Substrate

Where Knowledge Grows

Four stories about the future

The Substrate project is based on the premise that collaborative media challenge the practices of technical information. But how do professionals view this challenge?

Technical writer Björn Lindh devoted his graduation project in the interaction design master’s program, Malmö University, to this question. He performed in-depth studies through interviews with professional technical writers and frequent contributors to online support fora, as well as a content analysis on an online support forum.

Briefly, he found that the recent and predicted development towards collaborative production of technical information would pose challenges primarily in the areas of trust, transparency, motivation and information overload. Technical writers would be required to adopt new roles to deal with these challenges, including the roles of community manager, content curator and content strategist. The findings are summarized into four scenarios, laying out four possible futures for the field of technical information: The outcasts, The inside matters, Sharing is caring, and The third player.

The full MA thesis can be downloaded from Malmö University Electronic Press.

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  • Jonas Löwgren talar om hur de kollaborativa medierna förändrar förutsättningarna för producenter av teknisk information, och var de nya möjligheterna öppnar sig för teknikinformatörer och informationsarkitekter.

    Filmen inspelad vid seminariet Teknikinformation 2.1 i Göteborg, 5 oktober 2012.

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  • Tomas Eriksson från Sigma Kudos presenterar principerna bakom SmartShare och beskriver två exempel där SmartShare använts för att bygga nya informationslösningar.

    Filmen inspelad vid seminariet Teknikinformation 2.1 i Göteborg, 5 oktober 2012.

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  • Daniel Björkman, kontorschef vid Sigma Kudos i Växjö, presenterar en omfattande enkätundersökning bland kunder om teknisk information idag och i framtiden.

    Filmen inspelad vid seminariet Teknikinformation 2.1 i Göteborg, 5 oktober 2012.

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  • Exploring the Internet of Things

    • Monday Nov 12,2012 08:48 PM
    • By Jonas Löwgren
    • In Development

    The Internet of Things has come a long way, from a researchers’ dream in the mid 1990s to recent vendor speculations on numbers on the order of 50 billion Internet-connected devices in the year 2020. Be that as it may, what we do know is that when physical things and digital information start melting together, then the design possibilities for technical information increase by magnitudes.

    Overlaying digital instructions on physical machines using projection or Augmented Reality technology; deploying task-specific and location-specific information through mobile terminals; collecting operation and maintenance data using handheld devices on exact locations — the technical potential is virtually unlimited, and numerous ideas are being explored in research labs around the world.

    The particular angle of information logistics is unchanged, however: Getting the right information at the right place and the right time. From a technical information standpoint, the whole Internet of Things explosion represents a collection of materials that need to be explored, tried out, experimented with.

    And this is exactly where the Substrate project is going next. Malmö University is formulating research programs in the area; Sigma Kudos is sketching out the possibilities for new offerings in technical information based on Internet-of-Things deployment, as shown in the clip above. More news to follow as the work is starting to take concrete shape.

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  • Out of the Box: Innovative take on CPI

    • Thursday Dec 1,2011 11:57 AM
    • By Jonas Löwgren
    • In Background

    Out of the Box is a concept design by Clara Gaggero and Adrian Westaway of London-based Vitamins Design, in collaboration with the Helen Hamlyn Center and Samsung Design Europe.

    It has nothing to do directly with Substrate, but it seems suitable to highlight it here simply because the field of technical information could use a little more ingenuity, innovation and inspiration.

    The basic idea is to create a user manual for a mobile phone, where you stick the actual phone in the book and the different pages explain how to do things with direct visual reference to the screen and buttons of the phone. Really simple, really brilliant.

    In the full concept, there is one book for first-time assembly of the phone and a second book for learning its main functions. The image above is from the second book.

    (Image was taken from the Vitamins Design website.)

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  • Nya medier, nya möjligheter (in Swedish)

    Ett föredrag som jag höll vid Sigmas event Camp Digital i Stockholm i maj, och igen i Malmö i september.

    I korta drag går det ut på att klassisk teknikinformation för konsumentprodukter kanske inte är så mycket att hålla på med längre. Folk hittar sina svar snabbare och bättre via andra kanaler.

    Men det betyder bara att de som producerar teknikinformation måste ta ett steg tillbaka och hitta andra sätt att dra nytta av sina styrkor. Några exempel på lämpliga nischer kan vara att bygga och driva gemenskaper, producera specialiserade publikationer och event, erbjuda sociala och/eller plats-specifika tjänster, eller utveckla skräddarsydda plattformar för gemensamt skapande.

    Föredraget i typsatt form: Teknikinformation och nya medier.

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  • How to deploy SmartShare

    Six thoughts on how you might get the most out of SmartShare in your organization, based on experience from a number of other cases of deploying new media to support collaboration. And, of course, based on the design intentions of SmartShare itself.

    1. The vanilla scenario for deploying SmartShare is an organization where people mostly uses email, file servers and perhaps more formalized enterprise collaboration solutions as a way to support working together. Maybe there are smaller task forces creating things jointly, maybe there are needs to coordinate different task forces in the production of something larger.

    Either way, people probably find that there are problems with different versions of files and that important coordination efforts sometimes get lost in email inboxes.

    SmartShare was designed to be a lightweight, clinical tool for such situations.

    2. Start small. The best way to get good collaboration practices going in SmartShare is to start with a group that has cohesion, a reason to work together, and where all members are committed to the group and the quality of its results. This could be a project team, for instance, or perhaps a management group.

    What is important is to start with groups that are intrinsically motivated, rather than groups that only exist in the organizational charts but which do not function as groups in practice.

    Why is this important? Because SmartShare is the kind of tool that can easily spread organically on the grassroots level in an organization. If there is an early adopter group using SmartShare in a productive way, it is likely that those best practices will be spread to other colleagues — simply because people in organizations these days typically belong to several groups and social structures.

    SmartShare is a relatively open collaboration platform. It does not prescribe a workflow and there are some tools that groups of people will invent their own uses for (see below). In a committed group of early adopters, it is likely that clever practices will be developed, and those practices may be useful also to other groups within the organization.

    3. Be practical about the bootstrap. Having SmartShare notify you via email is generally a good thing for people who use email as their main stream of work-related events, but it becomes a royal pain when the first large batches of material are shared.

    A useful procedure for an early-adopter group might be to have all the users registered, then get together for a session where everybody logs in on their own computers, turns off email notification, share all the files they agree to use a common work objects, then finally turn email notification back on for subsequent distributed work.

    This also gives the group members a reason to go through SmartShare together and negotiate what they see, what it means, and how it could be useful to them.

    4. Evangelize at the right times. When someone sends you an email attachment, ask them kindly to share it on SmartShare if it is potentially meaningful to more people — which it sometimes is. Also, material in a shared repository has better chances of staying at-hand than material that is buried in mailboxes and local mail folders.

    And then of course, there is the whole issue of version consistency which becomes important if the stuff that was sent to you in email was intended to be developed further, possibly by several people.

    5. Tag, but in a socially-aware way. Remember that tagging is a collective construction. When you share a new object, start by looking for existing tags that might fit the new object. If you can find any useful tags, you will have connected the new object to the web of information already available in SmartShare — and it will immediately make sense to at least some of your colleagues.

    If you can’t find any suitable tags, then by all means add new ones. But before you do, try to identify emerging conventions among existing tags and try to adhere to those conventions when you make up your new tags. This increases the chances that the new object will be meaningful to your colleagues.

    For example, you might find that a number of existing objects are tagged with “customer” and “Company X”. The object you just shared pertains to Company Y, another one of your customers. Then it would probably be a good idea to tag the new object with “customer” as well as with “Company Y”.

    Tagging is not limited to objects that you have shared, either. If you find an object in SmartShare that you think should have a specific tag in order to be more meaningful and easier to find, then seize that thought and add the tag. It takes you only a few seconds, but the potential value for your team and your colleagues could be significant.

    6. Use claiming as a gentle hint. In SmartShare, you can claim an object which means that your picture is shown next to it. That is all it means. The object is not locked, any other user can remove the claim or claim it themselves. It is an open mechanism, waiting to be filled with the meaning that your team chooses to invest in it.

    In some teams, the claim might be a way for people to tell their colleagues what they are currently focusing on — like a little status update. In other teams, the claim might mean that someone wishes the others to leave a certain object alone until the claim is removed. Another approach might be to use claims as a way to identify who is responsible for different subtasks. Or perhaps for the person responsible for a certain object to mark it as finished or approved.

    The point is that claiming must be negotiated in the team and in the organization. One idea might be to talk about it at the bootstrap session and agree on a scheme for how claiming should be used. What is important then is to be sensitive to how it is in fact used in practice, and to modify the agreed-upon scheme accordingly. Another approach would be to leave it open and wait for a claiming practice to emerge (most likely when the lead users start setting examples for how to claim).

    CPI 2.0: An interview with Jonas Löwgren

    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.

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  • CPI and the collaborative media

    When preparing for a recent workshop on what the collaborative media and people’s use of them might mean for mobile-phone product information, I spent a little time thinking about new CPI concepts.


    (Click the image for a more readable view.)

    It turned out that the ideas sorted themselves into five nice clusters. Starting in the top right and going clockwise, the first group is called Editorial collection. Here, the general approach is that the CPI producer works mainly as an editor, assessing and collecting information created by users and others into a snappy, relevant, quality-asserted forum for users of the product in question. One interesting aspect is to create niche fora for particular user groups. In the case of mobile phones, for instance, it could make sense to create fora per activity (phone gaming, daily commuting, phone photography, etc.), per phone model or per user segment. However, the real killer for some user groups is that these fora can contain inside information from the development organization, that is most unlikely unavailable to blog writers outside the organization.

    Another cluster of ideas concerns Learning and info events, including productions such as augmented reality gaming, school-oriented learning games and mobile film festivals. (These particular ideas are obviously mobile-phone-specific, but it should be apparent how similar ideas under the same heading could be shaped for other classes of consumer products.) The key here is that the events have teaching or informational purposes, even though they may not be perceived primarily as such by the participants.

    The third cluster concerns the old Question and answer format for consumer support. The main ideas here revolved around integrating Q&A into the phone straight out if the box, including a personal presentation of experts in the list of contacts who would field SMS questions on different phone-related topics.

    The two final clusters (Tribal aura and Location-based services) were slightly more esoteric, yet there are some moderately interesting ideas in there. For instance, there is the notion of supporting the formation of a small group of users collaborating to get the best out of their phones, by means such as sharing usage tips based on highly-regarded friends use their phones, the automatic sharing of word-completion vocabularies (to foster a tribe-specific jargon), and adaptive menu highlighting based on friends’ usage patterns.

    Where would concepts like these leave technical writers and information architects? In a good place, I would argue. That place is certainly not the place where most of the time is spent producing documents, but instead there are new tasks to take on where the TW+IA skills would form a formidable basis. For instance, the Editorial collection ideas would require strong skills in sifting, assessing, structuring and packaging information. It would also require a good sense of what users find relevant and interesting. Finally, there is the liaison element of bridging between developers and users. All of this sounds more or less like job postings for TW+IA today, with more emphasis on editorial work and less on virgin production. Not an entirely horrible prospect, I guess.