Lean Content Is Smart Content

Closing out my conference junket for 2014, I’m at Information Development World in sunny San Jose, California. Content reuse is not the only tactic you can apply as part of your content strategy to reduce cost and improve discoverability.

How often have you proudly described the great big manual or Help system you just finished writing to your fellow tech writers, your manager, or even potential employers? But how much of that bulk was really necessary? How do you decide when you have too much content? How do you decide which content stays and which lands in the archive? Applying metrics-driven lean content principles & practices as part of your content strategy can not only save you money on maintenance and localization, but more importantly it can make your content more discoverable and usable.

In this session, I’ll provide both strategic advice on how to decide whether you need to streamline your content, as well as practical suggestions about the tools and techniques you can use to make the streamlining process successful.


EDIT: You can now see my full presentation on SlideShare.

Techniques for Maximizing Content Reuse

Kicking off the conference season for 2014 in Palm Springs, California, I’m back at another WritersUA. Taking advantage of my experience across all the major content development platforms over the past 20 years, I’m presenting about the various ways writers can improve the level of reuse in their content.

Text insets, conref elements, embedded topics, variables, tokens – no matter what technology you’re using to create your content, there’s a dizzying array of options available to you to enable reuse. With all that power and so many choices at your fingertips, you can quickly paint yourself into a corner. To truly take advantage of the potential cost savings and improved consistency that reuse offers, how do you decide which techniques to use for which types of content, and at what level in your information architecture?

Though I promise this will be technology agnostic, it’s inevitable that I’ll occasionally reference the software I’m responsible for designing, developing, and delivering.


Good UI is Great UA – Eliminating Content as a Band-Aid for Bad Software

For my second presentation this week at WritersUA East 2013, I’ll be covering a topic especially near and dear to my heart.

There’s not much worse for a tech writer than having to come along behind poorly designed software to solve usability problems or prevent support incidents with your content. Worse, products often keep changing right up until the last second. What can you do to influence better UI so that you have to create less traditional forms of UA?

In this session, I explain why it’s so important to build relationships with the designers and developers creating the software “upstream” from a writer’s work on Help or manuals and how to ensure accurate content across all languages even when the UI continues to change.


SEO for UA – How to Improve the Discoverability of Your Content

I’m presenting this morning at WritersUA East 2013 in gorgeous Newport, Rhode Island.

Many software users turn first to Google or Bing to find answers to their questions. How do UA professionals ensure content is discoverable beyond traditional manuals or Help systems? There’s a lot of talk about SEO among web pros and marketers, but what does a UA pro really have to do to make it easier for users to find their content?

In this session, I present on why SEO is just as important for UA as it is for marketing communications, how every writer can improve their content for search, and what tools and technologies site owners can use to make optimized content even more discoverable.


How to make random strangers hate your pet

One of the cool things I do (not astronaut or fireman cool, to be sure) is that I get to help design the user interface for my features. As a writer, this generally just involves writing all of the labels and error messages, but my wife is always joking that I don’t do enough to use my powers for the fame and fortune of our dogs. Clearly, someone at Amazon.com has the same idea.

I had forgotten my iPod at home, so I was using my backup headphones to listen to Pandora. (I’m so ineffective without the noise-canceling effects of music that I keep a pair of backup headphones in my desk drawer. With a little Johnny Cash or Death Cab for Cutie, I’m a tech writing machine.) I liked one of the artists and clicked their Amazon.com link to find out more, only to see this page:

Now, there’s something to be said for friendly error messages — especially in consumer contexts like this one. The reader may even be disarmed enough not to be annoyed. To Amazon or Pandora’s credit, I’ve never seen the “Amazon.com Error Corgi” since, but I’ve encountered cutesy or mascot-themed error messages on other sites.

Flickr, for example, is famous for using the message “Flickr is having a massage” during downtime. The first time I saw this, like the ideal user I mentioned earlier, I was highly amused. The second time I saw this (a month or two later), I was less amused but not annoyed. But when Flickr upgraded the site from Beta to “Gamma” (whatever that means), I saw this and other cutesy but useless error messages over, and over, and over. I was much less amused after several days of being locked out of my account.

The lesson here is that error messages should be easy to understand, but truly informative. (As a side note, I hate Apple error messages because there’s so very little real, actionable information in them. I could go on and on about the uselessness of Apple Help, but I’ll save that for another day.) Attempting to be colloquial or cute can in the long run backfire in situations where the users is likely to see the error repeatedly.

And that’s why Pugsly and Josie will never be featured in any of the error messages I write.

EDIT: Here’s one of the Flickr error messages I was talking about, but didn’t have a screen shot at the time:

Hiccups indeed.