Author-it's New SaaS Cloud Authoring Platform for Enterprise-Level Writing

© Ugur Akinci

I’m not a regular Author-it user but, having sat through a webinar presented by the company Founder and CEO Paul Trotter, I have to say that I’m impressed by Author-it’s new SaaS (Software As A Service) cloud platform.

Author-it is an integrated single-sourcing and structured-authoring editor. It’s integrated in the sense that you do not need to buy additional software to, for example, generate a help file from your source files, or create a PDF document or post your content to a web site. With FrameMaker or MS Word, for example, you need another application like WebWorks or RoboHelp to generate help files from your FM source files. In that sense, neither is as integrated as Author-it.

Author-it Cloud is an online service you subscribe to and pay a license subscription fee per person per month. There is nothing to buy and install.

According to a majority of the webinar participants (64%), the one outstanding benefit of the cloud platform is its anytime-anywhere availability. I totally concur with that. No more the rush back to the office to finish that critical assignment just before a deadline. You can hookup to the Author-it Cloud from anywhere you like and finish your work from wherever you may be. Author-it guarantees 99.9% up-time availability but “externalities” and “environmental factors” like a slow Internet connection etc. are not included in that guarantee.

Trotter’s presentation was pretty fast. The screens flew by at every click without any hang time. If that’s an indication of an average user’s experience, the cloud will rule — if, that is, you can afford it. At this writing the “professional” category of subscription costs $200 a month per user (starting January 9, 2012) and the “enterprise” level subscription costs $300 per user per month (Spring 2012).

 


The main AI portal presents a switchboard of available modules

On the left navigation bar, there are links to configuration options like Users, User Groups, etc.

Basically, you need to have a User Name and a Password to enter the portal through an Internet connection. In addition, as a user you need to be on the list of ACTIVE USERS. If you are labeled as an INACTIVE user by the admin, you cannot access the system.

There are two main types of Author-it subscribers: 1) Users (Writers), and 2) Reviewers. A reviewer becomes activated automatically by taking part in a review and again becomes inactive automatically by completing the review.

BENEFITS

Before going any further, let’s mention the BENEFITS of a SaaS Cloud platform:

  • Lower upfront setup and hardware costs and lower TOC (Total Ownership Cost) in the long-run.
  • Faster ramp-up time and implementation.
  • Anytime-anywhere access. If you’ve got an Internet connection, you’ve got Author-it.
  • Strong disaster recovery. If everything crashes in the middle of writing that million-dollar document set, you can use regular onsite (daily) and offsite (weekly) backups.
  • Greater vendor accountability. When things go wrong, you know whom to call and blame. “You’ve got one throat to choke,” as Trotter put it succinctly.
  • Easier hardware and software update and support since all updates are made automatically by Author-it. Nothing to download, or buy and install.

FEATURES

Paul Trotter listed the main FEATURES of the Author-it SaaS Cloud platform as follows:

  • Performance is the main concern over the Internet. SaaS performance is said to be even better than the performance of onsite-maintained platforms due to superior system architecture, dynamic load sharing, HW optimization, etc. which are all taken care of behind scenes by Author-it. A well-maintained back-end assures a high front-end performance.
  • Monitoring. Author-it says their systems are monitored 24-7 and alarms issued promptly at any mishap. The clients can monitor the status of their systems 24-7 through their portal.
  • Scalability. You can start small and expand as you go along. Scalability is assured as a matter of fact.
  • Disaster Recovery. As we mentioned earlier, all files are backed up both onsite (daily) and offsite (weekly).
  • Availability. Author-it guarantees 99.9% availability in writing, by contract. “Or else, we pay you,” is how Trotter put it. External factors beyond Author-it’s control like the unavailability of Internet etc. are of course not included in that guarantee. Enough redundancy is built into the network through multiple network connections to prevent downtime. The “hot swap” feature provides real-time swapping from one server to another to assure project continuity without any interruptions.
  • Data Security is provided by third-party vendors through a SAS 70 Data Center. Both the network access and backups are all encrypted. Author-it does not use “shared databases.” All clients have their own databases thus no one has any access to any other DBs.

The Million Dollar Question

Of course, the “burning question” when it comes to ANY cloud application is this:

“How secure is the cloud compared to its on-site equivalent?”

The question is a real one since in a cloud situation you are turning over all your database to the vendor. Your database, with all its proprietary and confidential content, will be sitting on the vendor’s servers. So you have every right to be concerned about the level of security that the vendor provides.

48% of the webinar participants said they thought the security risks between the two alternatives was just about the same. Only 29% thought cloud was less secure. So apparently this is not as big an issue as some observers think it is.

I personally cannot say that my questions about cloud security have been answered yet to my satisfaction. But I recognize this: just because something is on-site and sitting on a server next room does NOT mean that it’s secure. You can lose your data even if you keep it on a machine right next to you.

And secondly: this is exactly like how most of us probably felt when the microwave ovens were first introduced. Any new technology brings with itself an initial resistance, a sense of uncertainty which is usually expressed as a “security question.” But I guess with every passing day, as we get used to the pros and cons of the cloud and as more companies prove their worth with the way they conduct their business, we’ll warm up better to the idea, especially when we start reaping its benefits.

So at this point I’m looking at the “security question” as something that will become moot in the long run.

Reprinted by permission

Localization in a Single Library

Those of you who have your finger on the Author-it pulse, or who attended Paul Trotter’s Product Management and Road-map Update in October, will have heard about one of the big new projects coming out of development. This project has allowed us to completely reinvent the way localization is accomplished and as a result, we’ve managed to make the whole process much more transparent, much simpler and much closer to how we believe you want to work.

Squashing the Pain Points

The biggest difference you’ll notice between the new process and the old process is that all your data is back in a single library.

  • You’ll no longer have manage ten, twenty or even fifty different language databases.
  • You’ll no longer have to run huge library updates to push modified data out to other databases.
  • You can see all your translated content in a single place and flick between different languages as easily as changing a paragraph style.

The author can view their book in which ever language they want,  and it’s immediately obvious which content hasn’t been translated:

 

We’ve moved the heavy lifting back to the server

If you’ve ever logged in from home over the company VPN and kicked off a big Localization update late at night using the existing Localization Manager, it was probably the only time you ever made that mistake. The new Localization process has a slick web interface that means you can connect from anywhere and know that the heavy lifting is all going to be done on the company server, where it belongs. Where ever you are in the world, it’s now become easier to create, download and upload translation jobs.

Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the big difference

You’ve written some content, it’s been reviewed and it’s been translated. But you’ve just found a simple punctuation error* you really want to fix, without triggering a re-translation of the content. Previously, you would have left it, because it was too hard to not re-translate the modified content. Now you can make the change and indicate the translated content is still current.

 

*You may not fully appreciate this unless you understand why the sentence “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” makes English Lit majors laugh. You just have to hope your translators haven’t been too literal with the translation.

Working in a Regulated Environment

It’s different in a number of ways, depending on who is regulating you.

For example, you may be lightly regulated, as the rail equipment company I worked for was. By this, I mean that you have to track things like the big edit reviews and resulting comments and all previously released product documentation. Design specs after a certain point had to be auditable, as did factory floor policies and procedures. As did training materials used to teach people how to use the products.

Fundamentally, anything that was required to show auditors how the product and the product instructions got be the the thing out in the field has to be tracked. And, because this equipment was very robust, they had to track it essentially forever, as the products worked in the field for at least 50 years.

If a railroad crossing failed and people or property were damaged, the company had to be able to show the documents that shipped with the products, how that information came to be in the manuals, how the equipment was made, and how the end users were trained to use the equipment. For as long as that equipment was functioning in the field.

They had a lot of paper in a lot of file cabinets.

What they all have in common

Regardless of the industry – FDA, Financial, SOX, Solvency II, other government – it comes down to audit trails. You have to be able to show the trail of content that got you to the place you are right now. And that means history of content development in some manner.

If you’re using Word or InDesign, you have to depend on an external document management system and somehow track when and how the changes came to be.You must track versions of what shipped and when to who and why. You have to track review comments.

You wind up with a lot of paper in a lot of filing cabinets.

There are better ways

There is another way – you can track and manage the components in your content. Using the right component content management tool, you can use the history features to show you this information. You can also manage your review comments electronically. It’s a lot easier than trying to manage all these parts on your own.

To see how Author-it manages history and audit trails, watch the movie below.

 

Have you worked in a regulated environment? What were the restrictions you faced?

By Sharon Burton

Release States

Long ago, when I owned my own technical writing outsource company, we hired a writer for a project. She reported to my project lead, who wanted to tear his hair out after the first month.

She couldn’t estimate how much work was left. She also couldn’t estimate how much she had done. We had no idea if she was on track or not.

This drove us crazy, as we had a content spec for the project and her topics were clearly assigned. We also had a hard deadline. But for some reason, she was at a loss to estimate how many topics remained before she was done. She was a great writer but this was surprising. How do you not know where you are in a project? How do you know you’re on track for the deadline?

Release states help you

The thing I like about release states is they help you see at a glance what content is in what state. If we had used Author-it with release states, we could have asked her to count the number of topics that had been moved to review and subtract that from the topics NOT in review yet to get a sense of where we were in the project.

And they’re customizable, so you don’t have to try to fit your specific content flow needs into what we thought they should be. Release states support your workflow the way you need your workflow to run. Release states are easy to set up and easy to use.


By Sharon Burton

Professional Writing

I’ve been thinking about the use of social media and technology recently. We’ve known for years that people want the information they need to get on with things, whether it’s installing the new Blue-ray player or completing the vacation form for work. No one wants to read an 80 page document, complete with cross references and footnotes. Life is short and full of other things.

Alan Pringle (one of my personal heroes) has a new blog post that caught my eye. His main point is that “good” writing, for our users, may be indistinguishable from “good enough” writing. And I think I’m agreeing with him.

Close enough may be good enough

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to understand that actual people wrote the stories I loved reading. I married a writer. I teach writing. I read like a crazy person. I write creative non-fiction. I’m very pro lovely prose.

But, do our users care that we labored over that paragraph for 3 weeks to make sure it read beautifully? I’m thinking not. Especially now that social media really is opening up ways for users to support each other.

For example, I bought a wireless repeater for my home network a few years ago. Because this is a 60 year old house, while it’s not giant, it has some challenges. Including walls full of metal piping and odd corners and areas that I’d like internet availability. I’d like to sit on my patio in the spring and fall and work on my computer.

The instructions for setting up the repeater didn’t work. Just flat didn’t work. I did an internet search, thinking I could not be the only person with this issue. Sure enough, someone posted on a list how to actually install this repeater. And the steps worked.

Were the user-provided instructions lovely and complete? No. Were they good enough for me to figure out the rest? Yes. I was up and running in less than 30 minutes. The informal instructions were good enough.

So what now, if we’re not the Keepers of the Well Written Information?

In the world of professional writing, the writing part is really a small subset of what we do. We design information, analyze audience, organize content, and anticipate user needs, to name a few. Clear writing is important but it’s not important enough to define what we do.

When I teach Introduction to Tech Comm, I teach a lot about a third writing, a third managing your projects, and a third “this is what we do all day”. So, clearly decent writing is important.

But if you can’t deliver on deadline, the writing doesn’t matter that much. If you deliver incomprehensible writing on deadline, it also doesn’t matter much. There is a middle area that’s the sweet spot for all of us.

Including our users.

By Sharon Burton

Saying Goodbye to Things We Love

Sometimes my personal life and my Author-it professional life collide. It feels like this is happening this week. The two stories are related – just stay with me on this.

Personal life first

We have owned a Leonberger dog for the last 2+ years, originally gotten to keep the Aussie company and be his best friend. She was about 6 months old when we got her and for about 18 months, all was well in my house. The dogs played together and liked each other very much.

And then something happened.

We don’t know why but the Leonberger no longer likes the Aussie and attacks him given half a chance. This has resulted in several massive scary dog fights. Because combined, they weigh more than I do, the fights were also hard to stop. And someone is going to get badly hurt.

So we hired the trainer we’ve worked with before and did everything she suggested – kept them separate, encouraged happy interactions, etc. All of it. Right down the line. We love these dogs and want to help them be friends again.

Seven months later, it’s not working. The Leo doesn’t like the Aussie. Period. The Leo likes other dogs very much but not the Aussie. The trainer says it’s personal. And personal means we are very limited with what we can do.

After thinking about what’s best for both dogs, we’ve come to the devastating conclusion that one of them has to find a new home. Because we had the Aussie first and because he has health issues, we decided to keep him and turn the Leo over to the local Leonberger Rescue.

The hand-over happens this weekend. There is a lot of sadness and crying in our house. But it’s the right decision, regardless of what we want or how much we love the dog. And we do love her.

Professional life

In the world of content development, we acquire tools and then often fall in love with them. Which is fine – it’s a happy place to love the tools you work with day in and day out.

But sometimes, the situation changes. Perhaps we discover the tool we love very much is not scalable and we’re growing. Perhaps we need a new output format and it’s really hard to get it, using this tool.

Things can change over time.

A new tool may be needed, But it’s hard because you really like the tool you have and it was such a good fit until things changed. You almost feel like a bad tool owner by changing tools.

But a smart professional understands the limits of what they are doing and recognizes sometimes you really do need to get new tools. It’s in the best interest of your content and your users to do so. It’s a hard decision to make but it’s the right decision in the end.

To help you make the decision, you may hire a consultant to advise you. If you do so, take them seriously. If you thought enough of them to hire them, then pay attention to what they recommend.

Why are these stories related?

In the end, you have to make decisions that are best for the situation, which may be very different than what you want.

I want my Leonberger to be best friends again with my Aussie. But that’s not going to happen, in the very experienced opinion of my trusted trainer (my consultant). As a result, both dogs are stressed and potentially I or the dogs are going to be badly hurt.

You may want your tool to work for your group after you add 10 more people. But if the tool was never designed for what you need now, then it’s the wrong tool. You can pretend this is all going to be OK or you can face the facts and make the right decisions.

It’s up to you.

By Sharon Burton

Writing, Writing, Writing

Regardless of what you exactly do in the field of creating or producing information, you spend time developing content. For most of us, that means writing but some of you do screen videos, or make illustrations.

I’ve come to realize in the last 2 or so years, we need to stop calling this writing, or drawing, or what ever and refer to this process as “developing content”.  And I have some good reasons.

Developing content

There is the thought out in the business world that “anyone can write – we were all taught in school how to do it.” And that’s a silly idea. In school, we were given the tools and shown how to use them.

  • We got a hammer and learned to pound on things.
  • We got a screwdriver and learned to turn things.
  • We got a wrench and learned how to wrench things.

But very few of us left school knowing how to build things. So why does the business world think we all did? For some reason, the business world thinks that all you needed was an introduction to the tools and you’ve got the skill.

They don’t think that about managing their financial books. We all can basically manage a household budget but probably none of us are suited to be a CFO.

Writing is a skill and a gift

Most of us professional writers started with a gift and spent a long time learning our craft. We improve and improve to the end of our lives.

Much like a carpenter (to continue my metaphor) who starts with a gift and learns more and more over the course of his or her life. The work of a master craftsperson is breath-taking in its beauty.

So, if the business world thinks that what we do is essentially unskilled apprentice labor and that anyone can do it, we need to reframe the discussion.

Developers make stuff

My reasoning for content development is that developers make stuff. Perhaps in your company, they develop code.

We make stuff, too. And our stuff is as important and needed as the code is. After all, if you can’t use the product, what good is it?

Therefore, we’re content developers. We develop content, regardless of writing, illustrating, or anything else we’re creating to support people in what they are doing.

Try it out

Try it out in your workplace. Start quietly calling what you do “developing content”. Don’t make a company announcement or anything. Just start using the phrase. I bet in 6 months, it’ll come back to you from someone else.

Do you agree there is value or do you think this is silly semantics?

By Sharon Burton

Job Aids and More

We are in the business of getting people the information they need and letting them get back to their life. Fundamentally, that’s what we do, whether we write user manuals, policies and procedures, create illustrations, videos, or any other thing.

And in this information rich world, this is an important thing to do.

No one reads the manuals

If I had a US dollar for every time I’ve heard “No one reads the manuals” I’d be retired in the tropics, playing with large dogs and writing crazy stories. While no one reads the instructions is a true statement, it’s a false statement.

People do read the instructions we provide. They do. But not like a novel – when was the last time you read your employers Policies and Procedures guide, start to finish? Probably never. It’s not that interesting.

But you may have read a part of it in the last month – perhaps when you completed your expense report for attending the STC Summit conference. Because you couldn’t remember what the per diem was and how to charge that properly. Because you don’t fill out expense reports often, you needed to be reminded of how to properly do that task. So you could get on with your life.

And that’s how it works

This is how our instructions are used – on demand. People rarely read our instructions from beginning to end, to see how it all turns out. Typically, people read what they need to know right now and then move on.

Perhaps they need to refresh their memory about how to run the month-end report, or how to rewire the speaker wiring for the home theater system the 3 year old gleefully pulled out. or they need to create an expense report.

So how can we help?

We can create short, to the point instructions for these user moments. I call them Job Aids, you may call them something else. But they are short overview instructions for important infrequent tasks.

Installation is a good job aid – typically called Getting Started guides. For most things, you install one time and then never again. You probably don’t reinstall your garage door opener – after it’s complete, you can happily throw away those instructions.

Other tasks that make good job aids are running end of month and end of year reporting. Not done often enough to remember exactly how to do it so a refresher is helpful. You probably don’t need to include how to run a report, because reports may be run at the end of every day. How to set up the end of year report and archive the data is similar but different.

Make them available to your users

OK, so if my users only need these infrequently, how do I get that information to them, you may be asking yourself.

You can ship them with the product, if you know ahead of time what is needed. But most of us don’t have the luxury of knowing ahead of time.

If you talk to your support people, they can give you ideas. Many of the questions they get are actually Job Aid questions. So talk to your support people and see if they get the same sorts of questions.

Then develop the job aid. Try to keep it to one sheet of paper, front and back.

Now you can post the job aid in the support area of your website. Ask support to tell callers about them. If you send a marketing thing to your users every month or so, include links to the newest job aids to get people to know they are there.

Job aids can impact the company’s bottom line

Consider tracking statistics to see how often the job aids are looked at/downloaded and if those sorts of questions are being asked less often in Support. That’s how you know you’re being effective. Take those numbers to management as clear evidence the docs group is making a bottom line impact on the business.

Clearly someone is reading them, you can say. As a matter of fact, this month, X people read them. And Y people didn’t call support to ask about that topic, as compared to 6 months ago.

by Sharon Burton

Learning is What it’s All About

One of the things I love about being in the high tech industry is the learning never stops. I’ve always thought having a job where you do the exact same thing every day sounds terrifically boring. And in the high tech industry, that really doesn’t happen – every day brings something new.

Training

We’ve added training to my list of things I’m doing and I couldn’t be happier. I love teaching people. I’m so passionate about this industry and what we do. I get to now also help people by providing them the tools to learn Author-it. Then, after the training, they are going to do wonderful things with that knowledge and change the world.

And I get to be a small part of that. Wonderful.

Towards that end, we’re doing several things at Author-it, short term and longer term.

Online training is free

In case you’ve not heard, we’ve made all the materials for our Core training available in small nuggets and it’s all free. If you have 10 or so minutes, you can watch a video specifically about what you want to review and then get on with your day.

By Sharon Burton