Standardization, Modularization In Technical Documentation
How do you feel when you see these pictures? If the photo on the left upsets you to the same extent as the photo on the right gives you pleasure, you are in good hands with the technical editors. Just as a perfectly loaded dishwasher enables the best cleaning result, editorial offices meticulously maintain their content to get the most out of it. And that means more than just the optics. Standardization, modularization, and classification tools create understandable, secure, and cost-saving documentation. At the same time, we are laying the foundation for intelligent information and automation. Here we take a closer look at what these terms mean and what role metadata plays in them.
Table of Contents
Standardization means sticking to certain rules and implementing them. To stay with our example: When loading the dishwasher, you always arrange glasses and cups with the opening facing downwards. So they follow – by default – a rule that serves a specific purpose: clean and dry dishes. It has already been mentioned why we standardize in the editorial context: We want to produce documentation that enables users to use a product safely.
“Secure” also means that the content is designed to be as precise as necessary and as understandable as possible. Complex sentence structure or pages full of warnings are counterproductive here. So we set rules for language and structure designed to prevent that and instead help us achieve our communicative goals. And, of course, resources should also be saved: If I don’t have to think about how to do every little step but can stick to specifications, the work goes faster, and the coordination effort decreases noticeably.
Of course, the terminology also plays an important role in standardization, which ideally is uniform throughout the company. Even if we are concentrating on editorial content here in our definition of terms: Standardization expressly refers not only to content but also to processes that are to be standardized, uniform, and understandable in technical editing and the company.
And that brings us to the next technical term: modularization means splitting our (standardized) content into functional units. These building blocks have various names: nodes, information units, topics – or modules. We can have a whole chapter, e.g., consider an introduction as a building block or define subheadings, graphics, and text sections as modules.
We can even “shred” our content down to the word level. How much you modularize your content depends on many factors. What do you gain from this? You can reuse your blocks at different places in the documentation. This saves you time and money, your content is more consistent, and you avoid sources of error. With standardized and modularized content, translation costs are also significantly reduced. And finally, you have more flexibility when outputting your content – but you still need the next step…
Classification By Metadata
The best way to manage your modules is in an editorial system. This is where you put together finished documentation for various output media. But how does the CMS know when which module should be used for production? After all, only some building blocks fit every product or every target group. This is where classification comes into play. We call the assignment of certain properties a building block classification.
And the properties are called metadata in our industry. We speak of “meta” because it is data about data. With metadata, we can describe the content, the target group, or the function of a building block in more detail or assign it to a specific product type. For a plate from our top-loaded dishwasher, we could, among other things, set the metadata “deep” for the “shape” property. Or we record the target group “children” or that it is stored in the kitchen cupboard at the back left … or whatever is useful in the specific case.
An editing system can now include or exclude building blocks based on these properties in production. In various filters, we specify the properties that modules must have to be output. This is how we finally reach our goal with standardized, modularized, and classified building blocks: Playing out the right content to the right person at the right time and with as little effort as possible. This output can be complete documentation for a product, online help for an error message, or an indication on display for service personnel.