Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Four Management Challenges in Implementing Information 4.0

Information 4.0 is a new concept but some of the technologies and methodologies that it encompasses are available and implementable today, albeit in early forms. But before that happens, Information 4.0 will face multiple challenges, just as online help and the web did in the 1990s.

In this post, I’ll discuss four implementation challenges on the management side:

  • Defining clear and consistently accepted terminology.
  • Demonstrating support for the company's strategic and business direction.
  • Dealing with problematic senior management biases.
  • Establishing and following standards, metrics, and analytics.

Defining Clear and Consistently Accepted Terminology

New technology often sounds like confusing gibberish.

  • Twenty years ago, and even today, there was confusion over “WebHelp” versus “Web Help”, for example. Because of that confusion, many companies bought the wrong tools, hired the wrong people, or just went off in the wrong direction.
  • Today, there’s confusion over the meaning of “mobile”. Is it an app? Responsive online help on a laptop and a mobile device? Something else? I recently consulted at a large manufacturing firm that brought me in to help assess its readiness to go mobile. One result was the discovery that the different divisions had totally different interpretations of the term.
  • Information 4.0 promises entirely new levels of terminological confusion. Is “molecular content” the same thing as a topic? What’s “dynamic” content? And so on.  

Until everyone agrees on the meanings of the terms being used for an Information 4.0 implementation, it will be difficult to show support for the company’s strategic and business direction. This means it will be almost impossible to do anything else. So any Information 4.0 effort needs an education component.

Demonstrated Support for the Company’s Strategic and Business Direction

Information 4.0 is cool. But that won’t be enough to build management support because management is typically being pressed to support other initiatives too, many also cool. It’s crucial to show, concretely, how Information 4.0 will support the company’s strategic and business direction. That’s going to require careful analysis of the company’s operations beyond technical communication.

Dealing with Problematic Senior Management Biases

Even if senior management supports an Information 4.0 effort, we may encounter biases that affect that support. (In the early days of business computing, managers didn’t want to use computers because that involved typing and the bias was that typing was secretarial work. Renaming “typing” to “keyboarding” got past that bias and made typing – on a computer – cutting edge.)

For example, it will be crucial to present Information 4.0 as dealing with “content” and “user support”, not “documentation”. No one cares about documentation. But despite your efforts, management may still view Information 4.0 as documentation-focused, not realizing that “documentation” today is more a combination of content creation and programming. If so, it will be hard to get management support. By way of illustration…

I was contacted by a company whose online help was created using a long-dead version of RoboHelp. Users complained that the search didn’t work well and there were problems in the code. The company wanted to convert the help to Flare to get better search results and clean up the code to future-proof the content, both supposedly good things.

The company turned down the proposal on the grounds that it was too expensive. The problem was that they saw their help as documentation rather than as a strategic resource and gave it a far lower priority. The upshot? Their staff would do the conversion. Unfortunately, the staff was bright but didn’t know RoboHelp, Flare, or code so the effort was likely to be slow and inefficient at best.

In that tale is an example of how management bias may harm even efforts that management wants. And Information 4.0 is far more complex and unfamiliar than online help, so bias is likely to be still more of a problem.

Standards, Metrics, and Analytics

In the mid-1990s, online help and the web were so new that few companies had standards or metrics by which to measure them. And analytics barely existed.

Today, however, getting management support for an Information 4.0 effort will require showing support for your company’s business and strategic direction. (That may not always be the case. In 2002, I spoke with two people from an aircraft builder whose CTO was so impressed with mobile that he directed that it be implemented on the manufacturing floor without cost-justification. So you may not always have to demonstrate support, but it’s the safe way to bet.)

Demonstrating that support often requires quantitative data, ideally numbers that translate to increased revenue or reduced expenses. Information 4.0 is so new that few standards exist, and thus few metrics or analytics. Yet Information 4.0 has a lot in common with today’s online help and web efforts, and may be able to use some of their standards and metrics. The biggest problem I’ve found with metrics for any purpose, let alone Information 4.0, is resistance from people who don’t want to be measured.

Summary

Information 4.0, like any new technology, is fun to speculate about and fulfilling to help emerge. There are many interesting challenges on the development side and the impact on tech comm. I’ll look at these in later posts.


But none of them matter if you don’t sell management on the idea in the first place.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

We’re Going Mobile! Great! But What Does That Mean? And Are We Ready?


So, your company has decided to take its documentation mobile. Great! But has the company considered:

        What does “mobile” mean? People often assume that “mobile” means an app on a smartphone but does everyone share that definition? If not, different groups can wind up going in different directions.

        How do you plan to go mobile? Creating responsive versions of the documentation, converting the online documentation to an app, creating a “true” app, or something else?

        Should your content authoring practices change? You may be authoring in ways now that violate good practice, such as local formatting in Word, but that have been working until you decide to go mobile.

        Will your business practices support an organized and maintainable mobile effort? If not, the move to mobile is likely to be a one-off that wastes resources and loses management’s support.
In this post, I’ll briefly discuss these questions. The post is based on the “We’re Going Mobile! Great!...” presentation that I gave at the STC annual conference in Washington, DC in May, 2017 and the TCUK conference in Nottingham, England in September 2017.

What Does “Mobile” Actually Mean?

It sounds silly, but poll everyone involved to make sure they’re defining “mobile” the same way. Often, they may not be and the result can be chaos if you’re trying to set up a company-wide mobile strategy.

How Do We Plan to Go Mobile?

There are three primary approaches – responsive output, converting online documentation to an app, and creating a “true” app.

1 – Responsive Output

Responsive output means creating one online document or web site that can detect the properties of the device on which it’s displayed and automatically reformat itself accordingly. This can be very useful because if your material has to be displayed on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones, you only have to create one output rather than one output for each device.

And, depending on your authoring tool’s features or your code skills, you can not only change the screen layout, such as collapsing the menu, but change the layout of the content, such as changing from a horizontal to a vertical format, and even change wording, such as changing “click” when the material is displayed on a PC to “tap” when it’s displayed on a mobile device. All automatically.

2 – Converting Online Doc to An App

Because so much online documentation is primarily text and graphics, we tend not to think of it as being suitable for an app. Yet many apps are largely text and graphics. Check out the Messier List and Encyclopedia Britannica apps for example.

How can you convert your online documentation to an app? Two quick options:

·        If you use Flare, you’ll use the cloud-based PhoneGap Build (https://build.phonegap.com/). See my May 2017 post on MadCap’s MadBlog at https://www.madcapsoftware.com/blog/2017/05/18/convert-madcap-flare-target-mobile-app/.

·        If you use RoboHelp 2015+, you’ll use the built-in PhoneGap (http://phonegap.com/). For information, see this post by Robert Desprez – http://tinyurl.com/h2y27o2.

·        For general information, see PhoneGap Essentials by John Wargo.

Not everything will convert smoothly. Popups convert to hyperlinks. Some head styles converted to italic when I converted a RoboHelp 2015 project, though this may have been fixed in v. 2017. But the main content, structure, and features converted surprisingly well.

3 – “True” Apps

Need the look and features of a “true” app? The last few years have seen the appearance of code-light or code-free app development tools. These are sometimes referred to as DIY (do-it-yourself) app tools, or categorized by Forrester Research as Rapid Mobile App Development (RMAD) tools. (Look for a future post on the subject of RMAD tools.)

RMAD tools have two uses for the purposes of this discussion.

        Let non-programmers create apps.

        Let programmers create apps by making the interface creation, workflow, and data access tasks simpler than working in code in order to free up time to concentrate on the code-heavy tasks.

By way of disclosure, I’m certified in one RMAD tool called ViziApps (www.viziapps.com). For a list of other RMAD tools, see “10 simple tools for building mobile apps fast” at http://tinyurl.com/hzz4j5c

Why create true apps rather than using responsive output or converting your help to an app? Two primary reasons.

        User expectations – If you say “app” to most smartphone users, they’ll have expectations about the look and features that responsive output or converted help may lack.

        The need for new capabilities such as location or orientation sensitivity, a built-in camera, RSS feeds, transaction processing, and more.

What Effects Might Mobile Have on Your Development Practices?

If you plan to make your content mobile in an efficient and maintainable way, you may need to make some changes in how you create and maintain that content. Some examples:

        No more hacks – Hacks may be impressive but they’re often a bending of good coding practice that can be hard to maintain and may not work as you upgrade your authoring tools or code version. As someone once said, “A hack is a one-off; good coding is forever.” Eliminate existing hacks and make it a policy that new hacks are not permitted.

        No more local formatting – Local formatting is inefficient and overrides the styles in your CSS. This is not a not a mobile issue per se, though it bulks up files and may slow downloading. But it’s just bad coding practice and may break something in the future.

        Replace local formatting with styles, which may mean cleaning up your CSS.

        Rethink your writing style. Make it shorter, more granular, and more focused.

        Eliminate excess content.

        Tables can be hard to fit into small screens, so rethink what purpose your tables serve and how to use them. If your tables are containers for multiple content pieces, only one of which is used at a time, can you replace your tables with lists of links or searches?

        Consider changing navigation – Indexes are being replaced by search. Does this affect you?

        Use up-to-date, commercial tools – Look for tools that offer new features like responsive output and get rid of outdated tools. Be wary of tools with proprietary features that may not translate going forward. If you use such tools, be wary of leap-frogging multiple versions to get up to date or switch to a different tool.

Do Your Business Processes Support Mobile?

You can be okay regarding definition, technical approach to conversion, and cleanup of development processes and still have the move to mobile fail because it isn’t supported by your business processes. Some examples:

        Management buy-in – Have you given senior management sound business/strategic reasons for going mobile in order to justify the effort and build long-term support? If not, the effort will die.

        Training – Have the authors been formally trained in the correct and effective use of their tools? Peer-to-peer training may work if the trainers are experts, but too often this simply promulgates bad practices.

        Standards – Have authoring standards been clearly defined, promulgated, and enforced across all authoring groups? Without such standards, it’s almost impossible to share content between groups and projects.

        Development metrics – Are there clear, focused metrics?  If not, it’s very difficult to identify weaknesses in the development processes. Something as simple as time-per-content-unit is a convenient way to keep track of the effort and resources required.

        Usage analytics -  Do you collect and analyze usage data to find out what users, if any, are using what material? Without such data, you’re basically throwing your mobile content into the darkness and hoping for the best.

        Governance – Is there any formally defined process for managing the workflow and ensuring that material meets internal and any external requirements?

        And more…

Summary

It’s easy to go mobile – buy an authoring tool, figure out how to use it, and convert your content to a mobile format. Unfortunately, this approach can be very inefficient and lead to results that are neither maintainable or reproducible.

Similar problems arose in the early days of online help in the mid-90. But back then, much of the effort was experimental, user expectations were minimal, and schedules were loose. Today, “mobile” is a much more culturally accepted form of presenting content, which means that user expectations have been conditioned by a decade of smartphones, and users want their mobile content now.

Proper planning before going mobile will help your company better meet those expectations.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Beyond the Bleeding Edge Returns

Beyond the Bleeding Edge was a conference session that I ran at the STC’s summit from 1999 until 2014, and a column I wrote for the STC’s Intercom magazine from 2000 to 2015. The goal was to introduce technologies that were new to tech comm – on the leading (or bleeding) edge and beyond – such as XHTML, WSDL, JavaHelp, haptic interfaces, the W3C RDF metadata standard, and more.
The Bleeding Edge is now Hyper/Word Services’ technology blog. Look for a new post every 3-4 weeks on various technologies, tools, and methodologies, with a focus on mobile content and the Information 4.0 concept, plus whatever else seems appropriate.
Technology is fun!