Month: November 2007

You sound funny

Since moving jobs, Louise now has her own email address. We ping the occasional email back and forth, usually to confirm plans for the evening. A couple of recent emails were a bit longer and I found myself a little puzzled. My wife sounds very different in text. That is, whilst I can hear her voice, the phrasing and tone implied when she writes is quite different from her everyday voice.

Of course that is only to be expected, and frankly I’m a little embarassed to only really be considering such a thing after having spent a fair chunk of the last few years online. I’ve met a few bloggers and none have “sounded” the same as the way they write. Does that even make sense? Well, regardless of my ham-fisted attempt to grasp this topic, I’m sure most of you have an idea of what I’m waffling on about (that’s makes a change, eh!).

This, to me, marks the great writer from the good, the skilled wordsmith from the mediocre keyboard basher. The ability to capture nuances of the spoken word and display them in written form is an art, and I’m lucky to have been reading some wonderful proponents of such skill for a few years now. Some of them have, deservedly, gained book deals, others have moved into writing full-time, and one or two remain somewhat secret from the rest of the mainstream, all of them make me laugh, make me cry and generally remind me just how powerful the written word can be.

I wonder if they would have the same impact if I’d met them and spoken to them?

Internationally Speaking

Just visited the McAfee website and on one of the forms encountered a, shall we say, anomaly presented itself.

I am a patriotic kind of guy, and I’m not in any way anti-American (I’m well aware that the percentage of idiots over there matches the numbers we have here), and when you actually consider what I’m about to tell you isn’t really about patriotism, jingoism or somesuch.

Rather it’s a wonderful piece of bad programming that I’ve seen before, centred around the fact that (at least for the purposes of this discussion) the country I am identified with is known as both the United Kingdom (UK) and Great Britain (GB).

I’m Scottish, and my country is part of Great Britain (which is the main island mass which also includes Wales and England). Add in Northern Ireland and you have the United Kingdom. It confuses me but that isn’t really the issue here.

When selecting my nationality in an online form, invariably I have one option: United Kingdom. On some forms I am delighted to be able to select Scotland, and on others I have to hunt for Great Britain.

However, the McAfee form in question proved a little troubling.

On highlighting the Nationality list, and tapping the U key, I was taken down to Uganda. A few more taps of the DOWN arrow key is usually all that is required to get me to “United Kingdom”. Not this time though, so I clicked the list top expand it, just to make sure I hadn’t keyed too fast but no, there was no United Kingdom.

No problem, I think, I’ll just tap the G key to get me back up the list towards Great Britain. This time I expanded the list first and scrolled down to… hang on… no Great Britain either? Great! Must be an option for Scotland!

Nope.

Somewhat puzzled now I double-checked that there was no entry for Scotland. There wasn’t. United Kingdom? Not listed amongst the rest of the nations of the world that begin with U. Must be Great Britain then?

And there it was, nestled away amongst the Gs. “United Kingdom”.

Now technically I can figure out what has happened, the label which is displayed to the user is “United Kingdom” but the value, on which the list being sorted, is set as “Great Britain”.

I have to wonder if this was tested at all and if so they have missed a fairly obvious set of test cases. If you are a global company then you need to consider these things.

OK, admittedly it is a tiny mistake amongst a large and complex website but it does serve to remind me to take the unhappy path through our own software now and then. I have a tendency to check through screens and processes presuming a lot of knowledge and taking the happy path.

Footnote: I worked for Dr. Solomons for a year before they were purchased by McAfee. One of the projects (ditched by McAfee) concerned a global company update system, during which many long design meetings centred around just this kind of “international” issue. But hey, I’m not bitter that they made me and 250-odd other people redundant almost immediately after they bought us, honest…

Nice! Cool!

I miss spam comments. Running WordPress with Askismet means I see little to no spam here which is a shame because I received some real belters in my time.

I’m not talking about the large list of links to various shady corners of the internet, I’m talking about the somewhat random poetry-esque spam that would crop up about once a week. A random sampling of text from Byron and Keats or somesuch, it made checking my spam lists all the more fun.

These days there seems to be only 3 types of spam comment:

  1. The Fast Show Jazz Man spam – Usually “Nice!” or “Cool!”. The most boring of the bunch, saved only by the image in my head of John Thomson in a smoky club.
  2. The Honest I read every word! spam – “Wow, that’s fascinating. I’m sure you’d like to visit our blog too.”
  3. The Feed Scraper Pingback spam – There appears to be an endless parade of feed scraping sites that list part of my posts with a link back to the original (which spawn a pingback). These are odd because they ARE usually targetted, my recent wine rack photo was listed alongside a page full of other, genuine, posts about wine racks.

Not entirely sure about the third one. Yes I still consider it spam but it is a bit smarter than most. I don’t see any traffic from these links though and as they are taking scraps of content from here then they are definitely being naughty… but as I publish a full RSS feed anyway, what do I care? Do I care that people are making money off of my content? Yes, I do. But do I care enough to do much about it?

So, fellow blog readers, what’s in your spam list?

It's time to stop when…

You take a break from work, fire up Google Reader and idly flick through a few feeds. Your eyes alight on a delicious link and you think, ohh must check that out.

Only then do you realise that you are reading your OWN RSS feed, and you’ve already bookmarked said link in delicious so you’ll check it out.

Sometimes the internets really is confussing, round and round it goes.

Hot black liquid

Each lazy blink draws my eyelids down, heavy and bloodshot, a constant dryness that no tear can salve. My head is full of freshly picked cotton wool, burrs grate inside my skull and everything is hazy and soft, removed. Every inhalation pulls a yawn to my lungs, saps another trickle of precious energy. Willing myself to focus, ignoring the incessant call of sleep, the lure of drowse.

Caffeine is the cure, the elixir, the nectar that will tame the blurry-eyed beast. I watch, mesmerised, as my hand hovers over my mug pouring my saviour into my cup, the dark awake sloshing up the sides. I know the bitterness will pull me back from the brink and as I lift the steaming promise to my lips, the deep warm aroma floats up and the senses nudge one another, ensuring all are awake. Lifting my mug closer I close my eyes and then … mindless bliss as the first surge of hot liquid descends through the rings of lethargy. I feel the buzz kicking in, vibratant with each mouthful, my eyes opening, blinking fast, I am ready to face the day.

Is this what an addict needs? Is it the anticipation of what is to come or the actual rush itelf? How much of addiction is laid out in habit? The process as much as the substance?

My name is Gordon McLean. I am addicted to caffeine.

If I don’t get my morning caffeine fix I am cranky and end up with a sore head. My body has come to rely on caffeine and whilst the withdrawal symptoms are mild in comparison to many other addictions, they are reliable and tell me I have a problem. I’ve read the studies on why excess caffeine is a bad thing and I do try and limit myself to a few cups a day. The rest of the day is fine, but the pattern of addiction remains a morning cup of coffee as soon as I get to work.

This post was brought to you after my.. umm.. second cup of coffee.

Anyone else want to join me and confess their addiction?

Recently Read

Another week (and a bit) has passed. Time is tight for me at the moment, and I’m not posting here as often as I’d like so, for now, here’s a quick roundup of everything that’s zipped past my inbox in the past week:

Resources on presentation design

… advocates an assertion-evidence design, which serves presentations that have the purpose of informing and persuading audiences about technical content

Needless to say, with my first ever conference presentation looming, I’m fairly focussed on both topic relevant stuff and anything that will help make my presentation better.

An XML CMS is simple as 1-2-3

Creating an XML-based Content Management System to single-source technical publications is as simple as 1 – 2 – 3. Rather than focusing on any single tool or solution (and thereby forcing users to change to match the tool), this article describes one possible three-step process for using XML to single source your content deliverables.

A rather simplistic view of things, but if you are a bit flummoxed by the raft of information available in this area, and you aren’t really sure where to start, have a quick look at this. Short, simple and easy as A-B-C.

Make your writing east to scan

… the acid test is looking at your information as your reader/user would see it, and asking yourself “can I find what’s important without reading the whole page”?

You can format your text in a variety of ways, but it pays to take a step back and view the format of your content from the point of view of your readers.

Getting to the web-first mentality
Interesting to read that other professions are struggling to embrace the internet. Ultimately I think it’s getting to the point where we just need to take the plunge.

Start putting the web content management system into the workflow at the front end. This could be as simple as using Google Docs as a word processor instead of the bloatware that we know as MS Word.

Collaborate or fail
Titled “Building a Collaborative Team Environment” the opening couple of paragraphs kept me reading:

Technical communicators work hard to meet deadlines and value the standards inherent in the profession. At the same time, they value their personal creativity and the responsibility for developing a complete publication on their own. They tend to enjoy doing everything from writing, editing and page layout, tographics, technical content, and more.

Working as part of a team to create a single set of deliverables, handing over responsibilities to fellow team members, and trusting the work produced by others does not come naturally.

It’s an excellent article, looking at a variety of ways in which we, as technical communicators, can adapt how we work. It will no doubt prompt some posts here as I digest it further.

And on that, somewhat culinary note, I’ll thank you once again for stopping by.

For the Fallen

There is little else to mention here today as everything else pales into insignificance. Draft posts have me pondering the moaners of the world and listing pet peeves, all of which seems so petty.

Remembrance Sunday seems old-fashioned and trite at times but fundamentally it is worth taking time not to remember but to consider.

The life we live in 2007 bears little to no resemblance of that in either of the World War eras. Much has changed and it is all too easy for us to forget, or worse, to stop teaching the lessons learned.

The conflict in Iraq is all that should be needed, the war on terror may invoke different thoughts yet it too remains a conflict. Men will die for their cause, exploits and bravery beyond anything I’ll ever know will continue.

I studied history at school, and have some understanding of the horrors of war. I have no idea how I would react if placed in such a situation, it is unlikely I ever will.

Remember.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Who do you write for?

I started this blog to have a separate place to write about my “professional” thoughts and I guess I thought I could maybe add a little value to the cluttered world of technical communications, or at the very least raise my profile a little. Yes, I have an ego, but it’s kept in check for the most part.

However, like my other blog, the main reason this blog exists is to give me a place that I can consider and process my thoughts. I’ve always found writing things down helped me get a good sense of what they were, even if I didn’t necessarily start with a cohesive picture in mind. Sometimes the simplest issue, one that has eluded me for some time, leaps into focus when I start writing. I’m not sure if it’s always been that way or I’ve now trained myself into such a habit but I’m not complaining, it works for me and I’ll admit that I still get a little buzz when something “clicks”.

If I were in a cartoon a light-bulb would *plink* into existence above my head when that happens. Reality can be such a disappointment.

Today brought a good example of such a moment and rather than deleting my thoughts, I’d thought I’d post them here. Sharing is power after all (badly paraphrasing remains inexcusable).

One continuing theme on most of the mailing lists I follow and in various blog posts across the land, is that of knowing your audience. Knowing why you are writing, and who you are writing for are the fundamental tenets of our profession. They are so fundamental that, if I’m honest, the incessant reminders about them do start to grate somewhat. After all I’m a professional, how many times do I need to be told to consider my audience? How many times do we need to restate something we all know and understand.

I’m happy to admit that some will know more about their audience than others. Some will make do with a rough approximation of what their audience expects, whilst others will interview and analyse their customers and gather requirements and direction directly.

Regardless of your level of commitment to understanding them, anyone who is writing must (surely) consider their audience. Yet, at every turn, the answer to many questions all stem from that presumption, and are presented in simplistic terms. Know your audience they say. OK OK, I get it!

The thing is, after reading such a response for the umpteenth time it suddenly struck me that yes, we do need to be reminded of this basic fact, time and again.

We all have pressures on our work. Whether those pressures come from commitments made to others, from our own professional integrity, or directly from the customer, they all serve to focus us on the end goal and usually to start thinking in terms of quantity. We know we need to document the new interface to the ACME Widget and when pressure is exerted their is a temptation to take shortcuts, and the easiest shortcut is, by and large, to forget the audience.

The cardinal sin allows us to omit information on the presumption that they will “probably know it”, to structure the information according to UI rather than task, and ultimately to regress to a “if you can click it, document it” mentality. That may be a valid mode in certain circumstances but that will depend upon, yeah you guessed it, your audience.

Audience analysis, the use of personas, call it what you will, if you don’t have at least a rough idea of the type of person you are writing for then why bother? You won’t be structing the information correctly, you won’t be pitching the level of information appropriately, and you most certainly won’t be thinking around the various conceptual models your audience are likely to use and understand. The more you know, the better you can focus your documentation, drilling down into the tasks they need to complete and what they need to know before they begin. The better your knowledge of your audience the more likely it is you’ll produce documentation that they can use.

Put it this way, if you aren’t writing for a specific audience, who ARE you writing for?

Ooops.

I’ve gone and done exactly what I said annoyed me, lectured you all on knowing your audience when you already know that you need to know that. You know?

Next time I read yet another “Depends on your audience” response in a mailing list I’m going to try and remember that advice and apply it to my current work.

Addendum: Charles Cooper has been considering the same thing.

OSX Help

Having recently upgraded my MacBook to run the latest version of OSX, I’ve been using the built-in Help to figure out how to configure things to the way I like them. It’s an excellent example of well designed and integrated help. Of particular note is the effect shown in the screenshot below.

An excellent example of integrating user assistance with an in-built online help system. Don’t you think?

System Preferences Help.jpg


Typing in your question to the text box, top-right of the window, dims the contents and ‘spotlights’ the items which possibly match what you are looking for. Smart, huh. There are many more examples of this kind of thing but this one caught my eye.

Because it's all that's in my head

Don’t hate me.

Please.

I don’t do this kind of thing on purpose. Honest I don’t.

But it does seem to follow a pattern, doesn’t it.

Ohh wait, you don’t know what I’m talking about yet, do you.

Let’s start over.

Don’t hate me.

Please.

But I’m really REALLY busy and just want to jot down everything in my head so that I don’t forget. I COULD do that on a piece of paper of course but then that wouldn’t get posted and as I’m feeling that weird bloggers remorse thing of not posting regularly then.. well… ohh look. It’s my bloody blog. If you don’t want to read on, then don’t. Presuming anyone has gotten this far (I’m beginning to bore myself actually).

I’m still loving my job. It no longer feels like a new job so I’ve dropped that adjective, but it’s still good. Getting a little hectic though but nothing more than usual chaos that surrounds every product release I’ve ever been involved with, at every company I’ve ever worked at. Thankfully we don’t have project managers here, hovering over our desks with Gantt charts and cost-analysis sheets. It’s quite refreshing to be left with only your professional pride to keep you in check, it’s quite a powerful motivator as it turns out.

As well as product release stuff, I’m also looking ahead to early next year, planning what the team will be focussing on next time and that particular piece of thinking is growing wings everytime another thread is introduced.

Hang on, I just broke my own analogy. Put it this way, in a nutshell full of winged threads:

If we (the team) undertake long term project A, it will make short term project B easier for us, but likely kick off other short term projects (for other people) in which we’ll need to be involved as they’ll directly impact on B, with the knock-on effect of slowing down A. Considering A is all about being faster and more efficient.. well that’s not a good thing.

I realise that makes no sense to anyone but it’s the first time I’ve written it down and *ping* I think I understand it a little better now. It does make senses if you know what A, B and ‘other’ mean. Promise.

Elsewhere I’ve been slacking off. Almost a full month of not doing anything purely because no-one was chasing me. I feel a little guilty as I promised two freebies, so I’ll try and blast them out ASAP. Then I need to properly consider a new design template, and there is the not inconsiderable event that will see me stand in a room of my peers, and present my thoughts and experiences of using a Wiki in the workplace. Must make time to go over the presentation a couple more times I think..

I’m also still ripping CDs, they last batch (100 or so) are piled on my desk to try and force me to deal with them, but if I just shove them over to the wall a little then.. yeah, there is PLENTY of room to work, I’ll get to them later…

Photos will be next of course, and for that I really want to clear the space so I can get the scanner up on the desk, rather than tucked away on top of a set of drawers. But to do that, I’ll need to clear the desk… of CDs. Dammit.

Lastly there is a rather large occasion looming on the horizon. I’m doing my best to ignore it but, to be honest, we’ll need to make a start. Only a few weeks I’ll be lugging boxes of decorations and nonsense down from the loft and then there will be no escaping the fact, Christmas will have arrived.

I’m not moaning about any of this, far from it, it saves me from sitting watching crap TV (like that Strictly Come Saturday Factor thing that seems to be on every channel at the same time) and means that I’m saved of any DIY projects until at least February.

“Sorry darling but I’m just soooo very busy, and I promised I’d get it done, you wouldn’t want me to let people down, would you?”

Every cloud and all that.