Thursday, November 29, 2007

Social Networking: 3 Lessons---
First off, since my primary audience is technical communicators, I know that the convention is that the numbers 1 through 10 are supposed to be spelled out, but usability studies have shown that digits are easier to scan and read than if the number is spelled out.

OK, social networking. I had a recent experience that personalized the risk companies run when they allow a heightened level of interaction on their web sites. I've had a pretty cozy relationship with a particular vendor over the past several years, contributing articles and testimonials, and even doing a presentation at a national conference that highlighted how I had used one of their products. I was searching their web site about a month ago because I needed to find a paper of mine that they had published, and while doing the search found a snippity comment someone had made about me. The vendor had used a quote from me about a product of theirs that I had helped Beta-test. The quote was on their product release page. Someone, in commenting on the product and the release notification, made fun of me because the quote included my PhD after my name. The comment seemed out of place since it did not deal with the product (the purpose of the forum) nor did it deal with my opinion of the product (which would have been fair game). The comment was ad hominem, that is, it attacked me, the person.

I emailed the webmaster and asked that the comment be removed. No answer. I sent an email to the VP of Marketing and got an answer that it would be removed in a few days. One month later it was still there. I sent a second email yesterday, this time copying the president. The VP answered saying it would be off by the end of day. She was good to her word; it's gone today.

The 3 Lessons
Lesson 1--for the person who made the comment. Professional forums are not MySpace. When we participate in these forums, we need to keep the maturity level above middle school. Stay on topic and add value to the professional community you are participating in.

Lesson 2--for me and anyone else engaging in forums, blogs, or other public domains. I was probably being thin-skinned and took more offense than I should have. Part of going public means you are going to be open to all kinds of criticism. I'm very used to my ideas and my writing being criticized. I guess I was not as prepared for someone to make fun of me because I include my professional credentials in my signature block.

Lesson 3--for companies that encourage customer forums. The VP said that the company was reluctant to edit comments lest they degrade the validity of the forum. I understand that; I even respect it. But when comments about customers who participate get unnecessarily personal, some degree of moderation is called for. If a company is going to operate a company-sponsored forum, it must monitor the posts and step in when folks start making fun of other participants. I have moderated many face-to-face meetings and this is the responsibility of the moderator. I think online discussions demand the same oversight.

There always have been and will be bullies in the school yard, you know, the mean kids who like to taunt others--even when the kids get older and the school yard exists in cyberspace. And we will always need a vigilant grown-up to step in periodically and make them stop.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What Brave New World...
I saw Beowulf this weekend in 3D on the iMax screen. Sweeeeet! It got me thinking this morning about how I would use 3D as an information architect if that effect became available at the PC level.

It turned out to be a more challenging question than I thought it would be. My first inclination was to use it to emphasize text, imagining turning on "track changes in 3D" to see where an editor had changed text. Or to have search terms in a document float above the subtext. But we can already accent that information with color and other typographic effects. Then of course I thought of pop ups and layered windows, but again, we emulate 3D today for these effects. Having a 3D display just makes it look sexier.

Graphs could be cool, as well as typological maps, where elevation of data carried new content, not just a pleasing effect. Yes, graphs would be cool, especially if you could rotate the 3D graph and look at it from different angles. But these are graphic effects, and I'm a word guy. It still left me pondering what would I do with 3D as a writer, other than just make it a sexier alternative to using italics, color, underscoring, or boldface. "Oooh look, the term in this definition looks like it's floating."

How could information design benefit from a 3D display?
Well, let's back up a little and ask how information design benefits from 2D. Most information is rendered in one dimension with letters being combined in a sequence defined by placement along a single axis. You might think of this discourse you are currently reading as being displayed in two dimensions, since your eyes move along both an x and a y axis, but that is just an artifact of word wrap. This entire blog entry could be rendered on a single line read from left to right without losing any information.

Then 2D comes into the picture with tables. The meaning of a block of text takes its context from the intersection of its row and its column. How could a third dimension be added to tables that would add a useful additional dimension for information? Let's build an example:

First, let's start with several one-dimensional documents that discuss the history of several countries. Since they are one dimensional, we structure them as tales told about each country in the chronological order in which the events occur. Want to know what happened in China in 4000 BC? Pick up the History of China document and look in the front. Want to know what happened in Japan last year? Pick up the History of Japan document and look in the back.

OK, now let's make it a 2D document. structured like a table. Each row will represent a country, and each column a century. Want to know what happened in China in the 18th century? Go to the China row and scan over to the 18th century column and there it is. Curious about what was going on in England at the same time? Scan up the column you're in until you get to the England row. Curious in general about if anything important might have happened in that century elsewhere? Just scan up and down that column. Whoa, here's an interesting occurrence in America at that time. What might have caused that? Lets just browse back in that row and look at the 17th century. OK, you get the point; 2D could make comparative history more relevant.

Let's take that same model and add a third axis, one that separates science, art, politics, and religion. We can zoom in and out depending on what aspect of a society we are interested in. Now that would be a cool use of 3D in an information design context.

OK, tag you're it. What would you do as an information designer if you could display your information products in 3D (and allow the user to manipulate the display along all three dimensions)?

BTW, give yourself low creativity points for any rendering of physical space in 3D. That is like so today!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Vendors as Stakeholders--
In my candidacy for 2VP for the Society of Technical Communication (STC), I have been using this blog to develop my platform. My central theme has been that STC should forge collaborative relationships among its principle stakeholders of practitioners, academics, vendors, and employers. In my blog on November 3, I discussed the role of academics, and today I would like to discuss the role of vendors.

The Tool Keepers and Trainers
Whereas the role of academics is to be the keepers of the body of knowledge and to be the educators, the role of vendors is to be the keepers of the tools and to be the trainers. This reveals an important aspect of my perspective on our profession: Tools are an important part of what we do and how we are defined as a profession. We are not merely the writers of content; our job is also to design and build the engines that deliver that content. We are a technology-based profession both in our content domains and in our production and delivery channels of that content.

By vendors, I mean those companies and individuals who sell to technical communicators and whose involvement in STC is largely motivated by a desire to be close to their market. Typical vendors are providers of tools such as Help Authoring Tools (HATs), Desk-top Publishing (DTP) systems, Content Management Systems (CMS), as well as services. These services can range from content translation to consultation and training. Conference sponsors that target technical communicators, such as WritersUA and DocTrain fall into the training and conference arena. Consultants are a more slippery category and I classify them as vendors or practitioners based on who's paying for their services. If the TechComm manager has brought them in to help formulate a CMS strategy, I see them as a vendor. If those same consultants do the same thing but for the director of engineering, I see them as practitioners (operating in a contract capacity).

As I have said in an earlier blog (October 31), I think STC has a great opportunity to bring vendors and academics together to serve the integrated need of helping practitioners build well designed solutions that work (all kinds of puns intended). Currently STC is doing some strong things in this area. Lloyd Tucker, the director of Education, has implemented vendor-sponsored webinars that seem to be very popular (given that the one I tried to sign up for filled up faster than a Hannah Montana concert). The active training presence we see by the vendors at our conferences is another example.

So my position is that tools are an important aspect of our profession. I already know more grammar rules than my readers do. My occasional lapse into using "display" as an intransitive verb or writing "Click on Submit" rather than "Click Submit" is not going to diminish my end user's ability to be successful with the products I support. But if I can't figure out how to use social networking technologies, XML-based authoring systems, and a really good content management system, my users will be handicapped with how well they can get to information that influences their success.

And that is where vendors step in. I want our STC to be a collaborative environment that helps practitioners and vendors connect in ways that make both sides more successful than if STC had not been there,

Monday, November 19, 2007

New Column on UXmatters--
I have a new column out today on UXmatters called Procedures: The Sacred Cow Blocking the Road. It's an updated version of a presentation I did ten years ago at the STC conference in Anaheim. Still topical, however. It deals with the basic mismatches between user behavior and the structure of stepped procedures. For example, procedures start at the beginning, users go to help in the middle.

Atlanta folks, I'm speaking at Tuesday's STC Atlanta chapter meeting. I'll be discussing an architecture called task-support clusters and will demonstrate a tool called Task Modeler during the presentation.

Y'all come.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Works as designed--
I did a webinar yesterday for STC on pattern language for managing usability knowledge. Every now and then I listen to myself during these presentations and hear something in a new way. Yesterday was one of those moments for me. What I said and what I understood with a renewed clarity was that any usability problem can be described as a mismatch among the following three forces:

  • What the user wanted to accomplish
  • What the user did
  • How the system responded

I can now see a strong parallel with John Carroll's definition of the human-computer system as comprising the the user context, the user interface, and the machine's architecture. It is the first item in these two lists, essentially the user goal, that drives the difference between "works as designed" and "this is something we've got to fix."

As an example, I did two searches this week where I misspelled the term I was searching for. One engine returned the message "No results found for usbility." Worked as designed! The other search engine returned the message "Did you mean usability?" Guess which search engine is my product of choice from here out.

Bugs are easy to find and fix. The user failed because the code failed. It's when the user fails but the code did exactly what we programmed it to do that we face usability issues. And it is precisely the fact that the code works is why it is sometimes hard to get people to fix these problems.

The solution is based in Carroll's system definition. The user context is part of the system, and all definitions of success and all test plans for the system must include this element. Error and ignorance are part of the human context and good system designs are programmed to deal with both.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

New Picture--
At 58, I did something for the first time yesterday; I had my portrait shot by a professional photographer. I was required to do so because I'm running for 2nd VP of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). In picking the final one I would use for my candidacy and on my web site, I spent a lot of time yesterday afternoon looking closely at myself.

What I like most about it are things you cannot see. Although it makes me look very mature and business like, I can visualize me sitting in the cluttered basement of the photographer, listening to the hip sound track he was playing, and holding what looked like a giant pizza platter in my lap to add a bronze glow to the shadowed side of my face. In a sense, it's a piece of performance art for me: an image to try to live up to while also a reminder not to take myself overly seriously. After all, I was sitting in a cluttered basement with a pizza tray in my lap.

Oh yes, after scrutinizing 26 pictures of myself yesterday, I did something else for the first time this morning. I was looking at myself in the mirror and then without thinking, I put my hands on my cheeks and tightened the skin until my wrinkles disappeared. And for a moment I thought...—nah, I'll stay the way I am, pizza pan and all.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I told Joe Welinsky the other day that I planned to avoid touching any "3rd rails" for a while in my candidate blogs, and here I am blogging about certification. But as Carol Barnum is fond of telling her students, "Writing is thinking." I believe blogging is a good way to sort out one's own thoughts while making yourself open to the influence of others. So here goes.

First of all, what is it?
Certification can mean a number of things. Some programs certify participants by having them go through a prescribed set of courses. PMI (Project Management Institute) is a good example of that model at the professional organization level. Others certify through regulatory examination, such as for CPAs. That model generates a lot of 3rd party training opportunities. The International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) certifies through inspection. Applicants submit a portfolio of artifacts and client endorsements that address specific areas of professional competency. I am familiar with that process first-hand, being a CPT (Certified Performance Technologist).

Certification differs by whom is being certified (programs or practitioners) and by who is doing the certification: commercial training organizations (such as WritersUA or HFI), academic institutions, or professional associations (Such as PMI and ISPI).

And certification can vary by professional status. Training organizations offer "certificates" to show completion of a workshop, and conferences offer "certification tracks" in specialized topics. Some academic institutions offer "certificates" as an academic credential that is bigger than a course but smaller than a diploma. Not all certifications are equal. In some cases, they warrant the recipients putting the certification as part of their professional title, as with CPA; in some cases they are cube decorations held up with push pins.

Cui bono?
As Cicero was famous for asking, "Who benefits?" A number of different stakeholders can benefit from certification programs. The most obvious in my mind is employers. Certification can be a yardstick by which to assess job applicants and by which to direct professional development among their current employees. Practitioners benefit by having an avenue for professional development that is compact and tailored toward working professionals. Professional societies benefit by having a value-add activity and revenue source. Lastly, academic institutions and training organizations can benefit by offering programs specifically aimed at certification.

So why haven't we done it?
We've been talking about certification for a long time and haven't done it as a profession. Does the fact that we haven't felt a serious enough need mean the idea lacks merit?

For one thing, the academic programs have been filling a significant portion of the need. Additionally, training vendors and conferences have also filled part of the need. And of course, the elephant in the room: the lack of an agreed-upon body of knowledge on which to base the certification criteria. (But I truly believe that elephant will be corralled in the next year or so.)

I personally think that the schools and training companies have successfully addressed entry-level certification. By that I mean that if someone were trying to get into technical communication, I would highly recommend any of the Masters or undergraduate programs I am familiar with. But what about the highly skilled and experienced professionals I work with, for example, who do not have a Masters degree? I'm not sure there is enough value in many of the programs for folks like that. Either their level is aimed at entry into the field, or their scope is too wide/too long for what many veteran practitioners need.

So what niche is not being met? I believe there could be an opportunity to certify "master technical communicators." By that I mean that STC could play a legitimate role that does not compete with its academic and vendor stakeholders by certifying when practitioners have reached a certain level of professional performance and knowledge.

Possible roles for STC in certification
STC is already in the business of peer recognition through its ranks of associate fellow and fellow. The criteria for these positions are aimed primarily at service to the profession, however, and not at performance within the professional requirements. I would recommend keeping the associate and fellow ranks exactly as they are, but we could have a certification rank, one whose criteria are based on professional achievement and standards of skills, knowledge, and performance.

We already have a method in place for handling one of the trickier aspects of that kind of certification: peer evaluation of job artifacts. We do that today through our publications competitions. We could incorporate competition achievement as part of a master technical communication certificate. Of course, that means we would have to make sure our competitions have a standard of rigor that is met, eventually requiring that certified master technical communicators be part of every chapter's competition oversight committee.

Another role for STC would be to offer training tracks and resources that could help toward advanced certification. But we need to be careful not to compete with academic programs and 3rd party training stakeholders who are doing a good job of meeting the needs of a large segment. Existing programs could be incorporated into the certification tracks where possible. Once again, however, if STC focused on master certification, I think there could be a legitimate niche there.

These are my current, somewhat un-vetted thoughts on a topic I will probably have to deal with over the next four years if elected. Please comment freely so that I understand the multiple perspectives on this topic.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Role of Academics in a Professional Society--
Part of my avowed platform in running for 2nd VP of STC is to help forge stronger, more collaborative relationships among the primary stakeholders of practitioners, academics, vendors, and employers within the field of technical communication. I'm starting with academics because, quite frankly, their contribution is what makes us a professional society rather than a trade association.

Academics contribute to our profession by doing the following:
  • Teaching the skills and knowledge required to be a practitioner in this field
  • "Keeping" the body of knowledge
  • Doing research that informs best practice
The obvious contribution that academics make is that they prepare incoming professionals in the core body of knowledge required to be a technical communicator. Additionally, they serve veteran practitioners wanting to upgrade their skills and knowledge to current practice or obtain extended skills in areas such as management.

Body of Knowledge
You want to get a roomful of academics thrashing, just say BoK. It's as much fun as watching technical writers argue about whether or not to capitalize sentence fragments in a bulleted list. I realize there is a great disparity between the gravitas of those two topics, but the principle is the same: I'm glad someone is worrying about this. The issue of the BoK for technical communication is in essence what drives an academic curriculum. Take a look at the courses that are offered in a degree program and that is a statement from that school about what it thinks the body of knowledge is. Granted, practitioners have a big stake in this discussion, but the truth is that our sisters and brothers in academia are the ones doing the heavy lifting.

Ah, we get to my pet corner of the world. As George Hayhoe and I say in our book, A Research Primer for Technical Communication, "Research in technical communication is not an activity conducted in a vacuum; it is generally initiated by a problem or need to understand a phenomenon related to technical communication." As a former usability consultant, UX designer, and design team lead, I am a strong advocate for "data-driven design." Research is the cornerstone of a data-driven approach. One of the issues I see within our profession, however, is that practitioners who are living with all kinds of problems that would benefit from data collection and analysis lack the research skills to construct valid studies and draw reliable conclusions. On the other hand, academics who do have those skills, often do not have access to authentic users and artifacts with which to conduct valid research and are often time-bound within semester-sized constraints. If only they belonged to the same club, one that could put the two together in meaningful collaborations. Hey wait...!

What do you think?
I would love to see comments on this blog, especially around the following two questions:
  1. What are other contributions of academics that I missed?
  2. What do academics want from STC?