The Design Implications of Tool Choices

Every documentation tool has a built in information design bias. When you choose a tool, be it FrameMaker, DITA, AuthorIt, a WIKI, or SPFE, you are implicitly choosing an approach to information design. If you don’t understand and accept the design implications of your tool choice, as many people do not, you are setting yourself up for expense, frustration, and disappointment.

Introducing the SPFE Architecture

Today, I am announcing the launch of a new website, is a site about the SPFE architecture for building structured authoring systems. Why would the world, need such a thing when it already has DITA? The site will attempt to answer that. Why have I spent the last 15 years or so working on what I now call SPFE? That I will try to explain here.

Are We Causing Readers to Forget?


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Could the way we organize content actually be causing readers to forget what they have read, or even why they were reading?

In a post on the Technical Communication Professionals Email List, Mike Tulloch provides a link to a study from Notre Dame that suggest that walking through doors causes people to forget things  ( The theory is, apparently, that passing through a doorway is a threshold event that triggers the mind to store away information, which then makes it harder to retrieve that information. Mike wonders if there may be similar threshold events in text: read more

Topics and the Big Picture

Writers often express the concern that topic-based writing cannot handle the big picture. Topics, they complain, don’t provide a way to tie everything together. Thus users get lost in a sea of topics, can’t understand the system as a whole, and can’t figure out where to start.

If you formed your topic set by slicing up a book, then the above is probably an accurate picture of the result. Scattered fragments of a book generally don’t do as good a job as the intact book. No wonder that so many writers, having split their books into topics,  hurry so quickly to stitch their topics back together into books, leaving themselves, in terms of information delivery, right back where they started from. read more

Findability: The Last Mile

Search is somewhat like an airplane. If you go to a meeting in another city, the plane takes you most of the way. But the plane only takes you to the airport. The meeting is somewhere downtown. You need some other means of transport to take you the last mile to your meeting.

I wrote recently on the impossible expectations that we have of search. Search fails, many claim, because it cannot always get you right to the single exact piece of content that you want. As I argued here, I think that it is unreasonable to ask such precision of search. Even if the limits of language did not interfere, the reader still would not know enough to enter perfect search terms every time. Search is the long haul carrier of findability. But we still need to travel the last mile. And the last mile of findability is being sadly neglected. read more

Search, Browse, Surf: Pick Three and Add Something Extra

The Web provides three basic modes of navigation: search, browse, and surf. Few web sites, and still fewer doc sets do all three well.

The something extra? “Pick three and add something extra” comes from Peter Sheahan’s book Flip, in which he flips the traditional business motto “good, fast, cheap: pick two” into what he regards as the new price of admission for business: “good, fast, cheap: pick three and add something extra.”

With findability being the new price of admission of content, I’d suggest that search, browse, surf: pick three and add something extra is the new standard we have to meet. read more

The Reader is the Enemy

Noz Urbina asks, Is Communication Mired in the Past? Well, yes, obviously. Most of the tech comms world is still making books in FrameMaker. But also no, because the problem is more profound than the words “mired in the past suggest”. People get mired in things through carelessness or misfortune. They want to get out, but they can’t. Technical communications isn’t mired in the past, it is entrenched there, gallantly, if with dwindling hope, guarding the battlements against the encroaching hoards of readers. read more