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

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

Can Content be Engineered; Can Writers be Certified?

tl;dr: We can apply engineering methods to content development, but we do not have the body of proven algorithms or known-good data to justify formal certification of communication professionals they way we have for doctors and engineers.

We talk about content engineering. I call myself a content engineer sometimes. But can content really be engineered? Is content engineering engineering in the same way that engineering a bridge is engineering, or only engineering by analogy?

This post is prompted by a fascinating conversation with Rob Hanna and others at the monthly STC Toronto Networking Lunch. The conversation morphed into something I think I can fairly characterize as: is there a uniform methodology to technical communication, one that can form the basis of a curriculum, a certification, or a toolset, or is there a legitimate diversity of approaches, roles, methods, and tools. read more

What is an “Expert Writer”?

“Hire Expert Writers,” Says Google

That is the title of a post from M2Bespoke about Google’s emphasis on returning reputable content. What is an “expert writer” in this context?

Many of those who have commented on it and passed it around take it to mean expertise in writing. That seems to be the interpretation that the author of the article is making as well:

There’s no doubt you’re experts in your industry, but do you have professional writers within your business to convey that expertise? Google says: if not, why not? read more