Understanding Microcontent and Its Effects on Technical Writing

By Craig Dodman

The term microcontent originates from usability advisor Jakob Neilson, as he coined it in an article in 1998 (Neilsen & Loranger, Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines). The term has been adopted by many fields including technical writing, marketing, and UX/UI. The following article will explore the topic, its relevance to technical writing, and its prospective benefits to users and writers alike.

Defining microcontent

In a brief definition, microcontent can be described as “text, image, or video content that can be consumed in 10-30 seconds” (Lorrie McConnell, Microconent and What It Means for Communication and Technical Writing). While the amount of time it takes to consume media is important, it is not the only defining characteristic.

In addition to this I would refer to a definition supplied by Rob Hanna (Supporting information-enabled enterprises: Reengineering for better flow with microcontent). He notes that microcontent is content that is

  • about one primary idea, fact, or concept
  • easily scannable
  • labelled for clear identification and meaning, and
  • appropriately written and formatted for use anywhere and any time it is needed.

Microcontent as a methodology of creating content has grown in popularity recently. It is a topic that is often associated with marketing and DITA authoring; however, the aforementioned definitions formulate microcontent as an approach that is widely applicable to different types of communications.

Why is microcontent becoming popular?

As all industries change because of technological advancement and cultural shifts, content is likewise changing. Content is being produced, maintained, disseminated, and consumed differently than it was twenty years ago. Users want to find and use information as fast as possible and are often not willing to navigate poorly designed documents.Technical writers need to adjust their content, their writing, and their technology to keep up with the new demands. Developments in chatbots, machine translation, and single sourced publishing demand new content formats that microcontent can provide. 

Three benefits of microcontent

There are three characteristics of microcontent that benefit both the content creators and their users.

Focus

Microcontent requires that each block of content be focused solely on one idea and fulfilling one purpose. Unrelated content is either cut or moved into separate content blocks. The user spends less time navigating and reading, more time applying the information.

Enhanced searchability

In the current digital landscape, the content’s searchability is a determining factor for the content’s usability. If information is not easily searchable it will not serve the users even if it is usable. Since the microcontent approach rigorously enforces the consistency of terminology and content labelling, precise search results can be delivered to the users. Users do not need to scan through irrelevant information to find what they need. In addition, this also helps technical writers to develop and maintain content throughout development cycles.

Improved navigation

Users employ a range of reading strategies when engaging with technical documentation. Most reading strategies are not linear, as is detailed in Tom Johnson’s article on I’d Rather Be Writing (Johnson, How to design documentation for non-linear reading behavior). Users often search for a point of information and then branch to related queries. Microcontent’s molecular nature allows readers to easily find needed information and navigate to other related content. Each topic can contain links to related information and can be referenced in each file. Analyzing and predicting the user’s needs and search patterns is essential to creating a functional network of content.

Applying microcontent methodology

Creating well designed microcontent requires that information be

  • properly chunked
  • not reliant on external information
  • not reliant on circumstances

Consider this example: an electronics company is producing a line of keyboards. Each higher-end model retains the features of the model beneath it. The documentation department is creating the feature descriptions as microcontent which will be reused in each model’s documentation. This is a good example of microcontent because the content

  • focuses on one feature
  • assumes no context
  • is accessible, usable, and reusable

Well designed microcontent makes for well designed technical communications because it allows the users to reference information to a specific end. When an entire document is chunked properly and uses this format, it makes the document as a whole easier to scan and utilize.

Challenges to creating microcontent

There are difficulties in developing microcontent. Difficulties can arise from

  • chunking information properly
  • making content that is not dependent on context
  • anticipating changes

These challenges can result in problems for writers as well as users. Chunking information can be difficult. Some topics are more contingent on supporting texts, circumstances, or settings, and writing them as isolated microcontent is no easy task. It can, however, be accomplished by strictly adhering to the topic format, wherein each block of content must serve one purpose, and then using links for references and related topics. 

When technical writers reuse content that is not designed for reuse (which is dependent on circumstance or context), the users may find the information incomplete, inconsistent, or confusing. Furthermore, to design reusable content requires control over the project as well as the document’s continued adaptability to changes in product or services, which can require hours of labour to make corrections and to redraft content blocks. Anticipating and managing changes can pose a challenge to maintain the integrity of reusable contents.

Conclusions

Microcontent is a nuanced methodology for technical writers to produce content that is optimized for contemporary users and technologies. It creates a focused network of searchable writing for users and allows writers to create and maintain documents using the technological advantages of Content 4.0. 

Technical writers already use many of the strategies that are employed in microcontent, however, they may not always do it with rigor. By adopting microcontent methodology, technical writers need to actively consider how information is chunked, grouped, and linked together, as a result, both users and technical writers will benefit.

References

Hanna, Rob. “Supporting information-enabled enterprises: Reengineering for better flow with microcontent”. Precision Content. 2019. http://www.precisioncontent.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/RHANNA-Chatbots-CSA2019.pdf

Johnson, Tom. “How to Design Documentation for Non-Linear Reading Behavior.” I’d Rather Be Writing, Tom Johnson, 15 May 2015, idratherbewriting.com/2015/05/15/writing-for-users-who-read-non-sequentially/.

McConnell, Lorrie. “Microconent and What It Means for Communication and Technical Writing”. Best Practices in Strategic Communication, 18 Apr. 2019, blogs.chatham.edu/bestpracticesinstrategiccommunication/2019/04/18/microcontent-and-what-it-means-for-communication-and-technical-writing/.

Neilsen, J., & Loranger, H. ” Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines” 2017, January 29. Retrieved September 14, 2020, http://www.nngroup.com/articles/microcontent-how-to-write-headlines-page-titles-and-subject-lines/ 

About the author

Craig Dodman is a technical writer and App developer.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/craig-dodman-techcomm/

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