robot_moneyAutomated content assembly, aggregation, and generation is not about making a nice hocus-pocus to entertain your co-workers at a cocktail party (although it would be, probably, a fine way to impress them).

It’s about solving your business needs and increasing the business value of your content. Unlike traditional publishing, when you just present the same content in a different format, content automation lets you create completely new information assets from the existing content.

It’s about eliminating expensive, error-prone, and time-consuming processes and introducing mechanisms that do the important work faster and cost-effectively.

In this series, I’m describing various use cases when content automation can bring most benefits.

 

Assembling Scattered Pieces of Information

Situation: You have a big amount of individual topics with multiple variations based on various parameters, like product model, market, audience, and so on. Some topics are model-specific while other topics are common for all products and models. You want to assemble these topics into a specific output, whether the output represents a static document (for example, a user guide for a particular product model) or is generated dynamically (for example, a troubleshooting procedure for a specific product model based on the user’s profile and error code generated by the machine).

Why Manual Process Is a Problem: Of course, you can put individual topics together for a particular output manually, but:

  • The output (for example, a PDF or WebHelp) will be static, which seriously limits the experience of your users who want to get only the right information in the right time. The amount of information, its contents, and structure should depend on the user’s context rather than on the author who created the table of contents for a PDF output.
  • Assembling topics into a map manually is a time-consuming and error-prone process.
  • Most likely, documents of the same type have the same structure. For example, all user guides have to include an overview, installation, configuration, and troubleshooting sections, while all administrator guides have to have a description of the architecture, maintenance, and best practices sections. Verifying that this top level structure is consistent throughout your documentation requires additional efforts.
  • You need to make sure that every time a new piece of information is created, this information is added to the right map.

How Content Automation Can Help: Structured content can provide semantic metadata about any piece of information, which means that there is a way to know what each piece is all about. Having this metadata on one hand, and formalized requirements to the output on the other hand, whether it’s a bill of materials, product configuration from a PLM system, or the user profile, relevant pieces of information can be picked up and assembled automatically.

 

Visualizing Complex Procedures

Situation: Some information can be understood by your users better if it’s represented visually. For example, a complex troubleshooting procedure or a diagram showing system’s components and how they interact with each other would be a good addition to the textual descriptions.

Why Manual Process Is a Problem: Of course, you can always draw a flowchart or a diagram in Visio or PowerPoint, but:

  • Maintaining both textual and visual representation of the content (in many cases, you need both of them) is time-consuming.
  • When you have a lot of content variations, maintaining multiple variations of the drawing becomes a nightmare. Suppose you are documenting a troubleshooting procedure that helps the user fix a problem in the washing machine. There’re various models of the washing machine that provide different features. A troubleshooting for one model may be 80% the same as for another model. But because some components or features available in one model might be unavailable in another one, certain steps or checks in the troubleshooting will also look differently. Drawing different troubleshooting flowcharts for each model and then maintaining them in parallel doesn’t seem to be a very efficient approach.
  • Since the user wants to get only right information in the right time, the context dependent content should be assembled from pieces of information which are relevant for this particular situation, on the fly. This means that a drawing cannot always exist as a static image file. It should generated automatically based on the context.

How Content Automation Can Help: Structured content contains a lot of semantic information that can be used to automatically generate visual representation of the textual content. For example, troubleshooting topics relevant for a particular product model in a particular situation can be picked up from the content repository that contains all information about all product models. Then a flowchart that shows the troubleshooting procedure can be automatically created from the found topics. Users might be allowed to choose whether they want to read, see the troubleshooting procedure, or get both of them.

 

Writing and Documenting Software/Hardware Configuration Files

Situation: Your developers write configuration files for software or hardware. This configuration needs to be documented for internal or external use.

Why Manual Process Is a Problem: Of course, you can split the responsibilities between developers and technical writers so that developers would create configuration files, and technical writers would document them, but:

  • Every time developers make a change in the configuration file (for example, add or update a parameter), they need to inform technical writers about the change. More often than not, technical writers have no idea that something was changed, so the documentation is outdated and out-of-sync with the actual configuration.
  • In many cases, if anything written by technical writers needs to be added to the configuration files too (for example, parameter descriptions), it does not happen due to flaws in communication between developers and technical writers.
  • Maintaining configuration files themselves and technical documentation requires efforts from both development and technical documentation teams, which means that even a small update may require valuable resources in the both teams.

How Content Automation Can Help: Just like technical documentation written in a structured content format, configuration files are usually pretty well structured. This means that configuration files can be generated automatically from the technical specifications written by either developers or technical writers.

In Part 2, I’m going to talk about additional use cases, including data visualization and generation of business documents, like sales proposals.

Stay tuned!

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