Single Sourcing

Single Sourcing gives you the power to use existing “chunks” of content when developing new documents. These can be used many times to generate paper manuals, Web pages, online Help and e-learning materials.

Single Sourcing can significantly improve the way you create, develop and maintain content:

  • Increased quality and consistency
  • Reduced time
  • Reduced cost

Because single sourcing enables you to reassemble documents quickly and easily, you can change your documents to meet new requirements over time.

Simply said : “the right information, at the right time, in the right format, to the right person, at the right cost

What is single sourcing?

Single sourcing is:

The process of producing multiple outputs from one “single source” of information.

Successful single sourcing allows you to create and maintain one single set of information and yet produce a range of different outputs.

True single sourcing takes into account the differing needs of all of your audiences and the strengths and weaknesses of each of your output media. For example, you may, at the simplest level, want to produce both paper and online Help from a single source. However these two media are very different. Paper is easy on the eye, reflective, high resolution. A computer screen on the other hand is emissive, low resolution, and, as a direct result, tiring and stressful to read from for more than a few minutes at a time. In addition, paper documents are structured linearly and the pages are numbered. Online information is much more anarchic in its structure and allows access at multiple points and topics to be read in various sequences. And we haven’t even got to the differences between audiences!

Benefits of single sourcing

When a piece of information is created, not only must it be written, but it must also be formatted, reviewed and published. When this information is duplicated this production effort is also, to a greater or lesser extent, multiplied. The following table shows some of the ways in which single sourcing addresses this problem:

Problem Why single sourcing can save time
Information written with a paper medium in mind may well be too dense and wordy for an online user. Rules applied to content modify the level of detail according to output medium or purpose.
Cross-references in hard copy manuals need to be replaced with hyperlinks online. Cross-references are automatically replaced with hyperlinks where appropriate
Formatting designed for high-resolution printing may make your information difficult to read from a screen. Design issues are automatically dealt with by rules applied to content depending on its output medium or purpose.
When information is duplicated inconsistency in content is likely to creep in. Information is written once.
As all of your publications become different (or perhaps were never the same) the requirements for review grow Accuracy of content is reviewed once in the single source. Review of outputs is for look-and-feel, fitness for purpose etc

Thanks to these increases in efficiency, information can be produced both more quickly and to a higher standard. All this talk of automation may lead to some uneasiness in the minds of those currently responsible for producing content. While single sourcing may reduce the overall effort required in the production of information, it could also lead to an increase both in specialisation and skills.

Indeed, communicators of all sorts may find themselves writing, designing, managing or manipulating information across areas of their organisation that have hitherto been outside of their remit

Obstacles to single sourcing

So far so good, but clearly the issues that created problems when we were simply duplicating information have not disappeared. If single sourcing were easy we would have been doing it for years. So what are the obstacles that have kept us cutting, pasting, editing and reformatting for so long?

The problems associated with single sourcing are intimately linked with the benefits mentioned above. Successful single sourcing will, in the long run, free us from manually editing content to suit a range of different outputs. Unfortunately, to achieve the potential gains, and avoid the duplication of effort we may have been used to, we need to create mechanisms that will account for the different media, purposes and audiences that we aim to cater for.

This can be a time-consuming and potentially costly process. It is a process in fact that impinges on each of the areas of information development. The following table shows just some of the areas for concern:

Writers Need to take account of phrases that may exclude users accessing their information via particular media or platforms. How will users click on a paper manual? How will Mac users push the Windows key?

Need to be aware of each of their audiences and of which pieces of information are relevant to each.

Information designers

(responsible for the visual design of information)

Need to research extensively the differences in the proposed media. Will that fetching shade of cerise be rendered appropriately on a 256-colour display? Will it be legible if printed in greyscale? Are the fonts you have chosen installed on a Macintosh?
Information technicians

(responsible for developing the technical process)

Need either to create a technological framework, or to learn and make use of one of the off-the-shelf solutions
Knowledge managers Need to be familiar with the revised roles and considerations of both writers and information designers. It may well fall to knowledge managers to hold the whole process together

May find themselves liaising with content developers who have previously moved in very different circles and written to very different rule

The  need for  user focus

All of these obstacles and changes of roles serve one major purpose: ensuring that single sourcing addresses the needs of users. The aim is to ensure that all outputs are usable and the key is user focus. All parties involved need a clear perception of the needs and limitations of the targeted users.

Each output must be customised to cater as closely as possible for its potential users. If your single sourcing effort is 100% successful then users should receive information as perfect for their use as if it had been written solely for them. Perhaps this goal is unrealistic, but I believe we can get very close. With thought and care it is possible to deal with these obstacles. By adopting the following strategies you can create single sourced information that is customisable to meet the needs of a range of users, diverse media and multiple goals.

Strategies for single sourcing

The required strategies for a successful single sourcing project fall into two categories: analysis and granularity


The key to any successful piece of documentation is to analyse the intended audience. This focus on the user’s needs is, if anything, strengthened in a single sourcing environment. As mentioned above, we need to know all about our users. In a single sourcing environment, however, the analysis doesn’t stop here.

Not only do we not have a unified (or at least broadly similar) audience for our information, but we also have users in a range of environments using a range of equipment. To cater for this change in circumstances we need to be better informed on a range of technical issues.

At the simplest level we need to re-acquaint ourselves with the fundamental differences between paper and online formats, but it doesn’t stop there. If we are truly single sourcing then our users will be accessing the information on a range of platforms. You will need to know what the Macintosh equivalent of the Windows key is (or the PC equivalent of the Apple key for Mac users).

The online formats that you produce may also differ: you will very likely need to move beyond Microsoft HTML Help. Content itself may differ: installing software, for example, on a Linux machine may be very different to installing on a PC.

Aside from the technology, you may well need to appreciate the requirements of a broader range of audiences. Training courses can be very similar to user guides but not identical: they are likely to require a greater depth of explanation and the provision of practical exercises. A sales brochure on the other hand may require much higher-level explanations of functionality.

In brief, you need to analyse the following for each output:

§  Who are the users of this information?

§  What do they need to know?

§  On what medium are they viewing the information?

§  For online outputs, or for software documentation:

§  What platform are your users using?

§  What are the limitations and possibilities of this platform?

Once these areas have been examined we can move on to the technique that will provide us with the degree of flexibility needed to make one source of information cater for a wide range of uses and audiences: granularity.


To achieve the flexibility required to produce multiple outputs from your single source you need to be able to do three things:

§  Represent a unit of information in more than one way

§  Include or exclude units of information based on output

§  Use a unit of information to carry out more than one function

For single sourcing we need to increase the level of granularity of our information, in other words we need to think about our information in smaller units.

About RWCS Ltd

Information Solutions Architects
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