Friday, March 30, 2007

There's a new name on the scene that you should be looking out for (in about twenty years or so).

Ella Pari Hughes, born at 7:29 this morning, 20 inches, 6 pounds 12 ounces.

Fortunately, she gets her incredible good looks from her parents and not from her grandfather (moi).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I've created a new term, chinking, to mean:
  • Breaking a topic into atomic chunks and then making the user get to them through individual links. Also,
  • Chunking these mini-links into a page of virtually nothing but links (typically introduced with an anemic stem sentence)

Essentially, it's Information Mapping as practiced on the planet Bizzarro.

Structured writing approaches, such as Information Mapping and DITA, assert that a topic should be self contained. That means that it has to have enough depth and breadth to satisfy a reasonable need for information. Some user assistance writers take modularity to too granular a level and thus undermine the ability for a topic to stand on its own.

Chunking good.

Chinking bad.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Is It Help or Is It a Pop Quiz?--
I love the Southern expression, "Bless their hearts." It's kind-hearted, but with a tinge of self-righteous superiority. As in, "They're doing the best they can, bless their hearts." It's also sympathetic with no commitment to be helpful. As in, "Can't log into the critical network drive that has all your work stored on it? Bless your heart." I think error messages should end with it. "System 404 error, website can't be found, bless your heart."

I went into a Help file recently trying to get help about an application. I used the context-sensitive link expecting to learn more about the page I was on. I got a page with an anemic stem sentence with seven links. I wasn't quite sure which one would help me so I guessed and clicked one. It expanded into five more links. They were trying their best to help me, bless their hearts.

But my response was not one of gratitude. What I wanted to say was, "Hey, who's supposed to be asking the questions, me or you?" Since the Help screens that were being 'anything but' were part of a Help system I am working on, I get to roll up my sleeves and do something about it.

So we are now working on a new architecture, one that emphasizes giving useful information on the first click and then offering a simple, two-path fork: One that gets the user directly to the task information (procedure) and one that takes the user to a guidelines topic. Each of those topics can have more links on them (for example, extended background topics linked from the guidelines topic), but by then the users are smarter and can understand their choices better.

On simple screens, we can make either the guidelines topic or the task topic part of the initial information screen. (In those cases, if the UI is self-explanatory, consider making the guidelines topic the first topic and link to the task topic from it.) On complex, multitask screens, such as multitab screens, the Help link could open a topic that has a Tab/Description table. For each tab description, provide the double link, i.e., task or guideline.

  • Don't make the users click through a link farm before they get to anything useful. Give them insight into the application at their entry point into the Help system.
  • Don't overload the user with decisions at their entry point into the Help system. Expand their choices as they travel the drill-down path.
In short, the user is rarely better served by adding choices to a cognitive load that is already being taxed (they clicked on Help for a reason). Be parsimonious with links and give new information or insight at every click.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Atlanta Currents a Big Energizer for Me--
I freely admit that I went to this year's Atlanta STC Currents with low expectations. I'm not sure why. As it turned out, I left more excited and energized than from any international conference I've ever attended. The three sessions I attended demonstrated leading edge thinking that I just wasn't anticipating at a local conference (Jack Massa's report on a usability assessment project, Holly Harkness's panel discussion combining perspectives of industry practitioners and academics, and Jennifer Bowie's presentation on the declining interest in research). The keynote by the new STC Executive Director, Susan Burton, was best summarized by Dirk Bender, "There's a new sheriff in town."

What's my point? Go to your regional conferences. The class acts and presentations you get at the international conferences are speaking at the regionals. For example, George Hayhoe, editor of the STC journal Technical Communication, will be doing a presentation on Knowledge Management 101 at the Summit conference in May. George used Currents as a warm-up for that presentation.

But best of all for me was the interaction I had with other technical communicators as we talked about the "bigger issues" that face our profession and not just the daily grind of "can you get Notes working today?" It was a delightful serving of brain food and caffeine for my professional motivation.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Column Debut--
I now have a regular column in UXMatters called "User Assistance: Putting Help in Context." By the way, if you ever catch yourself wondering what an editor does, read my raw blogs on a subject and then read what eventually shows up in UXMatters. (Thanks, Pabini)

This Saturday is Atlanta STC Currents. Y'all come out.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Chris Anderson and I were having lunch this week...
Not at the same table, mind you. He was at the VIP table at the front of the room and I was sitting half a football field away. But I did get to hear Chris speak at the Technology Association of Georgia conference, Innovation 2.0. Mr. Anderson is the editor of Wired magazine and creator of the long tail view of market distributions. Just as Lynyrd Skynyrd cannot do a concert without doing "Sweet Home Alabama" Chris did his obligatory spiel on the long tail. But then he got into his latest passion, the econonomy of abundance.

Scarcity vs. Abundance
Old thinking is about scarcity; new thinking is about abundance. Scarcity thinking told us bandwidth was scarce (so we kept web page content free of bandwidth hogs like graphics and video). New thinking says bandwidth is abundant (can you say "YouTube?").

At any rate, before it too late to say "to make a long story short," I pondered what kind of scarcity thinking might I be engaged in that was limiting my user experience and user assistance designs. I realized that I have always operated on the assumption that real estate on the user interface was limited. If I were to think in terms of abundance, I should consider the real estate on the user interface as being infinite. As I was chuckling to myself over that in my worldly-wise chuckle (hard to convey in text but imagine listening to a cynical Jack Nicholson playing a curmudgeonly tech comm professor just hearing a fresh-eyed, perky student say that improved instructions on the sides of shampoo bottles could make the world a better place) when it occurred to me--duh, the real estate on the UI is infinite! I apologize to my esteemed colleague at CheckFree, Jeff Zimmerman, who spent the better part of two years trying to teach me this for my presenting this realization as if I thought it up in my own little brain. I didn't. But I just got it.

Technologies such as AJAX and techniques such as using portions of the screen that we know the user doesn't need at that moment and progressively disclosing information to a user on an as-needed basis can essentially remove the artificial boundaries of a display's two-dimensional space.

But Chris Anderson points out that a new abundance creates a new scarcity. User attention is the new scarcity that I now worry about. It's not about fitting text into a two-dimensional space (that's the old scarcity thinking); it's now about metering information to the user on an as-needed basis.

Forget about book metaphors--arranging and sequencing information within 'pages'-- the new user assistance metaphor is the carburetor, that device in our cars that mixes fuel and air to maximize combustion and the amount of work we get out of the engine. How can we best meter information to the user so that their performance-on-task is maximized?