CDMM Research: A seminar with Ray Gallon and Andy McDonald

Ray Gallon and Andy McDonald are leading professors and experts, with multiple-decade experience in the fields of technical communication and information. In 2016, they joined forces to create a consortium, aiming to promote “information 4.0”, a reading grid to the accelerating evolution of information.

Students of CDMM Master 2 have been familiarized with Ray and Andy’s presentations at Paris’ 2017 Documation Data Intelligence Forum, and they met again on May 31st, to discuss information 4.0 and elaborate around it, in the context of their technical communication, information architecture and content management program.

CDMM: What is information 4.0?

Ray Gallon and Andy McDonald: Our research revolves around the general theoretical question of the role of information in the context of technological progress.

On a practical level, information 4.0 aims at ensuring we take this evolution into account.

In other words, it provides help to anticipate the evolution of the technical communication industry, and it outlines reasons why this industry needs to evolve.

For example, software developers think around functions or groups of functions, while users are concerned only with the tasks they have to carry out. The role of technical communicators can therefore be broadly described as translating an approach by function into a logic of tasks: it is obviously much wider than designing user manuals.

Information 4.0 also takes into account and capitalizes on the rapid growth of chatbots, augmented reality (AR) devices and applications, the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Is AI truly intelligent?

As of today, even the most powerful AI, such as the ones that beat chess or go masters, only simulate intelligence: they do not begin to approach consciousness, which is a prerequisite to “human-style” intelligence.

Current AI can accumulate data and use it in the most relevant way, in relation to a particular task or series of tasks, however complex, but they cannot learn: they are not able to perform a task they have not been designed to perform, nor to take initiative outside of their functional envelopes.

However, AI is already very useful, notably to carry out repetitive actions, better than humans – for a cost that is quickly soaring.

What are the risks of AI?

The main risk of AI is for humans to give up control over tedious and recurring tasks, without a possibility to go back – just because we might soon forget how to perform them. In general terms, AI obviously raises numerous governance, interoperability, and ethical issues. To maintain control over AI, its very concept and the questions it poses must be well understood, and the aim of each AI solution has to be precisely defined. For example, don’t pretend you are trying to build an intelligent city if what you are actually working on is a bandwidth wide enough to accommodate three interoperating networks…

How do you see technical writing evolving?

It is evolving quickly and deeply, around the issues we have already been talking about, which will become ever more present.

The emergence of the agile method of code maintenance is a good example of ongoing changes: pseudo-real time adaptation is an actual goal for many companies. Information is becoming obsolete much faster already, which emphasizes the need for contextualization and interactivity, notably with regards to the development of IoT and machine-to-machine communication.

In the span of five to ten years, from writing instructions, procedures or manuals, the role of the technical writer will continue to evolve towards information retrieval, sorting, filtering and distribution, in relevance to the needs of the target audience. As very important vectors of information, you need to embrace this evolution to prepare for it.

You have been stressing the need for information contextualization. Can you elaborate on this?

Context is key, indeed. Information is only valid in a certain context, and contexts change in an increasingly fast manner. Hence, in some companies, personas are designed, only to be used for a single hour. Other contexts are already tracked and even materialized by RFID beacons, which directly link information to its potential user; the aim is to offer information, rather than deliver it.

Imagine you are in Cairo. Your need for information will change considerably, depending on the fact you are a tourist, a local, or an Egyptologist. Ideally, offered contextualized information addresses your specific needs – which raise the issue of context granularity, a whole other challenge in itself.

In that respect, adopting the molecular information approach we are advocating with our information 4.0 logic can be helpful.

What is molecular information?

We believe breaking down information into molecules facilitates information reuse.

Molecules of information are autonomous, self-sufficient, fundamental blocks of content. In that logic, the sense and nature of a document depends on the way its information molecules are assembled.

However, just like in the field of chemistry, in that of information, mixing molecules can carry surprising outcomes. It can even be dangerous. That is why information molecules need to be precisely organized, defined, and tagged to ensure their sensible use and to avoid meaningless or erroneous documentation.

Bearing this paramount rule in mind, information molecules can prove a powerful tool in tackling the issues of contextualization and context granularity. Molecules can indeed be used in a great variety of contexts, providing they are governed by a clear and precise editorial policy.

As a summary, what is your vision of the current work of a corporate information specialist?

In a context where, as we saw, the value of information becomes increasingly doubtful, an information specialist’s main task is definitely to maintain and increase the value of the company’s information base.

Information is, indeed, one of the most precious intangible assets of any company. It needs to be retrievable, organized and up to date.

Information specialists therefore have to force their way into scrum and marketing meetings, for example: wherever they are located in the organization chart, they literally stand at the center of any firm that values its history, its products and services, and its customers.

Finally, information specialists need to adapt to the idea of a world where, in the foreseeable future, software will be able to read users’ facial expressions, and to respond to them.

CDMM research: 6 questions to Noz Urbina

In April, CDMM students had the pleasure to interview Noz Urbina for their research projects. Noz Urbina  (Urbina Consulting) is a globally recognized leader in content strategy, customer journey mapping, and adaptive content modelling. He is co-author of the book “Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits” and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences, Graz, Masters Programme in content strategy.

This year, several of CDMM students’ research projects focus on enjoyable customer experience and the relationships between marketing and technical communication. The students tapped into Noz’s expertise in that field to move their projects forward.

1- How can we make technical communication more enjoyable to users?

Make it invisible! Those who are old enough to remember Microsoft Clippy know that if you make technical help too pro-active, it can become really annoying. Today, however, we have smarter  devices that can better detect context to deliver information – but this information needs to be relevant: Don’t shove an encyclopedia under people’s noses, even if it has a search box! People want answers they can action – not better tech docs. Be open to any medium, paradigm or method that can better convey those answers into people’s minds.

Make sure you distinguish doing time from learning time. For doing-time content, you can use 3D diagrams and explodes to make your content more engaging, but don’t pull users away into a game. For learning-time content, where there are things to memorize, you can use gamification, narratives and visual metaphors. If you can engage pleasure or pain, then people will memorize better. For that reason, games are a good, enjoyable choice to support learning. There’s more to docs than just looking up quick facts or tasks. Technical communication should help users self-educate when appropriate.

In both cases, consider tone and voice: while tone may vary depending on context, the voice you use for the brand should be consistent across the experience.

2- How can we make technical communication more enjoyable to us as professionals?

Technical communicators generally don’t enjoy putting specs into words, and sadly that’s often what they’re doing. Technical communication is a multidisciplinary activity that requires communicators to get into the mindset of users. Creating technical content becomes more enjoyable when you know that you are solving real people’s real problems. Customer journey mapping is a way to make the experience more enjoyable for users and technical communicators alike. Ideally, bring together support, sales, marketing and other people outside your silo around a customer journey map to review how customers accomplish their objectives out in the field. Identify emotional hot spots and ask “is it content or is it bad design?” to identify where content can help in the journey. When content is not the problem, capture that feedback and give it back to the people who can make a difference. A customer journey map enables you to go have more useful conversations about content because you’re talking about the customer view, not your own. Take the opportunity to get into the users’ shoes for a while.

3- Can semantic structure make technical content more enjoyable?

Semantic structure makes content easier to personalize. Semantics is the study of meaning. When we use semantic metadata, that makes content more flexible and adaptive, so that it can be handled by a computer. Personalisation makes content more enjoyable because it focuses the delivery on what’s most relevant. Semantic metadata can also help more relevant content get found by search engines, which helps it solve more people’s problems. This makes the whole endeavor more satisfying.

4- What advice could we give a technical communication department to be more efficient?

You could tell that technical communication department to focus their efforts on 3 points:

  • Customer journey mapping lets you plan what you want to kill, that is, stop making stuff just because you’ve always done it. Maintaining unnecessary or bloated content wastes time and makes consumption faster and easier.
  • Semantic analysis, that is, information typing and content analysis, helps you do better reuse. For example, you can decide to split up a piece of information that is trying to do too much and reuse a part of it. You don’t have to be stick to DITA types for information typing: for example, having a type of information for narrative enables reuse of content that creates a human connection, while keeping consistency in voice. This is often helpful for training or other cross-silo reuse scenarios. Check out Rob Hanna from Precision Content’s work for more details about information typing.
  • Metadata alignment. For example, you can use tools like PoolParty (an ontology management system) to align metadata inside and outside of the technical communication department and drive personalisation or contextual-content.

5- What is the most important thing technical communicators can learn from marketers?

Technical communicators can learn several things from marketers:

  • Relationship building – as opposed to focusing only on speed in delivery and cost efficiency
  • Web design – as opposed to document design
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) – as opposed to focusing only on navigation optimization
  • Analytics and measurement – check the ROI, use, and engagement that your content is achieving

6- What do marketing and technical communication have in common?

Marketing and Tech Pubs are the two parts of the organization that understand words, and that manage customer-facing communication.

They have similar requirements:

  • Call centers rely on technical communication a lot. Marketing are starting to look into call centers because it’s one of the only places when the brand gets to actually speak to users post-sale.
  • Field services and support read the documentation, but they don’t talk. Marketing and Tech Pubs both need them to be carriers of messages to market, and also channels of valuable incoming feedback.

Marketing and Tech Pubs need to align their terminology and context to define who delivers which message, to whom, when and how. Marketing will need to industrialize their content management and scale their processes for the unknown, using skills that tech pubs developed years ago out of their famous necessity for reuse and efficiency. Digital transformation, communication and content are the fastest development areas in the world right now. This is the type of alchemy that happens at the Intelligent Content Conference. People like Jeff Eaton, Rachel Lovinger, Joe Pairman, Ann Rockley, Andrea Ames, or Cruce Saunders are good resources to explore the common points between marketing and technical communication.
Thank you Noz for taking the time to answer our questions and moving our research projects forward!

Brainstorming the future of technical communication

M2 CDMM students have been busy this semester, identifying ideas for their research projects. They had a very creative 3-12-3 brainstorm on the future of technical communication, and the result is amazing!

This mind map (PDF) gathers all the ideas that were raised in the session (in French).

We’re now looking forward to hearing them present their research projects at Paris Diderot’s 5th conference on technical communication on Feb 3rd, 2017. Check out the conference program.

Hot off the press: Master 2 CDMM 2016 research papers!

Technical communication and education are at the heart of deep changes in industry and business. In 2016, M2 CDMM students have looked into the nature of these changes and given us insights into the future of technical communication.

Students have investigated the impact of digital transformation on technical communication and education:

They questioned innovative learning solutions and their application at an enterprise-wide scale:

They looked at the role of technical communicators in visual design and accessibility:

Well done Armelle Bursi-Amba, Erika Caboul, Gaylord Chesnay, Nicolas Chleffer, Sarah Consentino, Paul Desreux, Alexandre Dias Da Silva, Manon Di Vozzo, Aline Ea, Jennifer Frederic, Romain Gaullier, Victoria Genin, MarcAlexandre Jacques, Tiphaine Monange, Blandine Paulet, Vincent Perrot, Sutarni Riesenmey, Matthieu Roche, Manoela Santidrian, Caroline Vaissiere, and Austeja Varvuolyte!

Master 2 research projects 2016: a taste of what’s cooking!

Master 2 CDMM students have been busy identifying their core research hypothesis, and studying existing literature. They are now kickstarting the research work with interviews, experiments, and further reading.

Here are the questions that have all their attention this year:

  • What is the role of the technical communicator in fostering accessibility?
  • What is the impact of the digital enterprise on technical communication?
  • How can gamification improve e-learning?
  • Why should technical communicators use infographics?
  • How can technological innovation contribute to education?
  • What is the place of Personalized Learning Environments in the digital company?
  • How do norms and standards influence technical communication?