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Avoiding Ambiguity: Understanding the Need for a Controlled Vocabulary

2nd June 2010 Posted in Blog, Communication, Industry Articles 2 Comments

As documentation managers, technical communicators, and training specialists, we understand the importance of clear, concise communication. Or at least we are supposed to. As it turns out, many of us don’t. This article explores the new realities of a global information marketplace, the impact of the world wide web on communication professionals, and the importance of saying exactly what we mean.

Often, documentation managers are tasked with all sorts of chores — an increasing list of meetings, reports, updates, and other business minutiae heaped upon plates already full with responsibility. Ironically, many of these tasks are about managing the people, processes, and projects in their department, and not so much about managing the content itself.

This, however, is changing as more and more organizations begin to understand one business-critical fact: Content is a business asset worthy of being managed efficiently and effectively, just like the inventory of parts in a manufacturing plant or the dollars and cents in a group retirement fund. What’s needed is a coherent, repeatable set of processes designed to control the production, delivery, retirement, and archiving of content, supported by standards, and implemented using software tools designed to enforce rules and automate manual tasks.

This refrain is nothing new. Technical communication literature is packed with case studies, lessons learned and best practices detailing the need for adopting XML component content management, structured authoring, content reuse, automation…you get the picture.

But as many organizations start to see the importance of controlling their content, they usually take the path they have traveled most often before — the wrong path — one that leads to a less successful project. Instead of taking a step back and focusing on content and the needs of those who create it, consume it, and reuse it, organizations usually start by talking about software. And that is where the trouble begins.

As documentation managers, technical communicators, and training specialists, we are supposed to understand the importance of clear, concise communication. As it turns out, many of us don’t. And this is because many of us know what we do about writing from lessons learned from well-meaning educators, who lacked powerful, future-predicting crystal balls. They did not (nor could they be expected to) see the future that has become our global, socially-enabled, always-on, 24/7/365 web-connected reality. They did not know that using a thesaurus was a bad thing. And, as it turns out, it is.

That’s right. One of the most commonly used techniques writers employ — the swapping of one word for a synonym — is actually damaging in many ways. That’s because synonyms are not exact matches. They are words with similar meaning, the use of which can introduce ambiguity. Ambiguous content has been responsible for lawsuits, failed business dealings, customer service nightmares, property damage, severe injuries, and even death.

In our litigious society, organizations that value their content as a business asset worthy of being managed do not allow their writers the freedom to use whatever words they choose, based on personal preference and creative desire. Instead, they limit the words they can use to a base set, which not only helps minimize unnecessary risk, but also drastically reduces expenses.

These are some of the many reasons technical documentation and training managers should convince the organizations for which they work to adopt controlled vocabularies like Simplified English, a standardized controlled language that provides a general dictionary and a set of writing rules. While you need a controlled set of terms to avoid ambiguity, Simplified English dictionaries are flexible and allow you to define your own technical terminology, branding, or extend your vocabulary to include industry, science, medical, or corporate terms.

The use of Simplified English ensures that everyone is using the same word to mean the same thing, instead of allowing writers to use synonyms that have similar meaning, for creativity’s sake.

If you work for a global multi-national organization, chances are good that your content is often created in English then translated to a wide variety of target languages. It is not uncommon for a medical device manufacturer, publishing house, or hardware vendor to translate content to 15, 30, 60, or more languages. In fact, some companies translate their customer-facing and employee-facing content to over 100 languages! Each time you allow your writers to introduce a synonym, they not only introduce ambiguity to the translator (unnecessarily increasing the risk of miscommunication of the translated content), but also introduce additional translation expense — as much as 25 cents a word per language! In many cases, this freedom can drastically increase translation costs.

Organizations that are serious about controlling costs and reducing risk enforce their content rules automatically by using checking tools like HyperSTE from Tedopres International, that enforce vocabulary standards and writing rules as writers create content in authoring tools like Microsoft Word, and XML authoring environments like Adobe FrameMaker, Arbortext, and XMetaL. There are also checker tools available from other vendors like acrolinx.

“The main objective of controlled language is to make text easy to understand. Controlled language standards like Simplified English aim to standardize vocabulary and style, improve consistency, reduce cost of content creation and translation, eliminate ambiguity, and reduce complexity,” said Bob Sima, Sales Director of tedopres International, a company that makes software designed to help organizations control language. “It also provides objective criteria for quality control, a critical factor in the mitigation of risk and improvements in customer service.”

If your organization values its content as a business asset worthy of being managed efficiently and effectively, managing terminology is a no-brainer and a good place to start. It’s always wise to seek the help of a knowledgeable third-party, vendor neutral consultant (or internal resource with similar experience outside of your organization) to audit your content life cycle and production processes, and provide recommendations for improvement. Be cautious not to rely too heavily on the software vendors you select. Often, they are very knowledgeable about controlled vocabularies and the software they sell, but they may not have the domain knowledge and previous experience needed to guide you in the right direction.

For more information: For a free booklet that outlines everything you’ll need to know about Simplified English and controlled vocabularies (including history, use cases, where it fits in the content management lifecycle, etc.), order the 2nd Edition of “The New Language in International Business: Simplified English.”

About the Author

Scott Abel
Scott Abel

Scott Abel is a content management strategist, structured XML content evangelist, and social-networking choreographer whose strengths lie in helping organizations improve the way they author, maintain, and deliver their information assets.

Scott’s blog, The Content Wrangler, is a popular online resource for content professionals with an interest in content management, content standards, and content technologies. A founding member of Content Management Professionals, Scott previously served as Executive Director of the organization.

Scott writes regularly for trade and industry publications, blogs, and newsletters. He also runs several industry events, including the Web Content conference series and Intelligent Content with Ann Rockley and The Rockley Group.

He’s also a popular dance-music-mashup artist, dj, and music producer who has been spinning since 1982.

Keep track of what Scott is thinking about via Twitter, what he’s doing via Facebook, and what music he’s making via Fairtilizer.

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  1. By Hannahon 1st, November 2016 at 3:07 pm

    There’s a major typo in this document. One of the first paragraphs is repeated twice.

  2. By WAI_editoron 4th, November 2016 at 4:12 pm


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