Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Just when I ought to be getting cynical...

... I go to my local STC chapter meeting and there are over 50 attendees! So much for a dying profession and a society that has lost its relevance. So what gives here?

First off, a dynamic programs manager, Jen Collier. Last night's event was a progression, six presenters in three 15-minute time slots. Pick the three you're most interested in and rotate. The topic was Instructional Design, a perennially popular topic with technical communicators, perhaps trying to break away from traditional writing or just interested in broadening their skill set in a tough economy.

Speakers were a mixed bag of university professors, consultants and business practitioners--even had an old guy from IBM ;-) This was pure grass-roots STC like its hay-day in the 90s. As a matter of fact, I saw some of my old fellow classmates from Southern Polytechnic State University.

Good pre-marketing too. Getting the word out is important.

Just got me pumped. STC rocks and I'm glad I have a professional society that brings me into contact with peers who believe learning doesn't stop on graduation day.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Column in UXmatters

I have a new column out today in UXmatters that talks about how the economic meltdown could reshape our approach to writing user assistance.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Get your head in the cloud

In an earlier blog I talked about the importance of understanding your product's business model when deciding on a user assistance strategy or architecture. "Cloud computing" and its cousin Software as a Service (SaaS) bring home the differences a business model can make in how you design user assistance.

Let's talk about a conventional software business model: We build it, you buy it (license model). Think of Microsoft Word. Do you think Bill Gates worries about how many documents you write with it after you buy it, whether or not you use Mail-Merge, or running headers? Not really, he's got your money, and to get more of it, he essentially has to offer more features and sell you an upgrade.

Let's say that Microsoft changed its business model for Word, and instead of buying a license that lasted forever and installing the software on your personal computer, you accessed a hosted version through your browser (can you say Google docs?) and did one of the following:
  • paid a monthly fee based on the number of features you were signed up for (feature-based pricing)
  • paid by the number of documents you saved (transaction-based pricing)
Should it change the way they write or deliver Help? Well this is the way products are going (the business models will be more like those for cell phones) and I think it will make a BIG difference in how we write Help.

When I was a UX designer for CheckFree, we had a similar situation. CheckFree is a bill pay application for Web banking and they get a cha-ching every time someone pays a bill online. Do they care if you pay one bill or ten bills a month? Darn-tootin' they do!

(me saying "darn tootin'")

I think the role of user assistance changes dramatically when you shift to a usage fee-based model and becomes one aimed more at sustained or progressive user adoption. That means that documentation needs to emphasize the use and value of contracted features so that users renew those features (sustained adoption) or points out opportunities where the user could benefit from unused features or increased use of pay-as-you-play features (progressive adoption). See my article Fattening the long tail through progressive user adoption to see how we applied user assistance in that strategy at CheckFree.

As more products go to a SaaS or transaction-based model, think how user assistance can improve feature renewal or adoption. Because in this economy, I'd much rather calculate my value add as part of a revenue stream.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bless their hearts award #09-1

I plan to start awarding designs in user assistance that I feel are well-intentioned but wrong. The purpose is not to ridicule (OK, ridicule a little) but to show how best intentions are not enough to make a good user assistance experience. The following screen capture is from an non-disclosed calendar application. Note the tool tip/Alt tag.

The problem is that it describes the icon when it should have explained the icon. I have no idea why this icon is on that entry or what it means. The description that it is an icon of a person waving his hand does not help the sighted reader, nor does it work as an Alt tag for a blind reader. Neither knows what it means.

The writers knew that an icon needs an Alt tag and provided a very accurate one. Bless their hearts.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Technical Writer as Playwright

I read this headline on my news feed this morning:

"INSTANT VIEW 4-German jobless posts first rise in nearly 3 yrs."

Actually, I read it several times trying to get it to make sense. I almost had to manually diagram the sentence to parse out its meaning. First, ignore "INSTANT VIEW 4." I read the article and it shed no light. I suspect there are a series of these INSTANT VIEW articles in the publication and this one came after the third and before the fifth. I'm guessing on that.

The real difficulty I figured out was that "post" and "rise" can be verbs or nouns and I was interpreting each one incorrectly from how it was being used in this sentence. This is a common trick that clue writers for crossword puzzles use. After mentally diagramming it, I realized that it said:

[subject] German jobless [/subject] [predicate] [verb] posts [/verb] [object] first rise [/object] [adverbial phrase] in nearly 3 yrs [/adverbial phrase] [/predicate].

My problem when I first read the headline was I had parsed it as:

[subject] German jobless posts [/subject] [predicate] [verb] first rise [/verb] [adverbial phrase] in nearly 3 yrs [/adverbial phrase] [/predicate].

Duh! Well that was a lot of mental work to read a headline! It was further complicated by the odd pairing of subject and verb of "jobless posts..." Try to imagine that. It's hard to because it breaks Joseph Williams' caveat that good sentences are like little plays; the actors should be nouns and the verbs should be what they are doing on stage. Imagine this play instead:

"German jobless rate rises for the first time in 3 yrs."

I can only guess what a machine translation would do, but I suspect that my rewrite will come out a lot better than the original.

The lesson is that Help is read in snippets. Avoid ambiguous parts of speech and make each snippet a good little play that you can easily imagine being acted out on stage.

Because I can tell you I put a lot more work into reading that headline than our users will put into reading our Help.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bring It On!

I spent a lot of my holiday working on my January column for UXmatters, which I just sent to my editor this morning. I spent a lot of time on it because it is really my strategy statement for my own professional survival and our collective professional survival as user assistance writers in the upcoming new economy. Some highlights:

User assistance groups that survive will do so by doing the following:
  • reducing documentation costs
  • improving the relevance of the content
  • integrating documentation more closely with the product’s user interface
Recommitting to user centered design will be evidenced by the survivors in the following ways:
  • Starting their research by talking to the product manager and not the developers. The question of the new economy is not “How does the product work,” but “What do the users hope to accomplish with this product and how does that support our business model?” Other questions will be “How do the users measure their own success and how will they evaluate us?”
  • Building use cases that focus more on when and why users interact with the system—and less about how. Emphasis needs to be on context, “Why/when would the users go here, what are they trying to achieve, and how will they know if they achieve it?”
  • Writing documentation primarily for users who are in the middle of something. Users go to the documentation when they are stuck in their own tasks and get out of the documentation as soon as they feel unstuck. Survivors will analyze user tasks for information requirements and decision points that might stop the user’s task flow. Solutions in the new economy will be minimalist and designed to get the user going again as soon as possible. Writers who succeed in the new economy will know that ultimately the user’s solution is in the user interface, not in the Help.
  • Integrating user assistance into the user interface. Because the solution to the user’s problem is in the user interface, that’s where the user assistance belongs. User assistance will not be apparent to the user in many cases; it will be just another aspect of the user interface.
  • Basing their information design decisions on real user data, such as usability testing and contextual inquiries. We have ignored the data in front of us for two decades—users don’t read the documentation—but this new economy has rung the bell and we must now pay better attention.
The column will give some practical advice on gathering user data that informs user assistance design to deliver useful user assistance. It also will present my effort to redefine myself as cute (assuming the editor does not cut my MOOPOP mascot). I'll post a link to the column when UXmatters publishes it.

MOOPOP = Moments of Opportunity, Points of Pain.

Meanwhile, happy new year to all. Fasten your seat belts and hunker down for interesting times. If we are here a year from now, it will be because we changed and adapted to deliver greater value at a lower cost.