Monday, September 22, 2008

New Column

I have a new column out today on called Use Cases for User Assistance Writers. The subtheme might be "Everything old gets new again at some point."

Quote of the week from Lisa Pappas at the STC board meeting this weekend. "Verbing weirds words."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Good news, bad news

Language! What a tricky thing--and once again I am in awe of the ability of technology to make me smarter. I used the word "bellweather" in an email to someone today and my spell checker informed me that it should be "bellwether." I had always assumed that a "bellweather" referred somehow to a bell that rang in strong wind and therefore was an indicator of impending weather, and hence its more metaphorical use as a trend indicator. The corrected spelling made me doubt whether (no pun intended) or not I understood the word so I cut and immediately pasted it in my Wiki search widget on my default browser page. Oh my:

A bellwether is any entity in a given arena that serves to create or influence trends or to presage future happenings.

The term is derived from the Middle English bellewether and refers to the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) leading its flock of sheep. The movements of the flock could be perceived by hearing the bell before the flock was in sight.

Well, the next time you're thinking about whether to be a leader or a follower, you might want to keep that castrated ram thing in mind.

Monday, September 08, 2008

I should have paid more attention in geography class

Well, I finally ran out of bottled water and canned beans, so I emerged from my duct-taped basement ready to fight for my life and country against the Russian invaders. Well, am I embarrassed! It seems there's a whole country somewhere also named Georgia, and it was invaded, not my state. I need to become more global.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Collaborative Walkthroughs

A quick shoutout to Miranda Bennett for her blog on collaborative walkthroughs. Can't afford usability tests, team building exercises, or training for your writers? Try these walkthroughs and see if you don't get addicted.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Congrats to Jimmy Wales

Fresh from STC News and Notes: "Jimmy Wales, the founder and creator of Wikipedia, has been selected as STC’s 2009 Honorary Fellow."

I expect this announcement to create its own share of controversy. STC's top honor going to someone who cuts technical communicators out of the loop?

Well, we're out of the loop only if we choose to be out of the loop. One way to define Wikipedia is as a technology intervention to connect people with answers to people with questions. Sounds like technical communication to me. I think Wikipedia is an icon to where we are going as a profession: less about grammar and style guides and more about presenting information as performance support; less about creating content and more about orchestrating the distribution of that content.

It doesn't mean we will quit writing, quit editing, or quit publishing. It's just that like the passing of the literary clergy of days gone by, we are no longer the exclusive keepers of the book.

But just in case Wales' honor adds to your angst already brought on by offshore non-native writers, machine translators, mechanical spelling and grammar checkers, and you're wondering about the need for technical communicators--there are a few areas we can focus on that will let us add value above and beyond our commodities that are getting eroded:
  • User analysis as problem analysis and information as performance/decision support, i.e., what does the user need to know in order to make an informed decision at this point in her work flow
  • Dynamically generated user assistance (If can figure out my reading preferences and Google can guess what ads I'm most likely to respond to, why can't my Help track where my user has been, what system configurations she has set and give her tailored Help. Why does my Help say "If you are in Routing mode do this; if you are in Transparent mode do that." Why doesn't the application tell the Help what mode the user has configured and deliver a dynamic Help page that gives only the appropriate information?)
  • Integrating our communication skills to improve the design and development process, as in use case development
At any rate, job well done, Jimmy, and thanks to a forward-looking selection committee for making Mr. Wales an Honorary Fellow.