In 2008, I started looking for a desktop publishing tool that would enable a technical writing department to publish web-based documents. After reviewing a handful of "industry standard" technical writing tools, as well as a few horribly-expensive and complicated single-sourcing tools, I realized that, in the end, they all output static HTML documents (either natively, or via a convoluted export processes) and that I would still have to manually upload them to a web server.
In the meantime, our product development team was using an open-source wiki to write and publish technical specifications on the company intranet. One day, while writing an article on the wiki, I had an "Ah-ha!" moment in which I realized that a live, web-based writing an publishing platform like a wiki was exactly what we needed.
I installed one on a spare computer and started learning. At the time, most wikis had text editors with minimal functionality. In addition, they did not allow authors to work on articles as unpublished drafts. I knew most technical writers would not enjoy learning wiki markup, or drafting their articles in public, so I decided that, while wikis met most of my requirements, they weren't quite right for our department.
At the same time, a co-worker in our IT department had been experimenting with Joomla! and suggested that I try it on the opensourceCMS.com site. Another co-worker found an article that compared Joomla to other CMSs. This led to an afternoon in which I tested and compared Joomla to a variety of CMS platforms. In the end, I decided Joomla! met all of my writing and publishing criteria and was, by far, the best option.
My research project culmintated in the deployment of a Joomla! publishing site on a PC running XAMPP that was accessible on the company intranet. Members of the technical writing department wrote and published technical manuals on the site, which was accessed by our implementation, QA, and product development teams.
How I use Joomla today
Today, I have have a publishing platform consisting of mirrored web server nodes and a database server on which I install multiple instances of Joomla - one for each product for which I write supporting documentation. Each Joomla! documentation site is styled with the same template to provide a consistent branding experience across all sites. One of the main benefits of installing separate instances of Joomla! is that it allows me to segregate the documentation for each product in separate databases, which means customers using one product cannot see documentation for another product. Another benefit is that it allows me to use different authentication solutions, as required, for each documentation site.
Unlike static user's guides and help systems, I can embed browser-compliant media in any Joomla! article, including graphics, video tutorials, and audio. In addition, I can deploy surveys to capture feedback about specific help articles to learn how to improve them. With Joomla, I can provide a richer learning experience for our customers.
Prior to Joomla! we bundled help systems with our thick and thin-client applications, which made the installation executables bigger and slower to download and install. Now that our user documentation resides on web servers, we no longer have to package help files with our products. Instead, we link each help button or menu in an application to a URL for the appropriate Joomla! documentation site. What's even better is that our customers can access user documentation outside of our products by going directly to our Joomla! sites via URLs. That is, using Joomla! allows me to provide our customers with multiple access points to product documentation. And, since I am using a template that includes the full Bootstrap distribution, our documentation sites display nicely on any device.
Communicating Joomla's publishing benefits
One way to target the professional writing community might be documenting Joomla's strengths as a publishing platform on the joomla.org site. For example, a new category titled "Joomla! for Professional Writers" could be added with articles that describe how professional writers can build publishing platforms with Joomla! In fact, I tried, unsuccessfully, writing a manual for Joomla 1.5 (also titled "Joomla! for Professional Writers") in which I tried to do just that. Unfortunately, I couldn't write it fast enough and only managed to complete a draft on the eve of the Joomla 1.6 release.
Another option might be advertising Joomla! on social media sites frequented by technical writers and instructional designers. Of course, it would also help if other writers using Joomla! would spread the word. Frankly, I am surprised that I hear so little about other writers using Joomla!; though, I know they're out there.
The window of opportunity
For a time, the open-source wiki I mentioned earlier appeared as a desired skill for technical writing positions. Now, I am seeing technical writers use a new, commercial wiki that many companies are buying as a complementary tool for a popular defect tracking system. I would hate to see the Joomla! community miss-out on the opportunity to market Joomla! to the professional writing community. And, I would hate to see a commercial wiki that I think is inferior to Joomla! become the de facto standard for web-based publishing simply because it is available to a larger population of professional writers. If the Joomla! community could communicate the benefits of using it as a corporate publishing platform, I think Joomla! could be the next "killer" app for professional writers.