We Must Develop Topic-Based Information Design

There is a lot of talk in tech comm today about topic-based writing, but very little about topic-based information design. This is a problem, because, in the age of the Web, and particularly of the mobile Web, topic-based information design is essential.

Topic-based writing is often perceived (and practiced) as nothing more than writing in small, potentially reusable, chunks. As such, it says nothing about what kind of information design those chunks will be assembled to create. Often, such topics are assembled to create books, or, sadly, the monstrosities I have dubbed Frankenbooks.  Seldom are they used to create something that a reader would encounter as a usable topic — that is, a sufficient treatment of a single subject of interest. read more

The Tyranny of the Terrible Troika: Rethinking Concept, Task, and Reference

Tom Johnson’s blog post Unconscious Meaning Suggested from the Structure and Shape of Help, includes a graphic showing three shapes of content:

Tom Johnson's "Shapes of Help" graphic. Tom Johnson’s “Shapes of Help” graphic.

These three shapes are meant to represent the DITA topic triad of concept, task, and reference. I didn’t get it. As I said in a comment on Tom’s blog, I was trying to match the shapes to something more specific. It was odd that I didn’t recognize them as concept, task, and reference, I said, because I have be “battling the tyranny of the terrible troika” for the last few years. Tom asked what I meant by “the tyranny of the terrible troika”; this is my answer. read more

Frankenbooks Must Die: A Rant

I was astonished at Sarah Maddox’s statement, in her guest post Why don’t technical writers use wikis — or do they? on I’d Rather be Writing, that wikis are not good at topic-based writing. Huh? Wikis are all about topic-based writing. In fact, it is the only type of writing they really support.

What’s wrong here? It certainly isn’t that Sarah does not understand wikis. If you want to know about using wikis in technical documentation, Sarah is the first person you want to talk to. If anyone knows wikis, it’s Sarah. She’s even written a book on the subject. What’s wrong, apparently, is that the term “topic-based writing” seems to have been corrupted or co-opted and robbed of its proper meaning. This is serious, and it needs to be fixed. read more

Characteristics of EPPO Topics: Stay on One Level

One of the less obvious but more important characteristics of an Every Page is Page One topic is that it stays on one level. As with the other characteristics I have discussed in this series, being standalone, having a specific limited purpose, and establishing its context, staying on one level is not an ideal, but a common feature of millions of page-one topics on the web. What makes this characteristic worth pointing out is that it is something a topic does not share with books.

Characteristics of EPPO topics : standalone

Last month I wrote that Every Page is Page One Topics are Everywhere, and I listed the principle characteristics of such topic as I see them. I said I would write in more depth about each of these characteristics. This is the first of those posts, on the standalone property of EPPO topics.

The word standalone is open to many interpretations. I have written before on what standalone means from the point of view of an authoring system and made a distinction between a chunk of content being able to exist alone (inside a CMS, for instance) and it being able to function alone for the reader. Here I want to look at what it means for a topic to function alone. read more

Fine chunking and translation apparently don’t mix either

The one concession I have been willing to make to the fine chunking characteristic of many DITA implementations is that it was a boon to translation. Apparently not so, according to a recent blog post on Content Rules.

The problem is that fine chunking tends to obscure context, making the content impossible to translate reliably. And the real kicker in this problem is that even if the translator is given the means to see the content in the current context or contexts, the source may be reused in new contexts later without the translator being involved again or ever seeing the content in its new context. (This is where the savings are realized, after all.) read more