Small Businesses & Managing Technical Content: Fast 5 Interview with easyDITA

TechWhirl Fast Five Widget BannerSmall to Mid-Size Businesses (SMBs) don’t usually get an early invite to the technology party. And when it comes to documentation and other support content, DITA has seemed out of reach, or even overkill, to organizations that employ smaller workforces, and serve smaller customer bases than the Fortune 1000. We recently conducted a Fast 5 interview with Patrick Bosek, Co-founder of easyDITA, to dive into questions of cost, value, and ways that SMBs can ride the DITA wave to structured, reusable, valuable content.

easyDITA just formally released its latest version, with significant improvements and upgrades, and has a webinar available that describes this advanced CCMS tool.

1.  DITA and structured authoring have been the focus of many content discussions across the industry for years. As we move into 2016, how would you frame the cost/value question?

Today cost/value can be described in terms of the total ecosystem of delivering effective content. Until recently cost has been the major obstacle to smaller organizations’ ability to implement a solution. Just a few years ago, such implementations to get federated portals with search and versioning and structured content management ranged well into the six figures. For small organizations, documentation lives in one place, while the support is some combination of ticketing and phone calls.

The value of a content ecosystem solution, based on XML has gone up.  The tools have evolved and knowledge has expanded, both of which have driven the cost down. Good lighter weight solutions are coming into the market and CCMS solutions have matured significantly.

The value has gone up because of this change in buyer behavior—buyers now research extensively online, and direct contact with the company is less frequent. And the tools’ ease of use has improved to level that makes them a more viable enterprise solution.  In fact, the barriers are lower to an enterprise solution, with more alternatives, better access, and socialization that reduces the investment in change management.

2.  In your experience, what tools do most small businesses use for documentation? Why do they continue to use them?

SMBs often use a combination of Word and Wiki, which works reasonably well for some requirements. But they’re very cheap. Word is a sunk cost. Wikis are simple to learn and use. Blended content (fusing marketing and technical content) requires something more than a Wiki.  Most smaller organizations remain unaware of the things they could be doing on a larger scale with the right combination of processes and tools.

easyDITA is a good example of how SMBs can manage this blended content effectively. Nearly all of the content the company produces is in the system—including the content for user guides. Because of how the system is set up, easyDITA can produce tutorials that reuse pieces of the user guide wrapped in educational content.  In essence, easyDITA built a learning/training/support infrastructure that also has all blogs, and all proposal content. With proposals, they conref the requirements tables and appendices and reuse them as needed. As a result, time to respond to RFPs dropped by at least 50 percent, and the content quality is much higher.

The tools and processes easyDITA put in place as a small company allows them to publish directly to the website, reuse content, and publish to a docs portal in WordPress. And all of these capabilities reduce support costs.

Followup: What’s the timeframe SMBs can expect to become productive with this kind of solution?

Going from no experience to do basic authoring is nearly day 1. But, writing content in a software tool is completely different than being able to follow style guidelines, or following the right process to organize, review and produce the content. It usually takes about a month to master this.

3.  Who are the most likely or best-suited staff members to work on building out a small business’ user/support documentation solution, and what makes them better able to handle structured authoring tasks?

Most easyDITA clients have at least one person whose primary role is content development, usually supported by developers or engineers. If you don’t have someone in the information development role, you’ve got a gap, particularly in the research driven economy, where content assets can be the most valuable assets the company has.  Content developers have a very high ROI. If you believe you’re too small for a tech writer, reconsider.

4.  What are the typical resource requirements for a smaller business in building support documentation?

First, somebody’s got to own it. It’s easy for organizations to forget about documentation, and we’ve been trained for years to devalue documentation from product. But the information developer handles critical organizational tasks, and refines content for use in training/learning. Once you have ownership, then look at what your infrastructure should be, and the tools and processes that make sense.

Really small startups are probably starting from very little. But they can make an informed decision between bringing in someone in a junior role (with a degree in the field) who can take direction, or a more senior person who can work independently. The SMB can then set the social tone that doesn’t relegate the information developer to a second class status. For example, describing the information developer as responsible for making customers knowledgeable, confident, and happy.

DITA experience or knowledge is a requirement. Even if the SMB chooses not to use a DITA solution, the practices and concepts are critical. They need to understand how the processes being built support search, and they should be detail-oriented. Hire on personal attributes, not specific skills.

5.  Where should a small business start in thinking about and planning for user support/documentation? Is it better to start “fresh” with new content going forward, or to consider how to incorporate legacy documentation via some sort of conversion?

If an SMB is small enough, they should start from scratch, using the old content as a guide. Legacy content is often pretty good, but has issues of voice and tone. Modularity helps with managing that, but if the content is in Word, expect to do a lot of copy and pasting to get to that modularity. Develop a process that allows you to build a skeleton, transfer to a DITA map, incorporating a style guide, consistent workflows around review.

Think of building out the content structure as a development activity, because it works the same as the software development process, creating value for the customer.

Followup: Why choose a solution like easyDITA over proprietary solutions or custom XML solutions? What about on-premises versus cloud?

Essentially proprietary solutions limit your future… you’re banking on never having different developers, changes in technology. You shouldn’t use proprietary formats for your most valuable content assets.

DITA is cheaper than custom XML solutions. A lot of people have created schemas in DITA, so the legwork is already done.

Adoption of a CCMS is not core IT infrastructure, and that often creates a poor user experience, since IT is unwilling or unable to support it. Cloud CCMS products provide efficiency. easyDITA sells into organizations that don’t care about DITA from a technical perspective, which illustrates how easy it is to use. The new WordPress connector makes a lot of sense for smaller organizations who are often creating their customer-facing sites in WordPress.  Instead of the six-figure, big company approach, SMBs can budget for a total cost of a few hundred dollars for a total information development ecosystem.

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano is a partner in INKtopia Limited and editor of TechWhirl's Tech Writer Today online magazine. She has been a list member and contributor since the days when 14,400 baud was high speed communications, and Windows 95 was state-of-the-art.

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