Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why I'm Not a Technical Writer--
And as Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Not that there'd be anything wrong with that." But I need to regroup and get my strategist hat back on here at my day job, and I feel the need to articulate and summarize what it is I do as a User Assistance Architect that is different from what I did as a technical writer.

I seem to spend more time building models than producing documents. I do task analysis, just as a technical writer would do, but I seem to be less interested in "what a user needs to do" as much as "what would a user need to know?" And beyond that, I abstract one more level to "what kinds of information does a user need?"

I define patterns a lot. We have a department Wiki and I have a published pattern language I follow in posting patterns to our Wiki. By the way, I have an article coming out in the January/February issue of Interactions, the SIGCHI magazine. That issue will be a special topic issue edited by Fred Sampson focusing on User Assistance. My article is entitled "A pattern language approach to user assistance" (so much for coy titles). I hope folks get a chance to read it. I will be doing a presentation on this same topic at the WritersUA conference in Long Beach in March.

I wireframe a lot. I never did that as a technical writer, and frankly, I don't see a lot of technical communicators doing that. Wireframes let me model how the user assistance will behave. One reason we don't do a lot of that as technical communicators is that we are bound by the authoring tools. But that is tied into the model that Help is a separate application. As we get into more interactive models where user assistance is blended into the application, we need to wireframe how that works. Wireframing and use case modeling are two nifty disciplines I picked up while working as a UX designer at my previous job.

But I don't do a lot of use case modeling, and I'm not sure why not. Perhaps the pattern language approach fills the need that use cases did when I was designing UIs. But the other day, I did find myself looking at wireframes and asking about alternate and exception cases, so the discipline is still there and seems to influence me.

Content Management and Publishing Technologies
I spend a lot of time researching how we can author, store, retrieve, compile, and display information. Five years ago I would have been thinking about writing and publishing documents.

And somewhere in all that will eventually come architecture and tools.

Thanks for your patient ear. I'm stoked again.

My job is (1) to understand how our users apply information to their tasks, (2) how best to structure and deliver that information within the contexts of those tasks, and (3) how to author and manage that information so that it can be meet 1 and 2.

I gotta get to work!

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