Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Will Write for Metamucil

I almost started today's blog with "I'm getting old" and then decided that's not true. I am old. I tried my best not to get old. Physically I tried to avoid it by drinking and smoking and not exercising, but that didn't work (at least not yet). Professionally I have dutifully tried to keep up with the trends: I DITA, I Wiki, I blog, I tweet, I have a translator on my blog, and I have a page on FaceBook. I also have a pair of bell-bottoms but that doesn't make it 1970 again. (I don't really have a pair of bell-bottoms, that was just a literary device.)

About nine years ago, I was giving a talk on Web page usability at a CDC conference and a gentleman in the audience asked a question about how to make his health Web site for young African American males more engaging. I thought about it for a minute and then gave him my best counsel: "Don't take the advice of a fifty year old white man."

I am feeling the same way about technical communication in general these days. I am steeped in a literary world view that is grounded in the static page. I grew up reading books, papers, and magazines. I did not work with text on a computer screen until I was in my forties--and then it was green screen command-line word processing where you had to actually print the document to see what it looked like.

Keith Lang dedicated an entire blog post to a rather blistering critique of my latest column in UXmatters. My biggest "ouch" response came to this paragraph.

The article is like bad help. It’s too long. It’s too dry. It has no narrative, and it’s written for the kind of people that like to read manuals. I’ll admit it, I’m one of them, but I’m aware I’m the small minority. The pictures are boring. It has no characters, story, or SEX to it. And it’s text, text text.

Not surprisingly, Keith is quite a bit younger than I am, but it reinforces a truth I have come to accept: I am ill equipped to write for an emerging segment of the marketplace.

But that doesn't mean I'm used up like a worn-out number two pencil stub (my favorite simile these days). But it does mean that I need to reevaluate where and how I add value.

For example, Keith included what he called a"nice example" of a built in help video:
It is very nice. A couple of questions: What does this video do to your translation costs, assuming it has a sound track? And how well will the image of a young woman with exposed bra straps play in conservative cultures such as with Muslims? (See my earlier blog about the BBC article in English and Arabic.) Maybe Keith isn't thinking about global markets. After all, his blog does say about comments: "here's how to have your comment approved and published: - Make it in English (my only language)." Sort of says, "If you don't speak English your voice is not welcome here." So maybe part of my emerging role as an elder is to remind the Keiths of our profession that cartoons and cool need to translate across wide cultural boundaries, and input needs to be open to diverse cultures, some of whom might not write your language well.

I'm not picking on Keith, I have have encountered similar gaps before with designers I know well and I respect a lot. People like me, that is, ones with an ingrained world view of communication-as-words, need to bring in designers who have grown up with a more interactive experience with communication channels. If nothing else, they are more like the market place than I am.
But this does bring up the core question of this blog: What is the role of older technical communication professionals like me?

Well, I don't think I should just shut up altogether (although I should shut up a lot and listen more--but that's been true for forty years). But what value do I bring to the party that could help my younger colleagues be even more successful with their innovations? Some suggestions:
  • I think I understand the business model better at times than they do. I can help them focus on how their ideas add value not only to the user experience but to the success of the enterprise that pays their salaries.
  • I value sustainable processes more than they do. I can help move their innovative ideas into the factory and make those nifty things they do scalable.
  • And my somewhat conservative technical communication style probably still plays better in highly technical, complex problem spaces like configuring firewalls than a video or a cartoon would. And that style translates efficiently across cultures and languages.
I should probably try to get a job with a high-tech global company.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The taxonomic conundrum of chicken salad

Let's say your cookbook has a section for chicken dishes and one for salads. Where do you put recipes for chicken salad?

Actually this is a relevant topic for me for a couple of reasons. For one, Atlanta STC is putting together a cook book for the upcoming Summit in May.

Secondly, I am working on refactoring current Help and user guide topics into a new, unified format that has proscribed topic containers for the TOC. The problem is that the navigation pane in the product's user interface has not been built around these TOC guidelines. Hence, certain tasks that the documentation guidelines would call Administering the product have been placed in a section called Configuration in the product's navigation tree. Oops, the documentation navigation guidelines include a container called Configuring.

We need to figure out the right balance between what expectations we think our product navigation creates and what would make us consistent with other products we might need to integrate our information topics with.

I'm tempted to take the solution of going to our developers and convincing them that where ever possible, they should match the product navigation guidelines to the documentation guidelines that have been proscribed.

Please, someone talk me out of this :-0

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

I rarely think of myself as an honoree on Veteran's day, but I got an e-mail from my company's VP of Diversity this morning thanking me for my service. At the time, it felt more like servitude--1969-1972 were not tranquil years, and as a young man I would have preferred to have been growing my hair long and hanging out in coffee houses. And had I not flunked out of college in 1969 I probably would have been.

As it was, I was in the Army and hating it. For the life of me, as I look back, I can't figure out why. I was going to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and after that I spent an exciting tour in Ethiopia, followed up by a stint in Washington DC where I met my wife. I had the time of my life and met some of the most interesting people I have ever known. (When there is an active draft going on, the military ends up with the entire spectrum, including the ivy league elite who couldn't escape low lottery numbers--I went to Arabic school with the son-in-law of Supreme Court justice Brennan along with a couple of Yale grads and a really funny guy from Penn State. Me, the college flunkie!)

After 9/11, I dug out my old stripes and GI-issued name tag and I have used them as my cube name tag ever since. I looked at them this morning as I came in and felt a quick moment of self-satisfied veteran pride.

I served :-)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Now I understand

I have always liked the "feel, felt, found" method for answering objections. "I know how you feel, I felt the same way, and then I found..." I experienced it in an internal conversation with myself last week.

I have resented the pressure to write for "ease of translation" for a long time. For one, I felt it really meant "ease of machine translation" because the job of a human translator is to understand the rich metaphors and idioms that create meaning in the source language. Secondly, I felt that it took plain, easily understood explanations and turned them into bland, generic prose. Clear phrases like "change firewall rules on the fly" had to be rewritten to "change firewall rules without having to restart the system." I understood the economics of it, but that didn't mean I had to be pleased with it.

And then I put a translation application on my blog site. Now I find that I want to write so that it can translate my blog as accurately as possible. I now examine my every word wondering how the translator will interpret it. What made the difference?

Probably it has a lot to do with the fact that it was my decision to increase the global access of my blog. It is not that I expect a lot of international readers; it was because I wanted to be global. And now the translator is my tool, the only way I can afford to meet a diverse global readership.

The point of this blog is not about globalization. It is about getting people to accept change. The more we can make the decision at the level of those who must make the change, the more that change will be accepted. Just being a writer for IBM (International is our first name) wasn't enough to make me accept writing for an international audience--it took me putting a free Google widget on my blog site. So when confronted with the need for change, we need to find a way to personalize that change in some way within our smaller world that we can see and understand. And in this case it means not ending my blog entry with an idiom like "eating my own dog food." I can only imagine how that will translate.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

It's more than just the words

A friend of mine sent me a link to an article on the BBC website. You can get the gist of it from the image below (click image to enlarge it):

In the oddest of coincidences, I had read the article the day before on the BBC Arabic version website. You can get the gist of it from the image below (click image to enlarge it):

Aside from the language translation and the shift from left->right to right->left, one other big difference is obvious.

It proves to me that the BBC is very savvy and understands that there is a lot more to localization than just translating the words.

The easy question is what did they change? The next question is why did they change it?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Going Global and oh so Web 2.0

I added a translation widget to my blog. Scroll down the navigation pane on the left to find it. View this blog page in the language of your choice.

I've started trying to pick up my Arabic again (I was a translator for the Army Security Agency about a bazillion years ago) and that has gotten me interested in online translation tools. This particular widget has a nice mouse-over feature that lets you see the original text. Try it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Time change

I hate it when the time changes from daylight saving time. It's such a pain to get up at 2:00 am to reset my clock. They should make it occur at a more convenient time.