The Perfect Storm was the name given to a group of three independent weather systems that converged to create a hurricane of biblical proportions. Occurring in 1991, this storm, named the Halloween Nor’easter, caused over $1 billion in damages and killed 12 people. It became a book which in turn became a movie.
The meteorologist Robert Case described this storm vividly:
[a] strong disturbance associated with a cold front moved along the U.S.-Canadian border on October 27 and passed through New England pretty much without incident. At the same time, a large high-pressure system was forecast to build over southeast Canada. When a low pressure system along the front moved into the Maritimes southeast of Nova Scotia, it began to intensify due to the cold dry air introduced from the north. These circumstances alone, could have created a strong storm, but then, like throwing gasoline on a fire, a dying Hurricane Grace delivered immeasurable tropical energy to create the perfect storm.
And who said weatherman aren’t sexy?
Storm, Storm, Everywhere A Storm
A “perfect storm” has come to mean any group of events which, by occurring at the same time, have a much great impact than if they had each occurred separately. Perfect storms happen all the time. For example, in politics:
IF there is a desire for change
AND IF the opposition is weak or divided
AND IF a potentially strong new leader arises,
these conditions combine into a perfect storm to ensure a massive victory for one of the parties, and a thorough trouncing of the other.
Note that any one of these factors on its own would probably not be enough – it is the combination of these three that creates the storm.
Perfect storms also explode in the business world. The IPod is a perfect storm of good functional design, beautiful appearance and a slick marketing campaign. Even though there are many other players that are less expensive and perform nearly as well, the IPod dominates the media player industry because of the storm it creates.
A Storm of Information
In information development, a perfect storm is brewing that makes the Halloween Nor’easter hurricane look like a calm ocean breeze. And in this storm, the ayes have it, or, to be more precise, the I’s have it, all four of them.
The Bottom Line
The first I is Inefficiency. At all levels, companies are looking to cut costs wherever they can, and documentation is no exception. Creating well-formed, meaningful, accurate and up to date documentation is very expensive. Content management systems (CMSs) are also very expensive, but in the long run they lower costs and make the documentation process much more efficient. User guides that normally take months to publish can be assembled in weeks. It’s not unusual for these systems to pay for themselves within a few months. CMSs are so powerful, they are part of the other I’s, as you will see.
I Speak-ah Three Languages – English Da Best
The second I is Internationalization. With technology, the world has shrunk to the size of a basketball. There is very little to stop companies from selling to markets throughout the world, especially if the product is non-physical, such as services or software. As a result, there is a need to translate documentation into various languages, but the cost is horrendous. CMSs alleviate some of this pain by allowing only the changed areas to be sent to the translator and by reusing content so that the same words don’t have to be translated more than once.
The Library Vs. the Net
The third I is the Internet. I certainly don’t need to explain the impact this has had on information. I can tell you that I feel very old when I speak to my 11-year daughter, as she researches a school project using the Internet:
“You know, back in my day, there was no Internet. If you wanted information, you had to drive to the library. Then you had to go through a series of dusty cards in large shelves, find the subject you wanted and then write down the Dewey Decimal numbers. If the librarian was there, and was not feeling too grouchy, she may have allowed you to interrupt her reading to ask for help. In a nasty voice, she would then tell you where to go. Then you had to stagger through a maze of book shelves, eventually finding the right aisle, slumber down the endless shelves of books, find the right shelf, bend down and strain your neck all over the place to find the book you wanted, only to discover….the book was out! It was a hard life, let me tell you…”
To which my daughter replied: “Come on dad, that was back in the 70’s. They didn’t even have cars back then..”
So much information (practical and otherwise) is on the Internet, it’s an incredibly obvious place to store all the documentation a user would need. The idea of creating PDFs and online help that ship with each release is absurd, because the instant these documents are published, they are out of date.
A more logical model is one in which all documentation is stored in a CMS that is continually published online. Whenever a user needs the latest and greatest version of a document, they go online and get it. With the right online tools, users can create their own custom output, tailored to their skill level, business requirements and the specific versions of the product they are using.
The next I relates directly to the Internet – it is Interactivity. The days of one-way or limited communication are gone. However, it’s not enough for companies simply to provide a venue where customers can contact the head office. Companies have to provide an active area where people can freely post information and comment on their products. If they don’t, people have the will, and most importantly, the power, to do it themselves.
It’s quite amazing that on the websites of many stores, people rate and review the products offered, and that bad reviews appear everywhere. Such tolerance for unfiltered information would have been unthinkable a short time ago. Today, it’s demanded.
Now, imagine an online user guide where people can suggest changes and post comments. There is no better to terrify a writer into providing better content than that. The pain would be worth it, though, because you would end up with a guide that people can actually read, understand and use.
It’s All About Me
These are the four I’s of the information development perfect storm. But these are actually all part of another I factor, one that is changing all business, and in fact, the world. This I is Individualism, and there are two parts to it.
The part is in the extreme niche marketing we see – products designed for groups within groups within still other groups. For example, clothing stores that try to appeal to everyone appeal to no one. Clothing stores that appeal to 18-25 female professionals may succeed, assuming this group is neither too general nor too specific.
The second part of Individualism is that people, as individuals, want to be heard as individuals and not ignored. This is part of the Interactivity factor discussed earlier.
Combine these two Individualism factors together into the information development field and what do you get? Documentation that:
- is custom-made for the end user (for example, an intermediate user who owns two of the companies other products, is using Windows XP, and wants the text to be displayed on screen in 12 point Arial on a cool grey background)
- the user can give direct feedback on, by directly contacting the company and by posting comments to specific topics online.
- much less Inefficient that our previous system
- directly on the Internet, instead of using email and (gasp) mailed, printed copies as we did in the past
- Interactive – you can (and you should) contribute to it, and comment on any article.
The only factor left out is Internationalization, but that’s because English is the only language we use in our chapter. Who knows the future, though? If online translation tools improve, then anyone anywhere in the world could read our newsletter in their language. (I think the Swahali-speakers would particulary enjoy it.)
You Say You Want A Revolution
All of these I’s are creating the perfect storm for a revolution in how documentation is created. Any one of these factors on their own would probably not be enough. With two of these factors, the odds would be greater. But with all four factors occurring, it is an unstoppable force. All technical writers now face a choice – they can drown in this storm, or they can get out their surfboards and ride the waves of change.