In June I changed jobs and started working for Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure as a technical writer for an infrastructure mapping product.
It’s been an exciting change. While I enjoyed the freedom of my previous job – including the ability to create documentation policies and to design a style and organization that fit the company’s brand – it can sometimes be difficult being a department of one. I felt that my opportunities for professional growth were limited by not having people in my field to interact with frequently.
Now I not only work with a number of talented writers, but I am using tools I haven’t used before. The majority of the documentation here is created in Author-It. I didn’t previously have experience with this software, so I spent a couple of days learning it in a sandbox environment before I dove into actual documents. Here are my thoughts on the program so far:
Amazing for Information Reuse. I’m a huge fan of information reuse. It saves time because you only have to write the topic once, and it saves the confusion of having to remember to update your information in several places every time there’s a change. Author-It allows you to break documentation into segments that are as small or as large as you need so that you can reuse instead of copying. Each segment is called a topic. A topic can be added to a book, or it can be embedded in another topic. It can be added or embedded as many times as you need.
Fairly Steep Learning Curve. Basic use does take a little getting used to. Its layout is similar to any Microsoft product, but since its capabilities are so different, there is a lot of new material to cover. I’ve been using it for two months now, but I’m still having to look up how to do things. Of course, I’m only looking at the end user side, too. I’m not sure how difficult it is to set up object templates and publishing templates. There are also indexing and table of contents functions I haven’t had to use yet
Good Use of Variants. Learning how to use variants can be a little confusing. In many programs, when you create a new version, you are creating a copy that will become the new working version. With Author-It variants, you are creating a snapshot of the document as it is and saving that as the old version, then going forward with the same working version. It’s not a huge change, but it does take a little bit of thought the first couple of times you do it. Overall use of variants is very good.
Multiple Topics with the Same Name. Because the topics are stored by unique Object Codes, duplicating names isn’t a problem. Since I might use a similar organizational structure for multiple documents, this is important to me.
Variables. Author-It allows you to put variables in your documents. For each book, you can set the values that will replace those variables. This is awesome, especially considering we just had a change in how we are expected to refer to the company name in documentation. All we have to do is change the value once and the book is updated.
Location Matters. There are some issues, though. For one, you have to be careful which version you are updating. If you edit a topic out of an open book rather than opening it in its original location, you don’t always know which version you are working on. Luckily, there is a very handy Locate function. Just right-click the topic and select locate and the application shows you where to find the original.
Searching for Topics. No matter how carefully you organize a folder structure and the rules you set, when you have multiple people working on multiple large projects, things are going to get a little messy. This can be frustrating. The search feature is helpful here, as you can search by almost any criteria to find what you need. There are a few issues here, too, though. One is the speed of the search. Because your database is so large, it can take time to go through it all. It’s not horrible – usually no more than a minute – but it’s frustrating. Narrowing the search when possible helps. The search also has to be rebuilt from the database every so often to account for the new topics. I’m not exactly sure what the logic behind the feature is, but this problem was the source of some frustration before the wonderful people in IT figured it out.
Publishing. Publishing can also be a time-consuming task, but that is simply due to the amount of information involved. You can publish from Author-It to several formats, including .chm. The only issue I’ve found so far is that there is no option to export a single topic to Word, which is how I share them with stakeholders for review. I work around this by creating a temporary book and publishing that to Word. It works, but it’s unnecessarily cumbersome.
Overall, it’s not perfect, but it’s a great tool. While I liked the look and feel of Confluence better, it didn’t have the same options for creating consistent styles that Author-It has, which is important when you have 8-10 writers, each on multiple projects and all trying to keep things consistent.
In other news, the Society for Technical Communication is now offering a Foundation Certified Professional in Technical Communication certification, with more to follow. I’m studying for it now, so I’ll report back on the exam once I’ve taken it.