Is personalized content unethical?

Personalized content has been the goal of many in the technical communication and content strategy communities for a long time now. And we encounter personalized content every day. Google “purple left handed widgets” and you will see ads for purple left handed widgets all over the web for months afterward. Visit Amazon and every page you see will push products based on your previous purchases. Visit Facebook …

Well, and there’s the rub, as Mark Zuckerberg is summoned before congress for a good and thorough roasting. Because what Cambridge Analytica did was personalized content, pure and simple, and no one is happy about it. read more

Chatbots are not the future of Technical Communication

And suddenly every tech comm and content strategy conference seems to be about getting your content ready for chatbots. Makes sense if you are a conference organizer. Chatbots are sexy and sex sells, even if the definition of sexy is a grey box with a speaker sitting on the counter.

But chatbots are not the future of technical communication. Here’s why:

Chatbots are stupid

No, I don’t mean that they are a stupid idea. I mean they are actually stupid. As in they are not very bright. As Will Knight writes in Tougher Turing Test Exposes Chatbots’ Stupidity in the MIT Technology Review, current AI does barely better than chance in deciphering the ambiguity in a sentence like: “The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.” (Who feared the violence?) Human do this so easily we rarely even notice that the ambiguity exists. AI’s can’t. read more

The incomplete bridge

In the Top Gear Patagonia Special, the presenters come upon an incomplete bridge and have to construct a ramp to get their cars across. This is a great metaphor for technical communication, and, indeed, communication of all kinds: the incomplete bridge.

Technical communication is often described as a bridge between the expert and the user. But that bridge is always incomplete. The user always has to build the final span that connects the bridge to the bit of ground they are standing on.

This is true for several reasons, the most basic of which is that you have to contextualize any information you receive to your own project in order to act on it confidently and successfully. If the document tells you to push the red button, it is still your job to determine if you are looking at the right device and the right red button, and if your purpose will truly be served by pressing the red button at this time. The document can never entirely ensure that you do not press the wrong button on the wrong device or at the wrong time for the wrong purpose. Only the individual reader can determine those things, and thus only the reader can build the final span of the bridge. read more

Structured Writing and Free Trade

In my last post, I promised I would reveal the unifying idea that I developed for my new book on Structured Writing. This is the post. So what does it have to do with free trade? Mostly it is that I see the same pattern in discussions of free trade that I do in many discussion of structured writing: a failure to focus on the big picture.

Free trade has been pretty much a given for the last several decades with nations and trading blocks negotiating ever freer trade. But of late the virtues of free trade have been called into questions by the Trump/Sanders wing of American politics, which has those of us in Canada, for whom America is our largest trading partner, a little anxious. read more

In Praise of Long-form Content

Yesterday I wrapped up work on my new book on Structured Writing and delivered it to the publisher. There will be more work to do, of course, after the pre-publication review process is complete, but in a broad sense, the book is done. That is, the arc of the book is complete.

Good books have an arc. Finding that arc is one of the great joys of long-form writing. Of course, this blog is about short form writing — about Every Page is Page One topics that serve a single discrete purpose for the reader. But in a sense even a book should fit that mold — should serve a single discrete purpose for the reader. The whole should be more than the sum of the parts. There should be an arc, something the book says that is more than an accumulation of details, and that allows the reader to see the details in a new light — and to act differently and, hopefully, more successfully, in that new light. read more

DocBook resurgent: what it tells us about structured writing and component content management

A new XML-based content management system that is not based on DITA. Bet you didn’t see that coming. But I think it tells us something interesting about the two sides of structured writing.

Tom Johnson’s recent sponsored post explains the origins of Paligo, a relatively new CCMS out of Sweden. Paligo was developed by a company that had formerly been a DITA consulting shop in an attempt to come up with something that was easier to use (and less expensive) than the DITA solutions they were implementing.

What is interesting to me about Paligo is that they chose DocBook rather than DITA as the underlying XML vocabulary. Why? Quoting Tom:

And it turns out that building on a foundation of Docbook XML is considerably easier than building with DITA. DITA tends to impose more restrictions about what you can and can’t do, Svensson says. Even so, Paligo is only “based on Docbook.” Paligo extends from this foundation, adding what they need and not letting the content model restrict the system, while maintaining full capability to export to the open standard.

This is interesting because DocBook is a large and complex specification. (I want to say larger and more complex than DITA, but I’m not sure if that is true anymore.) Why use it as the basis for what is supposed to be a system that is easier to use than DITA?

The answer seem to be lack of restriction. DocBook may be as large and as complex as DITA, if not more so, but it is much less restrictive. DITA has lots of restrictions on what you can and cannot do in each topic type. DocBook has very few. You can combine DocBook elements in just about any way that might occur to you. And apparently Paligo loosens DocBook even further.

Why is this significant? In a CCMS (Component Content Management System) the whole point of the system is to let you assemble documents out of pieces. The main benefit of this is content reuse. The main problem standing in the way is composability: the ability to put pieces together and have them work.

Composability is an interesting problem. Lego sets and Mechano both have composability within their own systems, but there is little composability between Lego and Mechano.  You cannot freely exchange the bits. Composability is similarly a problem between the many different file types used across a typical enterprise. If you want to practice component content management on an enterprise scale, you need a composable format across the enterprise.

There are two ways to get this. One is to allow each group in the enterprise to have their own format, but insist that it must be transparently convertible into a common composable format. The other is to get everyone to use the common composable format directly. The latter sounds easier, so that is what most people choose. (It is not always easier, but people only find that out later.)

To get everyone in the enterprise using a single composable format, you need it to be easy to use, as well as being flexible enough to serve everyone’s needs. What to choose?

DITA has been the default choice for a while now, but the problem is that DITA is not really easy to use. Several companies have tried to make DITA easier to use. (Tom mentions EasyDITA in his article.) But DITA comes with restrictions and restrictions are hard to learn and annoying to comply with unless you really understand the point of them.

Lightweight markup languages such as Markdown and ReStructuredtext have become popular as well, with various CMS and publishing systems being built around them. But while they are simple and easy to use, their simplicity can be limiting. There are things that occur in complex publications that they cannot easily represent.

DocBook offers a far richer set of markup structures that can represent all of these things, but without the restrictiveness of DITA. It makes sense, therefore, for a company like Paligo to choose it for their underlying document structure.

There is a rub here though, and it has to do with the two sides of Structured Writing that I mentioned at the beginning. Those two sides are composability  and constraint. I am writing a book about structured writing (currently being serialized on TechWhirl) . That book focuses on the constraint side of structured writing.

The constraint side of structured writing is about expressing and enforcing constraints on content. It is about limiting and shaping what is written to meet a particular need. For example, it may constrain a recipe to follow a particular format and include particular pieces of information.

Here is a constrained version of a recipe:

recipe: Hard Boiled Egg introduction: A hard boiled egg is simple and nutritious. ingredients:: ingredient, quantity eggs, 12 water, 2qt preparation: 1. Place eggs in pan and cover with water. 2. Bring water to a boil. 3. Remove from heat and cover for 12 minutes. 4. Place eggs in cold water to stop cooking. 5. Peel and serve. prep-time: 15 minutes serves: 6 wine-match: champagne and orange juice beverage-match: orange juice nutrition: serving: 1 large (50 g) calories: 78 total-fat: 5 g saturated-fat: 0.7 g polyunsaturated-fat: 0.7 g monounsaturated-fat: 2 g cholesterol: 186.5 mg sodium: 62 mg potassium: 63 mg total-carbohydrate: 0.6 g dietary-fiber: 0 g sugar: 0.6 g protein: 6 g read more

Designing for Feedback

We were discussing the biggest challenges in Tech Comm at the last STC Toronto brunch and we all seemed to agree that the difficulty getting feedback on the effectiveness of the content we create is the biggest challenge. The things that really matter in technical communication is whether users can achieve their goals after finding and reading the docs, and whether that makes a difference in whether they buy from you again or speak well of you to their friends and colleagues. These things are incredibly difficult to measure. You are just not there to see them happen, and it is very difficult to separate their effects from the effects of the work that designers, developers, sales people, trainers, field engineers, and support staff do. read more

Another demonstration that language is stories

Sam Jackson makes it look easy, but Siri and her cohorts are still pretty dumb. If experience alone does not illustrate this to your satisfaction, a recent article in the MIT Technology Review, Tougher Turing Test Exposes Chatbots’ Stupidity, shows just how low their success rate is in understanding real language.

The Winograd Schema Challenge asks computers to make sense of sentences that are ambiguous but usually simple for humans to parse. Disambiguating Winograd Schema sentences requires some common-sense understanding. In the sentence “The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence,” it is logically unclear who the word “they” refers to, although humans understand because of the broader context. read more

Affordances are relative

Affordances, those features of a product that help you figure out how to use it, are relative.

Most of the busses in the Kitchener-Waterloo region have rear doors that open when you wave your hand in front of them. The one I took downtown this morning must have been an older model because it just had two vertical push bars on the doors.

When we arrived at the terminal, the young woman at the front of the queue to get off started to wave her hands in front of the door, which did not respond. Puzzled and alarmed, she began to shout at the driver to open the doors, until someone behind her said, “push the handle”. read more