Liz Fraley on Single Sourcing

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber coming to you from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Today I welcome Liz Fraley, an internationally recognized single sourcing expert, who’s here to tell us why you might want to consider getting on the single sourcing band wagon. Let’s have a listen.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Liz. We really appreciate you joining us today to talk about single sourcing and to get going, it would be really helpful if you could provide just sort of a very clear and accessible definition of what single sourcing is?

[Liz Fraley] So the definition I like is one actually that came out of a book that was written in 2000, it’s Kurt Ament, A-m-e-n-t, it’s called Single Sourcing: Building Modular Documentation and it is as well written today as it was fifteen years ago and it’s, “Single sourcing is a method for reason information by separating input from output and separating information architecture from information development.”

[Weber] Great, can you talk us through the definition just a bit?

[Fraley] Sure, so the classical example is the first one, separating input from output. You’re going to deliver the same content to multiple formats. So, my example is one that usually speaks pretty well to everybody, it’s a resume example. Everybody’s got a resume, right? And usually you have a really nice well-formatted printed one on really nice paper that you can take in and hand to someone, but you probably also have a Word version, because that’s what the HR Recruiters want that scans and it goes into their systems, right? And it may look different because it’s for scanning.

[Weber] Right.

[Fraley] Right it’s not for visual presentation. You also probably have a pdf you put on the web. You’ve got Linkedin. You’ve got maybe an HTML version of your resume that’s also on the web; those dot me sites ( If you’re an engineer or you’re a computer scientist, those guys, those managers want a text version that’s pasted into email with no format, so they can zip through it right? And then if you’re applying to a government job, they want to know every job you’ve ever had. They want to know every address you’ve ever lived at.

[Weber] Right.

[Fraley] Right but very usually when you make a resume, you’re pointing it toward a particular job and you’ll include or exclude certain things or highlight things that you did. It can be a lot of work to maintain all of those formats and all of those resumes the next time you do a job you’ve got to update everything right?

[Weber] Right.

[Fraley] The idea between single sourcing is so say you write your resume once in this nice ASCII format or XML or HTML or whatever you want to do it. Some kind of format, you’ve got everything in there and you’ve got this job applies to a manager job, this job applies to an individual contributor, this applies to this kind of job, trainer, here’s all the addresses I ever lived at, which is like two dozen from college right? Then you could take that information, use a profile, I’m creating a printed copy of the manager resume and out it come. Right? You can do the text version of the trainer resume and just automatically produce it from the original source. You don’t have to update everything. You don’t have to change a bunch of different documents and output formats, you just change the initial source and reproduce the output.

[Weber] What you’re demonstrating is you’ve got a single source of information right? Which is all this resume stuff saved in one place and then this allows you to cater both the particular content and the particular media for different audiences, different outputs.

[Fraley] Yep. I did this for my own stuff for years actually.

[Weber] It’s a good strategy. Obviously you’ve already kind of hinted to this but what are some of the advantages of doing this?

[Fraley] The biggest one is the reasonable content and whether or not you’re doing it to reformat to a new output format, because who knows what’s coming along. None of us guessed ten years ago that iPad’s were coming and we were going to have to care what that format looked like. Didn’t even know that it was a format, but being able to just take your original source, have it transformed to a-to support a new device, a new output, that’s the biggest cl-and almost classical reason to do single sourcing. One of the other advantages is when you’ve got this reusability, you’ve got this-these pieces of content that you can assemble and deliver to whatever format you’re aiming for, you get that ability to do assembly, right? So, think through the resume example. I can do just the trainers’ resume by pulling out pieces. So, I’m assembling a new resume actually for a specific audience out of the entire content that makes up my background and my total resume and I don’t have to do really all that much work to add a new audience right? All I have to do is find those pieces I want to re-assemble for a new audience, identify them and deliver right?

[Weber] Right.

[Fraley] Something that would take days updating all those little formats takes me minutes.

[Weber] Sounds like a huge timesaver and sounds like again you know if you make minor changes to a document, you edit that only once instead of many times, which sounds a whole lot handier. So what about challenges then? You know it sounds like if you do this well, it really saves time. What kinds of challenges come along in the course of trying to single source?

[Fraley] We are trained linearly, right? We are trained to read and write books through our educational system. We’re thinking about the format, we’re thinking about, “Later in the chapter I’ll show you,” that doesn’t mean anything if you’ve got content on the web and somebody googled it. Later’s on some other page somewhere else.

[Weber] Right or not in this document at all.

[Fraley] Or not there anymore, exactly. So, there’s some adjustment to how to write and to think of things as modules rather than linear structure; we call it getting away from book brain. There’s ways to change the way you write so you’re writing for your audience, for their absolute needs and not because some arbitrary rule says this is how documents should be structured. And that can be really difficult because we’re-you know we spend however many years in school and it’s drilled in us, but we’re no longer really writing for grades, we’re writing for other things and that can be really difficult. Learning how to write modularly and then when you throw in things like the new tools that come in and thinking-being able to think of your document from an architectural perspective as separate from the writing job. You’re learning a lot of things at once and the learning curve can be pretty steep and a little bit scary.

[Weber] What kinds of strategies and tools do you recommend to make single sourcing work better?

[Fraley] The tool problem; tools are ten percent of your success. I don’t recommend tools until I’ve had a thorough discussion with someone and I understand their absolute requirement Too often you end up with the same mess, different tools. Yeah, it’s actually the last thing you should do. If you know what your requirements are, the tools will tell you what-which ones to use.

[Weber] Okay.

[Fraley] No question about that. We work with customers and we look at their content and we talk about the real motivation behind a question, right? So, here’s a real thing that happened. Somebody came to me with a topic and had fifteen sections, the DITA topic had fifteen sections. I’m like why do you have fifteen sections in this one topic and the answer was “Well you know I didn’t know how to break it up and it was due so I just did it this way,” right. So you don’t have time to do it well and make your customer successful but you have time to do it badly. If you’ve got it really thought out, you’ve got the modules written, and you’re really working through the architecture, you can do it well in the time allotted because half the stuff you shouldn’t have to write because it’s already done.

[Weber] I like your point, “Don’t get locked into a tool. Don’t start with the tool because it may not meet your need,” what is step one then? If I’m in an organization and I want to start single sourcing, where do I start?

[Fraley] Start with a survey of what you actually have written and usually we think we know what this is and you know there are some writers or editors that really are plugged totally into their documents that-which is amazing for me to see. Most of us we know sort of where things are but you’re not really taking sort of a fine-tooth comb look at it. I’ll have customers who, some of them like spreadsheets, some of them like Word documents. It doesn’t matter what tool you use, but you might start with the spreadsheet where you list across the top all the sections in the book. You can do it by title or you can do it by concept. Like I have a preface and it has warranty information, it has copyright, and then I’ve got indications for use and it must be followed by instructions for using the document, must be followed by right? Whatever, you don’t really sort of know our structures, but almost very few of us really construct the same book the same way every time. And if you look at them you’ll start to see, “Well oh look, well this one switched those two sections,” or “These sections are really supposed to  be the same, but it talks about this other stuff.” You really have to look at it and you’re looking for things at that level, the big structural level, but you’re also looking for things that are small. Like the wording that shows up repeatedly at the beginning of every procedure that says, “Put the bracelet on and ground yourself or you’ll get electrocuted.” You could use multiple pieces of paper, you could use a whiteboard, you can use little sticky notes on the wall, and let me say you can put aside the ones that are hard.

[Weber] Right, that’s always an inclination.

[Fraley] Exactly. You don’t know what you’re going to be up against and usually you end up with maybe a handful or a couple of handfuls of too hard topics. The rest is pretty easy to triage and you get a feel for how your information fits together and what it is just by doing the exercise.

[Weber] Okay.

[Fraley] That’s where we start.

[Weber] I know that’s a lot of what you do is you help clients transition into single sourcing environments. Can you tell us maybe one success story that you’ve seen?

[Fraley] There’s a medical device company, they started their HTML journey way back when, switched to XML in 1999, and I went back to them in 2010 and said it wasn’t worth it. And as medical device company they’re always at risk of FDA coming in and closing the doors and saying, “Go home,” and lose fifty million dollars a day. The FDA can actually tell them, truly it happened, “Move this comma or you don’t ship.” So, they want to be sure that their information is absolutely guaranteed, it has passed all the regulators, it is high quality, no errors, perfect information every time they publish. So, they went to single sourcing. so they could break things into pieces and have each piece independently validated. Then they want to build a book, new product, they say, “All these pieces come in. I don’t even have to have them reviewed,” right? And you can assemble the book with all those pieces and they write the few pieces they needed to reflect the new product. There’s two benefits to this: one the quality is guaranteed, the second part is they can build that new book for the new product in a matter of days because half their information is already validated and written for the book. The best part of their story is they’re medical device company, we all know the margins are high on medical devices, but they’re documentation team for putting in this single sourcing system, they received the company’s highest honor, for saving the company more money than they make on any other product.

[Weber] Wow, that’s amazing. Great well thanks Liz. I really appreciate it. Can you tell us where we can find more about you?

[Fraley] We’re at

[Weber] Thanks again for talking with us.

[Fraley] Sure, thank you.

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Episode 15