The last decade of the 21st century brought more changes in publishing technology. Not only did publishing move from paper to the WWW, but it became more versatile, effective and interactive. Publications could be searched and content could be extracted.
Additionally, multimedia features deepened access to published information. Hypertext links enabled users to navigate through documents and allowed them to watch video clips with sound while reading a warning paragraph. With these new technologies, users were able to design their own experience of published material.
Throughout these advances most companies have viewed documentation –such as user guides and technical manuals– as a necessary tool to help consumers use the products they purchased. However, it was rare that documentation would get the business asset treatment, worthy of significant investment. The documents were still semi-interactive: though the companies could enable users to change their experience of the text, they could not present different versions of the text to users based on the user’s interaction with the document. In other words, companies did not have the technology to enable users to change the presentation of content to reflect their own needs.
For example, an American professional mechanic and a Brazilian apprentice require different levels of information from an auto-repair manual. The apprentice will need every step explained in detail and it will be much better if the instructions appear in Brazilian Portuguese while the mechanic will need only the data unique to the specific automobile. Yet these two levels of users could not interact with the same manual so the documentation had to be tailored to their respective levels of expertise.
New technologies such as XML enabled the creation of truly interactive documents in which the readers can specify their own needs and preferences and have the text change accordingly. With XML, a single document can contain the same text in different languages. Previously, companies with multiple foreign markets had to produce separate volumes for each language. Today, the text can be stored in a single XML-based FrameMaker document so that layout specifications (such as which illustrations go with corresponding captions) are preserved and smart action can be taken when automatic translation tools are used (for example, excluding proper nouns from translation). Another aspect of the auto-repair manual that could be changed interactively is the units of measure: imperial units (inches, gallons, degrees Fahrenheit, and so on) could be converted to metric units (meters, liters, degrees Celsius, and so on) based on the reader’s locale and preference.
The “new” ability to produce documentation has transformed documentation into “a core business asset” with serious revenue-producing potential. So, If your business hasn’t been paying attention to your documentation, you’re ignoring a sales tool and a revenue generator.
Time to actually read the manual!