Case Study: Minimalist Writing at AGFA HealthCare to Improve Writing and Translation Workflows
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Agfa HealthCare is a leading provider of IT-enabled clinical workflow and diagnostic image management solutions, and state-of-the-art systems for capturing and processing images in hospitals and healthcare facilities.
Publishing Smarter improves content creation, management, and distribution workflows through content analysis, legacy file conversion, training, and support. Net results are reduced costs, improve document quality, and increase productivity.
For the purposes of this paper, we assume it to mean this: The art and science of reducing written materials to deliver a clear message to the intended consumer, with as few words, images, or content as possible.
A Brief History of the AGFA Doc Set
Many years ago, when AGFA first started to create user documentation, there were no established company standards to write to. The documentation team used tools that were an industry standard at the time, which provided little guidance on how to create documentation.
Corry and a colleague introduced the idea of IMAP (Information Mapping) to add structure to the documentation. The resulting files were definitely shorter and more usable by the reader. A core focus at the time was on labeling, on managing maximum amounts of information in lists, and on keeping content to one map or idea per page. The workflow up until recently had not changed much over the years. Writers gather information (including review of requirements, release information, and through SME interviews) and create user documentation based on that information. While this means that what was provided wasn't wrong, it also was not always really what the user needed…
Early in 2007, AGFA introduced DITA. IMAP concepts became DITA topics. This change came at the start of a new and large project where user documentation began from scratch. The project was 20 times the size of previous projects and estimates were huge. This included translation, the number of writers, topic count, and more.
Feedback from previous materials was reviewed and questions were raised. This included comments that some content stated the obvious, or that it wasn't what was needed. Clearly this was a chance to change things. At AGFA, we started questioning ourselves, our methods, our standards, even our way of writing. Did the way we wrote in the past still fit this type of project? And we started reading about minimalism…
We wanted to work on minimalism, reduce word count, and learn how to better focus our user documentation. And we wanted to have training and support in Europe. We wanted the entire group to benefit from the training, and having 12 people travel to the United States in times of crisis wasn't an option. We searched the Internet but got a golden tip from our colleagues from AGFA in Canada. We could make arrangements with Publishing Smarter for in-house training with reasonable travel expenses. And it would be customized to our needs.
Minimalist Discoveries from Training
One of the core ideas in training was to get to know our audience and to focus content on them. We discovered that we didn't know enough about our true audience. Sure, we thought we knew the users of the software pretty well. But we also learned that this is not necessarily the same as the documentation user. We started an audience analysis project which is an ongoing work in progress.
We also made changes to our style guide rules. We had an immediate word count reduction of 9% when we applied these ideas. This was realized within days of the training! Another change was that we focused very hard on writing only what the user needs (via input of the PM or, if available, by talking directly with a user) and no longer write down everything we know. We write down what matters to the reader, to ensure that their goals are met.
The entire minimalism strategy, its principles, and the way of thinking fits very well in an agile documentation approach. The company is moving in this direction and this has helped us in applying minimalism: focus on customer value-write just enough to satisfy your reader.
Review of the Finished Product
We started off with content loaded with introductory stem sentences (with no added value), containing obvious information (we would write about a field and it would read: Patient name-this field contains the patient name), repetitions of content, and ended up with a manual containing brief and to the point information. The manuals have also become more consistent in style, which results in faster and lower cost translations.
Financial Impact of Minimalism
The financial impact of minimalism is immediate. After training, we applied minimalism to one of our recent manuals (one we thought was already consistent and of good quality-a manual that was already structured in IMAP). We realized an immediate word count reduction of 9%! In other manuals, we had up to 15% fewer words. Meaning 15% fewer words to translate…
Corry also received a telephone call from the localization department. At first there was concern that something was wrong with our manual, but it was the exact opposite! They never had seen such high rates of repetitions and standard text. This makes the translations considerably cheaper. So we booked a win-win there!
We have work to do still. We need to get to better know our audience, and better focus our documentation on the audience. Once we know our audience better, we hope to link audience related metadata to topics and allow users to filter documentation by their role. Maybe we can even display context sensitive help dynamically according to the log in profile of the user. This just moves us another step further towards the goal of meeting the needs of the reader.
I just want to point out that where our initial goal of minimalism was reducing word count and better targeting our documentation, it opens doors for a lot more user oriented features.
Bernard Aschwanden teaches and consults on XML, DITA, CMS tools and related technologies, best practices for structured authoring, and minimalist writing. He works with clients to analyze documentation, review workflows, convert legacy content, and identify best practices in technical communications.
Corry Clybouw has many years of technical writing experience. She has seen several technological changes and recently her team migrated to topic based writing, using the DITA standard. An ongoing challenge is integrating minimalist user documentation in a scrum software development environment.