Tag: <span>Technical Communicators</span>

I don’t know about you but I’m getting fed up trying to make everyone realise the value of what we do. Technical Communicators of the world unite!

Why is it so darn hard? Isn’t it obvious? We live in a so-called “information age” after all, so why is it such a struggle to get the message across?

So, for the meantime, I’ve stopped.

My team currently has a separate stream of work looking at how we get better at PR and whilst that runs its course I’ve decided to deploy a different tactic, one which has fallen into my lap. No more will I go cap in hand to department heads, no more will I try to coax, nudge and cajole others into understanding why product information is so important. I won’t roll out the usual reasons, and I will save my “part of the product life-cycle” spiel.

You see, we’ve been receiving requests from different parts of the organisation, based on some work we did in the past. Lots of people are looking for help. At the moment, all of the team are busy but I’m going to pick one of the requests and find a way to get it actioned. That way we will get a quick win and increase our profile a little (it really is great to be part of such a good team, their work speaks for itself) and it should give us an ‘in’, an opportunity to build a relationship with a different part of the business, learn how they work and in time expand what we do as part of our service to them.

Land and expand. Simple really.

At present I know there are many areas of the company producing content. I also know that many of them would benefit from our input, just as I know we don’t currently have the resource and, without a lot of up front research I’m not sure I would be able to guess at what resource would be required to cover the current requirements. Creating the business case to expand operations would take time, and even then a lot of the effort goes into educating people as to why consistent, reliable, re-usable product information is a “good thing”.

With that in mind, getting a foot in the door (landing) before getting involved and agreeing a level of delivery for the future (expanding) seems the most sensible way forward. It allows us to get a feel for where we can best be involved and over time we can increase our influence, and standing, within the company.

Now, where I can buy some ninja costumes?

Work

One of the reasons I started this blog was as a way of exploring my thoughts about our profession, from specific issues to wider themes. It’s only been going a few years, but I’ve learned a lot since then both writing here, and reading the thoughts of other bloggers in this industry.

I live and work in Scotland, far from the thriving centre of capitalism that is London and the surrounding areas, M4 corridor and the like. There aren’t all that many Technical Communicators in this neck of the woods so blogging helps me keep up to speed with the latest trends, and with fellow technical communicators.

I don’t really have much other motive than that, to be honest, so I was more than a little surprised to find out that I’ve been included in a list of the 25 Most Influential Technical Communicator Bloggers and, looking at some of the names on the list, I’m hugely flattered to be there.

Work

Are you bored of all this talk of social media? Still not quite sure what it’s all about or why you should bother with it? What IS an Information Platform anyway?

Maybe an eSeminar or two would help?

As I mentioned last month, Adobe sponsored a supplement for the ISTC Communicator magazine, in which four very handsome* and wonderfully talented** gentlemen put forth their ideas and thoughts on social media in various guises.

Caveat: I may be one of said gentlemen.

Since then, Adobe has setup two eSeminars to allow each of us to expand on our articles and hopefully get some more excitement and buzz about social media into the Technical Communications industry.

The first eSeminar took place on Tuesday this past week, and there will be a recording available soon (I’ll post the link here). David Farbey and Noz Urbina talk up a storm and offer some good advice on how and why social media offers a great opportunity for technical communicators, it’s well worth a listen.

The second eSeminar, featuring yours truly and the velvet tones of RJ Jacquez, is happening on Tuesday next week. I’ll be covering why you should consider blogging as a route to starting a conversation with your customers, and RJ will outline some thoughts on the possibilities that social media brings to our profession.

Exciting times, and I’ll add one more link to keep you all going. Yes I’ve mentioned it before but if you have queries on whether this social media thing is worth all this noise then this book will answer your questions, and stimulate your mind (and the author, Anne Gentle, is keynote speaker at this years UA Conference.

* may not be true

** is mostly true

Work

These are transcribed from my hastily written scrawls throughout the day.

Smart Authoring for a Smarter Planet
The keynote presentation by Peter Angelhides

Set the tone well for bigger thinking about our profession, broadening the scope to the world wide consumption of information and how it can be processed intelligently.

Information for your products is useful both for existing users and for future customers. Don’t lock it away, let Google find it and then follow the links back, find other sources, other places where conversations about your product are happening. Information allows this, product usage doesn’t.

Everybody’s (not) doing it: is it really OK to keep ignoring document users?
by David Farbey

“Documentation is an asynchronous conversation” – Ginny Redish (from her book)

Training are usually separate from Docs, suggest either moving Training (we have!) or requesting debriefs after training sessions.

“Developer Mirror” is all too common – aka The Curse of Knowledge (you forget how much you didn’t know, so presume everyone knows things you know).

“The conversation needs to be focussed on what both parties want to improve”.

If you can write an article, you can write anything
by Kim Schrantz-Berquist

Applying Journalism techniques to writing
Using “5Ws & 1H” (Who what when where why and how) forces specifics and may end up change the subject of what you are writing about.

Inverted Pyramid – get the 5Ws and 1H into the first paragraph, top loading the information.

Use the “Stop reading test” to determine if it is working. How far down the page can you stop and feel comfortable you know the 5Ws and 1H?

Google Earth help manual uses hourglass technique, toploads information, then has area for user to choose what to do next, then has more detail/facts.

Good way to present Support Notes?

www.how-to-write.org

Paths to success: Networking and Contributing
by Linda Urban

Build your network and Make a contribution – these are the strings and glue of being successful.

Connection with people, conversations are where it all happens.

Visual Attention: A psychologist’s perspective
by Dr Chris Atherton

Attentionomics. Gestalt.

Extraneous cognitive load so less is more (see Nurnberg Funnel on minimalism in documentation)

Magic number is 4 (recent studies show), not 7 plus/minus 2!

We have two parts to the brain, one deals with audio processing, one deals with visuals. Both work at the same time (which is why we enjoy videos/webcasts so much), but quickly max out when we are only processing one type of information (which is why reading is tiring).

Without Hot Air
by Niall Mansfield

Discussed how information was presented in the book (which outlines real solutions for combatting global warming).

Book is available through Creative Commons to download.
Drafts were posted to blog to drive discussion. Aim was to share the information as it was public spirited content.

The secrets of Telepathy
by Justin Collinge

A double session covering ways to to communicate better by understanding how other people process information.

Filtering in effect – aural vs visual – McGurk effect, video on YouTube.

Looked at a variey of filters (aka meta-programming) including Direction (away from vs towards), Relationship (similarities vs difficulties) and Frame of Reference (internal vs external).

Audience of documentation will cover all types, yet we usually only write for one. Taking a set of instructions; it’s usually aimed at completing something successfully, but what of the people who like comparisons, or who want to make sure that something DOESN’T happen (troubleshooting info?)

Similarites – 70% of people start with these, emphasise these first then cover differences

Can write opening sentences which cover differences & similiarities, and ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ views – this matches the inverted pyramid writing style.

Future Vision of Technical Communicators
by RJ Jacquez

“Social media has redefined communication”

What makes an experience engaging? Accessible, Collaborative, Compelling, Easy to use, Personalised, Responsive.

Build experiences that engage your audience

Digital users are here (Grown Up Digital by Don Tapscott)

Socialnomics by Erik Qualman

Social networks have overtaken pron as the number 1 industry online.

SideWiki – comment on ANY website, no opt out. The conversation is happening now, whether you like it or not.

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I’m utterly failing in my attempt to make this a weekly feature on this site. Maybe I should cut it down a little, thoughts and comments are appreciated.

Writing an Interface Style Guide
Some handy tips for what to include in any user interface guidelines document:

Interface style guides are extremely useful to define best practices for design and development. However, keeping that information updated and functional is imperative. A glossary, an index, references, acknowledgments, etc., are among some of the supplementary details you can add to make the style guide as helpful as possible.

A Climate of Fear among Technical Communicators?
Prompted by a panel in the recent STC Summit, Ben Minson outlines some basic tenets of employment which, whilst we all know them, bear being repeated:

I think protection lies in being inventive. If management and your peers see that you go beyond the bare minimum and the mediocre because you’re interested in what you’re doing, they’ll see value. If you invent in order to solve problems and to benefit your team and the organization, they’ll see value.

Interestingly, this aspect of professional life raises some issues, some of which were encountered by Anne Gentle at the STC 2008 Summit.

STC2008 – Wrap up STC Summit trip report
Anne heard a couple of similar issues during the summit (as well as a lot of other great stuff), but she noted that:

proving that [an] idea needs to be implemented in the first place means understanding how to convince management of the value.

It seems to be something we all struggle with, providing ROI to back up our reasoning behind choices of tool and technology. Which brings me neatly to the next post…

What is the Best Metric to Measure the Success of Your Reuse of DITA Topics?
Of course you’ll have to have provided enough evidence to at least get a pilot project or proof of concept off the ground, but if you have, how do you get the most from the data you are capturing. Bill Hackos suggests you should measure the percentage of repository words that are reused in context:

The ratio of the repository content to the produced content metric works at the content level rather than at the topic level. This metric is proportional to actual costs because translation is charged by the word, and maintenance costs are proportional to the volume of content rather than to the number of topics.

I’m not a huge fan of such quantitative measures but sometimes needs must. The article mentions some other possible metrics, and if you are considering a single source rollout give it a look as it will spark some thoughts I’m sure.

Finally a couple of quick links that do exactly what they say on the tin:

Blogging

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Revisiting an old post over on the Cherryleaf blog, where Ellis was prompted to ask “Can technical authors be part of ‘the conversation’ in the connected Web 2.0 world that’s emerging?” (excuse the paraphrasing).

As a long-term blogger, and someone who believes that there are many tools in the Web 2.0 world that can and should be embraced by technical communicators, I immediately started thinking about this. It’s taken until now for me to distill my rambling thoughts into something coherent. Mainly because it’s a fairly open-ended topic, and because his post includes several questions:

  1. If we are going to be part of the conversation, will we be let in?
  2. What would make people do that?
  3. Once we are in the conversation how can we best add value to that conversation?
  4. Will engaging with a community in a social networking environment create a new and better way of providing user assistance?
  5. Will social networks create an opportunity for technical communicators to eavesdrop a conversation as well as take part of it?
  6. Will the rise of streaming websites both for audio and video such as YouTube enable technical communicators to be more viral in their efforts to provide effective user assistance?
  7. Will technical communicators see snippets of their technical information embedded in other people’s Web pages?
  8. Might the lines between technical support and technical authors start to cross over?

I left a comment on the Cherryleaf blog, which I’ll expand on here, but the jist was that I think Technical Communicators are (can be, should be) the social web of the workplace.

However, I guess we first need to understand what we mean when we refer to the “the conversation in the connected Web 2.0 world”. The fact that you are reading this blog suggests that you are already au fait with the Web 2.0 world, and are probably familiar with the popular commenting system most blogs have. That is one part of the conversation, a direct dialogue with the author and with others who have an opinion on the current topic. Now, take that conversation, expand it on your own blog, mention it in your Facebook, add a publically shared link to your del.icio.us account, or even link to it using Twitter… all of those expand the conversation by increasing the audience. There are other examples but you get the gist, the Web 2.0 world allows multiple discussions, centred around one conversation, to take place in different places, with different people and provides them ALL with a way to find out what everyone else is saying.

Needless to say, information is the key component of these discussions, and it is at this point that you realise just how valuable that information has become. Because information is now passed around, diluted, distilled and deconstructed, then rebuilt, reposted and reworked, in multiple places by multiple people with multiple aims, then the person who is central to that information becomes a V.I.P. indeed.

Whether we like it or not, our primary role SHOULD become information guardians. That will mean less writing, and more knowledge/information management and architecture. It will mean a shifting of skill sets towards new areas, where there is no best practise only gut feel, and the embracing of openness. Information will still need to be filtered, focussed and published, but once you’ve set it free, you’ll also need to nurture it as it develops. The delivery of information, naturally, becomes paramount.

We are the ONLY people (in the IT space) that can fill this role properly, and so getting a foot on the rung now will stand us in good stead. Embracing Web 2.0, and thinking about content rather than documents is a small step but a vital one.

So, let’s revisit those questions:

  1. If we are going to be part of the conversation, will we be let in?
    Why are we waiting for an invite? Perhaps the future of technical communications models itself on sales and marketing rather than the technical departments. If WE want this, WE need to grab it.
  2. What would make people do that?
    Convincing others of the growing value of information is paramount. Those that get it will embrace the change and happily let us push the conversation forward, those that don’t will flounder.
  3. Once we are in the conversation how can we best add value to that conversation?
    By monitoring it, gently tweaking it, and making sure it has a useful life, wherever it is. This may mean collaborating with your competitors, it may mean sourcing information externally, but as long as you remember that the conversation is a big value-add to the information, then you won’t go far wrong.
  4. Will engaging with a community in a social networking environment create a new and better way of providing user assistance?
    Yes. How can it not? Is it better to lock away your information, leave the users to stumble around for their own solutions and create a distrust of the information you provide, or be open, honest and provide assistance as and where needed, realising the value, power and benefits of having a thriving user community?
  5. Will social networks create an opportunity for technical communicators to eavesdrop a conversation as well as take part of it?
    Yes and no. Yes, you will be able to eavesdrop but I’d encourage that to only be used in the “monitoring” sense. Get involved, ask your own questions, post your own thoughts.
  6. Will the rise of streaming websites both for audio and video such as YouTube enable technical communicators to be more viral in their efforts to provide effective user assistance?
    Possibly. I would argue that information shouldn’t be viral but expected. However, it may be a useful way of raising awareness and kick starting the conversation in the first place.
  7. Will technical communicators see snippets of their technical information embedded in other people’s Web pages?
    Yes. Why not? It’s not “your” technical information really, it’s information for the uses of your product. In fact, if you DON’T see this happening then the conversation is failing.
  8. Might the lines between technical support and technical authors start to cross over?
    Yes. There are already signs that this is happening. Ultimately, a conversation friendly company won’t care WHO is doing the talking, as long as the conversation is taking place.

There does seem to be a trend in our profession to expect things to happen a certain way, only for them to pass us by in favour of others. Ellis makes the point that Technical Communicators should’ve been more involved during the rise of Intranets, yet that never happened. The same may be happening already, with the Web 2.0 conversation already taking place. Yes, that’s right. Somewhere, people are already talking about you and your product. It may be on their blog, in a Wiki or forum, or maybe it’s all hidden away in emails and instant messages. Regardless, the conversation has already started.

So go and find these people, get to know them, make friends, chat a little. Understand what they want, find out what they are discussing and contribute.

Join the conversation.

Work

Christmas looms large, and the days are “fair drawing in” as they say in these parts. I’m taking a couple of weeks off to relax and recharge, and no doubt to eat, drink and be (very) merry. As ever this time of year is pretty hectic, so here are few things that caught my eye over the past couple of weeks.

10 Word to avoid in your writing
A short list but the main point is to avoid gobbledygook. One of my pet peeves is the use of long words when a perfectly valid, shorter, word is available. The Plain English website has some excellent advice if you want to find out more.

No-one reads the help anyway

the next time you hear someone say, “No one reads the help anyway,” say, “Yah, no one uses Google either.”
This will lead to a puzzling follow-up question — What do you mean? I use Google all the time.
Then you say, What do you use Google for? To search for answers, solutions, and information when you have questions?

Like some of the commenters, I disagree with this a little. At a simple level it works, but there are flaws. However, as an opening gambit I think it’s a good one. It will make people stop and think, and once you have them thinking about it THEN you can explain the more subtle differences.

AuthorIT Yahoo Group Search
I’m listing this here so I don’t lose it again. Yahoo Groups are great but the search engine frequently falls over. MANY many thanks to Hamish for providing this resource, this is the kind of thing that makes the Internet great.

Building a successful web community

Do not assume that a community, particularly a successful web community, is easily built from the one ingredient of a shared interest – ensure there is also a goal or a purpose in the mix.

Very true. I know that some Technical Communicators are starting to thinking beyond user documentation, and the next step may well be to nurture online communities around your product. This article has some good tips, and I can vouch for them all having struggled to setup a Scottish Blogging site myself.

Technical Communicators and UI Design
Scott Nesbitt spotted an article about User Interface Design and a particular section caught his eye. It states that the documentation must be considered as part of the design, and Scott goes on to say:

“technical communicators need to get involved not only in the design and usability of an interface, but also how users will access documentation from within the interface.”

I couldn’t agree more with this, and recently I’ve been pushing my team to think along these lines, realising that we work with, and develop, “information” rather than “documents” meaning we need to have a greater sphere of influence.

To coin a phrase, we are the interface to the interface.

Blogging

OK, fixed the counter code.

Ohh and whilst I remember, and I might post this on a discussion group somewhere, how many people who actively use web resources are Technical Communicators, e.g. people who are not design websites but information products? Just curious. I’ve also just remember that I meant to check up on the progress of a Help standard for web. Can’t remember who was chairing it, but it’ll be listed somewhere on the W3C site.

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