By Pamela Kostur, Partner, Parallax Communications
Writing modular content that can easily be reused is important not only when working in a content management environment, but also in the world of “everyday” technical communication. However, after spending several years consulting with companies on their content management initiatives, I’ve noticed that many technical writers have problems creating modular content or reusing content that others create. Either they are not called upon to do so (it’s not how their company or group typically operates) or they are reluctant to do so for reasons ranging from “it’s easier to start from scratch” or “it stifles my creativity.”
But, there are good reasons to adopt modular writing, among them:
- Modular writing allows you to easily reuse content, ensuring consistency of content that must be repeated in a number of different places. Not only does reusing content ensure its consistency, it is also efficient. It’s costly for several people to create the same product description (or procedure or error message) over and over again. Instead, one person can create it for all uses, based on a standard that accommodates all uses.
- Module writing requires that standards be applied to so they can be reused transparently. Standards ensure that all procedures and comparisons and processes are treated the same and standards are based on usability to ensure that the module’s structure is suitable for the content type and its uses.
- Modular design makes it easier for users to navigate through content; modular content is written in “chunks” with clearly defined labels identifying the content’s purpose. This modular design also makes it easier to store content in a content management system. The labels are a form of metadata, helping authors to find content they want to reuse.
Furthermore, apart from fiction writers, people who write professionally (such as business writers, technical writers, marketing writers) don’t “own” the content they create. Rather, the organizations they are writing for own the content—or better, the users of the content own it and the organizations create it on the users’ behalf. And, as professional writers, we owe it to the people we are creating content for to do it in the most efficient way possible.
What is modular content and what’s the big deal?
So, what exactly is modular content? Modular content is just that—modular! Something that is modular is constructed with standardized units (think Ikea bookshelves), allowing for flexibility and variety in use. Modular writing involves writing, labeling, storing, and assembling content modules, those content modules being standardized based on both the type of content and the users. Modularity also allows you to rearrange units as required to accommodate different users’ needs. Each content module contains a single chunk of information (e.g., a description, an overview, a task) that is written to support a single user question or issue, such as how much does product X cost, how does product X compare with product Y, how do I install the battery in product X and how long is the battery life. Modules are then given labels that allow users to scan through documents to easily find the information pertaining to them.
While modular writing is often discussed in relation to content management, modular writing is not new. Edmond Weiss wrote about creating modular documentation in his book How to Write a Usable User Manual, originally published in 1985. Robert E. Horn, Stanford professor and developer of the Information Mapping method also advocates a modular approach to creating documentation. Information Mapping, founded in 1967, provides a modular structure that makes information easier for authors to create and easier for users to access. The Information Mapping approach presents information in modular units based on the purpose or function for the reader. Units can be isolated and changed or updated quickly and easily. This modular design also enables writers to reuse units in other documents. Because they are based on standards, they “fit” the other document in which they are being reused.
Constructing with content
One of the “coolest” things about modular content is that it allows you to “construct” with content. In an article I wrote for The Rockley Report in September 2005, I compared content modules to Lego. Lego blocks are, in fact, modules. They come in various shapes and sizes, each designed for a particular function, with different colours to indicate the different functions. Each Lego block is a standard unit, so the wall pieces fit together nicely because they are all standard wall pieces. If you use a wall piece in the wrong place, such as the roof, it will not fit with the other pieces and your Lego construction could fall apart.
Photo by: Laura. Reused here with permission.
Constructing information products from modular components is similar. Documents are constructed from pieces that are designed and written to a standard that supports their various purposes. If the pieces do not conform to the purpose for which they are intended, your document may fall apart, the same way your Lego construction could fall apart if you use roof pieces to construct the walls. The roof pieces must conform to a “roof standard” and the wall pieces must conform to a “wall standard,” ensuring the integrity of the roofs and the walls and the integrity of the overall building.
Likewise, content modules must conform to standards so the modules and the entire document hold together nicely. A procedure must conform to a procedure standard, ensuring not only the integrity of the procedure, but also of the other content modules surrounding the procedure. Just like with Lego building blocks, you have to make sure that the pieces fit together and that they are easily identifiable so their purpose is clear to those who use them. To ensure your content pieces will work together, you need to create a standard for each component included in your “box of content pieces.”
What about creativity?
Creating content from modules, however, doesn’t mean that all you will be doing is “compiling” documents from existing modules. It’s efficient to use content that already exists, but within any document, there will be unique content. For example, you may start with the same product description that is developed for use in a brochure, but in the user guide, you would add a procedure to it. Because the product description is modular and written according to standards, it will work in both places. Writing your unique content following a modular approach means that other writers can also use that content. Remember, though, that the modular approach is more than about just reusing content. It’s about constructing content consistently to enhance usability; a modular document is constructed to assist uses in understanding the nature of the content and in navigating through it.
Your creativity is required in understanding where/how to use modules, in defining standards for them, and in writing to those standards when creating unique content. Your creativity is required in putting together the most usable document possible for your users, who after all, are the ones who own the content. Your job is to make content consistent and usable for them.
So, where to start?
When you’re constructing with content, the first task is to figure out where the content will be used. User guide? Collateral? Online help? Handheld device help? Web? Then, you need to figure out the structure of each of the modules (as well as the pieces that make up each module), ensuring they will fit together even if used in a different document, and ensuring consistency for users.
It’s important to define the structure of each of the modules because unless they are written according to a standard, the integrity of the documents constructed from the modules may be compromised. Many problems can arise when content is not structured to support its various uses and users. Not only is unstructured writing difficult for users to follow, it’s also difficult for authors to create. For example, without structured writing guidelines for procedures, some authors may include results within their steps, while others don’t. And, even if they do include the result portion of the step, they may include different information within it. If steps are to be reusable within and across documents, they must be structured and written the same way, ensuring their transparency to other authors and to users. Imagine trying to build a Lego construction with pieces that look like they should go together, but don’t fit. They appear to be wall pieces, but the wall pieces don’t match. You end up trying to cram them into place, most certainly compromising the integrity of the structure.
Writing modular content is not unique to a content management environment, or shouldn’t be. Writing modular content simply makes sense. Modules are written according to standards based on who the users are and the type of content, enhancing their usability. It is also cost-effective because modular content can be reused easily.
Just like Lego pieces, which are designed to support reuse in building Lego constructions, modular content must be designed to support reuse—and usability—in document “constructions.” Modular writing enables you to construct with content, and when you’re constructing with content, you need to think about how each of the modules is designed (both the structure and the content within the structure), ensuring the integrity of your construction and its usefulness to its intended users.
But the bottom line is that regardless of how you feel about writing modular content, well, it’s not your content anyway.
About the Author
Pamela Kostur is a Partner in Parallax Communications. Parallax focuses on content, specializing in corporate and marketing communications, technical communication, content development for multiple media, information architecture, and content management strategies.
Pamela has been writing professionally for over 20 years and has extensive experience working with clients around the world in the software, technology, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, life sciences, and financial industries. Pamela has helped several clients move content to online, develop content management strategies, and determine how to write content for use in multiple media. Pamela’s expertise lies in aligning content with users’ needs and business requirements and in structuring content consistently. Before joining Parallax, Pamela was a Principal Consultant with The Rockley Group.
Pamela has authored several articles and taught workshops on topics such as miscommunication, usability, content management, information architecture, content modeling, structured writing, and writing for online. Pamela is a co-author of the book Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy (New Riders, 2002). Pamela also served on the Advisory Board for the University of Toronto’s Advanced Certificate in Information Design.