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April 25, 2015

Keeping It Simple in Information Development

Information_sign_mo_01_svg_med_from_Clker_mediumThis post is going to run counter to a lot of conventional wisdom. When people write about information development they often extol the virtues of the latest content creation or delivery software and technologies. I myself have done that too. But I have been in this business for a long time and there are advantages to having decades of experience to reflect upon.

Over the years I have been an individual contributor, consultant and manager overseeing technical documentation, curriculum and training development and delivery, end user help development, script writing, audio and video creation, marketing collateral, social media engagement and website content development. I also owned a book publishing company for many years and have worked a lot as a freelance writer. I have plenty of experience in everything “information.”

Tools, technologies and approaches have changed a lot in that time period, but the essence of what we do has not. We deliver and reinforce information to customers and prospects. No matter what fancy software or buzzword approach is in favor at the time, ultimately the goal is always the same. Get people to absorb and retain as much information as possible. I think we sometimes lose sight of this prime directive.

I have long been a proponent of one overriding guideline – use the simplest and most ubiquitous tools and approaches possible while still delivering quality information. I stand by that guideline. And I’ve seen that guideline repeatedly violated by many businesses, corporations and nonprofits. Generally, the bigger the company the more likely they will veer from the guideline because they have deeper pockets and insular decision making divisions within the larger organization. But I’ve seen smaller enterprises make the same mistakes.

I know some people may disagree with me, but here are some ideas I keep in mind when it comes to information development.

  • Keep tools simple. When it comes to authoring, production or delivery software applications, the simpler the better as long as it gets the job done well. I’ve seen companies buy complicated and expensive applications only see only a fraction of their power actually used by the individual contributors or delivery teams. Complexity often reduces productivity. They’re more difficult to learn. They can slow people down as they hunt for functionality amid the plethora of choices. They also typically cost much more.
  • Embrace the most common tools. I’ve seen company after company adopt brand new, trendy applications, only to later regret that decision. Three things often happen. Implementing them becomes challenging and may even require one or more people dedicated entirely to the ongoing tool’s internal maintenance or functions. The learning curve for both existing staff and incoming new hires is much steeper and this can be costly, especially in high turnover industries or jobs. Finally, related to the previous point, it becomes difficult to find job candidates with robust experience with tools, which is problematic for new hires and especially for short-term contractors who have to come up to speed quickly.
  • When possible, avoid or minimize customizations. Human nature often wants to modify, enhance or otherwise tweak applications to bend them to adapt to a department’s or company’s business process flow or practices. Sometimes this makes sense, but too often it does not. Every customization requires ongoing oversight and maintenance which can slow a team down or introduce single points of failure with subject matter expertise residing in only one person’s head.
  • Most importantly, decide what you want to do first and then work backwards in your decision making. I constantly see people and companies embrace the latest buzzword or trendy tools or technologies without much forethought, only to later see the folly in that approach. It’s in the interest of authoring tool and delivery technology companies to create an ever increasing array of products and feature options. It sustains their bottom line. But it can increase an adopting organization’s change management headaches at the same time. If you really need a less common, more complex or more costly tool or technology, then absolutely go for it. Just don’t be swayed by marketing or trends when making such decisions. Keep the actual objective in mind throughout the process.

I believe that keeping these things in mind during all information development planning, authoring and delivery will increase an organization’s productivity, profit and team satisfaction while still keeping a focus on quality content.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic.

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