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.

What is the role of technical writers in fostering accessibility?

Victoria Genin, MarcAlexandre Jacques, Tiphaine Monange

Paris Diderot University, July 1st 2016

Abstract

With the creation of international standards and the rise of public awareness, web and software accessibility have become a topical issue. Yet, it seems like accessibility is still rarely taken into account by technical companies who prefer to focus on innovation.

Part of the usability and accessibility of a software is based on its documentation. As technical writers, we wondered which role technical writers have to play in fostering accessibility.

The information used in this article was drawn from three main sources. In addition to reading articles written by accessibility researchers, we carried out two surveys to study the scope of accessibility in the creation and navigation of user interfaces: the first one was sent to disabled users and the second one to professionals. We also interviewed a highly experienced technical writer trained in accessibility. The results led us to conclude that technical writers definitely have a key role to play in fostering accessibility standards – either by increasing their cooperation with developers or by implementing accessibility solutions themselves.

Read the full article (PDF): What is the role of technical writers in fostering accessibility?

The impact of the digital enterprise on technical communication

Sarah Consentino, Paul Desreux, Alexandre Dias Da Silva, Vincent Perrot

Paris Diderot University, July 2016

Abstract

The digital revolution has changed consumer behavior in the software industry, and digital organizations must keep up with all those changes to stay competitive. As a result, understanding customers’ needs has become part of technical communication. By compiling recent data and studies, this article aims at answering the following question: to what extent have technologies impacted the way that technical communicators assist users to offer them the best experience possible? We first analyzed how companies are starting to place more emphasis on customer experience through digital channels, and to what extent those changes have impacted the way technical communicators present the information and talk to customers. Then, we investigated and found out why technical communication is now perceived as a measurable added business value for companies.

Read the full article (PDF): The impact of the digital enterprise on technical communication

SMEs and technical writers: a win-win relationship

Manon Chaix, Caroline Halap, Aurélie Jugie

July 2014

Abstract

This paper focuses on the relationship between subject matter experts and technical writers, in the context of two software companies and an optical systems manufacturer. More specifically, this paper intends to highlight the added value of an efficient collaboration for the technical writer, the SME, and beyond, for the companies they work for as well as for the end-user of the documentation. First, we will analyze the respective education, skills, competences and work goals of SMEs and technical writers. Secondly, we will show how technical writers and SMEs work together on a daily basis and can become partners to create high quality documentation by mutualizing SMEs’ technical knowledge and technical writers’ content design skills. Finally, we will identify the benefits of a win-win relationship between SMEs and technical writers for the end-user of the documentation.

Read the full article (PDF): SMEs and technical writers: a win-win relationship

Tools and methods to achieve consistency in technical documentation

Fanny Bischoff, Emeline Picart, Carlie Rames

July 2014

Abstract

In technical documentation, content must be clear and consistent and visual layout as a whole must be uniform. Ensuring these principles makes it easier for the user to understand documentation and reinforces branding. This seems simple however achieving consistency requires a great deal of organization and effort from technical writers. The aim of this article is to present and defend various solutions for achieving consistency and improving user experience, through observations made in three different professional contexts: two computer software companies and one software and hardware company.
In the first part, we will define some of the key elements that impact consistency: grammar rules, methods to address users and acute text architecture and present concrete tools and methods to improve consistency and their constraints. In the second part, we will present the most important aspect to take into account in order to find the best balance across methodologies to achieve consistency in technical documentation.

Read the full article (PDF): Tools and methods to achieve consistency in technical documentation

Improving documentation tools and processes for internal users

Dana – Maria Robu, Elise Roscillo

July 2013

Abstract

Both companies, SFR (Second French Telecom Operator) and SNCF (French  National Railway Company), create documentation for internal users (Business Customer Services for SFR, SNCF agents). There are various types of documentation, such as procedures, handling notes, pedagogical sheets at SFR, and guidelines and procedures for corporate use at SNCF. All this documentation is created using templates, but not structured content.
Our work consists in proofreading, correcting the documentation, and publishing it on an internal online repository. Through analyzing the content stored on this repository, we noticed that users who write it are not technical writers. They do not master writing tools or they do not follow any rules set out in the guideline standards. This leads to a lack of coherence and efficiency in writing, difficulty in finding quickly the useful information and in overall a lack of consistency.
In the first part, we will focus on how to improve the existing documentation base through the creation of aid directories, such as user guides, beginner’s guide, webhelp, etc., to ensure the adoption of proposed tools and guidelines, and to get editorial feedback on these practices.
In the second part, as content designers, we will identify directions to enhance the role and importance of the technical writer in both companies. In order to highlight his added value and expertise, we will give highlight to streamline and simplify the writing process.

Read the full article (PDF): Improving Documentation Tools and Processes for Internal Users

How User Experience helps reshape technical documentation

Célia Goiset, Océane Franc

July 2013

Abstract

This article explains how the User eXperience (UX) reshapes technical documentation. The fundamental purpose of this research is to show how users’ expectations have an impact on technical documentation. Indeed, technical writing is not only the presentation of information but also how it is designed to meet users’ needs. The goal of the technical writer is to communicate the information in a clear and effective way so that the documentation audience understands it well and quickly. In this article, we will first explain the importance of user experience practices in the technical writing field to then analyze the methods used to satisfy users’ needs in our companies while highlighting the UX impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the documentation. Finally, we will identify some of the UX best practices and tools to create better documentation and ensure the product and company sustainability.

Read the full article (PDF): How User Experience helps reshape technical documentation