Dr. Reinhard Zinburg has been a SCHEMA user from the start. In his many years as documentation coordinator at Agilent, he has developed a number of innovative best practice solutions. After studying chemistry, biology and programming, he obtained his doctorate in the early eighties in analytical chemistry, and then joined Hewlett Packard in Waldbronn. There, he worked as application chemist, software developer, software supporter and, finally, documentation coordinator.

Already in 1998, he introduced SchemaText, and later ST4 as their component content management system. He has continuously maintained and developed the system ever since. In the meantime, he is looking towards retirement with both regrets and anticipation. He regrets to be leaving behind the fascinating field of communication, but is also looking forward to finally finding time for his second career as non-medical practitioner.

Before Reinhard Zinburg is lost to the world of documentation, however, we wanted to take the chance to profit from his experience. At the SCHEMA Conference, we asked him three questions about the current status of technical communication.

Herr Zinburg, where do you currently see challenges in documentation?
Printed manuals or online help oftentimes still represent the technical status quo in documentation today. Printed manuals wander onto shelves and gather dust over time. Electronic manuals or software help are copied into folders and forgotten. Maybe a page of the software help is displayed if the user presses F1 in the software – if he/she even remembers that F1 calls up the help functionality. But is that even used?

I think it’s time to ask yourself: “Do we ‘only’ want to fulfil legal requirements and provide information just because we have to?” Don’t we want our customers to read and use this information? Give him some kind of added value?

And how can this be done better?
We need to use all information channels that we and the customer have at our disposal: multimedia elements, web technologies. In the end, the goal is to fill the customer with enthusiasm for our content. Different user groups need different kinds of information. This information needs to be easy to find for the user, and then easily usable. So the user needs a smart search, smart filters, and smart navigation.

At Agilent, customers will receive less and less PDF documents or HTML help files in the future. Instead, we’ll provide more documentation packages based on HTML5. This information is enriched by metadata, and allows the customer to find precisely the information that matches his profile and the machine or system he’s using. If in addition – e.g. in the software – the context is known in which the customer is currently working, the information can be filtered accordingly. In this manner, the customer sees exactly what he needs at that moment.

A tip: How should one go about smart information distribution?
It’s important to stop managing documents and to start defining information modules instead. A good component content management system should accomplish that and support the technical writer in his work with the information modules. And of course, managing metadata should be easy, flexible and with clear structures. Splitting up information into modules isn’t very helpful on its own; it’s important to enrich it with the right metadata so that proper filtering is possible.

To find the right metadata, we first did a target group analysis. We put the results of this analysis into a classification schema (taxonomy). And finally, we matched these classifications to the information content, where they turn into metadata.

And that pretty much completes the documentation packages. The path to smart information distribution is actually not that difficult if you have the right tools and processes.

Thanks very much for this fascinating conversation
Same to you!