Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Resurrecting Mapping

By Arroxane T. U. Eber

The week after our “snowpocolypse”, I had the pleasure of attending Mappers 2011, a conference in Houston about Information Mapping. This gathering of professionals was aimed at indoctrinating new Mappers as well as updating those who have previously learned, applied, and taught the method.

The conference was sponsored and led by Information Mapping USA and its parent company Information Mapping International to revive the Information Mapping culture and promote their Information Mapping software, FSPro 4.1. FSPro is an add-on tool used to help Mappers easily create documents using the Information Mapping philosophy.
The roots of Information Mapping date back to the 70’s and come from a body of publications which many Technical Communicators are familiar with. Publications in the fields of Psychology, Instructional Design, Writing, Learning and so forth by revered names such as Ben Schneiderman, George A. Miller, and, of course, the founder of Information Mapping, R. E. Horn.

IM and FSPro provide a great theory and method of document writing which makes easier the tedious job of writing voluminous legal, governmental, and regulatory publications. However, for the experienced Technical Communicator, little new is presented other than the software, FSPro.

This does not mean that IM is not useful to Technical Communicators. Certainly, with the common roots, IM enhances, clarifies, and distills specific parts of TC. This means that IM training reinforces many of our field’s concepts. By using IM, the Technical Communicator can greatly improve modular documentation for single-sourcing.

In its essence, IM is an approach to breaking down a mountain of text to create a reader-friendly document. The user of IM, or “Mapper,” applies six principles to create six types of information blocks. Mappers display 7 +/- 2 blocks in a table known as an Information Map. And this is where the software comes in.

Word alone can produce the table and styles which IM requires. But, creating a template can be time-consuming as can the IM styles. For these reasons and more, large organizations choose to use the Information Mapping tool known as FSPro. It’s a simple add-on that helps all writers within an organization comply with the IM standards.

Although FSPro is currently only available for MS Word, Information Mapping International is working on solutions for other environments including FrameMaker, AuthorIT, and DITA. The latter is an interesting subject that the conference touched on several times.

Many people contrast DITA against IM since they both use chunking and labels. However, DITA is just a framework while IM encompasses a method as well as a philosophy for writing within a framework. For that reason, DITA and IM are highly compatible. The DITA author who uses IM to break down information will likely have more precise chunks of information with more useful headings. Rob Hanna, STC Governance Committee Chair, said at the conference, "IM is complimentary to DITA in the sense that within a DITA topic might be several IM blocks."

In the past, Information Mapping International focused on large organizations. This continues to be the bread-and-butter of IMI, but they are also paying attention to the individual writer. In addition to their partnership and trainer programs, they are starting to offer certification to individuals. However, these certifications do not come cheap and require ongoing membership in the community. In other words, you can learn all you want about IM in job A, but if you can’t call yourself a Mapper to get job B unless you pay up.

Information Mapping is definitely worthwhile for the Technical Communicator to learn. But, like membership in STC, one size cannot fit all—especially at such a cost. It is entirely up to the professional whether the cost of being a Mapper is worth the certification.

Mappers 2011 definitely taught me a lot about Information Mapping—both the philosophy and the company. But, for me, the best part of the conference was the meeting of great TC minds. Many suggestions on how to apply IM came from questions, mingling, and the networking dinner.  The general consensus of STC attendees was that Technical Communicators can enhance their writing by learning IM, but that most are already using the principles—they just don’t call it “information mapping.”

For those who’d like to learn more about Information Mapping, you can visit their websites:
·         http://www.infomap.com/