Editor’s Note: We’re delighted to bring you an excerpt from the new must-read content book, Intelligent Content: A Primer.*
To be intelligent, content must be modular. Modular content is intentionally designed for reuse. Instead of creating documents one at a time, we create discrete components of content (modules) and assemble them into documents and other content products. Creating modular, reusable content components makes it easy to repurpose content across sets of related content – such as online help, marketing brochures, product splash pages, and product data sheets – for a product or product family.
Modular content is flexible content. We can review it and put it to use more quickly than content created using traditional approaches. We no longer need to wait until an entire content product is complete to begin review and approval. The same goes for translation. Modular content can be translated as soon as it is approved, increasing the productivity of everyone involved in the process.
Benefits of modular content include the following:
To be intelligent, content must be structured. Structured content is designed to be both human and machine readable. With structure, we can automate content delivery and manipulate content in a variety of ways. Without structure, it is almost impossible to automate content delivery.
The structure of a content component can tell a process how to display that content on different devices. For example, data that would normally be displayed as a table on a desktop computer may need alternative processing to be usable on a smartphone. However, we can only do that if we tag our content components so that processing software can determine which data needs alternative processing.
Structured content is semantically labeled and consistently organized. By providing authors with structured templates and guidelines, we can ensure that content components have a uniform structure across an organization. Consistently authored structured content gives automated processes consistent input and frees authors to think about the content itself rather than wasting time creating structure.
Benefits of structured content include the following:
To be intelligent, content must be reusable. Content reuse is the practice of reusing existing modular content components to develop new content products. Reusable content reduces the time required to create, manage, and publish content products and reduces translation costs significantly.
We can reuse content by manually copying it from one place and pasting it into another. Manual reuse works well until we need to update our content. Then we have to locate all of the places where we copied the content that needs to be updated. We end up relying on memory and searching, which wastes time and money and guarantees errors and omissions. With manual reuse, over time, we will end up with inconsistent content, inaccuracies, compliance problems, increased call center traffic, confused customers, and even lawsuits.
Text is the easiest type of content to design for reuse, but we can create reusable media in almost all formats. We can create modular structured content that can be either easily retrieved for manual reuse or automatically retrieved for automated reuse.
Benefits of reusable content include the following:
To be intelligent, content must be format free. Format-free content does not include presentation information, such as instructions about fonts, column widths, or text placement. Because intelligent content is separate from its style and formatting instructions, we can tell computers to apply the appropriate look and feel for the content product being created.
Format-free content lets us produce one set of content and deliver it in multiple channels (print, web, mobile) and on multiple device types (printers, desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other smart devices).
Benefits of format-free content include the following:
To be intelligent, content must be semantically rich. Semantically rich content is content to which we have added extra, machine-readable information that describes what the content is, what it’s about, and more. We call this added information metadata. Computers use semantically rich metadata to understand and process content on our behalf.
Semantically rich metadata can help us locate relevant components of content needed to build customized content products for a specific industry, audience, subject, or purpose. For example, metadata can help us retrieve every occurrence of a specific type of content, such as all product descriptions, positioning statements, value propositions, setup instructions, etc.
Metadata lets us tag our content as being related to a particular industry, for example, industry=medical, or industry=pharmaceutical. We might identify a content component as being targeted to a particular audience: audience=physician, audience=pharmacist, or audience=patient. Or we might use metadata to define the subject area: subject=diabetes, or subject=hypoglycemia.
Benefits of semantically rich content include the following:
* Excerpt copyright 2015, Ann Rockley, Charles Cooper, and Scott Abel. Used with permission from the authors. For more information, go to the book page for “Intelligent Content: A Primer.”
 Some technical communicators create structured content using an XML-based language such as DocBook or DITA. However, what is important is that our content be structured, not that it use any particular tool.
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