One topic makes perfect sense.

        The problem is that Every Page is Page One topics work best as hypertexts, and video is not a hypertext medium. Creating a wrapper around a video, as a place to hold the links, therefore makes a lot of sense.

      • Marcia Riefer Johnston 2012/10/25 at 03:44 #

        What a project, Scott. Where will you post the results of your analysis?

    • Mark Baker 2012/10/24 at 21:32 #

      Hi John. Agreed, videos are certainly a form of durable short (or even topical short) tech comm. I would not go so far as to say that readers want videos universally. I can’t see anyone wanting an API reference as a set of videos, and some users find videos frustrating because they can’t skip and skim like they do with text. But I do think video has been underused traditionally because of the expense of creating and delivering it, and with those factors greatly reduced, I do see it playing a larger role going forward.

      And for the most part, videos are created on he every page is page one model. That is, people don’t create 3 hours movie epics, they create short videos to address individual tasks.

  2. Ed 2012/10/24 at 07:52 #

    I think your analysis works for EPPO and TechComm, but I’m dubious about your placement of eBooks in the durable/long quadrant, on several grounds. First, too many current eBook formats are legally or economically encumbered — the current brouhaha over the Norwegian woman whose Kindle was wiped is just the latest example. Second, it strikes me that the technology is still in flux. Yes, web content from the ’90s can still be rendered in current browsers… but will that still be the case (in general, as opposed to expressly converted special cases) in the *next* century? Finally, books are autonomous in a way that eContent is not. A book, once printed, is continually readable until either it’s deliberately destroyed or its paper or ink decay. eContent, in contrast, can only be read in the context of abundant cheap electricity. Maybe it depends on the kind of timeframe you care about, but I’m not yet sufficiently impressed with any eContent ecosystem to call eContent durable. (And the technology that comes closest, IMO, is not eBooks but rather the web.)

    • Scott Abel 2012/10/24 at 15:23 #

      eBooks and the web are going to be synonymous as more and more content is wrapped in HTML5. But, I hear you. There are all sorts of issues to consider.

      • Mark Baker 2012/10/24 at 22:41 #

        Thanks for the comment Scott.

        One of the big differences between books and the web is hypertext. A book is designed to stand alone. The current generation of ebooks seem to be almost entirely things designed as books (standalone, without links). For ebooks and the web to become synonymous, ebooks would need to become web-like, using hypertext and designed to exist in a web of information. HTML5 lays the groundwork for that, but there has to be a design change as well. The interesting questions are, will that happen, and should it happen. Hypertext is a wonderful thing, and I think it is grossly underused at the moment, especially in tech comm. But I’m not convinced that there is no longer a role for sustained linear narrative.

    • Mark Baker 2012/10/24 at 21:37 #

      Hi Ed. It’s a fair point. Just because ebooks are a viable form of presenting long content of durable interest, does not automatically mean that they are a durable way of *owning* content. I think in the long run we will get this stuff worked out and will come to regard owning rights to content in the cloud as more secure and durable than owning bits of dead tress. But we are not necessarily there yet.