LavaCon 2015: Four Take-aways from This Year’s Conference

The death of paper and the PDF guide, a push towards interactive content, the normality of mobile, the continued dominance of DITA, and the importance of metrics take center stage

thought-piece-masterLavaCon is easily the most enjoyable and informative content strategy conference I’ve attended. Since this was my second time attending, I had high expectations. I came to discover, in Portland in 2013, that LavaCon is just as well known for great food, and great fun as it is for great content and this year LavaCon again lived up to its promise. With that said, since the travel time from Toronto was just under three hours, and since I’ve always wanted to visit New Orleans’ infamous French Quarter, it made the decision to attend a no brainer.

My experience and my opinions are obviously unique to me, and I could never capture everything there was to learn and experience. My path through the conference this year focused on the things that were important to me and my ‘world of content’ (i.e., interactive content, DITA and XML, mobile devices, metrics). I put together this simple pie chart to show how my particular experience broke out.

Ryan-time breakout at LavaCon

At the end of the conference, I found myself considering the “big LavaCon takeaways”, the trends and practices that seemed to loom large in the industry’s near future.

If you’re still creating unstructured content or designing for ‘paper first’, you’re a fringe minority.

I’ve come to accept the fact that my CD collection is about as useful as a collection of 8-tracks. Likewise, we all need to accept that a PDF guide is about as useful as… umm… a PDF guide… (I believe no further elaboration required)!

So if paper or unstructured content still play a starring role in your content strategy and the design of your content, you really need to start considering why you’re in a fringe minority, based on what I observed this year. Now that you can be unshackled from the restraints of paper deliverables and unstructured content, you can start to explore a very cool world of interactive and adaptive content there are more benefits and possibilities than I can mention, but I was really impressed and inspired by the things Salesforce and Intuit are doing.

No more talk about the ‘upcoming demand for content on mobile devices’

I used to hear  lots of talk (I’m thinking 2010 – 2013… possibly trickling on into early 2014) about about preparing for the upcoming demand for content on mobile devices. There were articles, sessions, webinars etc. that were all designed to help people implement new technologies and update their content strategies in time to meet the demand of this new era.

Something I noticed this year, is that there was no mention of what to do to prepare for mobile content… The demand for content on mobile devices is here and now. Thought leaders and the community of content professionals  now work under the assumption that content is designed ‘mobile first’, or at the very least, using tools or technologies that enable for multiple outputs (even if the user experience isn’t ideal). I sense that the upcoming trend, as I sort of previously mentioned, is going to be leveraging the new tools and technologies to take things a step further and enhance user experience with interactive content.

DITA is as good as it gets as far as structured content goes

For me, the road to DITA was a long one. I started investigating it in 2005 using Structured FrameMaker. I changed jobs and in 2009-2010, I briefly got up and running with DITA using XMetaL and Vascont CMS. Then I changed jobs again, and in 2013 got up and running with DITA using oXygen and Sharepoint (*cringe at Sharepoint*).

In the three years that I’ve been working in a stable DITA process, we’ve had some great success and made some great business cases related to the benefits of authoring and publishing everything from traditional performance support to learning and training material, and seamlessly delivering that content to desktops and mobile devices. However, the one thing that dwells on the mind is “DITA’s been around for a while. Is this still the best way to be doing things?”. This question becomes even more essential when we consider the impact that the rapid change in technology has had content over the last decade.

I learned that there’s still no better option than DITA for those of us creating structured content. DITA is still the king and popularity and use is growing. I found that How DITA Can Advance Your Content Strategy offered a great summary of the current state of DITA. Also, to further back up my point, I noticed what I thought to be an above average number of vendors with interesting products supporting simplified DITA authoring and publishing through a browser (e.g., AuthorBridge, FontoXML, Xeditor), which is crucial to expanding this technology to the average content creator.

Metrics (show that you perform like a business)

I didn’t notice a lot of content directly related to metrics at the conference (this could be just because of the particular path I followed), but I did attend a session (Collect Metrics…Like a Boss!) that spoke to the importance of metrics and KPIs. Not just within your own team or processes (e.g., how many words per topic, error rates), but in the bigger picture of how what you or your team does impacts the company (i.e., things that have to do with money). What I picked up here is the importance of running your team like a business and using metrics to do this effectively, which for a lot of us isn’t an easy task, and sometimes not even possible given the tools and technologies in use.

In my opinion, metrics (and analytics) will  trend up quickly, if it isn’t already. As the popularity and scope of structure content increases (e.g., DITA and XML), so does the amount of content-related data that can be extracted and report on. I’ve spent many years struggling (often  unsuccessfully) with manually compiling metrics from unstructured data. Using DITA, I’ve been able to automate reports that provide everything I’ve ever wanted to know about my content. With the increasing popularity of ‘Big Data’ as a whole and the growing adoption of Business Intelligence tools, having these metrics is crucial for making effective decisions and solving problems as previously mentioned showing that you perform like a business.

The value of LavaCon, in addition to networking, awesome food opportunities, and a wide range of relevant learning, comes from what you take away from the experience and what you use going forward. I’m looking forward to seeing how my takeaways, and others’, play out in 2016.

Ryan Minaker

Ryan Minaker is a professional technical communicator. With over 10 years experience in the field, he has played the role of technical writer, information architect, usability specialist, and content strategist.

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