The following is an interview with Jonas Löwgren from the February 2011 issue of SK Outlook, the internal company newsletter at Sigma Kudos. It has been edited slightly for external publication.
— Hi Jonas, tell us about yourself and your background!
I am a professor of interaction design at Malmö University. I have spent most of my working life in the borderland between academic research and professional design practice, mainly working in collaborative research projects and for some time also in a couple of consultancies.
— Tell us about your organization and why researchers are interested in technical information!
I work at a research center called Medea where we experiment with new media and collaborative media. Everything we do at Medea, we do together with companies and other stakeholders outside the University.
Sigma Kudos is an interesting partner for us because technical information is structurally similar to the media industries in many ways. Like TV broadcasters and newspapers, technical information companies seem slightly stuck with the idea that “we produce, they consume” whereas the “consumers” are learning quickly from their everyday use of social media and other collaborative online services. In short, many “consumers” today expect to be able to contribute, share and communicate around their product information — while the producers of product information still seem focused on publishing static PDF files containing the “correct” information.
It seems obvious to me that Sigma Kudos would benefit from transforming the way they think about production and consumption, that I could learn a lot as a media designer and researcher from following that transformation, and that I might be able to facilitate the transformation somewhat.
— We started Substrate together. What is Substrate?
A joint project where Medea and Sigma Kudos together explore the future of technical information. So far, the project has two main parts. One is to introduce notions of collaborative media in the organization, and the other is to design a new platform for production, distribution and consumption of technical information that supports a more collaborative approach. The efforts of the Substrate project are reported in this blog as we go along.
— Who is involved and how can others take part?
The platform development part mainly involves the DocFactory team, including Niklas Malmros, Tomas Eriksson, Mårten Wikström and others.
Organizational learning about collaborative media perspectives is much more broadly based, involving the company management, office managers and account managers as well as technical writers and information architects. This is clearly a long-term strategic effort, but we have taken initial steps during 2010 including useful training and discussion sessions in Stockholm and Gothenburg, and workshops with customers in Finland and Gothenburg.
In general, I think it must be better for a consultancy to be proactive than reactive (even though I fully realize the financial dilemmas of a proactive stance when a customer is explicitly asking for a piece of work that you would consider to be reactionary).
— When you say CPI 2.0, what do you mean? What are the challenges?
CPI is a TLA (three-letter acronym) used inside Sigma Kudos to refer to product information and technical information in general.
When consumers these days look for product information, they search broadly across the Internet, they engage in third-party discussion forums, they share their search finds, they contribute their own experiences, they form communities, and generally act in the online collaborative media.
Product information needs to adjust to this new reality: People expect product information to be collaborative media, too. That is what I mean by CPI 2.0.
Here is a short list of CPI 2.0 challenges for established technical information producers:
- You are not the only providers of qualified content.
- Your documents are not the only source of information for the users.
- Skills in information assessment, selection and packaging may be more important for business survival than skills in writing, typesetting and information architecture.
- You will be providing platforms for collaboration rather than channels for distribution of finalized documents.
- Yours is not the only available platform for collaboration around product information.
— You have been in several workshops with our customers. What are your first impressions of the customers’ dilemmas and their visions?
In many cases, I suppose that there is a strong tradition of focusing CPI work on the production side: Having the “correct information”, presenting it in a pedagogical way, delivering it on a platform that integrates with legacy information structures.
This tradition becomes a dilemma as user satisfaction and perceived quality is finally starting to float to the top of the requirement list in CPI projects. In order to reach user satisfaction, it will be necessary to develop CPI with a strong and consistent focus on the users and their tasks.
— In your view, what is the best way to support customers on their way towards CPI 2.0?
The first step here may be as simple as understanding the ultimate users of the CPI to be delivered, in order to reach appropriate hygiene levels of usability and usefulness within a fairly conventional producer-consumer mindset.
However, I think a stronger user orientation will also reveal the growing expectations among users to search across the whole Internet for relevant product information, to share the findings, to contribute their own experience — in short, the expectations among users for CPI 2.0.
If the commitment to user satisfaction is strong enough at that point, then it follows that customers will have to start aiming towards implementing CPI 2.0.
— How do you think that CPI work will be conducted in five years’ time?
I believe less people will be writing and more people will be engaged in facilitating and editing contributions from users and outside expertise. This role will of course require a high level of activity and visibility in forums, social media and other online exchanges about the products. I think that CPI providers who fail to address this transition will be falling behind on the market. I like working with Sigma Kudos in this project, because it is clear to me that they are interested in developing their ways of working. We all have to realize, though, that it is going to take lots of hard work to reach a leading position.
Finally, what do you expect or hope for from the people at Sigma Kudos?
Well, it should be clear that I believe in a reorientation of technical information towards collaborative media. Any contribution towards that goal would be worthwhile, as far as I am concerned.