Misadventures in Content Production: Separate Content from Presentation to Save the Day
Why WYSIWYG Tools Aren't the Hero
No matter the type of content, whether a how-to knowledge article, blog post, printed manual, or an entire eLearning course, the process of developing and creating content takes time.
Organizations typically turn to off-the-shelf tools such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Google Docs, or other HTML-based authoring tools, such as Articulate Storyline & 360 or Adobe Captivate, in an expedited effort to get projects out the door.
What organizations overlook, however, is that these “rapid” tools lock content into a specific layout, making it difficult to maintain, and all but impossible to personalize and reuse. In reality, these “rapid” tools are not really rapid at all.
These so called “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG,) or “rapid” tools, apply styles that are hard-coded into the content, which means that the writing and designing are coupled together. Authors can write the content while controlling the heading color, font size, paragraph spacing, table shading and more, right within the tool itself.
This should save time, right?
In fact, it does just the opposite.
Why Rapid isn’t Really Rapid
Content teams regularly find themselves spending an extraneous amount of time designing and redesigning formatting elements in “rapid” authoring tools, such as:
- Lining up bullets
- Changing spacing between sections
- Manipulating images & text wrap
- Creating custom buttons
- Styling headings & subheadings
- Developing stylized interaction navigation
Because this is the way it has always been done, leaders rarely see it as a problem that needs to be solved.
But it is a problem.
Since “rapid” tools incorporate design and layout, the content itself and the way it looks are hard to distinguish. Once the layout is set, any changes (updating company branding, tweaking layout for different screen sizes, adjusting font size, adding spacing, etc.,) require reformatting and republishing each deliverable, each and every time.
Continuing to rely exclusively on “rapid” tools for content production not only costs time, but also raises development costs, since every iteration essentially needs to be created from scratch, and nothing can be reused effectively across formats. According to a 2017 ATD study based on prior research by Robyn Defelice and Karl Kapp (Kapp is the best-selling author of The Gamification of eLearning and Instruction), it takes anywhere from 28-143 hours to develop one hour of training.
And that’s just to create the original piece.
What Happens When a Change is Needed?
- A new feature is added to a product
- An image is out of date
- Content needs to be translated for a new audience
- Updated branding needs to be applied
With WYSIWYG tools, odds are this could mean reworking the entire piece and republishing (while crossing fingers and hoping that nothing has broken in the process).
As organizations strive to not only create, but personalize content for a growing number of diverse audiences, the number of deliverables — and the time required to update and maintain them — increase exponentially.
Defeating the Reformatting Nemesis: Why Content Strategy is Half the Battle
Overcoming the inherent inefficiencies of traditional content production models is no small feat. It often requires revaluation and realignment of the existing content strategy to focus on maintenance, reuse and personalization.
The key to success is separating content from presentation with XML structured authoring.
Separating content from presentation, as a concept, isn’t new for web developers, marketing content writers, or technical authors who are used to writing in structured authoring environments, such as HTML / CSS and DITA. But for those who are used to starting from non-structured word processing or rapid authoring tools, it can be a foreign concept.
Separating content from presentation isolates the visual aspects
(presentation & layout) from the content itself.
Separating content from presentation empowers organization to:
- Reuse & re-purpose content easily across formats & deliverable types
- Easily update & maintain source content & push updates to all iterations
- Package & deliver content anywhere at the point of need
- Implement granular content production workflows that facilitate collaboration
- Segment & export only what is needed for translation
- Reduce production time & improve consistency across the organization
People often assume that separating content from presentation impedes the author’s ability to be creative, but it’s actually the opposite. The real creativity lies in creating rich interactions, compelling content and personalized experiences — not in lining up bullets and recreating layouts.
By creating content in targeted chunks and storing it in a flexible XML format, organizations can easily reuse and repurpose content in a variety of formats and output types without manually redesigning or starting from scratch. Linking to source content, not copying and pasting, significantly reduces maintenance time and costs, while driving greater accuracy and consistency across the organization, which is extremely difficult to achieve with “rapid” tools.
Beyond routine updates and maintenance, styling and user experience design are constantly evolving. When content and layout is truly separated in a structured authoring tool, updates can be made once to the source content and pushed to all deliverables.
That’s not to say WYSIWYG tools don’t have a place — they do. Having the right learning technology ecosystem in place allows organizations to use the right tool for the job, while gaining the benefits of structured authoring. “Rapid” authoring tools should be thought of as add-ons to an organization’s content management tool box — not the foundation.
As organizations implement more and more automation, from chat bots to AR, and grow to serve larger and more diverse audiences, it is essential that a flexible and centralized content management strategy and ecosystem are in place. Separating content from presentation and adopting a structured authoring approach allows organizations to better serve existing users, respond when new needs and challenges arise, and position their organizations for success in an ever-changing and expanding content landscape.