NOTE: This post is a modified version of an article in the Summer 2019 issue of ISTC Communicator. (This post also appears on Hyper/Word Services’ blog at http://hyperword.blogspot.com/.) The goal of the post is to foster discussion about what features might appear in a GUI Information 4.0 authoring tool. The Communicator staff has agreed to let me post comments about this article in a follow-up article to appear in the Autumn 2019 issue. Because of the editorial deadlines, I have to receive any comments that will appear in the follow-up article by June 30. (Comments received after that will of course be publicized but will not appear in the follow-up article.)
When I started creating hypertext in 1987, working directly in RTF codes, the field was almost unknown. Even Microsoft’s introduction of Windows Help in 1990 did little to expand the field. That didn’t happen until the first GUI authoring tools, Doc-To-Help (WexTech) and RoboHelp (Blue Sky Software) appeared in 1991. (The first online help conference that I attended, in 1991, had about a dozen attendees from all over North America. Three years later, after the GUI authoring tools appeared, I was speaking about help authoring to 100+ attendees just from the Boston area.)
The web followed the same path – an esoteric, code-based technology with a tiny cadre of authors that only expanded after GUI authoring tools like Hot Dog Pro appeared. I expect that Information 4.0 will follow the same path.
The point of this article is to take a first cut at the features that I’d look for in GUI I40 tools. This is not a comprehensive list by any means. Space limits how much I can discuss. Plus, tool definition is best done with multiple participants in order to get multiple viewpoints. So, this article is a start that I hope will provide the basis for further discussion.
To set the context for this article, here are the seven major characteristics of Information 4.0 as defined by Andy McDonald and Ray Gallon.
- Independent – Separate from format, business rules.
- Molecular – “Info molecules” self-assemble into “compounds” based on “state vectors”.
- Dynamic – Continuously updated.
- Offered – Available if needed.
- Ubiquitous – Online, searchable, and findable.
- Spontaneous – Triggered by contexts.
- Profiled automatically.
Some of these items overlap so I’ll combine several of them to simplify the discussion. I’ll add project management.
- Editor for creating new molecules (content chunks) from scratch or based on templates and some structured authoring model.
- Ability for authors to create custom templates.
- Lightweight and unintimidating version of the editor for use by subject matter expert authors who are not technical communicators. Alternatively, ability for a system administrator to physically hide, not just disable, elements of the interface for subject matter expert authors.
- Localizable editor interface.
- Ability to import legacy content in Word, FrameMaker, HTML, DITA, DocBook, InDesign, and other formats, and able to break the incoming documents into smaller molecules based on the use of heading styles or other properties of the material.
- Ability to detect and eliminate tool-specific features automatically or flagging them for human intervention.
- Ability to detect and eliminate local, non-standard, or simply weird formatting automatically or flagging it for human intervention.
- Ability to create different categories of content chunks with different properties, such as micro content or text-only, in order to create different types of molecules for different needs.
- Limited to standard HTML features with no add-on or plug-in dependent features.
- Support for W3C (WorldWide Web Consortium) compliant CSS features and validation.
- Support for insertion of standards-body compliant metadata, such as the W3C’s RDF (Resource Description Framework) and validation.
- Support for insertion of business rules ranging from conditionality to standards such as BPEL (Business Process Execution Language) and validation.
- Support for accessibility standards such as WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and validation.
- Ability to partly or fully automate the insertion of the previous four types of tags through the I40 tool rather than through proprietary add-ons.
- Compliance with data privacy regulations.
- Ability to enforce correct content structure, such as heading sequence and nesting.
- Support grammar- and spell-checkers in multiple languages.
- Ability to work in conjunction with an expert system for machine-generated content in cases where human authors cannot create or tag content quickly enough for the organization’s needs.
- Many companies have created unique formatting using proprietary styles and hand-coding and may be reluctant to abandon it. The same is true for legacy content whose formatting may be so non-standard as to be difficult for I40 tools to parse, especially from Word. The best answer is to throw away the legacy content and create it again from scratch but many companies will balk at this because of the effort and expense.So the tools will have to offer analysis features that look at the proprietary coding and suggest W3C-compliant alternatives. (It also means that there will be a lot of consulting work cleaning up legacy material.) Finally, it means that authors will have to be sold on the need for proper, rule-based authoring – e.g. why they have to do it right from now on.
- Eliminating tool-specific features may be difficult to sell to authors who are accustomed to the features offered by their current authoring tool.
- The need to use expert systems to create machine-generated content will change authors’ roles from writer to expert system rule definer and content curator. Traditional writing will become a thing of the past in companies using Information 4.0. Based on years of experience helping companies move from print to online, I anticipate resistance, perhaps even mass retirement, on the part of older writers. The result will be a loss of the “corporate memory” that those writers hold in exchange for more technically oriented authors.
- All the required tagging will require automation. Human authors won’t be able to work quickly or reliably enough. This again pushes toward an expert system model and a major shift in the nature of technical communication.
Contextualization and Spontaneity Features
- Support for traditional context-sensitive help.
- Support for additional contextualization types such as:
- Geographical – physical location, outdoors using GPS or indoors using GPS or beaconing.
- Chronological – date and/or time.
- Environmental – temperature, light levels, and more.
- Spatial – device orientation, such as whether you’re holding your phone in portrait or landscape mode, and more.
- Personal – pulse, temperature, and more.
- Perhaps other contexts, such as physical to detect conditions like vibration or strain in machines.
- This support also, obviously, has to generate code that can be used for further processing within the repository.
- Interface look and feel customization.
- Transience. Traditional context-sensitivity is stable until the requester changes it – e.g. you’re in dialog box A until you go to dialog box B. But the other types can change quickly and often, like a light sensor that has to distinguish between light and shadow while the requester is under a tree on a windy day. This puts more demands on the sensors.
- Context detection method. Traditional context detection is built-into our authoring tools; others are not and the detection method must be coded separately. We’ll need programmer support.
- Context transmission method. Transmitting the contexts to the processor needs fast and reliable internet access, plus local fallback when internet access is slow or lacking.
- Context processing. The context must be analyzed to determine what content fragments to send to the requester. This might take place outside or, eventually, within the authoring tool, possibly on a server.
- What the minimum hardware, software, and network requirements will be.
- Fragments will have to meet the needs defined by the contexts. That seems self-evident, but it means that authors will have to do context definition prior to content creation. “Winging it,” a bad idea today, will be a really bad idea under Information 4.0.
- Fragments may have to stand alone or be combinable on the fly in response to user requests.
- Molecule and graphics file naming and similar control conventions that are often glossed over, will be crucial.
- Search will be crucial for finding information, so SEO (search engine optimization) will be crucial. SEO will also have to reflect new types of search, such as the “position zero” model for voice computing using devices like Alexa.
- Fragments may have to be created to meet different, personalized requests. For example, for a process description, can there just be one fragment containing a list of the steps? Must there be an additional fragment containing the steps and the concepts? Or an additional fragment that describes the concepts that can be combined with the steps fragment depending on the requester’s background? And how do we know the requester’s background?
Dynamic/Continuous Updating Features
- Continuous content updating “in real time” and availability to users “in real time”.
- Content cannot be behind a firewall or login because that would force users to actively request it rather than receiving it automatically. However, this may conflict with companies’ needs to safeguard their content.
- Users must clearly know and take for granted that the content they see is current and accurate. The currency aspect can be met by informational messages to the users indicating the date and time of the last update or the amount of time remaining for a new one.
- Support for automatic updating in situations where users temporarily lack internet access.
- Ability for system administrators to define “continuous” and “real time” for their specific needs.
- Support for creation of update scripts.
- Output tailored to users’ profiles.
- User customization of the content through bookmarking and annotation.
- Faceted search.
- Defining “dynamic” as continuous updating is too vague. Some content may have to be updated continuously in, literally, real-time. For example, aircraft pre-flight checklists may have to be updated continuously as the weather changes. But other content, such as HR material, may only need updating weekly. Authors will have to analyze their content and its subject to define the frequency and scale of updating.
- Dynamic updating suggests that the content should not require compilation since compilation might take minutes (crucial in an aircraft pre-flight or emergency procedures application).
- Until Information 4.0 authoring tools become as integrated as today’s help authoring tools, we’ll need programming support to write the scripts to read the context state information, translate that to the RDF codes, and call the fragments to generate the output.
- Is the output a loose set of XHTML or XML files or a packaged set of files like that created when outputting HTML5 from a help authoring tool. If ancillary navigation files, like tables of contents, are to be part of the output, they have to be generated and applied to the output through some build process. Most builds are quick, under a minute, but users may not want to or be able to wait for a build that takes even a minute so they may not use the content at all or use an older version, if they can.
- The build time problem can be avoided by simply uploading the requested content molecules to the user’s device but, again, how will the ancillary files be applied, if at all?
- Support for responsive design, layout, and responsive text (such as automatically changing “click” to “tap”) through the GUI.
- Support for micro content creation for use in search, bots, and AR/VR.
- Support for voice-driven computing.
- Support for SEO, including SEO for the emerging “position zero” search for voice-driven computing.
- An open architecture to support new platforms or content mechanisms that will emerge in the future.
- Successful micro content creation will require that the question/response pairs include as many synonyms as possible in order to avoid too many “No information available” responses that will quickly turn users away from the feature.
- Responsive layout and text creation are quick to create but time-consuming in large projects and will have to be automated.
Project Management and Analysis Features
- Workflow and sign-off control.
- Detailed reporting through a report generator.
- Summary reporting via configurable dashboards.
- Linking to external reporting tools. For example, from Marie Girard, “…to get a consolidated and meaningful view of these performance metrics, you will need a fair amount of automation for data analytics across portals, sentiment analysis of comments, and the pulling together of that data into visualizations that you can easily interpret and act upon. You will also need some sort of connection between your knowledge management systems and customer relationship management systems, so that you can better trace the role of content in customer interactions. (Marie Girard, 3 steps towards continuously updated content, January 2018, Information 4.0 Consortium blog)
As I said in the beginning, this article is a first cut at a proposed features list for I40 authoring tools. It is far from comprehensive, but I hope it will serve to catalyze discussion. And I hope that it will follow the same path that the online help authoring tools and web authoring tools did in the early and mid-1990s but faster because we have that past to help direct us.
About the Author
Neil is president of Hyper/Word Services (www.hyperword.com) of Tewksbury, MA, USA He has four decades of experience in technical writing, with 34 in training, consulting, and developing for online formats and outputs ranging from WinHelp to mobile apps and tools ranging from RoboHelp and Doc-To-Help to Flare and ViziApps. To top things off, he has been working in mobile since 1998 and XML since 2000, and speaking and writing about Information 4.0 since 2017.
Neil is MadCap-certified in Flare and Mimic, Adobe-certified for RoboHelp, and Viziapps-certified for the ViziApps Studio mobile app development platform. He is a popular conference speaker, most recently at MadWorld 2019 in San Diego, CA. Neil founded and managed the Bleeding Edge stem at the STC summit and was a long-time columnist for ISTC Communicator, STC Intercom, IEEE, and other publications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.