The potential of structured content

Content managers in the technical documentation business know what the advantages of structured content are:

  • Content reuse;
  • Multichannel publishing;
  • Configurability;
  • Adaptability;
  • etc.

Although, over the years, there has been a lot of talk about the potential of structured content, the creation of such content is still the domain of a relatively small group of technical writers. As a result, just a small part of the huge potential has been realised.

The larger group of ‘occasional writers’, in technical documentation often referred to as subject matter expert, seem to prefer the use of Microsoft Word. Most of the time, with unstructured content as a result.

According to recent customer research we have done, writers tend to use Word for the following reasons:

  1. Writers are accustomed to Word (and people don’t like (to) change);
  2. Writers like the ‘freedom’ of Word i.e. unstructured content;
  3. Writers don’t personally experience the advantages of structured content creation (What’s in it for them? Why bother?);
  4. Writers don’t fully understand the concept of structured content;
  5. Writers are provided with complex editing tools (too techy, steep learning curve) as an alternative.

In practise though, there are good alternatives for Word. Or, as we like to see it, good complementary tools. Our research shows that timing is critical in the transition from unstructured to structured content authoring. When occasional writers are provided with the right tools at the right time in the content creation process, they are willing and able to change their ways of working — and create structured content.

Six relevant steps in the structured content lifecycle

Create
If writers have to start from scratch, they’ll use Word by default. For small content items though (e.g. just one warning note or a disclaimer) writers seem to prefer FontoXML Editor over Word. In some cases, larger content items can be created from scratch without Word, but only when writers are provided with a very easy to use template where it’s just a matter of filling the blanks. For example question types in educational content are created in this way.

Structure
For most subject matter experts who create content once in awhile, structuring that content is hard. Again, a template might guide them in the right direction but in the end structuring appears to be more of a task for the technical writer and not so much for the expert. And technical writers also use the tools they are accustomed to.

Tag
Tagging or rather enriching content on a fine grained level (e.g. a word or a sentence) is something that is preferably done using FontoXML. By using complementary tools like PoolParty it can even be done semi-automatic. There’s no training or XML knowledge needed for this.

Review & Comment
Whereas Word is the preferred tool when writing from scratch, in the review process it is not. Review and commenting, combined with proper versioning, is preferably done in a collaborative (online) environment. If done so, a detailed audit trail is a valuable ‘extra’ that comes with the use of FontoXML.

Revise
If the content is already structured and in the right format e.g. XML (DITA, JATS, LegalDocML, etc.), it should be revised as such. As with the review process, versioning and collaboration ask for an easy to use (online) editor, including track changes. FontoXML combined with the XML based merge and comparison technology by DeltaXML, is considered to be more reliable and easier to use than Word.

Approve
Most of the time, signing off the content is done using workflow software, not Word, FontoXML or any other (XML) editor.

The right tool at the right time

In conclusion, when writers are provided with the right tools at the right time in the structured content creation process, they will adopt structured authoring.
Word is certainly one of those ‘right’ tools, especially when writing large documents e.g. a scientific article, from scratch. And so is FontoXML, in combination with tools like DeltaXML (compare and merge) and PoolParty (metadata, linking, annotations).

As always, timing is everything!

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