Death of the Document: It’s Time for a New Way of Thinking about Document Authoring Software

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When people first started creating software to automate their business processes, it was natural enough to think of it as a kind of simulator to imitate what was already happening on paper. So in accounting, for example, you got these massive spreadsheets that basically just simulated the ledgers accountants were working with at the time. In its way it was marvellous because it meant you could use formulas to add stuff up and automate a lot of the work that accountants previously had to do manually. Even so, it didn’t take long to figure out that working with your data in its final form really restricted the way that you could manipulate and control the data itself.

From there you got the database-driven systems. These offered best-of-breed solutions in very specific areas, so you had your human resources programs and your accounts receivable programs and your inventory programs. But while they were really good for what they did, you had to integrate them all if you wanted them to talk to one another, and eventually you ended up with a strip-mall of products from all sorts of different places. Not only did businesses have to spend a lot of money on integration consultants but they also tended to get stuck with the basic versions of the platforms because they’d put so much work into integrating them that upgrading just wasn’t worth it.

The third generation of software was the end-to-end systems, which could take care of absolutely everything your business was doing in one tidy package. While these were a lot easier to get going, the downside was that the single modules tended not to be as sophisticated as the best-of-breed products. Still, that was hugely outweighed by the fact they were a single product, and over time it all improved and now the best-of-breed products have all but disappeared.

That brings us to Software as a Service (SaaS), which has of course changed the game completely. Because all the SaaS products have their own API, they’re very easy to integrate. So as a customer you have the freedom to go with consolidated systems or best-of-breed solutions, whatever suits your needs. It’s flexible, it’s scalable and it’s just going to keep growing.

So, accounting software has gone through those four generations, Customer Relationship Management software has gone through them, everything has gone through them – except documentation. Documentation has remained stuck solidly in that first phase, where we’re just simulating what we’d do on paper. Even when we create Web pages, we’re still just simulating what we’d do on paper. No one has moved past that first step into a more database-driven model where you can store content and produce a variety of deliverables from that same information. The format the document is saved in has changed – maybe instead of saving in .doc we’re now saving in .docx – but fundamentally it’s still the same idea.

In fact, we’ve had to develop software around the problem, like smart search engines that can search a document to dig out the knowledge that’s stuck in there. But that doesn’t solve the problem that if you make a change to that document, you have to make an entirely new copy of that document, so you have version 1.1, version 1.2, and so on.

The solution: an Enterprise Authoring Platform

Why hasn’t documentation followed the path of other technology? I think it’s because it just hasn’t been an important part of running a business. In financials the more information you have the better the decisions you can make.

But when it comes to documentation there are only two reasons to change: when it gets in the way of running your business or when it costs you a lot of money. What a lot of business owners don’t realize is that it’s doing both of those things right now.

It’s costing a lot of money because every time someone wants to create a new document they’ve got to start from scratch and hunt around for the information – information that may be written out 10 or 20 times a day, not to mention the time spent messing around with formats. It’s also getting in the way of business because people don’t want to work that way anymore. Take training – people don’t want to sit around for a week watching videos or reading manuals; they want to learn as they go, figuring it out for themselves when they can and looking for help when they get stuck.

So what’s the solution? A mindset change along with adoption of an Enterprise Authoring Platform (EAP). We’ve got to stop thinking of the document as a store of information and start thinking of it as a deliverable that you can produce from text stored in a pure state, in the same way that a financial report is something you can produce out of figures stored in a database. You have a user interface that makes it appear that the user is working on a document; but when they type something in, the system analyzes what they’re typing and offers suggestions for what they want to say. That way everything is uniform; you can make updates without having to create new files and the same information doesn’t have to be written out over and over again.

The technology is there – we just have to change the way we think. To fix the document problem, we have to kill the document. Starting now.

Paul Trotter is the founder and CEO of Author-it Software Corporation and the architect of the Author-it product, an Enterprise Authoring Platform (EAP). Author-it was born out of the frustrations that Paul experienced producing documentation in the Telecommunications industry. Author-it is a product built from the ground up around principles such as topic based writing, single sourcing and separating content from format. Over a decade and five major releases later, these principles remain true of Author-it today and are the basis of the success of the company. Paul is a popular speaker at events all over the world on topics ranging from technical writing and help authoring to content management and localization.


By Paul Trotter

There’s also another active discussion on a separate LinkedIn group http://lnkd.in/bw3_p5

I welcome your feedback here on on those groups.

By Donna Buskirk

Related topic – I’m reading “Conversation and Community; The Social Web for Documentation” by Anne Gentle with a very-much-worth-reading foreword by Andy Oram. I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend it for any and all tech writers, support managers, and software teams.

By Bill Sampson

I couldn’t agree more. Companies like Author-It and Dozuki are primed to make a huge splash once more organizations realize the true cost of their poor documentation.

By Bill Maslen

In my view, the contention that text can be stored “in a pure state” is very misleading. Language cannot be equated to math: the one is organic, the other is not. Figures don’t change – language does. The danger of any system that relies on an unchanging body of text (corpus) as its back end is that as new documents are “built” (from existing blocks of text), the quality of the corpus a whole gradually deteriorates. Why? Because the text blocks will only remain valid and usable for a certain period of time. Not only will products and services develop, the language used to describe them will develop, and possibly at even greater speed.

The argument put forward in this article is very alluring, and I love the basic concept. While the premise is potentially erroneous, there’s no reason why a properly managed corpus shouldn’t be a dynamic, actively growing and changing resource that keeps pace both with the changes in your company’s in-house idiom and – even more important – with the changes in the language used by your customers. But this corpus management aspect is by no means straightforward – and you won’t hear many systems sellers discussing it, either, because they know it’s not straightforward!

When selecting your “Enterprise Authoring Platform” (okay, I admit I hate this term, because it suggests the only serious business is large business, and the only serious tool is the seriously expensive one), make sure it doesn’t turn into an involuntary straitjacket that encourages your employees to take the path of least resistance rather than thinking of new and inventive ways to use language (to promote and therefore sell your products and services!).

By Paul Trotter

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your insightful comments. I am not advocating that the information remains static, the components that are being re-used are constantly being maintenance and updated as required, and are dynamic.

The key difference is rather than the content being trapped inside a specific document, locked inside specific formatting and presentation, it is stored as a component that can be shared across publications, free from any presentation.

When the underling component is updated, all the publications are now all referencing the updated component and can be easily rendered to the required deliverable formats – be that print, help, or web formats. All from the same source content.

In fact, we find that using this method, authors focus more on the qualify of the content rather than the manual tasks of formatting and layout, which tends to occupy about half their time. Content also becomes more consistent within and across publication or other deliverables like websites, and knowledge bases.


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