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Simon says: connect my content

Documentation is often seen as the last link in the chain. Content goes in one end and a manual pops out the other – translated as well, if we’re lucky. The inner workings of the documentation machine remain arcane to most.  But content does not thrive in isolation, it should be nourished with interconnectivity.  


Isolated islands 

In an ideal world, content is connected to the product it describes (hardware or software) as well as to relevant information stored elsewhere such as spare parts, consumables, customer data, etc. If we’re allowed to dream, content also has a feedback loop with the user, so we take advantage of valuable information like test results, measurements, or checks.  And finally, we’d like content to be linked to customer knowledge, support departments or knowledge bases. 

We say ‘ideal world’, because up until recently, documentation has been living on an island. Fortunately, we, the inhabitants of this content continent—contentinent, if you’ll pardon the portmanteau—have started exploring the other islands surrounding us and we would all benefit from a collective stream of information. And automation can help. 


Building bridges 

At the recent DITA OT-day in Helsinki, our colleague Pieterjan presented his work in automating the tools, supplies and spare parts—the ingredient list—of work instructions. Writers insert these ingredients from an ERP database export, so all terminology and unique ID numbers are maintained between the instructions and the database. The output process automatically summarizes these sprinkled ingredients into a neat list at the start of your work instruction. No more manually keeping track of everything. 

 



(Ingredients in procedure) 

 



(Ingredients automatically summarized and quantities added together) 

Translate this idea to a software environment and you can make automated imports of button names, software icons, and error messages. Insert them and you can keep them automatically up to date with new imports from the database.  

For anything to do with installation, configuration and maintenance, there is a wealth of possibility with regards to integrating instructions and checklists, and recording feedback for analysis and improvement. Many solutions are in development at the time of writing. One intriguing example is Proceedix (currently acquired by Symphony AI), which is developing augmented reality solutions for work instructions, using smartphones, tablets, and smart glasses. 

To include user and customer feedback, knowledge bases from CRM environments such as MS Dynamics and JIRA allow support agents to consult solutions. These documented solutions naturally need to fit all environments in which they are used: manuals, support portals, HMI, public websites… 

 

Information architecture and management 

As with all trendy and state-of-the art solutions, the most important things to consider are that it works in your environment according to your needs, and that your content fits all the environments in which it appears: manuals, support portals, human-machine interfaces... To help you with that, a skilled information manager is indispensable in setting up your information architecture and governance. 

As the world grows more and more interconnected, so does technical content, which is a huge win in efficiency and customer comfort. 

As the world grows more and more interconnected, so does technical content (quote) 

So, automation can help you write faster and better. And now it can also help you enrich your documentation with content from other domains, by connecting with content such as product information, user feedback and even augmented reality.  

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