Saturday, November 28, 2009

Formatting Doesn't Matter

Tools like Word and FrameMaker, InDesign...they're great. You can tweak and twiddle with the formatting to your heart's content. You can make the content look just like you want it to, down to the smallest little thing.
But here's the rub: It doesn't matter a damn. The reason you are creating this content is to communicate with others. The people you are trying to communicate with don't give a damn about all the tweaking and twiddling that you've done. They simply want something that's clear and simple to understand. So you spend a very high proportion of your content time fiddling with formatting - for no good reason whatsoever.
Before you come chasing after me and telling me I'm wrong, I know that what I've just said doesn't apply to marketing and advertising material. If you are going to put an ad in a colour magazine, then yes you should tweak it to within an inch of its life.
That kind of content however only accounts for a very small proportion of the content that companies create. By far the largest proportion of the content is what could generally be called "technical documentation". My contention is that formatting - beyond the most basic - only matters to one person: That person is you. It doesn't matter to the consumers of that content. The consumers of that content don't care about all the time that you spend tweaking that content. They only care that the content is clear and simple to understand.
I heard an alarming statistic recently: A company had a documentation process where the engineers wrote the documents in Word and then the writers came along and edited it and tweaked it until it looked right. How long do you think it took to create each page of documentation? Eight hours! Eight long hours.
That company changed to a process where the engineers input the content into an XML editor and then the writers edited it for sense. The content was output to publication through a standardised process. The new documentation approach took 1 hour per page of content.
That is a huge difference. It is a huge saving for any company, particularly when companies report that documentation costs around 6% of revenue.
I think there is a lifecycle with writers. At some point in their career they become obsessed with presentation. They love the tools that deliver that presentation to them. Whole departments become obsessed with presentation, and indeed whole companies can become equally obsessed with the "company look and feel". Fine if you are delivering a web site. Forget it for the rest.
Later writers and companies move beyond the attraction of presentation and begin to realise that most of their content is functional content. Functional content is just that: content with a function. If it fulfils that function and does it well, then that's what you are after.
That's why companies move to DITA, S1000D and other similar standards. Because they realise that they cannot afford to be fulfilling the fantasies of their staff who are obsessed with presentation. Presentation without relative benefit.
That doesn't mean that you cannot deliver presentation using XML standards. It does mean that the design and codification of presentation is a Write Once and Once Only process, just like with content preparation. Then you just run it when you need it.
The worst possible situation is to move to one of the XML documentation approaches and to try and drag your presentation fetishes with you. Then you really are taking it too far!
So for all those people who cannot free themselves from the tyranny of presentation my message is to Just Do It. I promise you'll feel better.

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