Bring on Rich Media

Technical communicators have always been at ground zero for the creation, development, and release of new technology products, a cycle that moves faster than the market’s ability to absorb new features and capabilities. For an example, consider that, for years, millions of VCRs blinked “12:00” because no one could get through the user manuals, particularly the instructions for setting the clock.

Products today are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than those old VCRs, yet end users continue to demand a simple, intuitive, and localized interface for both the product and its documentation. This bipolar requirement for both sophistication and simplicity affects not only manufacturers that create such products as consumer electronics, medical devices, and transportation equipment, but also vendors that build enabling technologies for the manufacturers. And who is most affected by this requirement on the delivery side? The technical communicator.

Documentation is a core, integral component of any technology-dependent product, and, as most end users would agree, it is rarely done correctly. That dilemma is finally starting to be resolved, and this change is about to undergo a huge acceleration thanks to the full integration of rich media into a production workflow.
What do we mean by rich media? In the context of this article, rich media are interactive, digital media distributed electronically. Examples include full-motion video; Flash video; 3D images that can be rotated, exploded, and tied into back-end production systems; and voice instructions that can be captured digitally and integrated into an end deliverable.

The implications of the rapid emergence of rich media are pervasive. A number of companies, large and small, are likely to tank or completely shift their business models, and some folks are going to make a lot of money. Again, who’s going to be at ground zero? The technical communicator.

Finding the Answer

People read documentation (user guides, training materials, field service guides) because they have to, not because they want to. When they refer to documentation, they use one of two approaches: they browse if they’re not sure what they’re looking for, or they search if they are.

Browsing works for people who have the time to peruse a lengthy table of contents or a list of FAQs. But if they’re in a hurry, they tend to use whatever search function is available and hope for the best. It’s likely that users going through documentation are already in a bad mood because the product isn’t working the way they want it to work. Not finding the information they need will likely worsen both their mood and their opinion of the company that built the product.

Assuming most information—particularly about technology-centric products—is created and delivered in a digital format, it’s also reasonable to assume that it’s delivered over the Web. If it’s possible to provide information without delivery limitations, the question then is how to provide precise product information—that is, not millions of answers, but the correct answer to a question. Maybe the precise answer requires more than a text response. Maybe it involves presenting query results in a variety of rich media formats that may be better suited than text to the end user’s needs.

It is now possible to provide a precise text response to a product query—as long as the text has been rendered in XML, or, better yet, reflects documentation standards such as Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), which organizes all technical information by topic down to a very fine level of granularity. DITA enables companies to provide an exact answer when, for instance, a field service technician asks how to upgrade the motherboard on a specific Siemens magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The document repository for that particular machine is stored in a content management system (CMS) and organized by topic. Since the query is specific to a procedure (or topic), the query engine pulls out the relevant references across the entire CMS database and organizes the information by topic and subtopic on the fly.

This process, referred to as filtered publishing, is a huge improvement over the hardcopy experience most users have suffered through. (No more thumbing through gigantic manuals!) But we are still one step short of the promised land: one question, one answer, delivered anywhere, anytime, in any relevant media type, and in whatever format is most convenient to the end user.

How can the technical communicator drive this type of experience? Text remains the primary mechanism people use to assimilate information. Video and voice are useful and perhaps more effective on some levels, but most of the world still uses text to capture information. Any shift toward rich media is going to ride on the back of text, which means that technical communicators will be responsible for coordinating and controlling these media. As we’ll see, technical communicators must adjust their strategic thinking to adapt to this added responsibility.

The Rise of DITA

How does rich media information get to a location where it can be useful? Delivery of this information into a content repository will be driven to a great extent by the underlying technologies provided by vendors. To begin, the information has to be well-organized from a contextual and a topical point of view. Most information-creation applications support XML as a means of structuring content, so this is a good start.

The problem with XML is that it’s so adaptable it has become widely used for nearly anything. Once XML is deployed in a large enterprise, its original intent—to order structure and context—is lost. This problem is what led to the rise of DITA, an XML standard developed by IBM for software documentation that was wisely passed on to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) for wider ratification and dissemination.

What is particularly convenient about DITA is that it is very well suited to the requirements of product documentation. While XML is widely adopted as an information standard, its frame of reference is too broad for topic-based content creation—which is where DITA shines. DITA is not specifically geared toward text as an information source; that just happened to be the first commercial use of the standard. DITA can just as easily be applied to a variety of information-creation applications, including graphics, full-motion video, and voice.
Most major authoring systems, including FrameMaker, Word, ArborText, and XMetaL, already support some version of DITA, and a number of nontext creation applications may soon support DITA as well. There are rumors that AdobeInDesign, Dreamweaver, and Flash are moving toward DITA. This crossover, when it occurs, will mean that rich media can be tagged using DITA to create topic references and entered into content repositories.

For an idea of how this will work from the technical communicator’s point of view, let’s say that you need to create a video for an automotive technician on repair procedures for a BMW. You wouldn’t create a four-hour film; you would create brief videos that address specific procedures: a two-minute clip on replacing the front-brake calipers, a three-minute clip on removing a compression cuff, and so on. What’s more, you’ll create the videos in discrete elements (each tagged by topic using DITA), and then upload the elements into a CMS designed to manage rich media objects.

The same process would be applied to Flash tutorials, graphics related to schematics, voice walk-throughs, and more. All of this content could be accessible as a search return to a topic-based query. Users who search a well-organized document database would be able to get the exact results they need in a rich media format. (One key variable in the development of searchable rich media is whether companies such as Adobe will stop thinking like desktop-centric application developers and begin considering process flow and true information integration across the enterprise, rather than between applications.)

Furthermore, most people who work in departments that require information resources as part of their end deliverable would be able to repurpose this information for additional audiences. A number of companies are already doing this with traditional text content and have found savings in the neighborhood of 70 percent, which translates to millions of dollars in most cases.

If these savings are possible in a text-centric paradigm, what savings are possible when the same metrics are applied to media formats that convey much more information? If a picture is really worth a thousand words, it’s definitely a more efficient information delivery system than text. Presumably, a more efficient delivery system would have a higher rate of return when content is repurposed. If you do the math, you realize the numbers get really large, really fast.

Evolution of the Technical Communicator

What is the long-term trajectory for the technical communicator in this shifting landscape? The rise of rich media is already changing the way people communicate, and unless the technical communication community makes some fast, strategic adjustments, it runs the risk of being marginalized. A similar shift took place in software development several years ago when technology companies started outsourcing development to low-cost centers. Those who self-categorized themselves as “software developers” ended up losing their jobs, while a smaller group looking further down the road repositioned themselves as “software architects”—focusing less on the actual code work and more on developing the overall architecture of the product and managing the offshore code development resources. My question at the time was, “Do you want to be the guy pounding in nails, or the guy staring at the blueprint and telling the guys with hammers what to do?”

The same basic dynamic is in play today in the technical communication market. Rich media is about to elbow its way into the technical documentation space. As a writer, you can get shoved aside, or you can reach out, pull it in, and make it your best friend.
So as a technical communicator, how do you adapt to the changing dynamics? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Shift your perspective. You are a technical communicator, not a writer. If you move out of the writing paradigm and into communications, your purview expands immensely. Someone needs to make sure that complex information is communicated clearly and succinctly—but who said it needs to be limited to text?
  • Become familiar with the overall technology. This doesn’t mean you have to learn how to write Flash code (although you can; it’s complicated, but not difficult). You first need to understand what it does, then how it does it. Gaining a sophisticated grasp of how rich media technology works will put you in a position to integrate it into your existing communications efforts.

What technology should you be keeping an eye on? Anything by Adobe, and not just the Technical Communication Suite. You also want to look at the Creative Suite family. And check out Microsoft Silverlight and the whole slew of on-demand products now available from Google. A large number of start-ups are also doing very cool things with rich media, and they’re all out there screaming at the top of their lungs.

  • Stay current. While the amount of information to consume is vast, you can have it delivered to you on a silver platter. Go to Google, sign up for Google Alerts, pick whatever topic or technology you’re interested in, and have any relevant article or reference delivered to your inbox. Helpful hint: to cut down on extraneous information, make sure your alert term is in quotes.
  • Start collaborating more interactively with marketing teams. They are the most likely source of rich media initiatives in a corporation. Don’t just focus on the internal marketing folks, but also look at the external agencies they work with—that’s where the hard-core creative types hang out.

Take the initiative. The executives in big companies are vaguely aware of rich media, but they don’t necessarily understand its implications. As mentioned, the people who are aware of rich media at a transactional level are the creative types, and they do not normally run the business. You, as a technical communicator, are grounded in communications. You’re close to the product, and you’re in an ideal position to marshal resources to start expanding the range of possibilities that rich media can bring to the table.