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Designing content reuse: The "tract housing" model

Suzanne Escoffier
Symantec Corporation

Once you're ready to implement a content management strategy in your organization, it's useful to look at other industries that rely heavily on standards. This article compares the development of a content repository with the development of tract housing to identify best practices for content reuse, focusing on planning, identifying reuse, and incorporatiing new content.


Symantec is the world leader in providing solutions to help individuals and enterprises assure the security, availability, and integrity of their information. Consumers can purchase Symantec software through retail outlets, the Internet, as part of a subscription package with a service provider, or as part of a new computer purchase. They can choose from a variety of product offerings that range from bare-bones virus protection to comprehensive solutions that include protection against intrusion, virus, spyware, spam, and identity theft.

To support Symantec's family Consumer products, we have developed a matrix of content that is as flexible as our product offerings. Over the last year, we've migrated that content from individual documents to a content repository. In the process, we've looked beyond the information development community for models of mass-production, personalization, and rapid delivery.

One unexpected source of inspiration came as a result of hours spent commuting through Los Angeles and Orange counties. Following the same route at relatively slow speeds each day provides plenty of time to watch the development of new tract housing projects. During construction, each new development looks the same but when completed, each has a unique look and feel. The philosophy underlying the development of new tract housing looked like it could inform our development of reusable content for the variety of product offerings we support.

Don't shortchange planning

What's clear from the start is that a tremendous amount of planning goes into each new tract housing development before the first bulldozer appears. The land is mapped, divided into plots, and the basic unit of construction determined-home, townhouse, apartment, or condominium depending on the market to be attracted. Standards are set for architectural style and density, often in cooperation with local government. Standards for plumbing, electrical, insulation, framing, and roofing are adopted from rigid codes and guidelines set by states or industry organizations. Personalization and customization are applied over this standard core to create engaging, relevant housing geared to a specific market. And each new owner adds their own unique touches when they move into their new homes.

Before assembling a content repository, we engaged in a year of planning and pilot projects. We organized and reorganized our content, searching for ways to get the most reuse. We discovered that, regardless of how we deliver content, our basic unit of construction is the section. We codified our guidelines for the construction of sections in our company's version of the DocBook DTD. We are as rigid as the local building inspectors when it comes to building structured content with the result that we can mix and match sections as needed when creating manuals, HTML help, and cards.

Identify opportunities for reuse

Having a structure in place has freed us to focus on the content and its reuse. Using the section as our basic unit of construction accommodates three types of reuse: exact reuse, substitution reuse, and conditional reuse.

Exact reuse

Exact reuse forms the framing, insulation and roof of our reuse strategy. Some sections can be reused exactly as created. Exact reuse is most successful with content that is fundamental to our business. It provides a consistent framework on which to build the product-specific content. Exact reuse generates increased consistency and a clearer message for our users, especially if they own more than one Symantec product. Exact reuse guarantees that a feature or task is given the same treatment, regardless of the product it appears in. Examples of exact reuse include sections containing software update or virus removal procedures. An added benefit of exact reuse is that it removes all duplicate text from the translation process.

Substitution reuse

Substitution reuse adds an initial layer of personalization to our content, similar to the choice of carpet color or floor finish in a tract home. In our content, personalization occurs when feature and product names change. By placing variables (entities) in content instead of specific product or feature names, we can specify product or feature names to substitute in their place each time the content is extracted. Substitution reuse guarantees that the remainder of the content stays the same when product or feature names change, and that those changes can occur as often as needed. By changing a minimum amount of information, substitution reuse supports those customers who move up from basic to more advanced products. An added benefit of substitution reuse is that only the variable text needs to be translated after the initial content translation.

Conditional reuse

Conditional reuse maximizes customization while retaining the benefits of reuse. These are the floor plan and upgrade decisions that make the tract house into your home. In our content, customization occurs when features or configurations change to support different markets and product lines. For example, some products include a CD that is used during installation and emergency tasks. If a CD is not available, the product provides other means to complete these tasks. To simplify the user's experience, we don't provide the CD information with versions of the product that don't include a CD.

By identifying text that is associated with a specific product configuration, portions of the text can be reused while still preserving the section as the base unit of construction. In our content repository, we store paragraphs for each supported configuration together, setting an attribute to identify each. When we reuse the section, the extract checks the attribute of each element to determine if it should be included. The reused text maintains consistency across configurations and limits the amount of rewriting necessary to support new configurations.

Incorporate new content

As developers devise new model homes, they adhere to standards to guide their design. By adhering to standards when designing new homes, developers can respond to changing marketplace demands without sacrificing the gains in production and efficiency that are already in place. As we create the documentation set for each new product release, we also respond to demands to add content about new and enhanced features. Standardization helps us quickly create consistent, reusable content that is easy to localize.

We adhere to our content model guidelines to avoid reinventing the structure each time we add content. Our content models incorporate both guidance on what content to include and how to structure that content. Content models have also made it easier to identify content that is not unique, but that can be added to an existing structure and reused conditionally.

We adhere to editorial guidelines to avoid introducing new language into the repository and to guarantee that terms are used in a consistent manner. We maintain a master list of index entries and put new entries through a review and approval process. We do the same for any new terms added to our master glossary.

Finally, we work closely with the product marketing and development teams to improve the consistency of the product UI. With our content structured and in a single repository, it is much easier to identify and resolve UI issues such as terminology and casing so that we do not needlessly create derivative content just to adjust for the capitalization of a product feature or button name. And while it feels good to streamline the content repository, the real winners are the users of our products and documentation.


A long planning cycle helped us prepare for our transition to a content repository. Looking at best practices both within the information development community and in other industries, such as tract housing, helped us identify process checkpoints as well as strategies to improve the structure of our content. Using these strategies, we have seen immediate improvements in reuse. We will continue to look at work done in our field and others as we develop best practices to help us shorten the time between content development and delivery.

Copyright 2005, The Rockley Group, Inc.