Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Future Arrives Earlier Than Expected

One sure-fire aspect of writing trends articles is knowing that I’m going to be wrong about something. What’s entertaining is seeing just how quickly that can happen...

In December, 2009, I wrote an article about trends for STC’s Intercom magazine in which I predicted, among other things, “dynamically reconfigurable outputs,” which I described as follows:

“One problem with documentation is our inability to create one output to handle everyone’s needs. We can use conditions to create multiple outputs from one project, but this creates multiple outputs to which we then have to steer readers. It works, but the development is inefficient and can be confusing. Instead, what we need is the ability to create one output that dynamically reconfigures itself based on readers’ login permissions, requests (“Only show me material related to Idaho.”), or external stimuli (like an aircraft maintenance manual whose content varies depending on whether the outside temperature is above or below freezing). This technology will simplify distribution of information by reducing the number of outputs. It would also let us create output that responds to readers’ needs rather to our estimate of their needs.

Assessment – This technology is under development now, but every effort that I know of is still proprietary. I expect it to appear in mainstream tools in the next few years…”

Four months later, at the WritersUA conference in Seattle in March, 2010, I mentioned this idea to a representative of AuthorIT. After he stopped laughing, he said AuthorIT had come up with just such a product in mid-2009 but hadn’t gotten around to serious marketing until WritersUA. So I basically had the prediction right but the timeline badly wrong.

The product is Dynamic Assistance Platform, or DAP, one of whose components is called Aspect. As the AuthorIT site describes it “…The content is personalized for the person viewing it by matching information in the content with their login profile. This means that when a user views content, it is content that has been filtered for their profile…”

From what I got at WritersUA, Aspect may not be for everyone – as an enterprise-level product, its cost may be too high for small doc groups or applications. But it is the first commercial implementation I’ve run across of what sounds like a really useful idea. Even if you use another authoring tool, it’s worth reading about. See http://www.author-it.com/index.php?page=aspect

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