Which way do you like it–Top down, or bottom up?

Image from Nestler.com

Okay, first of all, get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not that kind of discussion.

But it is a discussion about content strategy–because, you know, this is a tech comm blog.

Here’s where I’m going with this.  I had a situation at work that prompted my thinking and further discussion with several other people about this topic, because I’m trying to explore how content strategists approach, well, content strategy.

For me, the way that I approach content strategy is starting with the big picture.  You need to start with what are you trying to achieve as the end goal. Then, I look at the “adverb” questions to determine if that end goal answers them. What I mean by the “adverb” questions are:

  • Who is your audience? Who needs this content/information? Who is going to use it?
  • What content needs to be included? What is the goal of the person who wants to use it? What are they looking for?
  • Where are they going to find the content?
  • Why do they need the content? Why would they come to this site for that content?
  • When would they need this content?
  • How would they obtain this content/information?
  • How much content do they need to absorb to be satisfied? How much content is actually necessary for their needs to be remedied?

This doesn’t just apply to marketing content, which is usually the “model” for this. When working for my last job, I worked on a lot of repository-type sites for departments that weren’t internally selling anything. They just needed that right-info-right-here-right-now experience. That’s what all websites–or any content that’s put out there–needs to address.

But I slightly digress. So anyway, at work, we’re in the process of figuring out how to deliver some internal content that’s not really been formally organized, at least by modern standards. There’s lots of internal documentation, but for one topic I was researching, there were distinctly four pieces of content on the same topic, all written within the last two years, all of them correct, but no cohesion or indication that perhaps one was based off of another. When looking at the big picture beyond my own project, I realized that this would be a great project to apply DITA XML and create content chunks to start reusing information, provide consistency, easy updating, multiple outputs, etc. If you know about DITA stuff, you know why DITA is good for certain kinds of documentation, and I saw this as an opportunity.

Speaking with my colleagues, there have been two trains of thought. The first way would be to look at things the way I’ve usually looked at creating a content strategy–looking at the big picture, and breaking down things until you got it down to granular level, retrofitting current content as appropriate, weeding out what’s not needed anymore, reworking items, and doing a gap analysis to identify what additional content is needed. It makes sense, right?

The alternative view is approaching the strategy from the bottom up. Other colleagues suggested that we need to create and reconfigure all the detailed, smaller pieces of content, and build upwards towards that “big picture”, creating the “buckets” as we create and reconfigure the content we have. And if we happen to identify a content gap along the way? We’ll compensate or fill in the gap as appropriate.

Somehow, that latter just hasn’t sat with me very well. The latter, while it could be done, is a short term answer, in my opinion. It’s putting a bandaid on a wound rather than treating a condition that needs better control and having a long term treatment plan. The long term plan is “remission” and maintenance that can be sustainable and controllable. That’s only done when understanding the big picture and drilling down.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not seeing things clearly for that other perspective. For now, we’re working with the short term, bottom up strategy, with the goal that once we can get past the short term stuff, we can try to concentrate on the long term stuff (top down). Now, I understand that there are circumstances where the bottom up approach does work. For example, in knitting, it’s usually pretty common to knit a sweater from the bottom and work your way up. But even then, it’s about building the foundation.  So, in my content top down, we start with the foundation, and figure out all the details.

I don’t know. My brain is topsy-turvy over this in trying to sort this out and make some sense out of the best approach.  What does the tech comm and content strategy hive mind think? Include your comments below. Let’s discuss!


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Glassblowing and tech comm–what’s the connection?

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written.  The last year or so has been overwhelming as I overloaded myself with too many things, and I’m actually in the process of trying to reclaim myself and my time in the process. When you overextend yourself, it takes a toll.

I can’t remember the last time I wrote, but I changed jobs. While I liked being a content strategist, there were elements of where I was that didn’t fit right for me. If it’s not a good fit, you move on, so I was able to do that.  Now, I’m working close to home at something new, and still getting a feel for what’s going on, so I’m not going to say too much about it, other than it goes back to my content management roots a bit, and I need to give some more time to acclimate to the job.

In the meantime, I recently went on our annual family vacation, which this year took place in Toronto, Canada.  We enjoyed our time there so much that my son is convinced that he wants to move to Canada and be a Canadian. I don’t have a problem with that! If it wasn’t so cold in the winter, I probably would want to live there, too.

We drove to Toronto from our house, and we decided to stop about halfway going north and coming back, which ended up being a good decision due to weather and traffic issues (mostly in NJ, no less! Ugh!). We made our halfway-mark pitstops in Corning, NY, which is the home of the Corning Glass company and the Corning Museum of Glass.  Some may remember Corning because of their housewares items (my family had Cornelle dishes with harvest gold flowers growing up) and Pyrex, but they also invented Gorilla Glass that’s used on cell phones. The museum is a lot more interesting than it sounds–it not only has beautiful art installations and history of glass exhibits, but also science-based exhibits about uses of glass. The museum also has live glassblowing, and for a fee, you can create a small item with the help of a professional glassblower in their studio hot shops. (I took advantage of it, and made a sculpture that sits in my bedroom.) It was so cool!

As a result, I was inspired to watch a new show on Netflix called “Blown Away”, which is actually a competition show in the same vein as Project Runway, Top Chef, or one of those other creative skills shows, but in this instance, it involves–you guessed it–glass blowers. I binge-watched the series over the last couple days, and I’m more fascinated by it than ever, wishing the closest hot shops to visit that teach weren’t in Philadelphia or Asbury Park (in other words, not anywhere close to me).

Here’s the trailer for the show:

But as I reflect on the show, it occurred to me that glassblowing is a lot like working in technical communication.  Follow me on this.

While watching the show,  you saw a lot of different things going on with glass. Sometimes the contestants had to make functional pieces, and other times it had to be artistic. Each challenge had a theme, which sometimes would be taken literally or figuratively by the artist/glassblower. Each contestant often had assistants to get the pieces finished, and time constraints. There were finished pieces that were incredible, and some, well, were crap.  And there was a lot of broken glass, needing to start over, or pieces that didn’t quite come out as expected.  Here’s what I could pull from that in relation to technical communication.

This really was a show about the creation of content, which is what technical communicators do.  Instead of hot glass, our medium is content. Content, like glass, can be manipulated into all sorts of shapes, sizes, textures, and forms.  It is never solely developed by one person alone, but rather you can have a main creator and supporters who will help it happen, or several creators who have to make all the pieces work together. Sometimes it takes several tries before you get the content right. You often have time constraints. And sometimes, just as you think you have it perfect, it will break on you, and you have to start over or try to rescue what you can from the broken remnants. Sometimes the end result comes out as you expected or better, but there are many times it comes out not as all as you envisioned or not well at all. Content can be robust, or it can be delicate. But when you spend a lot of time paying attention to details, allowing due diligence for the creation process, think outside of the box, and use a lot of precise skill, you can create something many can enjoy or use.

The part that ties it together most is that glassblowing and technical communication are both about blending science and technology with art or creativity.  While many of the techniques used by glassblowers hasn’t changed in a century or more, it’s using something familiar to try to find new and creative ways to make something wonderful while understanding the technical aspects of working with glass–the science, the physics of it all.  Technical communication is not much different. While it might not always be as artistic as colored glass pieces, it’s still having an understanding of science and technology on some level, and using skills to turn that science and technology into something beautiful–it is an art style of its own to turn technical jargon into something comprehensible, readable, and digestible in print or digital form.

So, next time you doubt yourself, think of yourself, a technical communicator, like a glassblowing artist.  You are going to make mistakes, you’re going to break things fairly often, but when you refine your skills and focus, you too can make wonderful works of art.

What do you think? Include your comments below.


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Realizing your worth in tech comm

If Captain Janeway can take a look at herself and see where she’s grown and succeeded, so can I.

Hello all,

It’s been quite a while since I wrote an original post here, and that’s because I’ve been THAT busy.  I don’t even remember when that last original post was written, that’s how long it’s been! But I have a moment before things get crazy again, so I thought I’d catch up with you for a bit.

The past year or so has been crazy busy. I feel like I’m barely coming up for air right now. I had been working as a content strategist for the past ten months or so for a global pharmaceutical company, so at least I was partially employed. I say partially because I was told it would be a part-time contract job that would turn full-time contract job, and I wasn’t even making the hours initially promised.  While the pay was good, and I liked the fact that I could still work from home, it wasn’t enough to make a living with very few billable hours, so I had to look for something else. Next week, I’ll be starting a new job as a content management specialist at a global company that’s just a five minute drive from my house. While I will sorely miss working from my home, I will be close enough that I can get home quickly to continue keeping things structured at home. I’ll also be having the opportunity to do some work using DITA/XML, which I’m excited about. I’ve been learning about it for the past couple of years, but now I’m going to be learning to apply what I’ve learned.  This is the first time that I’ve actually left a job voluntarily in a long time. For most of the past ten years, I had to leave a job because of a contract ending and not being extended. Only once was it semi-voluntary whereby I didn’t like the job, and asked not to have my contract renewed (and then was unemployed for a while). This is the first time in a long time where I had a viable job, and left it for another one. I don’t think I’ve done that for so many years that I’ve lost track.

During this same time that I was doing the content strategy work and job searching, I also taught another graduate level university class, did some freelance work, and running the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter as President, Conference Chair, and Sponsorship Chair. Since we moved the STC-PMC conference to the Franklin Institute this past year, there was so much more preparation and fundraising with sponsorship from past years, and naturally with all these things going on, I decided to torture myself by taking an online course in UX Design from the University of Cape Town.  Throw in all the parenting and family responsibilities as well, and yeah, it’s not surprising that I got very burnt out for most of this year.

Understandably, I made some decisions that will hopefully alleviate some of these stresses. First, we’ll start with the parenting/family stuff. My son graduated from high school yesterday. So, no more calls from school, no more getting after him about homework and his grades, etc. We got him through his basic education. Next year, he’s going to be starting coursework on automotive engineering which I think will suit him well.  We’re not sure where his path is going to take him after this course work, but it’s a start with something that’s more along the lines of his interests and talents than traditional coursework.  So, that means that I don’t have to deal with homework or the stresses of “mom duties” in the same way. He’s a young adult now, and we’ll have to deal with things differently.

Next, I decided that I don’t want to teach next year or possibly for a while. My teaching adventures were good, but last year just put too much stress on me, and it wasn’t fun (it might have been the subject I had to teach as well). So, this is not to say that I’ll never teach again, but just not anytime soon.

The freelance job–well, that will still happen. That doesn’t take up much time at all, so that will stay.

I’m trying to better delegate my STC responsibilities for the next program year. We have a new “administration” coming in with the exception of me–I’m staying as president of the chapter. But that said, I’ve made it fairly clear that I can’t continue as the sponsorship chair and conference chair. I can help set up the venue for next year, but I can’t be doing the speaker management, publicity, and raising all the funding as well. It’s just too much. So, unless some people step up (and I’m happy to talk to anyone interested), we won’t have a conference next year. I just can’t do it all myself.  So, we’ll see what happens.  I’m still very happy to support STC and STC-PMC, but something has to give, and I need to delegate instead of taking it all on myself. Y’know?

I won’t take any more classes, either. The UX design course was something that I felt would augment my job pursuits whether I stayed where I was or went elsewhere, and I’m glad I took the course. My newly former boss was happy that I did take the course, and encouraged me to continue with UX design work because he felt that my knowledge between content strategy and UX strategy was a valuable asset he was sorry that he wouldn’t have available to him anymore.

So, the last part is related to that–moving on with the new job. It’s a full-time contract with opportunity for renewal and possibly more down the road (it’s a new department), but it’s an opportunity to work with others who do more of what I like, and an opportunity to enhance my learning as well.

So, what does all of this have to do with realizing your worth? Everything.

As a worker, I learned that I know a lot more about content strategy and how to approach it than I gave myself credit for. I can easily say with confidence that I helped to establish the parameters of what it means to do content strategy at the company I just left. There were no content strategy people there before–I was the first one they had, and while I had some frustrations in getting established there, I set the tone going forward on how content needed to be approached with the clients in conjunction with user experience design and strategy, visual design, and development. I worked on truly Agile teams, and made my mark. My former manager was sad to let me go, because he told me that he appreciated my way of thinking with marketing, content, customer experience, UX and other aspects of what digital should be about, and how I dealt with the incredible variety of clients we had and their different projects. There was a point that I knew I made my mark when he started quoting me on how to approach things! So in that respect, I started to truly realize my worth as a content strategist. It was no more “fake it ’til you make it”. I was doing it, and doing it well enough that my former manager said there will always be a position open for me if I decided to go back to that company. Nice invitation to have. 🙂

Between teaching and my STC-PMC responsibilities, I learned that I can help people learn and help bolster them to be better people at whatever they are doing. I’m not perfect at it, but I’ve worked to encourage people whenever possible, provide mentoring or advice when I could, but I tried not to be domineering as I did it. I know that I have a strong personality and that I could just force my way through everything, and it was a test in patience and encouragement and finding balance in letting others provide their feedback and suggestions as well.  My STC-PMC leadership as president and conference chair really put me to the test. I had so much on the line with the new location of CONDUIT in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute that it would either make or break the chapter. Fortunately, it helped to make the chapter stronger. We had new faces, and new presentations, and new ideas that came in this year as well as support from returning attendees and presenters. My council supported me in sometimes picking up the slack where I had dropped things, but continued to put their faith in my leadership.  I had always wanted the opportunity to be a leader, and a good portion of this year I was terrified of failing completely. While I had some failures, I had more successes, and so I came out ahead, and that made me realize my worth as a leader.

Even Captain Marvel had to discover that she had more to offer and had the power to be who she was destined to be.

So, through all the trials and tribulations of the past year or so, I’ve made it through. I am trying to simplify my life by dropping some things and delegating some other things so I can forge ahead towards new opportunities.  I’m truly hoping that everything I’ve gone through in the past year will take me in a positive direction going forward–hopefully in a less chaotic way. I need some time for me now.

I have a summer where I’m starting a new job that I think I’m going to enjoy,  less chaos related to STC-PMC, no courses to take or prep for teaching, and I can relax–just a little bit–to rediscover ME and appreciate that I’M WORTH IT.

What changes have you had in the last year–professionally or personally–that helped you find your own worth? Include your comments below.

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Good copy is good business: The ROI of microcopy – Yael Ben-David – Medium

Microcopy makes money. Don’t miss out.

Source: Good copy is good business: The ROI of microcopy – Yael Ben-David – Medium

Yael Ben-David originally posted on the Content Strategists group on Facebook, and I have to share it here.  It’s a great analysis of how even one word can make a difference. When I did a stint as a UX writer, I remember sitting for hours with the digital team to debate over what word to use in a site that was functionally complex. Should we use “OK”, “Choose”, “Select”, or some other choice to indicate that the user wanted something that they selected before going to another function to make another selection? This is a great article that shows how just a couple words can make all the difference.

Nice job, Yael!


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Dos and don’ts on designing for accessibility – Accessibility in government

The dos and don’ts of designing for accessibility are general guidelines, best design practices for making services accessible in government. Currently, there are six different posters in the series that cater to users from these areas: low vision, D/deaf and hard of hearing, dyslexia, motor disabilities, users on the autistic spectrum and users of screen readers.

Source: Dos and don’ts on designing for accessibility – Accessibility in government

Thanks to Rachel Houghton for pointing these in my direction. I will admit that I’m not always as diligent about keeping these things in mind when I design, but these are still great guidelines to follow for various audiences who may have special needs.

Check these out, and let me know below what you think. I think these are great!


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Google Glass takes on Microsoft HoloLens with new augmented reality eyewear for businesses – GeekWire

Google is challenging Microsoft’s HoloLens with a new version of its Glass augmented reality eyewear targeted at businesses, continuing a transition started two years ago for the device. Google today…

Source: Google Glass takes on Microsoft HoloLens with new augmented reality eyewear for businesses – GeekWire

This is an interesting development, for sure.  As the article says, Google Glass had a shaky start several years ago. I even fell for the craze temporarily with disastrous results that made me determine that the technology wasn’t quite ready for prime time.  AR and VR have improved a bit over the years, even though it’s still a developing technology.  Working in its favor is that the new Google Glass is cheaper than the latest Hololens product, but in a sense that’s not saying much, since it’s still about US$1000 (and that’s not even including my expensive prescription lenses because my eyes are so bad!).

Time will tell if Google Glass has raised the bar, or just met the bar.

What do you think of this development? Include your comments below.


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She’s back to school…again. This time, it’s about UX Design.

Starfleet Academy isn’t going to prepare me for this.

Yup. You read that right. The crazy lady here is back to school. But not as an instructor this time. I’m back to being a student again. When I say that learning is a lifelong venture, I guess I really mean it!

In this case, I decided that in order to make myself a more viable technical communication professional, it wouldn’t hurt to step up my skills in UX Design. Since I work on a daily basis with UX designers these days, it seemed to me that with a little more knowledge, I could do what they do as well as they could, and there’s a lot of overlap in what content strategists do and what UX designers do.

Since I have a busy schedule and limited funds, I searched around for the best online program that I could find that would suit my needs, and found the website Get Smarter that offers short courses from prestigious global universities like MIT, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and others.  This particular UX Design course is given by the University of Cape Town in South Africa, which I’ve been assured by a good college friend who just finished a year doing research as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa that it’s the Harvard or Yale of South Africa, and I’m taking her word on it.

Nonetheless, considering that I’ve had some exposure to UX and UX design through graduate school courses and through my work experiences, I was thinking this course should be a “piece of cake”, as they say. Relatively easy.

Guess again. While I understand all the concepts, and granted I’m finishing up week 2 of ten weeks, there’s a lot of work and information to mentally ingest so far. When I read that it could take 8 to 10 hours a week, I was thinking, “Nah, it can’t be that bad. I’m sure it’ll be easy since I understand and work with most of the concepts to begin with.”  Nope. While I do understand the concepts, the last two weeks have been very busy, and I’ve been spending my Sundays and Mondays binge-learning my course (since classwork and projects are due on Tuesday afternoon, which is Tuesday night in South African time). So, I have to get everything done earlier than the rest of the class, as I’m the only American or non-African in the class (meaning, everyone in the class is from South Africa or other nearby countries in the same time zone).  I’m the only one from the outside. And that’s okay–except for the time issue.

The course focuses on UX Design concepts, and we have discussion groups, etc. (you know I’m contributing much like I do here on this blog, just talking away,) but the course directs our projects towards creating an fictional email app. Yikes. In other words, how do I reinvent the wheel? Well, all I could do right now is use their templates for creating the business requirements, and go from there. I’m applying what I’m reading (which is a lot more than I anticipated) plus my personal experience working on Discovery and Design teams (especially of late) to my homework, as that’s the best I can do.  I’m hoping my time eases up soon. I thought it would ease up immediately after CONDUIT 2019 was done, but there are still things I’m following up on post-conference, and catching up with work and life.  Crazy me, thinking I should be taking a course RIGHT NOW. (Well, the cohort was starting now, and it’s a really great price…) But am I disappointed? NO. The information is clear, and well-thought out.  The only disappointment is me and my performance right now. I’m usually a much more dedicated student, so I need to focus and get the job done. Having a new credential on my resume that I can put to practice relatively quickly is something that I think will benefit me as a content strategist and as a technical communicator. We’ll see how this works out at the end.

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How to Sound Smart in your TEDx Talk

Alan Houser posted this on Twitter, and this is absolutely brilliant. Anyone who has every had to give any kind of presentation or keynote can totally appreciate this. I know since I’ve done both, I do! I’m going to have to start positioning my talks more like this, and do more inflection along these lines.



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Please stop listing tech products as ‘men’s accessories’

We’re looking at you, Nordstrom.

Source: Please stop listing tech products as ‘men’s accessories’

I came across this article this morning, and I was glad I saw it. The article didn’t really yield any new information about how women use tech as much as men, yet everything is geared towards men, but it was refreshing to see someone publically call it out, especially towards a major department store chain that specializes more in fashion than technology.

Why is it that tech is usually thought of as masculine if the usage of tech is truly just about 50/50? Ironically, in my house, I’m the one who invests in a good portion of the tech accessories that the other two in my house usually end up borrowing.  The other thing that annoys me is that almost all industries–including tech–seem to think that the way to make something “feminine” is to make it PINK. I HATE THE COLOR PINK. And I’m as much a girl as any female out there, but there are other colors of the rainbow, people! I usually end up getting the “masculine” version of something simply to avoid that damned color of pink. Why do you think Apple started making “rose gold” devices? Because it’s PINK. (Although I know plenty of men who like it. I would’ve gotten that if it was more copper-colored instead of pink.)

Coloring accessories pink and marketing to men is not going to help more women buy tech products and stay in tech fields. It alienates us. Or is that the idea?

This is where I tend to buck social expectations. Like I said, in my house, I’m the one with multiple Bluetooth keyboards, endless mobile device accessories, and USB hubs. I’m the one who has a KVM device so she can manage three laptops on one monitor (space limitations in my office prevent me from getting another monitor or two). I’m the one with the high-tech recording microphone and noise-cancelling headset. Not my husband the developer. ME.  (My parents used to joke that it wasn’t Christmas for me unless I had some sort of battery-operated electronic device. Still somewhat true.)

Marketing tech and tech accessories shouldn’t be geared only towards men. Tech is for all, and by marginalizing women with pink items or not marketing simple products to them as well…well, it’s just bad marketing. Women should be encouraged to take on tech, like setting up a router or voice-activated devices just like anyone else. One of the speakers at the upcoming CONDUIT conference is going to be presenting and showing work she does developing virtual reality programs. I know several women who are experts on this–why aren’t we a bigger part of the conversation?

What do you think of this article? Include your comments below.

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Generation X — not millennials — is changing the nature of work

Generation X is quickly occupying the majority of business leadership roles.

Source: Generation X — not millennials — is changing the nature of work

Thanks to Alyssa Fox for posting this one on Facebook. While the article is about a year old, everything about it still holds. As a member of Gen-X who has looked into how my generation fits into the world, this is spot on. We covet security of a full-time job and are willing to take on the leadership role and provide loyalty if it is earned. We know how to bridge the gap between generations because of the fact we really are in the middle. We are the first generation to be digitally savvy and embrace digital fully.  We can do it!

But, as this article points out, we still need support for our professional development. We need the flexibility to learn in the best way possible. We need to feel supported instead of always feeling the need to do the supporting. We need the opportunity to grow. As the article said, the oldest among us still have at least 10 years minimally to go, and as much as 30 years left in our careers.

As the Simple Minds song (which is practically an anthem for Gen-X due to the Breakfast Club, who represented our generation), don’t you forget about me.

What do you think of this article? Include your comments below.


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