Simple A’s Maxwell Hoffman happens to be a good friend and mentor of mine. I’m lucky and honored to have him as one of my cheerleaders. Maxwell recently wrote and excellent article about structure and semantics for context in content for Simple A’s blog and for the ISTC.
His article starts, Content becomes intelligent, flexible, and capable of scalable personalization through structure and semantics.
Content drives customer experience (CX). In order to achieve optimal CX, we need the ability to manage multiple variations of content components that are dynamically assembled as relevant experiences, based on the context of the customer’s touchpoints. We need the ability to create a content component once, then reuse and deploy it many times, in many ways. This requires structured content with an intelligence shaped by semantics.
Structuring content within a well-defined content model makes content scalable, reusable, adaptable, and measurable. We cannot create real-time, personalized conversations at scale without structured, intelligent, semantically rich and truly accessible content.
He continues the article breaking down how we can create content models based on reusable content (do I hear DITA?) and how we model content has direct impact on user and customer experience. This is the foundation of intelligent content, if you think about it.
It’s a well-written article, and I highly recommend that you take a look at it.
I’m so glad that this is now my 200th post on this blog! TechCommGeekMom has come a long way since it started out as a class project in grad school, now hasn’t it? For this particular post, I’d like to share my thoughts on something that I’ve been thinking about for the past two weeks or so. It reveals one of my hobbies to you, but hopefully you’ll like the analogy.
As you’ve seen in the subject line of this post, I’m going to be talking about knitting and how it relates to tech comm and m-learning. Now, I know what you are going to say. Knitting is for grandmothers who make ugly stuff for everyone, and you are obligated to wear it when she comes over and visits. You couldn’t be wrong. Knitting has had a huge upsurge in the last ten or so years, and more and more people are adopting it as a hobby. It goes back to the 9-11 attacks, when people were trying to get back to a sense of security and home. I think with economic times, it’s also a relatively easy and inexpensive hobby to have (unless you are a true diehard like some of us).
Knitters these days make more than clothing items, accessories and toys, but it’s become an artform unto itself. (Ever hear of yarn bombing?) I can’t remember when I started knitting exactly…but I’m guessing it was around 2004 or 2005. I know I was knitting in 2006 when I went to California for a convention for the now defunct Body Shop At Home businesses, and met Anita Roddick, as there’s photographic evidence of knitting in my hands during the event. In any case, it gave me a chance to learn something new that spoke a whole other language of its own, had a different vocabulary, and I got to work with all sorts of colors and textures in the process. For someone with sensory integration issues, it’s a great outlet for sight and touch. Even the rhythm of knitting up something has a calming effect, and following patterns forces my brain to focus.
So what does all this have to do with tech comm and m-learning? Well, as I thought about it, there’s definitely an analogy that could be made about the benefits of knitting and how they lend themselves to these topics. All this first came to me after I had spent the day at Adobe Day, and later took a small soujourn into the city of Portland with four fabulous technical communicators who also happen to be knitters. They had invited me to go on a yarn crawl with them (similar to a pub crawl, but in search of high quality yarn instead of libations), and I readily accepted. We only made it to one store, but we had a great time checking out all the high-end yarns and knitting notions available.
As I reflected on Adobe Day, one of the big themes of the morning was the idea of using structured content. Without structured content, all of one’s content could fall apart and lose strength. An architecture needs to be created to make it work. Well, knitting is like that. If one doesn’t follow a pattern, and just knits in a freestyle, haphazard manner, instead of a nice jumper/sweater, one could end up with a garment with no neck hole and three sleeves. Without the structure of a pattern, and even reusing good content (or stitches, or groupings of stitches describing appropriate methods for structure), the whole thing falls apart. The beauty, too, of reusable content in content management, just as in a knitting pattern, content that is produced well, is solid, and the reader can understand clearly and concisely will produce good results, and can be recombined effectively in different instances without losing its meaning. Take a look at a sweater or knit scarf you might have. You’ll find that each stitch makes sense, even when you look at different pattern of how the cuffs and collar differ from the sleeves and the body. But it all fits together. In my mind, this is how reusable content can be used. Very tight, well written content can be reused in different combinations without losing its context and form if done correctly.
The other way I thought of the analogy of knitting again had to do with how one learns how to knit, and how it relates to m-learning. Knitting fair-isle sweaters, Aran sweaters or lace shawls doesn’t come on the first day of learning how to knit. Heck, I’m even still learning how to do all these techniques! It comes with learning a foundation–namely the knit stitch and the purl stitch–and building upon that foundation. Any piece of knitting you see is all a matter of thousands of knit and purl combinations to make the item. But first, one has to master the simple knit and purl stitches by learning how to understand how to gauge the tension between the needles, the yarn and your fingers. Once that is mastered, then learning how to read the “codes” or the knitting language of K2, P2, S1 (that’s knit two, purl two, slip one), for example, then the real fun begins. Knitters have to pay attention to details in the directions, because knitting can be a long task. Except for tiny baby sweaters or sweaters for dolls or stuffed animals, I don’t know any sweater that could be hand knit in a single day, even if it was done from the time the knitter woke up until the time the knitter went to bed. It just couldn’t happen, even for a fairly experienced knitter. So, each part of the knitted pattern must be learned or read in chunks so the knitter can understand where he or she left off. Talk to me about lace patterns especially, and it’ll make more sense. But each technique takes time to master, and most knitters learn these techniques a little bit at a time. Whether a knitter is self-taught or taught in a conventional learning environment, nobody learns all there is to know about the most advanced knitting techniques on the first day. Just getting knitting and purling down takes a while. It’s an arduous task to learn to knit and knit well, and to be patient enough to see a pattern all the way through.
Just like in m-learning, things need to be learned in small chunks for comprehension. Information has to be short and to the point so that the reader, just like the knitting pattern reader, can take that information, mentally digest it, and then work out how to use the information. There is definitely trial and error in both m-learning and knitting; if one doesn’t succeed, then it’s possible to go back and try to re-learn the information and correct it, and in doing so, retains the information better.
Now, if one happens to be BOTH a technical communicator AND a knitter, then these are easy concepts. Reusing content, breaking down information into smaller portions for better learning retention, structuring the content appropriately and consistency comes both with our words and our stitches.
A variety of tools can be used in either case to create the content. For technical communicators, it’s the use of different software tools that help us achieve our goal. For knitters, different sized needles, different kinds of yarns and other tools can be used in the process. Is there only one way of doing things? Of course not. Is there any single tool that will do the job? Generally, no. This is the beauty of both technical communication and knitting. In the end, the most important tool is the mind, because without the individual mind, creativity and intellect cannot be expressed. When all of these tools and factors work together, it is possible to create a fantastic piece of work. When this combination of factors aren’t followed, it can look pretty disastrous.
So, next time you see someone with a pair of knitting needles in their hands, look carefully at the workflow that person is following. You might learn something from it.