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.


Miranda said...

I think Keith Lang's response lacked substance. Other than saying your article was boring, he didn't contribute anything. He said help could have images, that it could have video, that it could be searchable. Well duh! Help CAN be a direct, live video link to the developer that wrote the code - that doesn't make it maintainable, cost effective, or a good idea.

I think you contribute in a very substantive way. And, I really appreciate the broad perspective that seasoned writers like you bring to the table. Young writers have a tendency to think we can change the entire paradigm, which is good, because we don't have a history to constrain us. But, we also don't have a history to teach us, which is where old farts like you come in handy =)

Anindita said...

I am not young myself (40 is very near!!) but I tend to ignore anything that has pictures of pretty girls, handsome boys, mickeys or donalds in it. When I read any user-assistance, I focus on words. I would have ignored this video and gone straight to the printed-word-manual because I grew up reading (not watching), and even today I learn things by reading (unless its a mechanic changing the spark plug of a bike).

Videos, according to me, aren't a good user-assistance idea because:
(i) they never translate well
(ii) they take ages to load, buffer, play
(iii) are a maintenance nightmare
(iv) distract (Hey, I'm at the user-assistance because I got stuck, not because I want to watch a movie. I want to get out of here and back to using [whatever] as soon as possible.)

Give me a static help-page any day.


MattBNH said...

I can't find the man page for this site. Where's the damn man page?

More seriously, if UX or this blog were trying to be Rolling Stone or the Obama campaign gearing up for 2012, Keith is right. But that's not the point. User Assistance should be inviting and interesting but it also needs to be focused and uncluttered. Paris Hilton gyrating over a hamburger doesn't help get IIS configured any faster.

David Farbey said...

Perhaps it because I'm only a few years younger than you, but I find myself agreeing with your view of what could make online documentation better, and disagree with Keith Lang's opinions on what help should be.
For many business applications Keith's vision of "wiki-like" and "entertaining" help would be unsuitable.