Friday, December 12, 2008

Banging The Drum Again...

In his excellent blog post about the current state of the book publishing industry Mark Tavani, a Senior Editor at Random House, makes the following observation.

... books are a mere format. Yes, they can be beautiful and wonderful to hold in your hands, and yes, there are some books I plan to keep in my home until the day I die simply for their sentimental value. So I understand what is magical about books. But the most magical thing about them is the information they convey: the story they contain. The word “book” and the word “story” are not synonymous, just as eight tracks and music are not the same thing. Stories pre-date books by milleniums; and though books might someday go away, story will last as long as our civilization does.

Substitute the word "book" for "documentation," and the word "story" for "content" and I think the observation applies equally to the world of corporate publishing as it does to traditional book publishing.


I need to add a couple of points of clarification here.
- Anyone who knows me and has heard me speak will know I love books (the traditional kind). I have a house full of them, and spend my evenings and weekends writing them. BUT while I'm a passionate bibliophile, I am also aware (as I mentioned in my last post) that the "book model" is perhaps no longer the best model to be using to ensure that content reaches the end user of a product or service.
- While I suggested swapping the word "story" for "content" in the quote above, that was more to illustrate a point. For me everything we write or produce that is designed to pass on knowledge or information is, and should be treated as, a story. The ability to tell stories is the most powerful communications tool we have at our disposal. As Tavani points out, we've being doing it for millennium, and will continue to do it irrespective of any technology or medium.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Move over DITA – Chaos is coming!

I’ve never really questioned the need for hierarchical structure and imposed taxonomies, - until I watched my teenage daughter doing her homework several months ago.

Let me explain.

I’ve been working with topic based authoring, structured content and mark-up languages for over twenty years now. This highly formalized approach to technical documentation has always seemed to be the right approach to take in handling larges amounts of complex information, and delivering it in a way that enables relatively easy navigation.

I’ve seen them all come and go – SGML, DocBook, XML, CALS, DITA plus a ton of various industry and company standards. I’ve even served on several such standards committees and working groups in my time.

For those of us raised on more traditional media (i.e. the printed word) we are most comfortable with the book paradigm. That information should come in a structured format, i.e. Chapters with Headings and Sub-Headings, and that navigation is best accomplished by either a map to that structure (i.e. a Table of Contents), or an alphabetical listing of subjects covered (an Index).

Naturally when we started to deliver information electronically we carried that paradigm over. Sure we made a few concessions to the new media (for instance I remember having a long, and somewhat heated discussion on why we didn’t need page numbers on a CD deliverable); but the underlying print based model stayed. Because that’s what we were comfortable with. It’s what we naturally understood and it matched the way that we handled locating and using written information outside of the work environment.

In fact for most of my working life to date, the technology I used at work far out paced that I used outside of work.

But not any more.

Now the technology I use at home has generally outpaced that found in most workplaces. In particular social media and the way that we look for information online.

Helping my teenage daughter with a school project on Pearl Harbor made me realize that the new generation now entering the workforce has a completely different way of accessing information.

Of course the first thing she did was google “Pearl Harbor” and started visiting links. First stop was Wikipedia.

Then she got on Facebook and YahooIM and started using messaging to ask friends who were online for recommendations. These friends were literally from all around the world, so she was given access to resources that gave totally different perspectives than those given in the classroom. As I watched she soon had six different windows open on her iMac and was pulling information from multiple sources into her own document. Building the structure and narrative as she went.

One friend suggested going to a social bookmarking site and searching using a variety of user applied tags. Instead of taxonomy she was now applying folksonomy.

Of course being a bibliophile and a bit of a history geek I had a few good old-fashioned print books on World War II sitting in my home office. I proudly placed them on the edge of my daughter’s desk and suggested she look through those for information on Pearl Harbor too.

She dutifully picked up a couple of the books and started flicking pages over, skimming through the contents.

“Why don’t you use the Table of Contents of Index?” I asked.

“That just confuses me. I can find stuff quicker this way,” she replied, looking in bemusement at her obviously aged father.

I sat back and watched her navigate the books for a few minutes. She quickly found what she needed – and then I realized what she was doing. She was “browsing” just as if she was online.

That’s when I started to question the paradigm that’s informed the way I’ve thought about online documentation for over two decades. The book driven, structured paradigm may have been ideal for my generation, but what about the new generation?

For kids raised as part of the “digital generation” where the first place they go to find out information is the internet and social networks, is the book an irrelevant model?

Yes the information they access still needs some sort of mark-up and tagging so the search engines can find it. It still needs metadata to enable user tagging. But instead of strictly enforced hierarchies, what is being built and accessed is more of a flat ocean of information (or a “Content Pool”) that users search rather than navigate, and then dip into to find the components they need to build their own solutions.

So where does that leave current favored structured standards like DITA? I believe they have a place in more rigidly defined and regulated environments, but how long they will remain useful is open to question.

As for more general applications I believe we need to stop trying to shoe-horn the current “flavor-du-jour” standard onto every publishing project, and instead take a step back and look at how your kids do their homework. Because in five to ten years they will be your new workforce, and perhaps more importantly, your new customers.