Monday, October 27, 2008

Step away from the keyboard!

You know what never works out well? Letting technical communicators get involved in legal documents. When I do it I end up in tears; when I watch others do it I find myself shaking my head and saying "Bless their hearts."

We want it to be clear; lawyers want it to stand up in court. I've come to accept that there just is not much overlap in that Venn diagram.

Solution? Let them have their way.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Alphabet Soup--the comeback

I have decided to start including my CPT (Certified Performance Technologist) credentials after my name again. Click on the CPT logo in the left column to read a more extensive description of what being a CPT involves. I've had this certification for about eight years, but quit using the credentials a while back. I think I felt a little pretentious putting that many letters after my name. Aside from coming to accept myself unapologetically as the credential junkie I am, there are some other reasons I have chosen to do resume their display.

User assistance as performance support

As a writer (and I still see myself as a writer) there is a tendency to think of Help and other user assistance strategies as content, something to be packaged into containers and taxonomies. But Help is performance support, something to be delivered in the context of a user trying to do a task or accomplish a goal. Posting my CPT is a constant reminder to myself about what I really do.

Certification as a professional differentiator

I have been involved in the STC's efforts to evaluate whether our profession would be well served by a certification program, and I have become convinced we would. So showing my current certification is a way to support certification as a professional strategy. And in a tough economy, instead of standing on the side of the road with a sign that reads "Will communicate technically for food" I can now advertise "Will support performance for food."

Heck, for a beer I'll do both.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My Recession Strategy

Yikes, the economic news is certainly scary these days. So what do you do if you think layoffs are coming?

Get into the top third

Every boss right now is making a list, real or mental, that focuses on which employees are in the top third and which are in the bottom third. Get into the top third of that list by doing the following:
  • Add value in the areas that your boss will be evaluated on.
  • Make your boss's job easier/more pleasant.
Some examples for adding value:
  • Is your boss tasked with off-shoring certain aspects of the work and you've been the lone voice of reason in the wilderness pointing out the foolishness of such an endeavor? (Substitute the appropriate goal: implementing DITA, going to a new CMS, etc.) Step one: Shut up! Step two: Find ways to make it work.
  • Yeah, yeah, we're all about the user, yay user, but take a look at ways to cut development time, production costs, etc., and let your boss know what you're doing there as well.
Some examples for making your boss's job easier or more pleasant:
  • Be happy. Seriously, people would rather work with happy people than with chronic whiners.
  • Having personality conflicts with someone? Get over it or at least appear to. If someone is habitually whining about you and you have nothing bad to say in return, you make the top third, he makes the bottom third.
  • Having legitimate work conflicts? Stay positive and work through the solution.
  • When discussing issues with your boss, have a success path defined--don't tell them how the project will fail.
Remember, in a layoff, the decision as to who goes and who stays will be made for some rational reasons and some emotional reasons. Cover down on both.

One more thing...

Oh yeah, start going to your local STC chapter meetings. Never hurts to fire up the network before you need it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

It's a Coyote!

It's never too late to have a happy childhood.

As a boyscout, I was fascinated by the section in my handbook that talked about taking plaster castings of animal tracks. I imagined myself with my field kit, crouched over some track and painstakingly capturing it.

I guess it made my subliminal bucket list because a few weeks ago I went to the craft store and bought some plaster of Paris. In the meantime, I've been assembling various tools I would need and putting them in a canvas bag. This Saturday I ventured into the fields and riverbanks by my house to try to find a suitable paw print.

There it was in the red clay, a solitary paw print of what I hoped would be a coyote (we have them in my neighborhood). In my heart, I realized it was probably Cowboy, my neighbor's dog, but a print is a print and I needed the practice. I flicked and blew the debris out of the print, paper-clipped my cardboard strips around it to make a mold, mixed the plaster with water, and carefully poured it into the mold. To my astonishment, the flimsy mold held up. I dutifully let it set for forty minutes and then pulled it up. After a bit of a struggle, it came. It took a while to get the excess clay off of it. (I looked like a CSI guy with my assortment of brushes and toothpicks carefully carving the plaster casting out of the impacted clay around it.)

It was a curious view of the animal, a worm's eye view, if you will. The reverse casting was not like the track, an impression going away from me; it was a three-D impression of the paw coming at me. This is what it looked like if you had been in the ground when the critter walked over you.

I got it cleaned up, and it is a paper weight on my desk at home. I anxiously went to the web this morning, and hoping against hope I googled coyote track. To my amazement, there was a picture comparing dog tracks to those made by a coyote--mine was not the splayed-toe impression of a dog. It was the tightly grouped, long clawed impression of a by-gawd coyote!

I'm too old for the merit badge, but not for the thrill.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


I'm looking for eye-tracking studies that specifically address how users process embedded assistance. For example:
  • Where do users' eyes go when they're stumped?
  • If inline messages or Help are provided, when do users focus on them?
  • What is the optimal placement for instructional text relating to a page or field?
I have no shortage of my own opinions and anecdotal data on these things, but I would love to know if there are eye tracking studies that could provide that type of empirical data.

Also, I am NOT looking for eye-tracking of content-focused web sites or search results. Those I've seen. I'm interested in applications or forms and how users process inline Help.