September 2018
Text by Rahel Anne Bailie

Image: © aydinynr/istockphoto.com

Rahel Anne Bailie is the Chief Knowledge Officer of Scroll and builds the content strategy practice there, developing successful digital content projects that tackle the complexities of managing content for clients globally. Her background in technical communication and content management gives her a unique view into the changing operational models of producing content.


rahel.bailie[at]scroll.co.uk
www.scroll.co.uk


 


 

Pushing syrup through a straw

In times of bots and Information 4.0, technical communication has become more significant than ever. Yet, the rising expectations are rarely met with extra resources for TC departments. Operational strategies are much needed for times when content exceeds capacity.

Technical communication teams produce a great deal of content. Content management experts estimate that on any large website, only 20 percent of the content is persuasive (marketing) content; the other 80 percent is informational content (technical, training, support, etc.). Despite the crucial role that information content plays in the grand scheme of things, technical communication teams often find themselves overworked and under-appreciated. They are downsized, "right-sized", and otherwise squeezed until they are unable to cope with the vast amounts of content they are expected to produce.

Capacity problems

When demand exceeds capacity, this is most commonly due to one of two issues: product changes and resource changes.

Product changes

A change to product size or composition creates a discrepancy between capacity and demand.

  • More product complexity
    The complexity of a product often means more features and interactions to document. This adds to an already packed schedule.
  • More products in a product line or more product lines 

    Every new product or product line means changes to functionality. Creating material for each new product is time-consuming, and keeping track of which products have which functionality is an added layer of work.
  • More markets
    
Expansion into new markets means more languages to manage. Localization is no trivial matter and can become a logistical time sink.
  • More content complexity

    Documentation is no longer restricted to the classic user guide, support material, and training guides, but also needs to cater to web pages, bots, voice interfaces, and emerging outputs such as information 4.0 environments. During the past few years, the number of channels has increased, and many channels come with their own editorial requirements.

Resource changes

Even when a product set remains stable, demand can outstrip capacity when there is a change in resources.

  • Decrease in staff

    Over time, team sizes shrink according to the amount of effort needed to create content for a range of products.
  • Same number of staff creating more content

    An increase in the number of products or channels means extra layers of content being produced by the same number of people, which leads to more work hours per person.
  • New staff

    Adding more staff to cope with increased content demands doesn’t lead to an immediate increase in capacity, as anyone new will face a learning curve.
  • Different deliverables

    Creating a different mix of content deliverables means that even with experienced staff, there will be added time and complexity to produce all the materials needed.

Addressing discrepancies between capacity and demand

There are four basic ways of addressing the issue of demand for content outstripping the capacity to produce that content.

1. Increase capacity

Increasing capacity is a traditional way to meet the need for more content, which can be reduced to two methods:

  • Increase resource levels

    Organizations use a mix of techniques to fill resourcing gaps. If the discrepancy between demand and capacity promises to be long-term, there may be a need to hire more staff. If the discrepancy seems more temporary, outsourcing some of the work to an agency or bringing in contractors would likely be better solutions. Another option could be to offload some of the content production to adjacent roles – for example, giving the product owner responsibility for creating some of the less critical content, after which it can be edited by the professional content developers.
  • Use automation
    
When faced with a time crunch, it is definitely worth looking for manual processes that can be automated – for example, copying information to or from spreadsheets. Automation may be as simple as having some simple scripts written to save time, or it could be more substantial, such as adopting systems that help manage content with more efficiency. This may mean learning what’s available: better authoring tools, authoring assistance through automated style guides, or more connectivity between processes.

2. Decrease demand

When increasing capacity is not an option, then decreasing the content output is the other option.

  • Adopt minimalism
    
This could be the time to stop documenting every feature, and focus on explaining the newer features or those that are more likely to cause confusion for users. When left with too many features that need documenting, decide which features need less depth. If there are functions that seem obvious and need little explanation, don’t spend precious time on them. Another option could be to create content for fewer user groups. This is not to say that some user groups should be ignored, but they could be serviced by content that comes from less formal channels: System administrators, for example, could be considered a specialty audience that receives their content from the technical architect.
  • Change your practices
    
Look at more efficient ways to create content, such as using the principles of "Create Once, Deliver Anywhere". Perhaps editing content that was created by a subject matter expert would be more efficient than creating the content from scratch. Some of the emerging trends in documentation, such as creating intelligent content – defined as content that is structurally rich and semantically categorized – can use systems designed to automate content delivery across channels.

3. Change the conversation

Rather than accepting the status quo for producing content, having a frank discussion about what is really needed can change the complement of content produced for a product.

  • Decrease the need for content

    Seasoned technical communicators can attest to the expectation that the documentation needs to explain how to work around flaws in the software. Fixing the software instead of documenting its flaws can be more efficient, particularly when you show the quantity of content affected across a product line with multiple products, in multiple versions, across multiple markets.
  • Reuse content from other sources

    When content is produced in a modular way, with consistent language and terminology, the ability to reuse this content increases tremendously, allowing for content to be leveraged across a range of products. Content could also come from less traditional sources. For example, some user communities are passionate about ways to use a product; they can be a handy source of information.
  • Look for help in other areas

    When a different genre of content is needed – a features and benefits piece, perhaps – look at the departments most likely to have already created that type of content or who would want to take ownership of creating it. Also consider working with the user experience team, as they have likely produced deliverables that will help explain how a feature works.

4. Adjust the supply chain

Companies are notorious for streamlining operations across the organization but ignoring content operations. Taking charge of this area can be beneficial in several ways:

  • Change delivery demand
    
Can you deliver content in a staggered way? Is it possible to streamline operations to deliver content in a structured way?
  • Deliver in step with the Agile team
    Chances are that the development team uses some form of Agile methodology, which means that it’s possible to develop content in step with them. Delivering content within the same sprint as the dev team means that at the release of MVP (Minimum Viable Product), content is also ready to go. When localization is involved, the content from each sprint can be translated for the following sprint. This means less delay after MVP for release into multiple markets.
  • Get a head start on content

    Searching for available content could mean looking for content from a different division, a sister company, or an upstream vendor. Getting a head start on content that way can alleviate backlogs of work later on.

Adopt new ways of working

The adage of "work smarter, not harder" is an effective way of reducing the workload while maintaining, or even increasing, content volume. Content tends to proliferate the way landfill builds up, and eventually a team on a deadline inherits an incredible amount of inconsistent, off-brand, and outdated content.

Anyone who has undertaken a dreaded CMS migration or “rebranding exercise” knows how fraught with tension that can be. Years of inconsistencies and errors come back to haunt the team charged with shoring up the content. Enforcing a stringent quality control process can add a bit of operational overhead, with the long-term benefit of operational ease when content needs to be manipulated in various ways.

Continuous content curation

Diamonds may be forever, but content has a finite life span. It may be tempting to let content accumulate like dustballs under the bed. However, it’s in everyone’s best interest to have a regular maintenance schedule.

  • Conduct a rolling ROT (Redundant, Outdated, Trivial) audit
    
A regular audit will help clean out content that, at the very least, could be embarrassing to an organization, and at worst, could leave an organization open to legal liability. A quarterly audit is a way of making the cleanup process less painful in the long run.
  • Use analytics to determine relative value
    
Looking at the analytics for your content lets you see which content has high access rates and which content is never viewed. Ranking content by its popularity can help inform content priorities. Also, if certain types of content regularly rank low, this could be a sign that it’s time to rethink whether it’s worth the effort to keep creating that content.
  • Practice content hygiene in the source language
    
When content needs to be translated into multiple languages, the cost of localizing content can rise exponentially when the source content is not in good shape. Keeping the source language content in order can make a significant difference to the time and effort spent untangling linguistic problems later.
  • Maintain content in multiple variants and languages

    The amount of content maintenance can be multiplied by the number of variants. Content may be localized into multiple languages. Content may be localized into different variants of the same language for different markets – how English is used around the world can vary greatly. Content may need to be adapted for multiple channels, such as web, mobile, wearables, or bots. The need to maintain multiple variants of content is simplified when the source content is kept up to date.

Translation management

Get maximum benefit from translation technologies. Organizations that operate in multiple markets often translate large volumes of content. Translation processes have become sophisticated and extremely efficient.

  • Use glossaries and translation memory
    
Glossaries and translation memories have been around for decades now and should be a standard part of an organization’s localization toolkit. Glossaries contain approved terminology lists, and translation memories contain databases of approved translations. Storing terminology and reusable translations increases consistency and can drastically reduce translation costs.
  • Use machine translation
    
Doing the first pass through machine translation is now standard practice. The machine translation is followed by a post-editing cycle, where a translator reviews the translation for quality purposes. Adding this practice to the use of glossaries and translation memories makes for some serious processing power. Not only do the translations cost less, they can be completed in a fraction of the time.
  • Automate with a translation management system
    
The last piece of the puzzle is to use a system to manage translations. If the translations are of any significant volume, there needs to be a control system that sends content out, keeps the languages synchronized, and in the round-tripping of the content, ensures that the content ends up in the right place within the content ecosystem. Automating translated content is part of producing content with efficiency.

Build intelligent content

"Reduce, reuse, recycle" is a mantra for practitioners wanting to create content efficiencies. Using the principles of intelligent content has benefits far beyond closing the gap between demand and capacity. The components that work together allow computers to automatically process content, which in turn replaces the manual tasks.

  • Make the content structurally rich

    Use a schema, preferable an industry standard, so that systems can understand how to process it. (Example: DITA)
  • Provide semantic categorization
    Add more meaning by adding tags so that systems can understand how to process information more specifically. (Example: product)
  • Provide rich semantics
    
Tag your content with meaningful attributes so that computers can aggregate the content in specific ways. (Example: description, premium)
  • Map your content configuration

    Create a map for your content that allows for the automatic pull and display of content. (Example: product-title, product-image, description, price)
  • Use a tool that helps leverage the power of content
    
Invest in an authoring tool that allows you to structure and tag the content efficiently. (Example: validating structures, choosing attributes from a drop-down list)

The agility of intelligent content means that your operational benefits also spin off some business benefits. Automated processing solves the conundrum of personalization, which is the holy grail of marketing departments everywhere.

Adopt DocOps techniques

It’s easy to tell what matters to organizations by looking at how operations are supported. It's rare for accounting departments, for example, to use old-fashioned ledger books; there's sophisticated accounting software that supports data entry and provides reports through dashboards. Similarly, systems exist to help with content operations, and organizations often need to be educated as to the benefits that accrue by using those systems. Structured content authoring tools, translation management tools, taxonomy management tools – all of these contribute to healthy content  (ContentOps) or documentation (DocOps) operations models.

Not much has been published about DocOps, but what has been includes some familiar techniques.

  • Collaborative content development

    Work with other content stakeholders, such as customer support and training, to single-source content that can be used for multiple purposes.
  • Agile methodology
    
If your organization uses Agile methodology for software development, get on board by developing content in step with each sprint, so that at the end of the project, the content will be ready.
  • Iteration
    
Fix content as you go so that you can catch mistakes before you lose track of them; this will also save fixes in other areas, such as translation.
  • Crowdsource
    
Get feedback on your content from multiple sources, from internal stakeholders to select customers. A technique such as crowdsourcing isn’t appropriate for every situation, but a passionate user base can improve content in unexpected ways.

Conclusion

Stretching capacity to meet demand is a lot like the law of physics. There are only so many ways that the factors can be arranged and rearranged, with a limited number of potential outcomes. The good news is that as the industry progresses, more and better factors are becoming available that will ultimately allow technical communication teams to thrive.