On November 10, 2020, Joyce Lam, the President of Society for Technical Communication for the Toronto chapter, delivered a virtual presentation describing the topic of microcontent, its significance, and how it relates to user experience. To put this discussion into perspective, she described how content evolved, beginning in 100,000 BCE when communication occurred mainly through spoken word, and then she explained how, over time, content expression advanced to the use of stone, parchment, presses, computers, and the World Wide Web. Today’s communication focuses more on integrating technology with the spoken and written word, which is disseminated through the Internet of Things. Organizations are also trying to figure out how technology can be used to help users work with information.
Lam discussed the challenges that exist through managing the amount of content that people are exposed to regularly and making it useful. For example, there is an inverse relationship between the complexity of content and units of content; as content becomes more complex, the units of content become smaller and more concise. Additionally, in recent years, the volume of content representing the total breadth of human knowledge has been growing exponentially, and most of the content that exists now is known as “dark data” or ROT (redundant, obsolete, trivial). Dark data is content that is useless and unusable for different reasons, such as because it is false, it is terribly formatted, and/or it can be confused with the good data that is more useful. The amalgamation of all of the dark data that exists has led to what is called the “digital landfill,” in which people and organizations have to navigate through dark data to find information that they can use. People and organizations also must take this navigation into account when integrating technology.
People want to find information, specifically answers pertaining to questions they have, but they don’t want to have to spend time, energy, and other resources sorting through all of that dark data to find what they need. Microcontent serves to alleviate these issues.
What is microcontent?
Microcontent is content that is about one main idea, concept, or fact, and it is prepared through clear labeling, proper formatting, and concise writing so that it can be disseminated where and when it is needed. For microcontent to be discovered, however, it must be rich in metadata. Examples of microcontent include RSS Feeds and Google Featured Snippets. Google also has a feature called Micro-Moments, which are highly tailored snippets of information catered to users based on their browsing history, location, and other passive data recorded on their devices.
Other terms mentioned that also serve as examples of microcontent include microlearning and microformats. Microlearning involves making information accessible to users by delivering lessons in the form of contextualized snippets people can use. These snippets target answers users are seeking in a given situation when they need them the most. Microformats constitute snippets of content in one spot derived from data extracted from web pages; that data is repurposed for different situations such as providing information about events and news as well as presenting video and audio content.
There are four main requirements for creating effective microcontent.
This requirement entails that microcontent should be limited so that it concentrates on only one subject. Writers want to include as much information as they can in small spaces, but doing so makes the information more disorganized. This can make it more difficult for technology to make sense of the information because technology cannot read information the same way humans can.
Content must be thought of in terms of concise, precise information “building blocks” so that it cannot only be disseminated for humans to make sense of it through user guides, PDFs, knowledge bases, and other means, but for chatbots, intelligent calculators, automated voice assistants, and other technology to make sense of it as well.
For a given task topic, there could be a primary block that describes the purpose of the task, followed by blocks that represent a particular information type that supports the topic. (The information types are reference, principle, task, process, and concept.) For example, the context and result of a task would constitute separate blocks that would fall under the information type of “reference,” while the prerequisites and post-requisites of a task would constitute separate blocks that would fall under the information type of “principle.” Depending on the output of the content, the blocks of content could be looked at together or individually.
Finally, each of these blocks with their own information types determine how the content is written, labeled, structured within the topic, and presented so that the blocks can work together and individually.
This requirement entails that microcontent should be classified to identify the intent of users based on how information is presented to them. Information can be presented in several different ways to fulfill different purposes based on how writers want the intended audience(s) to use the information. That said, it is important to understand what information type is in play to determine how the content will be structured as well as the appropriate writing style to use.
During the presentation, Lam described instructions for how to make a cup of tea, but she did not give just one explanation. She gave three different explanations of the same information, which constituted different tenses that fulfilled different purposes based on the information type in play. For example, one of the explanations consisted of straight directions someone would have had to follow to make tea:
“Put water in a kettle.”
“Bring it to a rolling boil.”
“Place the tea bag in the cup.”
“Pour the water into the cup.”
“Let it steep for five minutes.”
These directions were told in the second person present tense because they implied the word “you.” Because they were instructions a user had to complete to make a cup of tea, this satisfied the information type of “task.”
This requirement entails that predictable language and patterns must be used when creating and structuring microcontent. This allows both the human brain and technology to interpret and use content more easily.
Lam showed a screenshot of an excerpt from a medical journal and described how the content was not structured appropriately enough for users to easily diagnose patients with different stages of cancer. Problems with the excerpt included the existence of a wall of text, footnotes, and confusing usage of medical terminology. The excerpt ultimately looked like it was meant to be read like a book instead of serving as a quick reference. This was an issue because the intended audience would have needed to use the content to treat patients accordingly. Because the content was confusing for users to interpret, they would have needed to go over it multiple times to try to confirm that they were making the proper diagnoses.
Following this screenshot came a screenshot of the restructured content that included the elimination of the footnotes, a reduction in word count, the addition of visual elements and labels so that users could navigate the content more easily, and an increase in white space. Essentially, this was structured more like a table that could be used as a quick reference for diagnosing patients.
This requirement entails that microcontent is easily relatable to other content. Microcontent must not be written in small, isolated blocks and must instead be written as part of an “ecosystem” where cause and effect come into play. When one type of content changes, other related content would be prompted to change as well.
Lam presented the DITA information types—concept, task, and reference—which, by themselves, were barely relatable. Then she introduced the PCDITA information types—principle and process—which made the relationship between the previous information types clearer and contributed to this “ecosystem” of content. Further, she introduced terms for Enterprise (objective, resource, ability, result, requirement, design) to illustrate more relationships between all these terms and add to this “ecosystem.”
Microcontent is a means for how people can use spoken and written language to communicate their content to users through the integration of technology. As time progresses and the volume of content continues to increase, microcontent will become even more valuable in managing information and presenting it in a way that people can use it. Following the requirements for creating microcontent—focus, function, structure, and context—will enable more efficient expression of content for its targeted audiences.