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Tools and Technology

Support for reuse

Ann Rockley
The Rockley Group

Knowing how your system supports reuse guides you in the development of your authoring reuse processes and in the way you design your content for reuse. This article looks at the features of reuse support to look for in your system.

How technology supports content reuse is a major factor in the success of your project. Technological support of reuse impacts:

  • How authors reuse content
  • Your information architecture of reuse

Knowing how your system supports reuse guides you in the development of your authoring reuse processes and in the way you design your content for reuse.

This article looks at key areas of reuse support including:

  • Nesting
  • Granular reuse
  • Reuse management

Nested reuse

Nested reuse can be one of the more problematic areas of support for reuse. Nested reuse occurs when there are an number of reusable elements nested (enclosed) within one element. Examples of nested reuse include:

  • Content which is common to many information products, but there are slight variations for each instance of reuse. Variations could be due to product, geographic region, audience etc. You can write one element that includes the core content and each of the variations within the same element. When you publish the element, content not appropriate to the desired publication is filtered out.
  • Content which is derived from a superset of content. For example, you could have quick reference information that is a subset of user information or content for a product label that is a subset of the product specification. In this case, it is easiest to write the superset content and identify which sub-elements are appropriate to the subset. When the content is published, the subset information can be automatically extracted.

There are two main ways in which nested reuse is supported by technology:

  • Metadata and filtering
  • Master element

Metadata and filtering

Using metadata and filtering is by far the easiest method for nested reuse. This involves adding metadata to the content that varies or that you wish to extract. For example, you would add metadata that defines that certain sub-elements are only applicable to a specific region or audience. Or you would add metadata to a series of sub-elements to identify that it is appropriate to a subset content publication. Alternatively, if you are using a semantic structure for your structured content (e.g., Semantic DTD/Schema), certain elements can be automatically extracted (e.g., title and steps in a procedure).

This method enables writers to write in context and quickly identify the content that should be filtered or extracted. It is an easy way to keep all the content use and reuse in perspective and it is an easy way to identify all the outputs for the content.

Master element

This form of support for nested reuse is a little more complicated. There are some content management systems that don't support nested reuse using metadata and filtering. In that case you may need to build a "master" element and then selectively use the pieces you need for each instance of the content. For example:

You have a feature description that is 95% the same for six different variations of the product, 5% varies for each product. First you create the common feature content, then you create individual elements for each of the six variations. Then you group the content together in a master element so that you can see the common content and each of the variations at-a-glance. However, you cannot use the master element to produce each of the variations, as the content management system does not support that type of reuse. Instead you select the common content then select the variant content to create an element specific to the variation. You repeat this until you have each of the six variations. On first glance this seems like more work; however, we have found that by keeping the common content and each of the variants together, it makes it easier to maintain a better understanding of the complete set of content. In addition, having the content in a master element makes it easier for reviewers to review and ensure that all variations are correct, rather than having to review each variant individually.

Granular reuse

You will need the ability to manage small granular elements of content where necessary. Some content management systems can manage elements of any size, others cannot.

Writing content in context

Typically you create content in context (e.g., a section). When you check the content into the content management system the content is "burst" apart into its element parts so that the elements can be reused as desired. However, some content management systems require that you create the smaller elements then assemble the larger element from the smaller elements. This is more awkward for authors, as authors don't write small isolated pieces of content then assemble them, they want to write a piece of information in context. Look for a content management system with a sophisticated bursting mechanism.

Managing small granular elements

For the most part you do not want to manage large volumes of small granular elements of content. The smaller the element, the more pressure there is on your content management system performance when you need to assemble a larger element and the more difficult it is for you to store and search for these reusable elements. However, there are times when small elements are necessary. Some content management systems make it very difficult to manage small reusable elements. They don't provide an easy methodology for naming, storing or assembling these elements. Verify that your content management system can handle small reusable elements and determine how they are managed.

For more information on supporting granularity see Issues with Granularity, Vol 1, Issue 2, The Rockley Report

Reuse management

Good content management systems enable you to effectively manage your reuse by enabling you to:

  • Identify where content is reused (Where Used report)
  • Select from multiple update options
  • Selectively change reused elements
  • Notify you of reuse

Where Used report

Having the ability to run a "Where Used" report on your content is invaluable. A Where Used report identifies every instance of reuse of your content. This enables you to see at-a-glance where content is reused. You can run it for a particular reused element or to get an understanding of reuse in general in your entire content set. This report is particularly important in companies which use "opportunistic" reuse (reuse which is not planned in advance, rather reuse occurs when authors choose to reuse content). Many times authors don't know who is reusing their content. A Where Used report identifies where your content has been reused making it possible for you to understand the impact any change you make will have on the reuse instance. In addition, it enables you to understand how widespread your reuse is in the organization.

Multiple update options

When reusing content it is important to be able to identify how you want to update the content when the original source is updated. Look for the following options:

  • Automatic Update
  • Automatic Update ensures that when the source element is updated, everywhere that element is reused is automatically updated. This is beneficial when you want to ensure that content is updated. However, it can be problematic if the changes to the source are not appropriate when the element is reused in another instance. Use caution when using this option.

  • Selective update
  • If you are using Automatic Update it is valuable to have a Selective Update option. This means that when you update the source you are given the opportunity to look at all the instance of reuse and determine which instance of reuse you want to update. In this way you can update all, some or none. When you don't update the reused element the unchanged element is automatically branched from the reused element, as it is now a derivative.

  • Notified Update
  • Rather than automatically updating each instance of reuse you can notify the individual who has reused your element that a newer version of exists. At that time they can choose to accept the update or reject it. This is very useful because it gives the author who has reused the content the option of updating or not. In addition, this puts the control of the update in the reuse author's hands not the source authors. However, if there is a lot of reuse, reuse authors can be inundated with notifications. You may want to set the option such that the notification does not occur until they update their information product or access the reusable object. It is a good idea to ensure that reuse authors are notified of changes before they finalize their content to ensure they are aware of all potential updates.

  • Severed Update
  • Severed Update is really an instance of copy and paste. When you choose this option you have decided that you do not want the reused object to be automatically updated or to be notified of an update. This will become a new element with no relationship to the previous element. Use this option with caution, as content can diverge significantly when you "copy" rather than reuse.

Notify you of reuse

When you own an element you determine if it is updated or deleted. The process for update is described above in Multiple update options. However, deletion is often not controlled through update options. To ensure that the deletion of an element does not cause problems for someone else you can run a Where Used report, but that can be an onerous task if you have to perform this function each time you decide to delete an element. Some content management systems automatically notifies you when an element is being reused elsewhere and prevents the deletion. This ensures you don't accidentally delete content being reused. If you still want to delete the element you need to delete its reuse everywhere it occurs.

How technology supports content reuse is a major factor in the success of your project. Technological support of reuse impacts how authors reuse content and how you design your information architecture of reuse. Make sure you know how your technology supports reuse as you begin your content design process.

Copyright 2005, The Rockley Group, Inc.