April 2017
By Daryl Colquhoun

Image: © _marqs/istockphoto.com

Daryl Colquhoun has had careers as an academic and in IT, before turning to technical writing. As a technical writer, he has had a varied career writing about software and hardware, with a lot of exposure over the years to matters of security, starting with his work with an industrial research and development firm. He is a member of the Australian Society for Technical Communication and was a long-serving member of its executive committee before becoming its delegate to the ISO/IEC working group on documentation standards.


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International standard supports acquirers and suppliers of user information

International Standard ISO/IEC/IEEE 26512 assists acquirers and suppliers of user information. Published originally in 2011, the changes in its latest version are indicative of the paradigm shift that has shaped the industry during the past years.

"ISO/IEC/IEEE 26512 Systems and software engineering — Requirements for acquirers and suppliers of information for users" was first published in 2011 in response to requests from users. It did not replace any other standard. ISO/IEC/IEEE 26512 is currently undergoing revisions and the new version is expected in mid-2017. These revisions include fairly minor improvements to the structure and additions to the bibliography. One change, however, deserves special notice: Instead of "documentation", the norm will now use the term "information for users".

In many parts of the world, the term “documentation” is associated with printed manuals only. It refers to a time when hard copy user manuals were the one and only form of user information. These days, however, user information comes in manifold formats and styles, including online Help, audio and video files or even Augmented Reality tutorials. The neutral term “information for users” refers to all types of content.

Part of a set of standards

Standard 26512 is part of a suite of standards relating to information for users of systems and software. Other standards in the suite relate to:

  • Content of life-cycle information items (documentation) (ISO/IEC/IEEE 15289)
  • Managers of user documentation (ISO/IEC/IEEE 26511)
  • Testers and reviewers of user documentation (ISO/IEC/IEEE 26513)
  • Designers and developers of user documentation (ISO/IEC/IEEE 26514)
  • Developing user documentation in an agile environment (ISO/IEC/IEEE 26515)
  • Engineering and management of websites for systems, software, and services information (ISO/IEC/IEEE 23026)
  • Content management for product life-cycle, user, and service management documentation (ISO/IEC/IEEE 26531)

All of these standards are published in English only.

The scope of 26512

Standard 26512 and the others in the series are intended to help software users to obtain consistent, complete, accurate, and usable information about the product. It supports the view that the acquisition and supply of user information are an important part of the software life cycle.

It is very broad in its application and does not only apply to traditional "user manuals" such as printed books delivered with software, or PDFs intended for printing. It explicitly states that it applies to all forms of information for users, including, for example:

  • Multimedia systems using animation, video, and sound
  • Computer-based training packages
  • Information for users incorporated into the user interface
  • Collaboratively generated information for users (wikis)

In addition, the standard can also be used when creating information for users for products other than software. This is due to the fact that most modern technical products – from motor vehicles down to entertainment and household appliances – now contain software.

What is specified?

Neither standard 26512, nor any other in the series, provides specific recommendations regarding the documentation itself. For example, it does not specify the paper size, nor that paper must be used at all. It also does not require information to be structured using chapters, topics, screens, etc., and it leaves the terminology up to the creators of the information.

The standard does, however, describe the appropriate process when acquiring and supplying information for users. As it applies to the acquisition and the supply of user information, the standard relates to two processes occurring simultaneously: the acquisition process and the supply process. These are almost, but not quite, parallel processes.

Table 1 outlines the components of these processes. This table is the core of the standard, and each entry contains a reference to the clause within the standard that discusses the respective requirements.

 

Acquirer processes

Supplier processes

Purpose of the acquisition process

Purpose of the supply process

Outcomes of the acquisition process

Outcomes of the supply process

Information for user acquisition activities and tasks

Information for user supply activities and tasks

Acquisition preparation

Opportunity identification and evaluation

Proposal preparation

Supplier selection

Negotiating and agreeing on the contract

Negotiating and agreeing on the contract

Contract management and monitoring

Contract performance

Delivery

Acquirer acceptance

Acquisition closure

 

Table 1: Components of the user information processes.
Source: Daryl Colquhoun

 

Target audience of the standard

International Standard 26512 is aimed at acquirers and suppliers of information for users who wish to refer to and comply with an accepted and comprehensively described approach. While this will often be the case where there are separate acquirer and supplier companies, it can be used within an organization too, where the acquirer and supplier are different parts of the organization.

  • Within the companies that both acquire and supply user information, there is a broad range of people who can use or consult the standard:
  • Business analysts who identify the tasks that intended users will perform
  • Managers responsible for software development or the creation of its user instructions
  • Managers who authorize and approve acquisitions or who prepare proposals
  • Information designers, authors and editors
  • Graphic designers
  • User interface designers, user experience experts and usability testers