Digital Asset Management (DAM) Systems and the Single Technical Writer

While being the sole technical writer on a team or in an organization can be exhilarating, it is not for the faint of heart. It requires flexibility, patience, a thick skin, and the ability to quickly transition from one task to another. For years, writers saddled with a shoestring budget and a plethora of data would resort to creating a manual filing system or use a version control system. Both of these solutions were quick and effective for text-based data with static illustrations, where collaboration among content creators is minimal.

But, the sole technical writer who creates text-based documentation with no outside input is quickly becoming an endangered species. Changing consumer demands for content are impacting the documentation process. Today’s consumers expect more video content and more visual data. Interactive technologies and social media mean more opportunities for collaboration between the writer/marketer and the customer. With this, more people want access to technical content and they often want it presented in the medium of their choice. What was once manual is now completely digital.

Regardless of the nature of the change, it impacts the ability for the technical writer to quickly store, retrieve and modify data. If the company creates content that is copyrighted, tracking that content is also important. Often, these changes result in small delays at first. But over time, the complexity compounds the delays and can significantly impact productivity.

Janet is the sole tech writer in Big Ideas Incorporated. The company decides to aggressively market online and to use social media technologies and video. Janet also provides training support. Adam, a recent hire, is the marketing specialist. On Monday morning, Janet receives three emails: one asking her to prepare a presentation that will indicate how this version of the software differs from the last major release. She receives a request from several customers who want training videos, which are online, to be converted to several different formats. She also receives a note from Adam, who wants to modify the original logo for the company. The newly modified logo will be used on all technical, marketing, and training products. Finally, both Janet and Adam must interact with users on Twitter and Facebook, record feedback, and provide information to the development lead.

Janet could spend a half hour looking for the original logo and another 20 minutes trying to determine which screenshots are from the previous version. She could spend a half day converting 100 training videos to different formats and posting them on the web. Done manually, these tasks, , retrieve, store, and otherwise maintain these assets, consume massive amounts of time that Janet could otherwise spend creating content.

This is where a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system can help. A DAM system, as its name implies, is a specialized system that stores digital assets. DAMs can help the single technical writer easily store, retrieve, and manage this data. Typically a DAM consists of a repository in which the content of the representation of the content is stored, a metadata index, a search engine, a workflow (or collaboration) engine, and an access or rights subsystem.

While there are many similarities between DAMs and Content Management Systems (CMS), there is a fundamental difference in the way both view objects. In a DAM, objects are viewed as assets. An asset is a piece of content that has information, such as metadata or rights data, attached. This subtle, but important distinction impacts storage and retrieval. In a DAM, an object is not stored without metadata. This can greatly improve the accuracy of search results.

There are hundreds of DAM products available. These products vary widely in features offered and in price, but typically offer the following, at minimum:

  • Automatic and manual metadata tagging
  • Advanced search capabilities
  • Ability to store large video and digitized image assets
  • Automatic file conversion, on the fly, for the end user
  • Access control mechanisms
  • Version control and threading
  • Workflow management
  • Bulk ingestion (or uploading) of digitized files

To illustrate these features, let’s return to the example of Janet, the sole technical writer. Janet has many digitized screenshots that illustrate the changes. She uses bulk ingestion to load the screenshots and then uses automatic metadata tagging to provide basic metadata. As she is loading the graphics, she adds data to each screenshot to make the metadata records unique. She then uses Captivate to generate the training video. From within Captivate, she is able to save data to the DAM and can also place links to images and indicate the version of the graphic she wants to appear there (if she wishes to do so). When she is finished, she shares the information with the development lead who logs into the DAM, reviews the documentation, and makes comments. While this is happening, she sends a link of the original logo, which has been stored in the DAM, to Adam. He retrieves the logo and modifies it. The original is kept, but the DAM saves a copy of the modification. He sends a draft to Janet for review. The videos have already been loaded to the DAM. Janet makes them available on the web page, which is connected to the DAM. When customers click on the video, the DAM allows them to specify the video format they want to use and converts the video for them. When users provide feedback on the video, this information is stored for later review by Janet, Adam, and the other team leads. Later in the week, when all of the products have been reviewed and changed, the project manager reviews the new products. Upon his approval, the DAM instantly allows the products to appear in customer search results. Customers cannot modify the content, but they can provide feedback and can access the data. Rights and licensing information is attached to the logo in the DAM as well.

Do You Need a Dam?

Consider whether you need a Digital Asset Management system or if a more traditional storage option would suffice. Typically, DAMs are helpful if you need to store large amounts of visual or video content, if you need a way to collaborate with others using a structured workflow, if you need to maintain digital rights information, if you need to quickly search for and retrieve information, or if your customers need to do so. If after reading this far you are still unsure, take time to think about the types of data that you use, the amount of time you are currently spend searching for and retrieving data, and how often you collaborate with others.

Items to Consider

Unlike many other pieces of software, DAM systems within the same price range can vary drastically. If you have determined that a DAM might be helpful for your project, carefully consider your requirements and needs. Additional items to consider include the following:

  • Scalability: Companies can grow overnight. Choosing a DAM that can accommodate growth can save a lot of headache (and gray hairs) in the future.
  • Customization: Can you customize the software to fit your company’s process? Can you customize workflow?
  • File Management and Assets: Which file types are you using for your technical documentation? Most DAM products support MS Office, Photoshop, and Illustrator files, but what about lesser known file types?
  • Platform Dependencies: What does your current hardware environment look like? Can the DAM run on more than one platform should the platform change in the future?
  • Company Stability and Maintenance: Does the company stand behind its products? Does the company offer maintenance plans? What is the cost? How often are updates? Are updates typically backwards compatible?
  • Metadata Formats: Which standard metadata formats are supported? This might not be important now, but could be important should you need to migrate to a different system in the future.
  • Security: What kinds of data will be stored in the DAM? What kinds of protections and levels of access are needed to protect potentially sensitive data?
  • Web Access: How important is it that remote users access the data? What kinds of access do they need?

Costs

Prices for DAM systems can range from free to over $100,000 USD. In the DAM world, a free product sometimes rivals a much more expensive one, particularly if you don’t require advanced features. For example, Razuna provides many features and is free for basic online implementation.

Consider the hidden costs of implementation as well. Some vary depending on the software you choose. If you need to buy new hardware or software to support the system or if configuration is unwieldy, a free system can be more expensive than bargained for. Other items that exist regardless of the system chosen are personnel costs related to ingesting or uploading large amounts of digitized data, metadata clean-up, and the amount of time needed to administer a system (particularly a complex one).

Next Steps

Whether you’re a lone tech writer buried under a mountain of digital content and a list of new requests, or a team with complex collaboration and workflow needs, you need to determine whether a DAM system will meet your needs. If you decide that a DAM might be the right solution for you, investigate different options carefully. Perform a thorough problem and requirements analysis of your current environment. Remember to include future requirements as well. Rank needs and review DAMs to ensure the proper fit for your needs. While cost is a consideration, try not to make it a “deal breaker” too early in the process. Only by carefully examining all aspects will you be able to determine which system is best suited to meet your needs.

Resources

Intro to Digital Asset Management: Just What is a DAM?: http://www.realstorygroup.com/Feature/124-DAM-vs.-DM

Open Source Digital Asset Management: http://www.opensourcedigitalassetmanagement.org/

CMS Wire: http://www.cmswire.com/cms/digital-asset-management/

DAM News: http://digitalassetmanagementnews.org/

6 Things to Consider When Selecting a Digital Asset Management Solution: http://www.cmswire.com/cms/enterprise-cms/6-things-to-consider-when-selecting-a-digital-asset-management-solution-006380.php

Chantel Brathwaite

Chantel Brathwaite has been writing technical and business materials for private and government contracting companies since 1996. Like many technical writers, her entrance to the field was serendipitous; she was music demo. When she discovered that she could combine her passions for writing, multimedia, and teaching in one career field she was hooked. She discovered Techwr-L in 1999 and immediately found a community of writers with whom she could share information with and grow.

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