August 2011
By Sarah O’Keefe

Sarah O’Keefe is founder and president of Scriptorium Publishing Services, Inc., based in North Carolina, USA. Her company helps organizations with large amounts of technical content streamline their publishing processes to reduce costs and improve quality.



The economics of information

In Europe before the 1450s, books were precious, rare objects and were usually copied by hand over a period of months or years. Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press changed the economics of information distribution. The result of this change were less expensive books, greater literacy, and a challenge to those who benefited from restricting information. Today, the rise of the Internet has eliminated distribution costs as a barrier to entering the publishing market. With minimal equipment, anyone can publish his opinion in a blog or book, record and distribute a podcast, or deliver video content. What do these changes mean for technical communication? And what lesson can we learn from the changes that took place 560 years ago?

In the last 20 years, the economics of information have shifted toward the author and away from the publishers (or gatekeepers):

  • It’s possible to record high-quality audio and video with inexpensive equipment.
  • The Internet provides numerous publishing platforms (Blogger, WordPress, YouTube, Lulu, Amazon, iTunes, and so on)

For technical communicators, the possibilities are endless: we can develop books, ebooks, PDFs, web content, screencasts, podcasts, digital videos, wikis, and more. But which of these platforms will succeed?

The text cycle

To understand the economics of information, it’s helpful to break down the process of information development. I am using Terje Hillesund’s text cycle, which has the following phases:

  • Writing (authoring)
  • Production
  • Storing
  • Representation
  • Distribution
  • Reading (consumption)

Traditional storytelling combines all of these phases into a single event: one person at the campfire telling a story while the audience listens.

The written language separates distribution and consumption. Instead of needing an author to deliver the story in person, written content can be moved from one location to another.

The printing press introduces further separation of the phases by disconnecting production (formerly hand-copying) from distribution. It becomes possible to produce a page once and create many, many copies of that page.

Digital content allows further separation. Physical distribution is no longer required, and the representation (formatting) of the text is separated from the production (markup) and potentially from the storing (content management system).

Quality versus cost

It’s important to recognize that the printing press, which made inexpensive books possible, did require a compromise in quality. Hand-crafted, hand-copied books, with their carpet pages, intricate capital letters, and unique illustrations (often customized for the person who commissioned the book) were works of art.

The first printed books were actually hand-illuminated after the printing process, but this added effort gave way quickly to mass-produced books.

The economic logic was that the ability to produce books faster and cheaper was more compelling than the increased quality resulting from extra manual work.

Before the printing press, the act of copying the book also created the formatting. With the printing press, the formatting was done in a separate typesetting step, and it was then possible to create a large number of copies from a single formatting effort.

Today, the publishing world sits at a very similar inflection point. The rise of electronic publishing along with the ability to separate authoring from formatting is analogous to the rise of printing and the ability to separate formatting from distribution.

What are the implications for technical communicators?

The rules of publishing, which were relatively static for 500 years, are now changing by the day. Consider that iPad tablet publishing did not even exist two years ago. The Kindle reader is only four years old, but it drives a brand new e-book business. We can expect to see increases in publishing velocity, volume, and versioning requirements (see below). And based on the way that printing evolved, I think we can expect that economic considerations will determine which innovations succeed and which ones won’t.

With this in mind, I expect the developments described in the sections that follow:

Streamlined publishing workflows

Given the proliferation of output formats, the publishing workflow must be automated. I expect that labor-intensive final production work will disappear. Like hand-illumination, these tasks add quality, but they obstruct efficiency. In technical communication, efficiency is going to outweigh perfect kerning, copy-fitting, and other design niceties.

Data-driven, user-customizable graphics

Well-designed conceptual graphics, such as architectural overviews, will remain the domain of the professional author for now. To reduce the cost of maintaining (and especially localizing) these graphics, authors must use layers and carefully separate the core graphic elements from the components that require localization.

There is room, however, for growth in graphics that users can manipulate or create. If we make the data available to our end users, they can choose how to display the information (bar graphic or pie chart?), filter the information displayed on the chart, and control the colors and the fonts used in the chart.

Google Analytics and many web-based application dashboards provide users with ways to manipulate data. Technical communication needs to make better use of these types of technologies and provide flexible ways to render information. Instead of focusing on controlling the presentation (look and feel) of graphical information, we can build information applications that the end user can control.

Limited use of audio and video

If we apply Hillesund’s text cycle to audio and video, we can see why audio and video are not (yet) going to take over from text. The components of the audio and video development cycles are not yet separated as clearly as the text development components. In particular, when audio or video is recorded, the content storage and representation are tied together.

These two facets need to be separated to provide for really inexpensive (and therefore widespread) usage. A basic example where storage and representation are separated is text-to-speech functionality, which has the ability to render audio in a voice chosen by the end user, rather than in the audio track laid down by the author. But the vast majority of audio files use sound recordings, where the content is inextricably tied together with the delivery.

There are similar issues with video. One exception are screencasts and digital animation, where the source files have layers and timelines, which content creators can manipulate as needed.

But today, we do not have the same degree of separation of content and formatting as we do in text and graphics. We can’t slice apart audio and video the same way that we manipulate text.

Velocity, volume, and versioning

Velocity, volume, and versioning are the three Vs that drive the economics of information:

  • Velocity: the speed at which new information is created and delivered
  • Volume: the amount of content that needs to be created and delivered
  • Versioning: the content variations that need to be supported for end users

The requirements for the three Vs are pushing organizations to fully automate their workflows. They need to eliminate all possible sources of delays in delivering information to the customers.

Velocity and volume are also implicated in the rise of topic-based authoring. When authors work at the topic level, it’s easier to move authors from project to project and therefore put additional people to work on high-priority projects. This is much more difficult in narrative or book-based content.

Like velocity and volume, versioning requirements are increasing. Instead of creating a few manageable versions of content, technical communicators are being asked to support products that have dozens or hundreds of variations. The only reasonable solution with the higher number of versions is to deliver all of the content, and then filter it based on a user’s profile. This requires an excellent understanding of the product and (again) complete automation of the rendering process.

High-end versioning probably means that the content objects need traceability – they need to be connected to the corresponding product functions, so that the system can include the appropriate information for each user.

It’s worth noting (again), that the 3 Vs are supported mainly for text and somewhat for graphics. I’m sure that smart people will address these issues for audio and video, but we do not have those tools and technologies yet. We need to understand audio and video as objects with layers rather than as static blogs. Consider the difference between vector graphics and bitmaps. Most of our audio and video are more like a bitmap.

Search and navigation

To make information valuable, users need the ability to access the information that they need. Search and navigation are critical features of information products, and we are simply not ready with answers in this area. For example, consider an interactive, multimedia-rich e-book. In that context, what is the equivalent of a page number? How do you provide an addressing scheme that is easy to understand and use? Looking back into the past again, page numbers did not become standard in books until well after Gutenberg.

How will users find the information that they need? Search provides a partial answer, but even the most carefully crafted search string may result in an overwhelming list of results. To address this, we are seeing the rise of search with filters (faceted search) and social search (results are influenced by the searcher’s social network).