The challenges of new world media Article by Brian Gillett
Article by Brian Gillett
As technical communicators our core skill of taking complex technical information and presenting it in a format comprehensible to the end user has not changed over time. What has changed is the increasing variety of media on which to present the information. Our challenge is to keep pace with these changing media.
Whether we are part of a large corporation or a personal service company, the need to be aware of both the advantages and, equally importantly, the disadvantages of new media should be of great importance to us. It is in all our interests to increase the recognition of our industry by continually improving the way we deliver our information to our end users.
I have described some of my thoughts on how best to meet the challenges of new media. Each of us will have peculiarities about the environment we work in, yet the way we meet the challenges will be the same. The formality of approach to the challenge will be very much dependent on the size and complexity of the media.
As the word media can mean different things to different people I think it important to define my meaning of the word in order to put my thoughts and suggestions into context. The Collins English Dictionary gives the definition of media as ‘a means or agency for communicating or diffusing information’. I think of media, in the context of technical communication, as the means for compiling and delivering information to the end user.
I refer to new media as being new to you rather than the very latest media. What is a new media to one person may be a familiar media to another.
New media can take many forms but can generally be broken down into five different categories:
By this I mean the actual route of delivery of information. The hardware and software for delivery will usually already be defined so it is unlikely that as technical communicators we would be involved in the development of the environments. Our challenge is to understand the impact of how the delivery of information in different environments affects our end users, and what limitations are imposed on us for the delivery of the information.
Communications technology is developing rapidly and costs are coming down dramatically, opening up opportunities for more and more of us to use these new media to transfer information to our end users. We are likely to use only one of these communications technologies so the challenge is to review the best option for our needs and the needs of our end users.
New formats are being developed to enable information to be delivered and viewed in the new environments. It is unlikely that we would use all of these as a solution to improve our generation and delivery of information, so the challenge here is to review which best suits our needs and the needs of our end users.
New hardware is coming onto the market on a regular basis. We may use this as a means to archive information as well as deliver it to our end users. Our challenge is to review which hardware we need to meet our chosen solution.
Software tools to format information are many and varied. Once we have decided on the format to deliver our information we then need a software tool to produce the information in that format. Many software tools profess to do the same thing, but each will do it in a different way and, where no industry standard exists, may do some things better than others.
The need to face the challenges of new media will be dependent on your individual circumstances, but the underlying principle is that you will be facing the challenge because it either offers cost savings to your company or provides a better product for your end users. In many cases it is likely that both your company and the end user will benefit. Whatever the circumstances the adage of ‘if it is not broken do not try to fix it’ no longer applies as business today is conducted in a ‘how can we improve it’ culture, essential to survival in competitive markets.
If you are not continually striving to improve your efficiency in generating and delivering information then you could be left behind.
A large technical publications department can lose its internal business to an outside company that can demonstrate cost savings simply by using new media. A personal service company may lose the next contract to another personal service company that can do the work quicker by using better tools or win the business by offering a better solution using new media.
There are usually many reasons why we have to face these challenges. Typically these may be summarised as:
Some customers look to us, the technical communicators, to produce their documentation on the media that is most appropriate for the job. In this case, as consultants, it is up to us to seek continuously to improve the service we provide. The challenge here is to continually review new media.
Other customers, internal as well as external, are aware of what media are available on which to generate and distribute information and hence they will dictate to us the media to be used for their work. If the media required is not one we are familiar with then the challenge is to implement the use of the media.
The market place in which our companies operate is continually changing. Our competitors are always seeking better ways to work. Certain industries revolve around large corporations who set the standards within their industries, thus dictating the market. Smaller companies in the same industry are often forced to follow the market lead set by the large corporations. The challenge then is to implement the new media within your own company.
In some cases it may be that you need to introduce new media in to your working practices as the result of a business merger or directive from director level. It is likely that business driven initiatives are given to standardise media across the company, and it is not likely to be a decision in which you can participate. The challenge here is to implement the new media in to your working practises.
There are three general ways to meet the challenges of new media:
Outsourcing the challenge can often be a very effective solution. The knowledge of the company you outsource to will save a lot of time and effort by yourself or your colleagues. In addition the focused expertise of the company can often provide innovative solutions to meet your needs. When choosing a company to outsource to, look for a company that uses a diverse range of media already and can demonstrate understanding of exactly what you require.
If you are in a position whereby you are able to call on colleagues to carry out the review on your behalf, this may be a viable way of carrying out the review – it is an opportunity to use the existing knowledge of colleagues. In some circumstances this may be your only option due to company policies not to outsource or a lack of resources to put together a team to review and implement the new media.
For new media, which will have an impact on different people within your company, it is recommended to put together a team of people who would be affected by the new media. The team may include members of marketing, IT, Quality, Sales and so on. Each representative will be able to review the impact on their own departments and would enable an informed opinion to be made on the effectiveness of the new media from a company-wide perspective.
Whichever way you decide to meet the challenge the process will be the same. There are two key stages to the challenge of new media:
Review, which can be summarised as:
There are several good ways to investigate new media:
Ask manufacturers to provide you with evaluation and beta copies to test. In many instances they may well be more than willing to demonstrate the product to you. Create a case study to test the product
Speak to someone who is using it
If you have been active in the technical communications industry you have probably already met someone who is using the product. The adage of ‘everyone likes to be asked advice’ is one you should use
Gather information about it
Press releases, product brochures, exhibitions and information on the internet are good sources of information, and readily available. Over the internet you can subscribe to numerous free news bulletins, which will keep you informed of new media
See it in action
Attend exhibitions where you can see the product in action or use your networking powers and find someone who is using the media to demonstrate it to you.
The overriding feature to look for is – ‘will the new media be better than the current media for both you and your end users?’. The questions you should ask yourself about the media may typically include:
Benefits to you
Costs to your company
Availability of the media will affect when you can be up and running. Look out for media that requires other new media for it to work that will add extra costs.
Courses provided by the supplier will enable your staff to be productive quickly but look out for expensive training courses that are mandatory with certain media.
Hidden costs may be incurred when delivering the information, so review fully.
The new media may require the use of additional software that will incur additional costs.
The new media may require the use of additional hardware that will incur additional costs.
Free telephone or on-site support as well as upgrades may be important things to look for to ease implementation and to ensure additional costs are not incurred in the future.
Simplicity will reduce the cost of training.
Benefits to your end-user
Will your end-users be familiar and compatible with the media? Industry standards are likely to be fully compatible with your end users whereas non-industry standards are not.
If many other companies are using the media then this is likely to be an indication that it is a proven one and that your end users will encompass the media. Find out if the media is being used by companies your end users will know.
Costs to your end user
There may be free plug-ins or readers to enable you to generate the information in the full product and then deliver it to you customers at no further cost to yourself or your customers.
What does the end-user have to purchase and how much is it?
Find out what the manufacturer’s plans are for the media (upgrades and so on). If they are planning other non-compatible media to replace it then you should be wary.
Are there several versions of the media so that you can select the one which best meets your needs? Some media come with everything, which can be expensive, whilst media that come in different ‘flavours’ are often cheaper than the full-blown media and easier to use.
Is the media still under development or is it available now. Be wary when looking at media which are under development, as promises of usability and functionality are not always met.
What plans does the manufacturer have for the media or compatible enhancement media?
Is the media portable, easy to move around and transport for exhibitions and so on?
Talk to others to see if they have had problems with the media.
Similar media to those already in use will be easier to adapt to quickly due to an acquired familiarity.
If you need to deliver your information to other subsidiary companies or to overseas customers the importance of global media becomes an important feature.
Some software products license third party companies to develop additional functions to work with the media. This is a good indication that the media is proven and has a longevity.
Tell your customers that you are in the process of reviewing a new media and request their thoughts. This discussion may well have a big impact on whether to go ahead and implement a new media. Your customer may even have already carried out some initial reviews of the media, which they may be willing to share with you.
Having completed the other two stages it is time to document your findings. This serves several purposes but the key ones are:
The report may be as formal or informal as needed but bear in mind that the report can be used as a basis for all future reviews and provide a comparison document against future media.
The report may typically include:
Once you have decided that a particular new media is the right one for your company then you should be committed to implementing it. Some media may need a long time to implement, meaning that during the implementation stage another new media may appear on the market that can do the job equally as well or better. When you make your choice ensure that you have reviewed it fully and go with it. If we all waited for that next new media ‘just around the corner’ then we would never change, and remember change is an integral part of our business function and means we stay competitive.
To implement new media efficiently you need to define a plan of action that addresses responsibilities and rollout timescales for the new media to be in place. Training requirements defined in the review should be carefully planned to ensure that staff are able to work with the new media effectively. Do not forget any training requirements for your end users.
The challenges of new media are rooted in the availability of time to review and implement them. Many people see it as a burdensome task fraught with unknowns. The reality is a lot less daunting if we have a plan of action and a method of meeting the challenge.
I suggest that we should all strive to be proactive in meeting the challenges of new media, whatever role we play in the business. We should put into place mechanisms to continually evaluate the way we produce and distribute information to our end users. The question to ask ourselves is: ‘is there a better way to do this’, to reduce our effort to produce and distribute the information and to provide a better product for our end users.
In summary we should adopt an attitude of willingness to review new media. Any decision that the media is right for our requirement will be made easier and confidence will be gained to implement it. Care should be taken to carry out reviews professionally. Bear in mind all the elements that must be addressed to ensure that the new media is right for our company, and our end users, and do not just accept the next release of the media as the magic solution we have been looking for.Back