Netflix My Net-Docs

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe, the following message appeared on a website:

This site is only available for viewing next Thursday, from 2pm to 3pm. If you would like to view it after that, we can mail you a printed copy in 7 to 12 business days.

Actually, this isn’t too far from reality. Do you know there are people who still:

  • drive to a bank to pay bills, when they could do it online?
  • mail printed photographs to their family, rather than email them?
  • manage documents as part of a group, with each group member keeping their own duplicate copy?
  • watch movies and TV programmes according a broadcaster’s schedule?

The last point is particularly interesting. Why is it unacceptable to have a website (or any online content) that could only be viewed certain days and times, but it’s acceptable to have other content that’s only available certain days and times. Either scenario is ridiculous.

Through downloading, online reruns available on various broadcasting websites, and streaming services such as Netflix, gone are the days where you have to wait for a day. In addition, some of these services allow you to enter meta-data about your preferences, and to rate what you’ve seen, enabling the service to suggest content that might interest you. On certain sites, you can also add comments, which is pretty tricky to do using a television.

We’re therefore seeing entertainment content catch up with the principles of informational content, namely:

  • available for viewing any time, anywhere
  • customizable
  • permanent
  • enabling two-way communication

I can imagine a not-too-distant future where our children and their children will look back and laugh as they cry: “You mean you guys actually drove to a store to watch a movie? And there was actually stuff that wasn’t online?!”

The horror, the horror…


Dude, where’s my document?

See the source imageTry this experiment:

  1. Think of a printed guide you worked on.
  2. Find the source document from your current location.
  3. Make a minor change to the document.
  4. Go to the locations of all the end users: their homes and offices.
  5. Remove the previous guides.
  6. Replace the previous guides with the new copies.
  7. Complete steps 1 through 6 immediately.

Done yet?

Now try this:

  1. Using your Google or Gmail account, create a Google document.
  2. Enter some text into it.
  3. Open another copy of your web browser, or open a different browser.
  4. Copy and paste the URL from one browser into the other. The document will now be displayed in both browsers.
  5. Resize the windows of both browsers so that they are displayed adjacently to each other.
  6. Make changes to the document in one browser.

A magical thing happens: you’ll see your changes in the other browser window in real time. That is, changes made in one browser instantly appear in the other as you type them.

This functionality allows multiple authors to edit a document and see each others changes as they happen. In addition, the document can be instantly published to the web, and be configured to automatically be republished when changes are made.

Compare this with the old model, where changes did not appear until the next printed release or until the revised files were uploaded to a website.

The question “where is the document?” has become as meaningless as “where is four?” Documents like these no longer exist in a single location but in every location. They have become as ubiquitous as concepts, philosophy, and gravity, not enclosed in a physical location but rather a metaphysical one.

Now some communicators proclaim: “information wants to be free”. Information cannot “want’ anything – it has no personality but that which we ascribe to it.

Communicators create and manage information – we control it. It is not that “information wants to be free” – it is that we can, and must, free it from its prison of physicality and non-universal accessibility.

Shared, web-based workspaces are a good place to begin the liberation.

Black Box In The Cloud

See the source imageA black box is any device or system that receives input, processes it, and produces output, in a way that is mysterious and incomprehensible to the user. The user does not know how it works, just that it works.

A black box can be summed up as:

Input -> [Black box] – > Output

Examples of black boxes abound: cars, TVs, cell phones, home appliances, computers, and so on. We don’t know exactly how these things work, but simply take it for granted that they do.

Now, from the perspective of our employees and clients, a technical communicator is a black box, as follows:

  • Input: specification sheets, old documents, product reviews, emails, notes, assorted conversations, tall tales, rumours and innuendos 
  • Black box: the thoughts and actions of the technical communicator, and the tools used 
  • Output: technical documentation

A more common black box is the one on an aircraft. It is called, appropriately enough, a black box, although it is actually yellow to make it easier to find.

An aircraft’s black box records its critical flight data, so that if the aircraft crashes, there’s a record of events leading up to the crash. If the black box can be found, it can help crash investigators determine the cause of the accident.

The main flaw of this design is that someone actually has to find the black box. If there’s no black box, you’ll just have a black hole of data.

A Canadian company named Star Navigation Systems Group has developed a remarkable solution: a new black box. Instead of storing data within the box, the data is transmitted via satellite to a monitoring station.

It no longer matters if the black box is lost or destroyed, because the data is already “on the ground”. More importantly, if there’s a problem on the plane, an text alert is automatically sent to the appropriate people. This could be a life-saving alert, as it could allow technicians to solve a mechanical problem before it becomes a full-blown disaster.

Viraf Kapadia, the chief executive of Star Navigation Systems, explains it well:

“Say you’re the vice-president of engineering for Air Canada and you’re at an aviation show or conference. Something goes wrong with one of your aircraft of high priority, then you will receive an email on your computer with WiFi or your BlackBerry telling you exactly what is wrong in plain English.

“It is reactive versus proactive. The Black Box is very important when a plane goes down or a plane has had a problem and they want to do a postflight analysis, but that is always going to be after the fact. Our box is there watching in real time all the time so if there is an issue that needs to be addressed it can be immediately as opposed to t-minus one second which is then boom and crash.”

To sum up: the two important things which distinguish the new black box from the old are:

  • the location of the information – the information is stored separately from the aircraft, instead of inside the aircraft
  • the timeliness of the information – the information is transmitted and reviewed in real time, as instead of after the fact

Traditional documentation suffers the same two drawbacks of the old black box: its location and timeliness. Most documentation is stored locally on the writer’s computer. The writer can only review and update their documentation if they are physically at their computer.

In addition, most documentation is only updated when the product itself is updated and redistributed. Any important changes to a guide have to wait until the next release.

By contrast, a web-based content management system that regularly and automatically publishes its content online does not have these limitations. A writer simply logs in securely to the system no matter where they are located or even what computer they are using. Changes can be made anywhere and anytime. Content is regularly and automatically updated on a website that users can also access anywhere.

The end result is like the new black box: a system that can be accessed anywhere, and which distributes data immediately (or almost immediately).

Examples of these new information systems include web-based website and document management systems, such a Google Sites and Google Docs. But even better are cloud technical writing tools such as ClickHelp that allow you to develop and manage documentation from anywhere using a web browser.

Any web-based tool that allows you to create, view, edit and manage information would qualify, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and, of course, blogs. In fact, I have already updated this blog entry after posting it.

The old black box was in the clouds, literally.

The new black box, and, it is hoped, all important information, is no longer in the clouds, but on The Cloud.

Resolve this

Image result for happy new yearMy new year’s resolutions all involve documentation, of course.

The Paper Chase

My first resolution is to organize all the various printed guides, warranties, and other paper documents that have accumulated over the years and randomly spread themselves into various piles throughout my home.

I will review each and every paper item and discard what I don’t need. (I hate paper and wish we lived in a paper-free Star Trek world.) The relevant leftovers will be grouped and placed into large envelopes and stored alphabetically in a box.

My extensive printed documentation collection includes the following:

  • big electronics – TVs, Blu-Ray and DVD disc players, CD player, home theatre and satellite receiver, gaming unit
  • little electronics – MP3 players, cameras, phones, remotes, clocks, shavers, hardware tools, watches, electric toothbrush, organic mind reader
  • main computer items – user guides, and guides for the motherboard, DVD burner, RAM
  • peripheral computer items – mouse, monitor, keyboard, speakers, scanner, Webcam, backup drive, software documentation, USB powered teleporter
  • kitchen appliances – fridge, stove, microwave, dishwasher, blender, toaster oven, indoor spit
  • garage items – snowblower, lawnmower, trimmer, BBQ, Ferrari guide
  • miscellaneous items – washer and dryer, vacuum cleaners, non-electric items such as board games, hot water heater, humidifier, kitchen faucet, Sherman tank

(God, I have a lot of crap.)

Soft Sell

My second resolution is to conduct a complete audit of all the soft documents on my computer and again, get rid of what I don’t need and keep the good stuff. There’s many documents that are several years old that I never read and know I’ll never need. Other documents need to be rewritten, merged or reclassified.

Onward and Online

My final resolution, a continuation of the second, is to move as many of my files online as possible. As long as the document does not contain sensitive or critical financial information (like my Swiss bank account number and Tiger Woods’ cell phone number), I will move it to Google docs.

In addition to textual documents, my most precious files are my photographs. Before the era of digital photography, people took pictures with something called a film camera, which produced something called prints. I have hundreds of these prints in special books called photo albums. They are single copies only – there is no backup. My long term goal, therefore, is to scan every one of these photographs and upload them to private albums on Flickr.

Managing Catastrophe

I have heard of too many cases where hard drives have failed and people have lost all their files. Backups help with this problem, but if your house burns down or is burglarized, they have no value. The ideal state to be in if you lost your hard drive for any reason would be that you simply buy another computer, connect to the Internet, and access all your files.

Confidential files should be whittled down to a size that can fit on a USB key. That key should then be kept at a location away from your computer. Alternatively, you can use an online backup site. ADrive, for example, gives you 50 GB of free online storage.

Is this ringing any (alarm) bells?

If any of these documentation issues sound familiar (a plethora of printed docs, unorganized soft docs, and lack of an off-site backup for your documents and photos), welcome to the club. Most people simply don’t make the effort to deal with these ongoing doc issues.

However, we technical communicators are not most people – we are the Communicati – the enlightened communication and documentation high priests. If we fail to maintain our own documentation, what chance do normal folk have?

Catch the Wave

Image result for WaveOutdated is a word coined by manufacturers to convince people the shiny new products they purchased six months ago and which work perfectly are now useless. However, once in a while, a new product comes along that really does make the current version practically obsolete. Google Wave could be just such an application.

Google Wave is difficult program to describe, but is essentially a cutting edge communication application that’s a combination of email, instant messaging and collaborative editing. Because Google Wave is so different than anything before it, the best way to learn about it is to watch the long video here. The next best way is to finish reading this article.

New Wave Rocks

Google Wave is the name of the latest application developed by Google. Within it you create documents called, appropriately enough, Waves. Waves are XML-based document objects similar to an email thread, but so much more. Instead of writing and sending an email, you create a Wave and then share it with others.

Google Wave was created because email as we know it was developed long before the Internet, the World Wide Web, rich content and multimedia. Traditional email is like putting horseshoes on a Ferrari – painful.

Creature Features
Here are the main features of Google Wave that make it light-years beyond regular email:

  • when you type a message, other users see your keystrokes in real-time, character by character; no more “Amy is typing…” messages to wait through, although you can turn off this feature if you wish
  • instant and intelligent spellcheck: for example, “It’s bean so long” is automatically corrected to “It’s been so long”; “icland is an icland” is automatically changed to “Iceland is an island”; these changes are either instantly made, or suggestions are automatically presented in a drop-down list below the word in question
  • you can view the history of a message thread using a “playback” feature – this allows you to step through each response as it was received, one message at a time, so you can see who wrote what and when they wrote it
  • multiple users can update the original message – all users will see each other’s changes in real time as they are typed, in other words, real-time live document colloboration
  • a built-in search function – you can search sites, images, videos, and then with one click instantly add the link or photo to your message
  • you can easily respond to just a portion of a section in the message, instead of the entire message; new threads are automatically created
  • you can easily drag photos onto your message, and rename them, again in real time
  • automatic recognition of URLs: if you enter, it is instantly converted to a hyperlink
  • you can easily embed videos

Extending a Hand

You can also extend Google Wave by creating extensions for other applications and websites. For example, you can:

  • add a Wave to to a blog – updates to the Wave instantly appear in the blog, and vice versa, in real time
  • add Twitter to a Wave – the Twitter thread appears in Wave – updates to one appear in the other
  • embed various apps, such as a chess game
  • create your own “branded” Wave; for example the ABC Company could create a Wave that appears as an ABC Wave, with all of the Google Wave’s functionality
  • add a “response” gadget – a table with multiple columns: each column represents a response to a question, for example: Do you like cheese? – Yes | No | Maybe; when you respond, your ID appears under the column of that response; to change your response, you simply click another column and your ID instantly moves to that column
  • insert a map into a Wave – if one reader zooms in or out, or annotates the map with markup tools, the other users will instantly see the new view or the changes
  • add a form: for example, multiple users can collaborate in real time on the construction of a poll; you can be writing the questions while another user writes the potential responses; you can then can instantly send out the poll to all the recipients, and the poll results are updated live in real-time

To Infinity and Beyond…

These features are indeed incredible. But perhaps the most outstanding feature of all is the one demonstrated near the end of the video: real time translation to another language. Using a special translation add-on, you can type in one language and an instant, real-time, word by word translation appears in another language.

When new technology like this comes along, I’m always reminded of two of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Three Laws”:

  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

On the first law: Only by hiring the best and brightest engineers could Google create such an application. But technical intelligence only gets you so far; you have to be a dreamer, a doubter and a rebel. You must believe in the impossible to do the possible.

On the second law: Google Wave certainly does appear “magical”. But we have to be careful not to be overwhelmed by the magic. Just because a new product can be used in new and different ways does not necessarily make it more “usable”. I’m sure many of us could personally could benefit from such a tool, but we are hyper-combinations of communicators and engineers. Many people might balk at such a complex application. Just because something may be “better” doesn’t mean people will use it. History is filled with “better” products that failed for other reasons: price, usability, inability of people to change – the Apple Newton and WebTV are but two examples; you can view more here.

The Wave is scheduled to be released either late 2009 or early 2010. It will be fascinating to see if it succeeds, because it could impact our profession. Think about it: XML-based; collaborative editing; ability to track changes; instant communication – are these not the ideals of technical communication? If the Wave takes off, it could inspire a whole new generation of people to become technical communicators.

And what a Wave that would be…

Single-Sourcing My Life

Image result for mail overloadI was determined to avoid email bankruptcy, the fate of Internet commentator and legal expert Lawrence Lessing. Lesson was so overwhelmed with the volume of emails he received that he sent a mass email back saying he’d probably be unable to respond.

My problem was not the volume of email, but the fact my contact information was spread out over many different files, and over several different computers. I use up to four different computers a week, so I knew I had to get my email on the Net. After much informational detective work, I consolidated all my contacts’ email addresses, phone numbers and other data into a single online location. It’s a beautiful thing.

You’ve Got Mail (And A Bunch of Other Stuff Too)

Of course, being an “info junkie”, I couldn’t stop at email. I also moved my web favorites online, as well as certain documents that I wanted to view and edit anywhere, just like this Blog. (This comes in handy when your teen-aged daughter kicks you off the computer.)

The Battle for Storage: Please Take It Offline

Clearly, online storage has its advantages. However, so does storing files locally, as the following list indicates:

Access to Files:
* Local Files: Limited to specific computer only
* Online Files: Any computer with Internet access

Application Features:
* Local Files: Many
* Online Files: Fewer, but growing

Application Updates:
* Local Files: Less frequent
* Online Files: More frequent, and often free!
Ability for others to comment and add metadata:
* Local Files: Limited
* Online Files: Widespread

* Local Files: Fast
* Online Files: Slower, but getting faster

* Local Files: Better
* Online Files: Potential risk

Backing up:
* Local Files: Must do
* Online Files: Somewhat optional; data is stored “off-site”

Potential for duplicate data:
* Local Files: High
* Online Files: None

If Internet connection is down:
* Local Files: Can still access files
* Online Files: The horror, the horror

As Internet speed, technology, features and security improve, more people will shift their information away from a specific machine and onto the Web. In fact, in the not too distant future, we’ll just log on to any machine anywhere, and have immediate access not only to all our files, but our entire desktop and all our custom settings and applications. The customizable websites of today (such as iGoogle, Yahoo and Facebook) are but a taste of tomorrow.

Lining Up Online and Offline

The amount of information we already access online is extraordinary. Banking sites, social and professional networking sites, and blogs are all accessible anywhere. Yet there is still much data trapped within our specific machines.

For example, I haven’t really single-sourced all my contact information. It’s still duplicated in Microsoft Works where I can create custom lists and reports, and again in the speed-dial information on my various phones. True single-sourcing would allow us to enter the information once and use it on any device, reformatting as necessary.
Feed Me

An excellent example of this type of content reuse is found in the wide variety of RSS readers. (This blog automatically creates an RSS feed.) All RSS feeds are in a standard XML format, allowing you to follow them using the readers (or browser) of your choice. Most importantly, you can change the appearance of the information, sort it and categorize it.

The Para-Docs

Now, technical communicators, being the “techie” types we are, are heavy creators and users of customized Internet data. This leads to a rather odd paradox.

During our personal time, we create and store data on the Internet, with all its inherent advantages. Then, during our working time, we manage documents that we can edit only on one computer – our company desktop or laptop. Even those of use who are lucky enough to work at home occasionally still have to schlep our laptop back and forth to work. Finally, the documents we work on are printed or packaged with the software. The layout and formatting are fixed and the content is frozen.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words – what’s wrong with words in this picture?

Some companies are beginning to realize the absurdity of creating documents that can become outdated moments after they are produced. As a result, these businesses are providing more of their content within secure online locations. PDFs and Word files may be quick and easy to produce, but they represent an antiquated model of communication.

Don’t Bury Me – I’m Not Dead Yet!

Of course, traditional documentation won’t completely die. They’ll always be a need for hard copies, especially for hardware and other equipment, where printed quick start and setup guides are essential. However, we will see more content shifting online, as companies strive to cut costs and stay current.

Don’t WORA, Be Happy!

Java developers say: write once, run anywhere (WORA) to indicate that they only have to write a program once and it will run correctly, regardless of the platform.

Information developers need to say: write once, access anywhere. Create, edit and read what you want, where you want, when you want and how you want. Otherwise, we’ll all be declaring documentation bankruptcy.

The Four I’s of the Perfect Storm

Related imageThe 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.

Hyperactively Interactive

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.

The New News
The new STC Toronto blog and website are small steps in acknowledging the perfect storm is coming, because they use a basic content management system that is:

  • 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.

Wikipedia and the Informalation Revolution

Image result for WikipediaWikipedia is one of the most extraordinary and fascinating websites you will ever see. It is a vast on-line encyclopedia of knowledge, with the distinguishing feature that any one can edit (and informally discuss) any of its topics. And edit they do: thousands of users (myself included) regularly create and update Wikipedia’s content. Changes are continually being made every minute of every day. In this sense, Wikipedia is a giant, living, breathing, and growing documentation lifeform.

Wikipedia was launched in 2001. It now contains over 1.6 million articles, over 660,000 of these in English. Encyclopædia Britannica, by comparison, as only 120,000 articles. But is “more” necessarily better?

Close Your Mouth and Open Your Mind
This is the great debate currently raging between Wikipedia’s advocates and its critics. Wikipedia’s supporters argue that an “open source” structure in which anyone can perform updates will lead to the highest quality of information. Wikipedia has similar structure to Linux, an open source operating system which anyone is free to modify. Supporters also point out that unlike traditional print encyclopedias, or even software-based ones such as Microsoft Encarta, Wikipedia is continually updated in real-time, therefore much of the information is extremely relevant and timely.

Wikipedia’s critics, including, not surprisingly, one of its main competitors, Encyclopædia Britannica, argue that Wikipedia’s information is unreliable, not formally fact-checked, and biased. However, despite these criticisms, Wikipedia remains a powerful and well-used source of information for thousands of individuals. As information developers, we should be heartened by the fact that so many people care enough about accurate and complete information that they are volunteering their time to create the largest encyclopedia in history.

Officially Unofficial
Wikipedia has proven that there is real demand for information outside of “official sources”. The need has always been here, as shown by the success of the “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” books – unofficial guides on a wide variety of topics. In addition, there are the thousands of other unofficial books, websites, discussion groups, newsgroups and so on that are a source of valuable information to millions. The fact that this information is not supplied by the traditional, formal or standard sources is irrelevant. People will take informal, unverified information over no information every time.

Since, we, as information developers, are the main creators of official information, we must be aware of this new tide of informal information, or “informalation”, as I like to call it. We cannot let ourselves fall into the trap, as Encyclopædia Britannica has done, of saying that informalation has little or no value, so it can just be ignored. The success of Wikipedia has shown we cannot ignore it.

An Official Spectrum
We must start by recognizing that although both official and informal information sources exist, much information actually falls on a spectrum between these two extremes. At one end is the official and formal documentation and information issued by a company. At the other end, is the unofficial information typically created by end users. Using Microsoft software as an example, we would have, from most formal to least:

  • Formal sources: documentation, online help, Knowledge Base
  • Less formal: Microsoft newsgroups, Dummies and Idiot’s books
  • Informal sources: user websites, personal notes, emails and discussions, information about “hacks” and workarounds

Most people will use many of these sources: it is rare that someone will use only the formal ones. As one moves from formal to less formal, the timeliness and quantity of information may increase, but the accuracy and quality may drop. This is the trade-off, though, that people are willing to make.

So, should we all stop being formal information developers and work for Wikipedia? Of course not – Wikipedia is a volunteer organization, and we still have to eat. Also, there will always be a requirement and demand for “official” information.

Free Range Documentation
Instead, we must recognize and accept the fact that no matter how good the documentation we create, and no matter how many others have reviewed it, if you were to take a document and distribute it to every one of your end users in such a way that they could easily change it, they would change it. It is simply impossible to create a document that cannot be further improved if everyone was allowed to be a reviewer. But wouldn’t this create total chaos? How could a company control and manage its documentation if everyone was allowed to change it?

Some companies, including Microsoft and Adobe, offer partial solutions by allowing and even actively encouraging feedback on specific on-line knowledge base topics. The problem is that the feedback is sent directly to the company, and no-one else can see it, unless and until the company decides to incorporate it into their documentation, and then re-post it. Another method companies use is to create various discussions groups. Some of these are formally supported, others or not. The problem is that it is often difficult to locate specific topics within these groups, but more importantly, there is no practical connection between the discussions in these groups and the source documentation. Both are completely independent of each another – changes in one area are not reflected in the other.

Formal vs. Informal Info – Can’t We All Just Get Along?
A better approach is to more formally recognize that informalation exists and has a purpose, and integrate it directly into our formal documentation. In much the same way that Wikipedia (although itself an “unofficial” information source) has both a formal topic listing, and a corresponding informal “discussion” page for each topic, I can imagine a future in which all formal documentation appears online with a corresponding “informalation” page. This page could include various user feedback and comments. Companies could still decide whether to display specific informalation pages, or even specific comments, or they could simply issue a warning saying that the information on the informalation page is not supported but is here for your informal reference only, and that you cannot hold the company liable in any way. This is much like the EULA (End User License Agreement) that you are supposed to read when installing software, but which nobody reads anyway!

Closing the Loop
Eventually, a process could be developed to automatically send the comments to the information developer, who would then update the source documentation accordingly. This is what is known as a “closed looped” system, in which the information is continually released, commented upon, updated based on these comments and then re-released in an endless loop. It embraces the Japanese principle of Kaizen, which roughly translates into “the science of continual improvement”.

The only hitch in this info-utopian vision is, of course, the time, effort and money it would require to create and maintain such a system. Currently, it may be suited only to companies that have a limited number of users. But it’s a start. The potential improvement to an information set would be enormous. Such a system may be years away, but Wikipedia may turn out to be the “killer app” of the Internet that inspired it all.

Wikiing the World
And for those of you who think that because Wikipedia only covers general knowledge so it won’t affect us, see Wikipedia sister projects, including a dictionary, textbooks, quotations, source texts, news and another type of book you may have heard of: user manuals.