Month: November 2009

Being prepared

It is most definitely Monday. Let me rewind the opening part of my morning for you, to offer you proof that it is most definitely Monday.

~ wibblywobbly wibblywobbly wibblywobbly ~

I’m lying in bed and somewhere in the distance, through the murk of a lie-in I hear the radio. Voices, a rabble, some music, and then the pips. I open my eyes to hear the announcement of the time.

9 AM.

As my eyes close once more my brain reminds me, in somewhat hurried tones, that I have a meeting in Glasgow at 10.30AM and perhaps, you know, maybe, it might be an idea if I got up.

I tell my brain to shut up.

It responds by sending a large jolt of recognition through my body.

SHIT!!! I need to get the 9.50AM train. Shit shit shit!

I leap out of bed, rush through my morning ablutions, haul on my clothes, hurriedly pack a bag (headphones, book, notepad, pen) and check the time. 9.24AM.

The station is a 30 minute walk from the house. I could rush and make it, probably, or I could get a taxi. As it is I’m still half asleep so decide a taxi is the best option.

Having just ‘won’ 10 minutes I decide to boil the kettle for a quick cup of coffee. Whilst it’s boiling I double-check the details of the meeting. The name of the guy I’m meeting, his phone number, the time 10.30AM, the location (big hotel in Glasgow), and yup, it’s happening on Tuesday the 1st of December.

Balls.

I hate Mondays.

THAT time of year

Casting a wary eye over my calendar for the next month or so, given that we are now only a calendar month away from that day which tends to dominate things at this time of year, I realised that, as usual, my weekends are slowly melting into a morass of shopping trips, nights out and other such social occasions. Oddly I’m not attending any gigs at all in December, although that’s largely because I didn’t realise certain gigs were happening until it was too late.

It’s always good to go out and have a few drinks, some laughs and general merriment with friends, family and hell even my colleagues aren’t all that bad. But sometimes I’d like nothing better than to curl up on the sofa and waste a day or two watching crap movies. Hell I’d even take a day of watching good movies if I had to!

I tend to veer between feeling very socialable and outgoing to a complete hermit attitude, happy in my solitude, in my own space with no expectations of ‘joining in’. I grab those moments when I can, but I’m aware they don’t come round very often in December.

Of course, the next month becomes one of constant calendar checking, particularly as the ‘end of the year’ rush descends, although that’s one thing I’ve never really understood. Yeah, the year is ending, but if it wasn’t planned to be done by now, why the rush? Why the ‘need’ to get it done to start the New Year fresh? There will always be stuff to do.

And on that note I’ll make you a promise right now. I will NOT be writing any form of 2009 review, if ya wanna read it, it’s all there in the archives. What? You think I write this drivel for your benefit??

Access is good

Access

Yesterday we launched a new version of our developer community website. It doesn’t have many ‘community’ features as yet but that’s all to come. One thing it does now have is an HTML version of all of our product documentation, in an easily searchable format.

It’s no coincidence that it looks very much like the Author-it Knowledge Center as it too was built using Author-it (alas I can’t show you our website as it requires a login).

This new format of the product documentation is largely to move us away from PDF only documentation. At present we still have a set of PDFs but they aren’t particularly usable.

We ran a few quiet trials of the knowledge centre format and everyone who saw it liked it, particularly the fact you can search across every piece of information offered.

So I was definitely pleased when, after sending out a company-wide announcement about the new version of the website, highlighting some of the new features, one of the first pieces of feedback I received was about the knowledge centre and how good it was. For the, as the kids say, win!

The knowledge centre will be updated on a regular basis, so my next challenge is to figure out a way to embed RSS notifications for new/updated topics. But so far so good, and with Google Analytics in place in the knowledge centre, we can continue to make improvements to both the information itself and in making sure it is accessible.

It’ll be interesting to see how the knowledge centre is used, particularly if we manage to track it against the number of incoming support calls as the main reason we are adopting this format of information is because, many times, the answers are there, they just weren’t that easy to find.

Skunk Anansie

skunkanansie

A long time ago, in a blue football stadium, I saw Skunk Anansie support a certain 80s rock band (ohh ok, it was Bon Jovi, now shush). The day wasn’t a great one, the weather was crap, the PA system poor and the entire day was largely forgetable. At the time Skunk Anansie were about as popular as they got, and I can remember how disappointed I was coming away from that gig.

Last night, reformed and with a Greatest Hits package to push, they appeared in Glasgow and OH MY GOD they really delivered. It took a couple of songs to get going but it’s easily the most energetic performance I’ve seen for a while, and the crowd reacted in kind.

It’s fair to say that the lead singer Skin, is pretty out there, but she really was enjoying herself and the reaction from the crowd and soon the energy was flowing back and forth. Somehow, amongst all her bouncing around, and one epic crowd surf from the stage to the end of the main standing area and back, she continued to deliver with that stunning voice of hers.

It’s obvious that this is a band that is well versed in performing live, with very few rough edges on show, and part of me felt that they really should’ve been somewhere larger but given that usually means the horrid big red shed (S.E.C.C.) I’m certainly glad they didn’t. One thing that the O2 Academy always delivers, if the band manage to generate it, is atmosphere in spades. Accused of being the loudest audience of the tour so far, the grin that broke across the faces of the band as we raised the roof once more was a genuine sign that they too were having fun.

And that’s the one thing I wasn’t expecting. I was expecting it to be loud, vicious at times, hauntingly beautiful at others, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so much damn fun. If this band get their next album right, and some of the new songs* on their Greatest Hits package suggest they aren’t going too far wrong, then we could have another great rock band back on the scene. Welcome back, Skunk Anansie!

* note to record labels: parking new tracks on a Greatest Hits compilation album isn’t going to make us buy the album.

Olivia Newton John

They make me laugh, if I’m honest. Not out loud, and not heartily, and there is a level of wonder and envy but, ultimately, I laugh at their preening and posing.

But never to their face.

As I puff and wheeze, legs failing on the bike as I crank out another kilometre, I can see them out of the corner of my eye. The clank of the dumbbells, those big weighty lumps explode into movement and then fall still. There is a fluidity, a raw power behind what they do, but the effects can be grotesque.

So I happily ignore them, leave them to their posturing. Such big proud men, so silly in their masculinity. There was a time I would’ve been threatened by them, or tried to ape them (I use the term advisedly) but that day has long passed.

Whilst us mere mortals sweat and gurn with the effort of our motions, I can’t help but think that we are the happier. We are happy to balance and trade off a nice dinner, a pizza now and then perhaps, or just that bar of Dairy Milk. We don’t need the protein shakes, and know that missing a day or two won’t kill us.

It’s an interesting place, my gym.

Information Strategy Pyramid

typing_monkey


The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. As such, it stands to reason that two monkeys would be able to produce the same volume of output, but are unlikely to write exactly the same thing. Add in a few more monkeys to the equation and suddenly you have lots of content, none of which really relates to anything else.

I’ll stop with the monkey metaphor before I insult anyone.

Consistency is an important part of communication, even at the simplest level of having a common terminology, using the same words consistently throughout a document helps the reader learn. Take this idea up a level, from a single document to a number of documents and maintaining the same terminology across all documents can further help re-enforce the messaging and aid learning, and should give the reader a level of comfort that the entire set of information has been thought of, and delivered, as a cohesive set.

Move up the stack one more time and you start to look around at surrounding areas of information, outside of product documentation, produced by a different department and it’s here that consistency starts to suffer.

Typically Technical Communications teams will spend some time developing their own Style Guide (however loose), and agree a basic set of terminology, also known as the Product Glossary. Having been involved with creating a Product Glossary in the past, it’s interesting that other areas of the company see it as being a ‘documentation thing’, until such times as you get them to sit down and help you compose entries for it.

I know that the information produced by my team will be consistent and is written in a similar enough style that it won’t ‘jar’ the reader. In other words, it doesn’t matter who wrote the information, it is all part of one larger set of documentation, with a similar tone, voice and style.

Aiming the information at the correct audience is a key part of deciding what the three attributes of tone, voice and style, should be, and it’s at this point that I find other departments starting to struggle. Without a clear idea of the audience, and with their own perception of what the message (the terminology) needs to be, there is a tendency to wander off message, and produce a document which, whilst perfectly good in isolation, doesn’t seem to fit into the overall set of product information.

So what type of information is this? Well it varies, and can be tracked through the customer (or company) journey and their interactions with your company and product. Broadly speaking there are four levels, all of which need to be talking to the correct audience, and ideally should be providing the same message in a consistent manner.

  1. First up there is an introduction, a high level chat about our product and what it can do. This is typically a mix of marketing brochures, website collateral, and sales presentations.
  2. The next level of interaction delves a little deeper into the business benefits and key selling points of the product, and can start to touch on product features and capabilities.
  3. After that, there is a need to provide a level of technical information, outlining the architecture and fundamental design of your product, detail the full set of capabilities, and provide reassurance around any potential implementation issues that may arise.
  4. And then we get to product documentation, training material, and ongoing support and maintenance information.

Four levels of information, all of which should be saying the same thing about the product, regardless of what message that is.

It would be wrong to say that each level is unique, as each interaction your company has with a customer will vary, but largely speaking the four levels allow anyone who is creating information to better understand their audience. Add in a Product Glossary to ensure terminology is consistent, and a strong product message and there is no reason why any of the content being produced cannot be consistent.

Mapping these levels to the amount of content available at each level gives us the following:

pyramid


Of course this is a very simplistic model, but as a starting point, it at least provides the mechanism for anyone about to create new content to pause and consider the audience. So whilst you could add in several levels, and several different mappings of document types, I think it’s better to leave things a little open to question as that helps bring a better understanding of why the content is being produced in the first place.

I first introduced this model to my current company several months ago, and we are currently revisiting this to make sure it is still a good fit to our needs. The next step for me is beefing up our Product Glossary, and then we can get on with the thornier issue of document management, an intrinsic part of having a Content Strategy for your company.

Change of scenery

Having a few days off, I had it in the back of my mind to do some writing. Nothing particularly serious but just to write and see what happened.

The problem I had was getting rid of distractions. If I sit at my desk, then there is always a wee pile of things to get done, various notes and other detritus to distract my attention … ohh that reminds, I need to order a replacement bank card, ack! see how easy it is.

I use programs like Q10 (for the PC) and WriteRoom (for the Mac) to help remove onscreen distractions, but I realised I need a cleaner physical space as well.

Until such times as I can completely clear out my ‘office’, I decided to relocate to the living room, and sit with the laptop at dining table. No distractions there, well not once I’d gotten rid of the ever curious cat.

And, a couple of hours later I sat back and metaphorically patted myself on the back, having written a couple of ‘chapters’ for that writing website of mine, as well as a couple of posts that just need a final edit before they can go up on my other blog.

I also felt a good deal more relaxed having gotten that particular monkey off my back, and I’ve got plans tomorrow to really gut my office space so I can achieve similar results in the future.

Now, where did I put the bin bags?

Chapter 5

As he walks towards the entrance the nerves swell in his stomach. He remembers a phrase his Dad used for such occasions, “healthy fear” he used to called it, uttering it before every football game, exam and even on the night of his first date.

He reaches for the doorknob just as the door swings open, and a tall dark haired girl totters past him, heels clicking on concrete. He turns his head to catch a final glimpse of her as he steps forward through the open door.

The dull light of the corridor mirrors the smell of age and he wonders again why he is here, why he said yes after all those strange questions, why he found himself accepting the job without fully understanding what it entails. At the far end of the corridor a small light flickers and he walks toward it.

Upstairs, sitting behind a large dark wood desk sits an ageing man. He has been sitting there for some time now, quietly contemplating the past, considering his future and has come to realise how soon the end will come, far sooner than he’d been told. He accepts his fate willingly as he knew it would arrive someday and so he counts off the hours, then the minutes until his death. Quiet solace that he has done all that has been asked of him.

He knows that by the end of this day his chair will be filled by another, a younger man, fresh and confused, just as he was on his first day in this strange job. He smiles as he recalls his first day, the nerves building in that long elevator ride to the 31st floor, the slow steps along the creaking wooden corridor and can almost feel the weight of the door to the very office in which he now sits.

He listens intently and recognises the faint rattle of the elevator door opening, hears every groan and croak of each footstep, and finds himself holding his breath, his eyes fixed on the cold metal doorknob as it slowly starts to turn.

“Ummm hello?” says a voice from the other side of the door, “anyone here?”

“Come on young man, the door is not locked”.

The door swings open and, finally, the office is complete.

Standing in the doorway, Alan looks around the cramped office, bookshelves piled high and at the centre of the mayhem a large wooden desk, behind which sits Mr.Bachman.

“Ohh hi Mr.Bachman, sorry if I’m a bit late, but there aren’t any signs so … yeah I wasn’t sure I had the right office..”, nervously he glances round the tiny room.

“Ahh, but you found your way here nevertheless, a good start I think, yes yes, a good start. Now tell me, have you had breakfast? Would you like some coffee, perhaps? Or are you a man who likes to charge onwards, I think, yes yes, I think perhaps you are, so please sit and let us talk of this place”.

And so they sit, both men, young and old, at opposites sides of the desk and so the story begins.

Time off

Being off work for the next few days, giving me a nice long weekend, means I have time to get some stuff done around the house, and more importantly some time to myself to chill out.

The last few weeks have been pretty stressful at work and at home, and part of me would quite like to just lock the door, pulled the blinds and hide away. That’s the selfish part of me, and I try not to succumb to it too much, not that I get much of a chance to anyway, there’s always something else that needs attended to, something else that must get done, and someone else we need to visit.

Anyhoo, I have no real plans, just a desire to have some ‘me’ time. See you on the flipside!