LavaCon Session Summary: Christi Thompson and Kelly Shortt on Topic-Based Authoring

Day 2 of Lavacon 2011

Case Study: Moving from Book-based to Topic-based Authoring

I always appreciate case study presentations. If well-done, you get a good idea of how the practical application of some nice-sounding theories actually works out.

Kelly Shortt, Technical Communication Manager at CORPTAX, and one of her team members, Christi Thompson, discussed how the implementation of topic-based authoring worked out in their organization. I was particularly interested, because the subjects they write about are complex, and require intensive input from subject matter experts, a situation similar to my own.

The aphorism which the speakers provided at the start is applicable both to technical communication and life in general:

Planning is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it now.

The application to topic-based authoring is that you must plan this transition in order to succeed. These steps are essential:

  • Design
  • Define
  • Preen and prep your content

As is typical in many software companies, CORPTAX has products with overlapping functionality, and for which some components are reusable. Topic-based authoring facilitates reuse and fights duplication of effort among technical communication team members. In this case, the speakers converted several book-based guides to a single topic-based project.

Obviously accuracy is paramount when it comes to tax and financial information, so any steps that optimize the efficiency of the review cycle are welcome. The speakers were amazed by how much easier it was to get reviews with a topic-based approach. When the reviewers were given only single short topics to review, they quickly turned around their reviews, often exclaiming that they could scarcely believe how little work there was for them. When they were previously given large manuals, even when the pages to be reviewed were carefully marked, the reviewers would procrastinate and delay, even though in practice the actual review tasks were very similar. The psychological load on the reviewers clearly was much lighter.

In terms of production, the benefits of topic-based authoring are impossible to argue, as the speed with which the technical communication team can now produce documentation has greatly increased, with no loss in quality.

Shortt and Thompson opted not to use DITA. However, a good topic-based methodology works whether or not you are using DITA.

It’s important to get your team on board if you want to move to topic-based authoring. Writers may feel confused and threatened by this new approach, and try to fight it. Good training and support is important, but ultimately the writers must accept that change is inevitable.