Month: April 2008

Recently Read

Text Preferences Survey
What is the ideal text size to use on the web? What about line height and column (line) length? Most of the information in this area is based on print (at best) or anecdotal (at worst). A design agency in Brighton, Message, has decided to try and find out by carrying out a survey:

“Our goal is to publish a report that provides hard facts about what constitutes ‘readable’ text on the web … We see this report being of value not just to our clients and their customers but to web users at large.”

It only takes a few minutes to complete so go and take the survey.

Why software applications need product blogs and why they don’t get them
As well as having a very long title, Tom also hits on some points well worth considering if you are at all web savvy (and I’m presuming that, as you are reading this blog, you are). Most of his ideas are spot on but would require a lot of business process change, but I think they are worth picking up on:

I can think of six major ways product blogs can benefit users and project teams. Product blogs can …
– Provide a venue for product announcements
– Allow users to submit product bugs
– Allow users to submit feature requests
– Provide a roadmap preview for the product
– Enable a point of connection between users and project teams
– Provide a way to teach advanced tips to users

He also mentions something that I too have pondered, namely including RSS feeds in online help and somehow merging the two in a more dynamic way than before. Probably not much point in purusing that now but who knows what may happen in the future.

How to work better
A short list of simple, but powerful, advice which is applicable to everyone. Go on, there is at least one thing on that list that you could do better (or if you are like me, 3 or 4).

Subversion for writers
Entirely focussed on Mac OSX users, this has reminded me that we use Subversion at work and that I should really write up our process. Regardless of platform, the basic benefits of using a version control system can be realised with little cost.

What does it do? It manages multiple versions of a project in development. You check your project out of the repository, make changes and you commit those changes back to the repository. At any time you can view older versions of the whole project or of individual files, and revert to them, if the work done since was in error. You can make branches, which allows you to develop your work in two (or more) ways in parallel, and you can tag your project to say, at this point I met a certain milestone (eg: first draft, second draft, version sent to publisher X, version sent to publisher Y, published version, etc.)

Floored (plus other items of note)

I’m lying on the bed, laptop perched on a tray, watching TV. It’s a little tricky to type because I’ve got a cut on the middle finger of my left hand, and my arms and hands are sore. Why? Laminate flooring.

Previously the laminate flooring ran from the hallway through to the kitchen, it’s a galley style kitchen so was the easiest way to get some cheap flooring down when we moved in. The new kitchen meant new flooring to compliment it which meant lifting and cutting the few boards that span the doorway. Not a simple job, as it turned out, particularly when you have a bad knee which is something I hadn’t really factored into the work. Meh.

However that’s the hall all done, and the kitchen floor shouldn’t be too bad. I’ll maybe tackle a little of it tonight, see how my knee is I guess.

I’ll happily admit that I don’t really understand why a man would want to dress himself as a woman, but frankly I don’t really care, each to their own and all that. I’ve been reading Becky’s blog for a couple of years, and it’s been interesting to hear about her life, how she came about and how Simon lives his life.

So I was thrilled to read a well researched and thought out piece on Becky and Simon, which featured in the Norwich Evening News (another joy of the internet, who’d have thought I’d EVER link to a newspaper from Norwich). You can read Simon’s thoughts here.

It’s well worth a read.

I occasionally link to Wikipedia. If there is an obscure topic that I think you might need some more info about then it’s a fairly reliable source (with the usual caveats of course). So, it’s interesting that Encyclopedia Britannica has opened access to bloggers, which I guess is a move to try and re-establish not only the Britannica brand, but it’s place as THE source of reliable information. However I think they might be too late…

Contemplating upgrading our Sky system to HD. We’ve started watching movies again, started with some old favouries (Matrix, Face/Off and so on) and if the trend continues it’ll be worthwhile. Mind you, I might need to start saving up to get an iPhone if the much-rumoured new version is announced in June.

Time will tell.

Design matters

Why would you choose to make something difficult to use? Are you deliberately putting barriers in the road? Or are you just forgetting the main reason why people pick up a document or manual?

Long ago, when I had just started out as a technical writer, I attended a course on designing for Print. It covered many things, from typography to layout and I still use some of the basic design rules I learned way back then.

Whitespace, choice of font, and hierarchical indentation can help make a document more readable. Clearly delineating the structure of a document without explicitly stating it as such, leaving visual clues to help the reader navigate the page (presuming you’ve covered the multiple navigation routes they’ll take to get to that page of information).

Such considerations will continue to become more important as more and more information is moved online, and is then available in a variety of media formats and devices. Structuring your content, and using visual clues to convey that structure clearly, will become ever more important.

At this point there starts to become an obvious overlap with usability, pushing technical writers to start thinking more in terms of the user experience than simple task analysis allows. Understanding the reasoning behind a user action will become equally important, and can be passed to development to influence the UI as well as directly impacting on how we present technical information in the future.

Beyond that I’m not sure where else this may take us but I do know that part of the reason I love this job is the cross-over we have with so many other professions/industries, and I can’t wait to see what is next over the horizon.

Modern Life is Rubbish

Kitchen is almost finished. Last bit of tiling is getting done on Monday, most of the flooring will go down over the weekend, then it’s a couple of touch up jobs with a paintbrush, a little wallpaper and we’re done!!

I’ve sent off my letter of complaint and received a phone call following up to tell me they had received it and I will receive a written response soon. So that’s moving on nicely, and my altercation with a taxi is now in the hands of the Glasgow City Council licensing board.

Work has been increasingly busy these past couple of weeks, hence the paucity of updates here, it’s all I can do to stay awake long enough to eat dinner sometimes. It’s been great though, and I’m really starting to grow into the role (now that I’ve kind of figured out what my role is!). Plenty about that on my other blog mind you.

And speaking of blogs, I’ve been making a conscious effort to get back to commenting again. Yes it’s easy to say that you are still reading but sometimes that little comment counter can make a huge difference to your blogging mojo. It’s the little things that make a difference.

So, just got my health to sort out then we’ll have a semblance of order resorted (results of tests due tomorrow). I’ve almost completely eliminated “additional salt” from my diet, it’s taken a bit to get used to it but I certainly notice it when it’s been added. Hopefully that, plus the diuretic (bendroflumethiazide if you must know) will bring my blood pressure out of the stratosphere it was operating within (195/122 at highest reading… but down to 174/114 about 10 days ago).

I’ve also made a conscious effort to relax and de-stress, but truth be told I don’t feel any different, a little easier to tire since I started the pills but… yeah… not much has changed. Aside from my diet of course, which also means I’ve lost a little weight… things are heading the right way.

In other news, our cat is growing up. Looking back at photos from January he’s noticeably bigger and today he made his first kill!! A little baby starling. Shame really but we knew it would happen. Frankly I’m a little disappointed, it can’t have been much of a challenge so I’ve told him not to come back next time until he’s got one of the bloody magpies in his claws.

And that’s quite enough of that. As soon as I get the kitchen finished I’ll be starting a book clear-out, more on that… later.

Round up the usual suspects

I love movies. I love the thrill of them, the cinematography, the way they move you, the way they lift you up and make you soar, or the way they quietly affect you and alter your point of view.

I love big ridiculous blockbusters, loaded with special effects and noises, that don’t care about plot lines or character development, which require you to check your sense of disbelief in at the door.

I love subtle, story-driven movies that pull you along, relying on subtle emotions and plot points to convey a simple message.

I love complex thrillers, twisting and turning, bemusing me as I second guess the next scene, leaving me gasping at the final reveal.

I love old movies, caught in times past, evoking the glamour of Hollywood in lavish technicolour.

There are very few movies I won’t watch. Horror and I don’t get on too well but we have an agreement (I don’t choose to watch them very often, but when I do they try and be smart about how they scare me). And some movies just aren’t really anything, they’re aren’t bad enough to be addictive (all bad things are addictive!) nor good enough to stick in my brain.

I love movies.

Although I fear the tense has changed.

The problem is … and I guess it’s time I confess … well … you see, the thing about movies and I is … well we seem to have had a falling out. One of those “he said”, “she said” arguments that never lead anywhere and start from nothing. I’m not sure how it happened really, I can’t pinpoint it but, well, I guess sometimes you just move on, eh?

Thing is … and don’t tell the movies this… but I kinda miss them, I don’t want to move on. I miss the anticipation, I miss the stories, I miss the happy endings, the sad endings, the laughing and the crying.

Awww to heck with it, movies, if you are out there, and you are listening, please PLEASE COME BACK TO ME!!! Maybe one of my old friends will hear my plea… Shawshank for example, he was always pretty dependable…

I am not a dictionary

How many times in your professional career have you been asked to spell something, or asked if a word is hyphenated? How many times are you asked whether to use “that” or “which” in a sentence?

We are the grammar police, the word monkeys, and many of us revel in that role (if not the title). Typically we possess greater information about writing than anyone else in the company, and rightly so as it is the main focus of our job.

However I am trying to stop answering these questions directly, instead I’m trying to direct people towards an answer. The reasons are two-fold.

Firstly it’s always better if people learn things first hand, helping to break the dependency for the future. In other words it stops people relying on you to remember things for them. It stops you being asked the same question, over and over and over. That can be annoying.

Secondly, and this is a subtle point, it re-enforces the notion that ALL we do is write words, that all we consider is grammar and spelling, that all we bring to a development team are documents. I don’t know about you but that’s not the case for me, never has been and never will.

It’s easy to quickly hand out information when someone leans over your desk, but maybe we need to be a little more careful. As (typically) a minority group in a software development team we have to work hard to prove and maintain our value, so maybe we need to distance ourselves a little from such matters.

Elbow

I really don’t know why I didn’t do this last week, and since a few other bloggers have since been to see them, and they share my view that this is very much a band to see live, I feel chagrined into writing up my thoughts about the Elbow gig I attended a couple of weeks ago at the ABC in Glasgow.

Elbow are one of those bands that kind of snuck up on me, I remember hearing some of their second album, including Fugitive Motel, nicked from someone at work and thinking they were OK. Next time I saw them was on TV when they were at Glastonbury a couple of years back, around the time their third album came out… and it was this appearance that prompted me to buy that album.

I’ll happily admit that after the first few lessons I put it to one side but quality refuses to be lost and it was soon back in rotation. The more I listened to it to the more I got from it, and the more I realised that this was a band that could soar along on some glorious melodies and that lyrically they were tantalisingly brilliant. A few choice lines here and there (“and coming home I feel like I, designed these buildings I walked by”) seemed to spark off my surroundings as I used them to buffer my daily commute.

I revisited their second album and found it deeper than I thought, and then ‘discovered’ their first album (I’d been under the presumption that Cast of Thousands was their first album!) and shortly after that they released their current album (which is number 4, do keep up). Then I heard they were touring.

I’ve made public statements that I will not be revisiting the SECC so, frankly, it doesn’t take much to tempt me to a gig elsewhere (which essentially means King Tuts, ABC, Carling Academy or the Barrowlands), so Elbow ticked the list when I heard they were playing at the ABC (a converted cinema).

Not entirely sure what to expect what I witnessed was a stunning gig, which switched easily from rocking tracks, to gloriously heartfelt lump-in-the-throat ballads, interspersed with some witty banter to keep the crowd going and even singing the bass guitarist happy birthday (which I fear is part of the ‘show’!). A few stand out moments include being able to hear the lead singer over the amplified voice from where I was near the back of the hall (might’ve been The Stops? not sure which track), and the confession that the track Mirrorball (on the new album) was actually named “The ABC Glasgow Mirrorball” after the “biggest fuckin Mirrorball I’ve ever seen” which is about 20ft in diameter and hangs from the ceiling in the ABC… “but don’t worry, that’s just between us, everyone else will think it’s just called Mirrorball… but we’ll know the truth!”.

So, a great gig from an excellent band, with a talented yet self-effacing frontman, delivering some well-honed tracks. Can’t ask for much more than that really, can you.

Friday night

To celebrate the recent release of our product, the Development group had a wee night out, as is our wont.

A few of us (you know, the sensible ones) congregated in a Pizza Express for some food then nipped across the road to catchup with everyone else in Stavka, a vodka bar. It was a good laugh, and we managed to stay out of the trap of talking about work… well not too much anyway. And, as is the mark of a good night out, there are some details that are only emerging from the fuzzy depths of my brain today.

For example I’d forgotten when Alan licked the foam off the top of Joan’s Guinness, when Shelly fell on the dancefloor later on, and that Sid and Davy ended up having a snog. That’s a good night out, when everyone is in the same happy go lucky mood.

Ohh and, obviously, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

That said it turns up that one of the last shots of the night WASN’T raspberry vodka after all… I’m not sure what it was but it was DEFINITELY that drink that tipped me over the edge.. honest.

Now just need to figure out who ended up going home with whom and I’ll have ALL the gossip. Hey, I work in ‘communications’, it’s important!

Retrospectives

Last week I spent most of my time facilitate our retrospectives, that is I spent a lot of time chairing meetings, encouraging and monitoring debate, and far too much time manipulating Post-It notes. Let me explain.

Within the development group, we base our working practices on Agile development and part of that suggests that at the end of each release cycle you should hold a retrospective session to pinpoint things that went well, things that didn’t go so well and to assign actions which will help improve things next time. It’s all about continuous improvement and we do get a lot of benefit from them.

Don’t be put off by the name, it’s essentially a debrief session that is focused on a particular area, and the process is quite simple although ours has changed a few times and the sessions we held last week were, again, something new to try and improve the retrospective process (we actually hold retrospectives of the retrospective to make sure that the retrospective is improving as well… ).

Our development group is broken into teams, and each team is asked to consider their own working processes within the overall adoption of the Extreme Programming methodology (the branch of Agile development we follow).

And then it’s Post-It note time!

Each team member is given a pad of Post-Its, and we spend 10-15 minutes jotting down things that went well, one item per Post-It. Once the time is up they Post-Its are stuck up on a wall or whiteboard, and grouped into common themes. Then we do the same for the things that didn’t go so well (ok ok, “what went wrong”) and again they are stuck on a wall and grouped.

The common groupings in each category give you things to continue doing (what went well) and things that need improved (what went not so well). Then comes the fun bit!

Each team is given control of their own working processes, and are encouraged to discuss and decide on actions to improve the process where it’s been identified as being weak.

We then gather each team together for a reporting session at the end of the week, during which I teased out the common threads in each category, the items that everyone identified. That final session was interesting, and suggests that, despite having been split into small teams (8 people per team, including 1 tester and 1 technical writer) everyone identified some similar issues, and everyone agreed that certain things were working well.

One of the common “what went well” topics was agreement that having a tester and a technical writer embedded in the development team was of benefit, something I thought but hadn’t ever received feedback on until now. That was a nice moment.

Call it a debrief, call it a retrospective, but an honest appraisal is hugely beneficial. It can be hard, and at times the discussions were heated, but everyone was honest and upfront and we should see the benefits over the coming weeks of this release.

Now, does anyone know what I can do with a few thousand Post-Its??

UK readers, Skill Matters are running a session on Agile Retrospectives next week.

Portishead

After a fairly epic night out on Friday (why do I drink vodka shots when I don’t really like vodka…?), I was a little fuzzy round the edges on Saturday. I was also completely knackered having spent most of my week facilitating meetings, which is far more tiring than both it sounds and that I expected.

Frankly the thought of driving through to Edinburgh to stand in a crowd for a few hours wouldn’t have been my choice except for one reason. It was to hear Portishead, remember them? Two albums (three if you count the live one) and then.. nothing. Those two albums are part of my staple choice, my backup when I get bored and want something comfortable to listen to, music that I tend to have on in the background when I’m at home.

So when I heard (via a Twitter from Paul) that they were touring again I snapped up a ticket within the hour. The anticipation of seeing Portishead live, hearing THAT voice live started and I remember thinking that I needed not to let myself get too carried away, that it might not live up to the expectation I was setting in my head.

I was wrong. They were amazing.

It was one of those gigs that will forever change the way I listen to their music, it was one of those gigs that had moments when the entire place was silenced and in genuine awe of what they were hearing and watching, it was one of those gigs that you talk about with reverence in years to come.

It’s also one of those gigs that I’m struggling to capture with words. The way it veered from a ferocious assault to a genuinely heartfelt, lump in the throat moment, outlined their ability to deliver something much more than their album tracks. The way the atmosphere shifted through the gig, and how such a slight woman can hold a room of thousands in her hand and she rips emotions from within, delivering them with a snarl or a smile.

I’m wary that every gig is a good one, and that I take few risks when choosing which concerts I go to see, but I really wasn’t sure what to expect last night. I’ve held off writing this post to try and distant myself a little but I think I’ll stand by the Twitter message I frantically typed out, with slightly shaking hands, as I tumbled out of the venue. It may not be eloquent but it encapsulates my emotions at the time, and my feelings about the gig that still linger.

Pretty fuckin awesome.