Do You Know the Level Of Your Technical Content Authoring?

Did you even know that there was something called “Levels of Technical Authoring”? Well there is. How you serve the technical content needs of your customers defines your level of technical authoring. Nobody is giving any awards (at least not right now) to those who are at higher levels of technical authoring but their customers surely have reasons to award them with repeat business or love. Read on to know more about Levels of Technical Authoring.

In a recent webcast on the Content Wrangler channel on Brighttalk, I watched a recording titled Understanding the Need for XML and Structured Content. The talk was given by Sarah O’Keef of Scriptorium Publishing. Among other interesting things that Sarah spoke about, she talked about how the team at Scriptorium tries to gauge the adoption of modern technical content practices at companies using their Level of Technical Authoring.

Sarah O’Keef

The 4 Levels of Technical Authoring

Levels of Technical Authoring

  1. Chaos. No Consistency.
  2. Documents Match on Paper.
  3. Template Based Authoring. Repeatable process for creating consistently formatted documents.
  4. Structured Authoring. Programmatic enforcement of required organization.

Let us know look each level and try to understand what each one means.

Chaos. No Consistency.

Chaos, No Consistency

In this level, the style, quality and output of the technical content published is defined completely by a handful of Technical Authors. There may or may not be a organization wide guidelines on how the content should look and how it should read. There is no consistency in the content produced by the various authors and no consistency in the content produced by various departments. In short there is an undeniable presence of chaos in the published technical content.

Technical Authors in this level are expected to be good designers as well. The quality of their work judged not only by the accuracy of the technical content but also by the beauty of the final output documents. Since each document is hand crafted there is a lot of repetition of labour.

Example software tools used in this level are:

  • Microsoft Word, Powerpoint
  • Adobe InDesign

Documents Match on Paper / PDF / Web

Documents Match on Paper

In this level the organization has a style guide in place (although it may not be enforced strictly). There is a clear definition on how the final output should look in its various forms. Each technical author in the organization uses his own way to arrive at the similar looking output. The end users of the content see that there is consistency in the look and feel of the documents or online help, but they can surely point out deviations from the common styling here and there.

Example software tools used in this level are:

  • Microsoft Word, Powerpoint
  • Adobe InDesign

Template Based Authoring and Consistently Formatted Documents

Template Based AuthoringTemplate Based Authoring.

In this level, organizations have adopted predefined templates that codify the style guidelines. They may still be using software tools that were originally used for desktop publishing but at least the templates provide a easier way to conform to a prescribed standard style. A process is in place that ensures that the right tools are used at the right steps to create, organize and deliver content in various output formats required.

Example software tools used in this level are:

  • Microsoft Word, Powerpoint
  • Adobe InDesign, Robohelp, Framemaker

Structured Authoring and Programmatic Automation

Structured Authoring

In this level, organizations usually have highly evolved processes and policies in place to ensure that the quality and consistency of the output is automated to a very large extent. Organizations in this level use Structured Authoring (mostly XML based) methods like DITA and DocBook. There is clear separation between creation of content and production of final output formats like PDF, Web Help, EBooks, Online Help, etc. Companies that need to produce content in many languages usually would have adopted Structured Authoring for the localization benefits that Structured Authoring environments offer.

Example software tools used in this level are:

  • Oxygen XML Editor,
  • Adobe Framemaker, Author-IT
  • DITACMS, DITAWorks Pro

Going From 1 to 4

Generally speaking, businesses always adopt those practices or processes that their customers (or scale or business cases) demand. In that light, small companies or startups usually have no technical content strategy in place and so they start invariable with level 1. as the number of technical authors in the organization grows and the numbers customers accessing the technical content grows, businesses are either forced to move to higher levels, or choose to do so in anticipation of future demand.

Another important thing that Sarah points out, is the pains involved in moving up to the next level. It is a change that needs to happen at the organization level and needs buy-in from the very top level. Moving to a higher level of technical authoring is not just a change in software but change in processes, policies, practices, and may be even personnel.

Although it is least painful to go up one level at a time, sometimes you may not have the time to one step at a time. If the business needs demand it, you may have to go from level 1 to level 4 in one gigantic painful step.

Some books that will help you navigate the various levels of technical authoring are:

  1. Content Strategy 101
  2. Language of Content Strategy
  3. Content Everywhere
  4. Content Strategy
  5. Every Page is Page One
Written on March 18, 2015