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Joe Gollner likes solving puzzles. In fact, he often draws on his passion for history and philosophy to help him with the paradigms for modern-day conundrums. “That’s probably why I work so much,” admits Joe, “though it doesn’t feel like work to me. I love to figure out things that initially baffle me.”

And baffling situations seem to be thrown Joe’s way on a regular basis. The latest puzzle he’s trying to solve is how to support authors who work in complex authoring environments. How do you raise their success rates when they have to use complex publication standards, such as S1000D?

For example, an author could be faced with a situation where they are merrily authoring a topic and need to choose some attributes. Technically, they could choose that attribute from a thousand valid attributes. Well, except that the editing “tool du jour” would probably crash, just trying to display all those attributes. And except that in any given situation, probably 997 of that thousand attributes wouldn’t make any sense to choose. So the puzzle becomes: how do you build in the logic to show only the applicable attributes to the author? How do you get the attributes to show only when they are applicable for that topic?

That became Joe’s latest conundrum. How does one describe very sophisticated, very exacting rules in a way that can be applied? And how does one share the rules with authors so that they can implement it correctly? Joe is pleased to report that he and his colleagues have broken the code, so to speak, and are launching a product that serves up, on the fly, the portion of the prohibitive number of rules and regulations that govern the actions an author can – or cannot – take. Rather than thumb through hundreds of pages of authoring regulations, authors can have the appropriate regulations served up as just-in-time support material.

Joe’s pleasure at solving this dilemma is apparent, even over the telephone. His interest, though, isn’t satisfying because of the technological solution; it’s because it solves a user experience problem and a business problem. “Content is so important that we can no longer afford to treat it like a cottage industry,” says Joe. “Corporations are starting to realize that we need to apply the same care and discipline to them as we do with the rest of our database assets.”

Other successful puzzles that Joe has solved involve the careful dismantling of entrenched systems in order to replace them with newer, nimbler ones. In organizations that had sound authoring and editing practices in place, their inertia actually helped them leapfrog over an entire era of desktop publishing and land squarely in the content management space, allowing them to capitalize on their existing practices.

In one memorable case, a military client was taken from stone age to space age in a single shot, as mountains of old data was converted into sophisticated XML content and poured into a content management system. Ironically, the old Wang word processors – used until last year for word processing – were so heavy that the organization could not justify the cost of moving them out of the building, so they were converted, as well, into rather unattractive but solid plant stands.

Joe Gollner presents on S1000D and DITA: Bridging the Gap between Exchange Standards and Usable Content on April 19th at Documentation and Training UX Conference (April 18-21, 2007) in Vancouver, BC.