Does Topic-Based Authoring Help Readers As Much As It Does Writers?

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Many large companies have adopted a modular, topic-based approach to technical documentation. This is mainly because content can be reused in various ways from a single source, preventing multiple versions of the same information. This approach helps writers publish the same information in different combinations to different media (for example, mobile devices and TV screens).

Does topic-based authoring also help readers? In a number of ways, it does.

Structured content helps readers because the format and approach are consistent, therefore it is easier to use and understand, even when it is accessed from an index or search.

Standalone topics are based on their content type: tasks, concepts, and references. For example, tasks provide the steps necessary to perform a specific goal; concepts provide a way to understand how that goal fits into a larger scheme of information; and references often provide alphabetical lists in tables, such as a command options list.

Separating descriptive information from task-oriented information helps readers access only what’s relevant to them. Topics provide just enough detail for readers to understand the content contained in each one without having to look somewhere else.

Linking related topics is an important part of modular documentation. Links help readers navigate, and the information they find will be exactly the type of information they need. If different topics are written by different authors, readers should still be able to navigate efficiently through the content to find what they’re looking for. For example, task topics almost always have related concept topics, reference topics are referred to by multiple concept topics.

Mark Baker, who writes about developing task-oriented, topic-based content in his blog Every Page Is Page One, points out that “breaking down content into small structured units is a good way to improve consistency and productivity.” Topics help readers, he says, when they include context and links. “Context can be a sentence or two that helps readers figure out what the topic is about and how it relates to other topics, for example, what it covers, what release it applies to, and what type of information it is (task, concept, or reference).”

So perhaps the answer is that what helps writers also helps readers.

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10 Top Trends Driving the Technical Communication Industry

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Source (edited): The Branham Group

Technical communication is experiencing a number of fundamental shifts these days, thanks to globalization, the Internet, and mobile devices. Here are 10 key trends that continue to emerge in the technical communication industry.

1. Structured documents

One of the biggest trends is the move to structured documents. These documents use some method of coding or markup to provide benefits such as content reuse, single sourcing, multi-channel publication, and agile documentation. One of the benefits is the ability to present documents in various ways on mobile devices, TV screens, and a variety of other devices.

2. Single-source publishing

Single sourcing allows the same content to be used in different documents. This approach has increased in popularity, given the need to produce multiple deliverables, such as technical manuals, online help systems, and eLearning content.

3. Multi-format/multi-channel delivery

With the use of multimedia devices, content is being produced in multiple formats. Paper manuals and online help files stored locally on PCs are disappearing quickly in favor of online documentation that can be updated quickly with new information.

4. Mobile delivery

Mobile devices provide capabilities that are continuing to expand. Responsive web design focuses on the delivery of HTML through a single implementation that adapts to the size and orientation of the viewing device. This technique delivers flexible layouts and images, providing an opportunity to publish to full PDF, create dynamic web experiences, and offer shorter versions of content.

5. Topic-based, context-sensitive help

Rather than forcing users to search through entire documents, context-sensitive help provides faster results, delivering targeted and relevant information to users at the specific time it’s needed.

6. Multimedia communication

Today there is a shift from traditional text-based communication toward multimedia, or more interactive content (audio, images, video). While it may cost more to produce than traditional text, multimedia can provide a higher return on investment through increased customer satisfaction and reduced support-related calls.

7. Social interaction and direct user input

Social networks are playing an increasingly important role in the incorporation of information. With increased sharing and collaboration (Web 2.0), everyone has a voice. As rating systems, commenting, and discussion forums allow for active user participation, existing documentation becomes optimized.

8. Reporting and analytics

Technical communicators can now use metrics available from such services as Google Analytics to show how they provide value. More than simple page view statistics, these services record search terms (including common misspellings), traffic patterns, and frequently viewed content. Information like this can be used to show what users may have been looking for, and more importantly, what they couldn’t find.

9. The Specialist vs. “The Jack of All Trades”

The growth of multi-channel delivery, social interaction, multimedia, and mobile delivery is widening the gap between specialized roles (the technical writer, video producer) and the person who wears different hats within an organization. Many large organizations still focus on specialized individuals for text, layout, video, and animation (for example, technical writers are there to write documents), however, technical communicators in smaller organizations are being required to focus on more than just one area.

10. Automated processes and collaboration

Today, users are expecting documentation to be updated quickly, particularly online content. Through single sourcing, automated workflows, and collaboration, the time required to deliver updates is being significantly reduced. For example, content editing can be reduced to a single instance, which helps reduce the time using expensive editing processes across multiple iterations of similar documents.

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