Content Management Systems (CMS) and their Application in Creating Documentation

Written by Tom Glennan

CMS program room shot According to a recent study by Information Mapping Inc. (2012), an organization of 1000 employees spends 2500 hours per week searching for information in their documentation. They waste up to $2.5 million per year on employees searching for information they cannot find, and up to $5 million per year recreating information that already exists. And because most organizations typically have only centralized 50% or less of their critical information, there are many harder to quantify costs incurred by the organization relating to poor decisions, poor quality, employee frustration, and lost sales. Furthermore, according to Forbes magazine (1/4/2013), the “creative employees” in an organization (like technical communicators) waste 30% or more of their time looking for, re-creating, or unnecessarily moving content within their organization.
Sound familiar? For situations like these and others, a content management system (CMS) may be the solution you and your customers or employers need. To help understand the issues and solutions with managing and retrieving information, Patrick Becker, president of Asyling Digital Media Solutions of Ann Arbor, discussed the topic, “Content Management Systems (CMS) and their Application in Creating Documentation”, in the February 27th STC-SM program meeting. The program was held at the offices of Thomson Reuters in Dexter, Michigan, and refreshments and door prizes were sponsored by the communications department at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield.

LTU's table at Feb 23, 2013 meeting
What is a Content Management System?
A content management system is a computer program that allows publishing, editing and modifying content, as well as maintenance, from a central interface. These systems can be either manual or automatic in executions, manage workflow among many authors or documents in a collaborative environment. Originally designed in the 1990s to simplify the task of writing multiple versions of code and make the website development process more flexible, CMS now enables the centralization of data editing, publishing, and modification. (Wikipedia, retrieved 2-10-13 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content-management_system).
So How Can a CMS Help Me?
According to Patrick and his team of presenters, a properly-designed CMS consists of three subsystems: the production content component, the web component, and the digital asset management component (think of iTunes or your DVR at home). These three components make up the CMS “eco-system” which creates, manages and distributes the content information. By employing “templates”, the CMS is able to improve the speed, accuracy and control when managing the content information throughout the organization. Furthermore, you can also have multiple working on the same document (although not the same particular article or paragraph) simultaneously, which improves the ability to share ideas and collaborate on the document.
In addition, David Rheault reviewed the concept of “brands” (think a publication title like Time or Sports Illustrated), which are specific to a particular genre within the publication industry and can be used as labels for organizing, managing and distributing the content within specific modules or chunks.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
CMS is both a strategy and a tool for effectively and efficiently managing and distributing reusable content within an organization. Although it may be difficult at first and requires taking more of a “topic-based” approach to content creation as opposed to the narrative method you may be familiar with, the ease of accessing information and distributing it throughout the organization may make it worth the effort.

Member Spotlight: Pat Gómez Martz

P Martz Feb 2013What is your educational background? How long have you been a member of  STC? In what STC positions have you served? 
I have a Bachelor of Science in Botany and a Bachelor of Forestry from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication, completed in May 2012, at Lawrence Tech. I have been an STC member since 2009, and I took over as webmaster in late May 2012.

Why did you decide to pursue technical communication as a career?
It pursued me!

My undergraduate education was extremely heavy in science, math, and technology. When I was offered a contract position as an indexing editor for UMI, I took it and started my professional life indexing biology, chemistry, engineering, and math dissertation abstracts.

Most of my working life I have been a self-taught graphic designer who also edits, writes copy, and illustrates. “Self-taught” is a secret code for “I read a lot about what I do, about the things that influence how I do what I do, and I look at a lot of different types of communication and talk to people to see what works and what doesn’t.”

My daughter pointed out that I was a technical communicator after she did a multiyear time audit of my project work. Boy, was I surprised. There’s a name for it.

Why did you decide to join STC?
Having learned that I had been in technical communication for all these years, I wanted to learn more about the possibilities, so I joined STC.

Where are you currently employed?
I run my own business, Inkberry Solutions, and I am an adjunct professor at Lawrence Tech.

What are your job activities? What do you find most interesting and/or satisfying about your job?
Currently, the focus is on proposals—consulting on process, developmental and technical editing, and building a custom database system to manage content for future proposals. I do a lot of other things as well: graphic design, illustration, simple websites, and teaching the “why” and “how” to clients—a lot of “why,” but not as much “how.” The best part of my work life is the wide variety of projects.

What are some examples of projects you are particularly proud of?
I built a database system that tackles the administrative end of a five-year federal project to produce thousands of fixed-priced environmental reports about parcels of land. The database allows my client to handle heavy bouts of report-writing while keeping track of where each one is in the process, and maintaining profitability.

How has being an STC member helped you with your career?
It has exposed me to some new ideas, and it has given me some exposure.

What advice do you have for students as they are entering the field of technical communication?
Keep learning. Read, including about things outside your particular area. Talk to people. Write. Draw. Paint. Learn a craft. Keep looking at the rhetorical bent and the design of communications, especially when you are the end user. How does it affect you? How would you improve it?

What else would you like our readers to know about you?
The joke is on me. I spent my undergraduate college career studiously avoiding anything and everything having to do with English, and now I work predominantly with words.

Usability Testing Reveals Two Audiences and an Approach to Both

On Saturday, February 2, participants from the September 2012 card-sorting activity reconvened at Lawrence Tech with Pam Finger, MS-TPC candidate at Lawrence Tech, to learn about her analysis, to verify or correct her interpretations, and to discuss how to implement some of these changes.

Consensus

Everyone agreed we need good navigation and easy-to-scan pages. Everyone wanted information about STC/SM and our activities and programs, a members’ area, contact information, and resources.

Differences

Students are looking outward for resources including social networking, professional development opportunities, and program calendars, but had no interest in archives. They are interested in multimedia.

Council members on the other hand, are looking inward for a repository of archived newsletters and program information in the process of developing new programs and other activities.

Constraints

These groups represent two different audiences. Everyone concurred that a major purpose of the website was to attract new members, so the information that our students gave us was very valuable, and may be representative of what potential new members are looking for. On the other hand, Council needs to be able to find the information they need.

In the course of her research, Finger met with Dave Mitropoulus-Rundus, who had analyzed the previous website and reviewed the current interim website. One thing stuck out as a shortcoming on both: we need a tagline at the top of the page to the right of the logo.

When Pat Martz took over as STC/SM webmaster last June, she felt that the volunteers who work with the website, including blog editors and writers and the webmaster, need a standards-based, easy-to-maintain site.

Recommendations and Next Steps

Finger took all this into account when she prepared wireframes, which we discussed. We realized that we can move archived files into Resources, as that is what they are for Council members. One person pointed out that archives would also serve as resources for students, if they were to write articles or give presentations that they would later like to refer to in a portfolio.

The Council will discuss the mission statement and a better tagline at the next Council meeting.

A new information architecture will be worked up and implemented over the next few months; the resulting website will evolve from the current one, rather than being another complete change.

Ann Arbor to Host a WIAD 2013 Conference

What is WIAD? It’s World Information Architecture Day, February 9. The Student Organization for Computer-Human Interaction (SOCHI) at the UM School of Information is coordinating this free Information Architecture Institute conference, one of 15 conferences worldwide.

The focus will be on clarifying what we mean when we say “architecture” and when we say “design” in research and practice; the differences implied by these terms are frequently lost in translation. Peter Morville, Malcolm McCullough, Daniel Eizans, and Andrew Hinton are scheduled to speak.

More information, including the agenda and a registration link, is available at Ann Arbor WIAD 2013 Conference. You may also register in person from 8:30–9:30 a.m.

Where: University of Michigan, Modern Languages Building, Auditorium 3, 812 E Washington Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan (one block east of State Street)

When: February 9, 9:30 a.m.–5:10 p.m., with a reception following from 5:10–7 p.m.

Cost: Free

November Program Meeting: “Agile Technical Writing”

Jack DeLand explains Agile

Written by Susan Fisher

Agile is not your father’s (or mother’s) tech writing. It’s all about working with small chunks of content, being continually iterative, and understanding that it’s never really “done.”

STC-SM member Jack DeLand, a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner, led the audience on a tour of the Agile development process and explained how technical writing fits into it. Most commonly used in computer software and systems development, Agile can be used with other types of development as well.

Traditional Development vs. Agile Development

In the traditional development process, comprehensive requirements and design specifications are created at the front end of a project. The entire product is then built and finally tested — followed by product-wide bug diagnosis and repair.

The Agile methodology is essentially about iterative, incremental development. Small functional chunks of the product are defined, designed, developed, tested, revised, and tested again until they are working properly. Then, these small chunks are combined into larger functional pieces using the same approach, until the product is complete. Development is a collaborative effort by cross-functional teams.

Flexible design, rapid prototyping, and quick adaptation to changing needs are hallmarks of the methodology. User input and usability testing are woven throughout the process.

What Does It Mean for the Tech Writer?

Instead of joining the project near the end, as is typical with traditional development, the tech writer on an Agile project is a member of the cross-functional team from the beginning. As such, the writer can play a key role in user needs analysis, design, usability testing, and the continual improvement of the product.

On the other side of the coin, the writer has to be comfortable with ambiguity, writing in fragments, innumerable versions of the documentation, and the reality that the product will continue to change until the end of the project.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are worth the effort — and best practices have been, and continue to be, identified.

More Information

To learn more, Jack recommended starting with “Agile Technical Documentation” by Jean-Luc Mazet (http://writersua.com/articles/Agile_doc/index.html).

He also suggested visiting these LinkedIn groups:

  • ŸAgile Technical Writers
  • ŸTechnical Writers in an Agile Environment

Letter from the President

Written by Jill Money

Jill Money, STC-SM Chapter President

This is an exciting year for our chapter! Several members are offering their time and expertise with the chapter and their efforts are already adding value and energy to the chapter.

Pat Martz, Webmaster: Pat has been busy redesigning the STC-SM chapter website. The redesign simplifies and streamlines the site, both improving the user experience and reducing the complexity of updating and maintaining information. This helps us get information out to our members faster. Pat is a principal in Inkberry Solutions, an Ann Arbor-based company that focuses on technical communication for small firms. She has a background in the sciences and completed an M.S. degree in Technical and Professional Communication at Lawrence Technological University. As STC-SM Webmaster, Pat was assisted in evaluating the website by Lawrence Technological University graduate student Pam Finger. We are very grateful for the work Pat and Pam have already done and look forward to continued improvements to the site.

Pam Finger is a candidate in the Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication program at Lawrence Tech. Pam’s practicum includes gathering information from users for the redesign. Pam and Pat Martz held an interactive program event in September in which they solicited feedback from attendees on the usability, flow, look, feel and prioritization of content. Pam’s upbeat style and energy in addition to her openness to ideas and feedback are sure to make her practicum as well as the STC-SM website redesign end product a great success!

Jack DeLand, Professional Liaison: Jack is already busy finding synergies with other groups such as local area businesses and professional associations to cross-promote and support events and information to members across the field. Jack is a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner with 30 years in the software and engineering documentation games. Jack has lectured on help systems at STC events and at the WritersUA conference, and is widely known for creating the interactive multimedia version of the Microsoft® Windows® Resource Kits documentation set. Jack’s degrees are in English and German, but he is most proud of his internship in Organizational Development with Dr. Larry Lippitt of the National Training Laboratories.

Susan Fisher, Secretary: In 1980, with a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Art & Design behind her, Sue started a career as a technical communicator, writing user instructions for a computer company. Soon thereafter, she joined STC-SM and then moved into the company’s new training function. Thirty years later, she’s lead instructional designer and performance consultant at Innovative Learning Group (www.innovativeLG.com) in Royal Oak — but she’s still a tech writer at heart! Sue’s current big interest is mobile learning and performance support. In 2012, she presented sessions on designing learning solutions for mobile delivery at the mLearnCon Mobile Learning Conference & Expo in San Jose and the Chicago eLearning & Technology Showcase. She’s also slated to present at the American Society for Training & Development’s 2013 International Conference in Dallas.

Sharon McDonnell, Newsletter / Blog Manager: Sharon is a senior analyst in Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s Provider Relations department and has been an active volunteer with our chapter since 1998. Sharon began volunteering with us as assistant to the Webmaster, followed by program registration and assistance and then Treasurer. This year she is working closely with Pat and Pam on implementing a blog on the STC-SM website. Have something you’d like to add to our blog? Send to Sharon at newsletter@stc-sm.org.

Returning Volunteers / Council members are Maryann Bowen (Immediate Past President), Tom Glennan (Vice President and Educational Liaison), Barry Matthews (Treasurer), Deb Stacy (Job Board / Listserv), Mary Jo David (Membership Chairperson) and me as your 2013 President and Publicity Manager.

Thank you to all STC-SM members and chapter volunteers. We’re always looking for suggestions for blog articles and program event speakers from our members and volunteers. Feel free to send any ideas along to Sharon at newsletter@stc-sm.org or to me at president@stc-sm.org.

Agile Technical Writing Program on November 14

This presentation by Jack DeLand, a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner, will take you through the roots of Agile technical writing, describe some of its common problems and pitfalls (such as scheduling and working to extremely small time boxes), and end with some real-life practice of the Scrum experience. By the end of the evening, you’ll be a practitioner, too!

Where: LTU, 21000 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan, room C406, which is also known as the Welcome Center, in the Alfred A. Taubman Student Services Center in the middle of campus.

When: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 from 6:45 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Cost: Members: $5
Non-members: $10
Students: Free

Please register for this event.