The Content Lifecycle
Breaking Bad Content

Product Content Strategy

Charlie Chaplin Modern Times

Content Strategy has many faces. Some of them have become quite popular of late. And that is all for the good. As usual, I tend to zero in on aspects that are less popular at least in part because they lie beneath the surface.

Let's start with the familiar parts. We hear a good deal about how a sound content strategy helps to make your product something people can find when they are looking for something and that can help these people to learn about your product so that, at the end of the day, it is the one they choose. A good content strategy also makes sure that these new customers have a great experience with the product - that the information on how to install, configure and use a product is a breeze to move through. And a really good content strategy will set up a two-way, or better still an all-way, communication channel where these new customers can provide feedback, ask questions, and share hopefully positive experiences. There is absolutely no question that thinking about your content strategically, so that all of this comes to pass, is a very positive thing to do. 

I will confess that I find myself a little less than enthused by all this than some people. None of it strikes me as particularly controversial or problematic even if it can also be quite difficult to pull-off and to sustain. Instead I find myself thinking more about what has to happen behind the scenes for there to be a product in the first place. Before long, I find myself thinking that without a supporting product content strategy that goes to the very roots of where the products come from, then all the earnest efforts later on may just be lipstick on a pig - a fanfare of messaging that provides a smokescreen for something that is in fact a poor product.

And just thinking about this can cause a sinking feeling. Anyone who has dared to peek behind the curtain to see how products are really made will already have a sense of just how great a challenge improving the product lifecycle will be. (We can say of products what can be said of laws or sausages - if you love them, don't watch them being made!) A slight headache begins as you start to ponder how you will integrate all the organizational units, specialist disciplines, external suppliers, and demanding partners. And this doesn't even bring the customer into the picture yet. Before long, what was initially a sinking feeling has manifested itself as full-on paralysis. Confronted with so monumental a problem, you have become the proverbial "deer in the headlights".

Chaplin and the Machine

This is not intended to set up one of those either/or scenarios. A complete content strategy will encompass all of these aspects - including, it should be clear, the product content strategy. And once we set aside our initial feelings of foreboding about grappling with the product lifecycle, we can see that there are in fact some tremendous opportunities for content professionals to make a major contribution to improving how companies conceive, produce, deliver, support, and evolve their products. Specifically, what product lifecycles desperately need is the ability to use effective content to collaborate across applications, across silos, across professional disciplines, and even across international borders. 

In very simple terms, organizations that provide products are being driven by market pressures to streamline how they work and this means that after they have calibrated, outsourced, optimized, and automated everything possible then basically the last avenue left for improvement is better communication between people. And as professional communicators know full well better communication takes time, effort, and perhaps most importantly the right skills and knowledge. So this all leads us to think about how modern content techniques and technologies can be used to spark system-wide innovations in the product lifecycle. 

People who already know me will have had a growing sense of foreboding all of their own as they read this. They know that this means that I have sketched out a new diagram. In this case, actually, it is closer to dusting off a diagram that I prepared in 2000 for a major telecommunications company as we were looking specifically at, you guessed it, an enterprise product content strategy. 

Product Content Strategy

I am quite convinced that it will be in addressing the need for improvements in how product lifecycles function, and ideally how they can genuinely become integrated, lean, agile and responsive (and all at the same time, no less), that content techniques and technologies, and the practice of professional communications at large, will get a fair hearing at the boardroom table. 

It is for this reason that I have been focusing on several aspects of this very question over last few months. And in doing this, I have found myself exploring two parallel themes. In one of these I have been led back to my many years embroiled in the Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support (CALS) initiative in the defense sector. This initiative, which ironically has all but vanished from both industrial memory and the internet, essentially blazed the trail of digital, distributed product lifecycle management. In the other theme, I have been looking more intently at the many practical steps that need to be taken at the fundamental level of cross-organizational content collaboration if improvements in the product lifecycle are to be realized. On the latter topic, I have been proceeding, quite appropriately, by collaborating with Nolwenn Kerzreho (@nkerzreho) on exploring the specific topic of content collaboration. One outcome of this collaboration has been an article on TechWhirl called "Content Collaboration and the Integrated Product Team" (an interview with Jacquie Samuels). Improving product lifecycles with an integrated product content strategy is a big topic, so there remains a lot to be done. It is also an important one.

One outcome of this collaboration was a presentation at the DITA Europe Conference in Munich, Germany. This presentation only focused on one aspect of the larger topic of facilitating collaboration with the product lifecycle. Specifically, this presentation looked at how the Darwin Information Typing Architectuure (DITA) can be leveraged to facilitate the many information transactions that move within any integrated product lifecycle. The presentation slides are below, which have been enhanced a little from what was used in Munich in November of 2013.  

DITA and the Product Lifecycle (DITA Europe 2013 PDF)

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