Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Myyyy Eyeeeeees!!!!

OK, I'm tired of being thrown into epileptic-like seizures as I sit through demos and walk-throughs of user interfaces.

I'm referring to speakers who twitch and jiggle the mouse, or who do a mad paint of the screen with the pointer as they search for the target they want to click.

Tip for anyone doing software training or demos:

Don't touch the mouse until you have made eye contact with the target. Then tell the user what you are going to click, and then go there smoothly (and directly) and click.

Thank you in advance.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Change is good

Well, not always. I'm tempted to rant about a recent experience at a bagel joint where I got short changed three times in the same transaction!

But other kinds of change are good. My role at work is changing, for example. Instead of being a User Assistance Architect in the Information Development group, I will be an Information Architect in the Usability group. Same boss's boss, but different boss and peer group.

Sad to be leaving old boss and old peers, but excited about the new boss and new team. Real excited about doing UX design again. It's one thing to look at a UI and noodle how to explain it; it's pretty scary when the page is blank and you have to lead the design.

I intend to continue this blog and its theme of user assistance. My focus will shift to embedded assistance and contextual assistance, that is, I will focus on user assistance that is delivered directly through the application UI. It will be interesting to see how my new found interest in Social Media plays out in my new role. I can already envision links that would have said "Tell me more about this option" now saying "Let me chat with others who have used this option."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How to make me stupid

Technical communication is essentially story telling on one hand and sense making on the other. I've noticed (suffered at the hands of) several patterns involving numbers that obscure both.

Consider the following question, "How much does widget A weigh?"

Bad answer: "You have to understand that it will be different in different situations. If it is the blue techno-widget, it will be 30 pounds, but if it is the red techno-widget, it can be as low as 20 pounds depending on if it is a model D, which is 20 pounds or a model C which weighs 25 pounds because it has the heavy duty battery."


Better answer: "Twenty to thirty pounds depending on the model and battery type."

Common mistakes when talking about numbers

Here are common mistakes I see when people talk technical with numbers:
  • Combining numbers with conditional statements. That's the mistake in the previous example. I'm having to hold too many variables in my head before I can get closure on a declarative sentence. Lead off with a simple declaration followed by exceptions. Another acceptable answer would be "About 25 pounds." That relates a bit to the next common mistake.
  • Not rounding to a reasonable level. I sit in a lot of budget discussions where we are essentially discussing estimates and guesses and I am forced to comprehend and store numbers like 23,462 when 23,000 or even 20,000 is sufficient. Many people do not understand the rule of significant figures, that is, an answer cannot have more significant figures than are warranted by the input accuracy. For example, 10 volts divided by 30 ohms does not result in a current of .333333333333 amps. It results in .3 amps.
  • Giving algebra problems instead of answers. "Q: How much does widget A weigh? A: Ten pounds more than widget B." Great, widget A weighs x + 10, solve for x.
There is a scene in Othello where the generals argue about how many ships are in the approaching armada. The bottom line, stated more eloquently by Shakespeare is "It's a shit-load of ships." In other words, providing the exact number is less important than contextualizing the impact.

Friday, August 07, 2009

I qualify as an offshore resource

Gasp! I can't live with the scandal anymore. I WAS BORN IN KENYA! I'm not a native US citizen.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Social Web: This old dog finally gets it

I think there should be a "Get Out of Purgatory Early" card for folks my age who try to keep up with Social Media. I signed up for Twitter and Facebook a while back to see if I was missing anything. I must admit I was pretty baffled by it all for a bit.

Tweets like "Just turned the computer on, man am I tired," left me wondering why the tweeter felt that the world was waiting for that update. Facebook people were poking me and taking quizzes that told everyone what kind of Simpson character they would be.


A sliver of light

My first inkling that there could be something useful lurking here happened at the Atlanta STC Summit. As the host chapter, we arranged for the Atlanta Braves to have someone at our hospitality booth one morning to sell block tickets for a Braves game that night. The day he was to arrive, it occurred to me that we had not publicized this in any way. I asked Lisa Pappas, who is way cooler than I am when it comes to social networking, if she could tweet that the rep was coming on the #tag we were using for the Summit (I barely knew what a #tag was). She did. At one point I took a break from the board meeting to step out and apologize to the rep for the lack of advance publicity and found him packing up early. He had sold the allocated block!

Hmmm. That was useful.

More illumination

I then started to notice that I was using Twitter like a news aggregator because people I was following would recommend interesting Web articles they had just read. I recently noted the following pattern of tweets, going from great to lame:
  • Great: There an interesting article on such and such at http:...
  • Good: There comes a time in the lifecycle of a document you have to shoot the writer and publish the damn thing.
  • Lame: I had oatmeal for breakfast.
I had been judging the social Web based on the abundance of "oatmeal for breakfast" tweets and posts I had been seeing.

Let there be full light

Recently, however, the major light bulb went on for me. I was starting to feel a lot more connected with contacts I usually saw once a year at a conference. The odds that I would pick up a phone or shoot an email to someone like Phylise Banner or Brenda Huettner if I needed help on something was now an order of magnitude higher than if I were not following them on Twitter or friends on Facebook.

It's as if I were linked into a social network! [a Mikey major Duh! moment]

I also found that I could link with folks I was having somewhat adversarial relationships with in STC. As an officer, I've taken quite a bit of heat over some unpopular decisions and problems lately from well-meaning and articulate critics. Twitter and Facebook have given me the opportunity to interface with some of these critics at the level of home-brewed beer and love of musical instruments. Their confrontations have been reduced from my total perception of them to being just part of a broader understanding of who they are. Hopefully that has gone the other way as well.

Suddenly the faceless and voiceless critics have become people who brew beer and play music. Does that make me now more willing to listen to them? You know, I think it does! At least it makes it easier.

I've said it before, "Oh brave new world..."

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

You Can't Handle the Truth

I was in a staff meeting recently where the topic was "What do you need to know in order to do your job better?" I can summarize the general theme in one word, "Truth." What is the real schedule, what are the real priorities, how is the project really going?

It seems truth is a rare commodity going both ways on the communication chain. People were equally concerned that they weren't getting the truth from management and that management wasn't being told the truth.

I'm not telling stories out of school; namely, because this is the same discussion I have heard at every software company I have ever worked at. I suspect it transcends industries as well.
  • I was at an international conference in Leeds, England, on Learning in the Workplace where the keynote speaker asked "Have you noticed that the purpose of a project status meeting is to hide the status of the project?" He got a standing ovation.
  • I used to teach project management at Southern Polytechnic State University and I would tell my students, "If you say the project will be six months late, you will be fired, but you can be one month late six months in a row and nobody bats an eyelash."
  • Projects stay in green status until a few weeks before release and then go into red--all of a sudden the code doesn't work.
  • Projects change status or iterations end not because criteria have been met, rather, because their due dates have arrived.
Part of the problem is an inherent dislike for delivering bad news. Partly as CYA and partly because genuinely we want to please others. We accept the pleasant fiction for the very reason that it is pleasant.

Part of it is that we treat mistakes like crimes and punish those who make them. Therefore, mistakes become things we must cover up.

But I think a major contributor is the whole myth of project management. We estimate dates and resources when we know very little about the problem space, let alone the solution, and then those dates become holy unto themselves. We beg others to lie to us (sometimes even insist on it). "How long will this take?" "Three months." "Not good enough, give me a better estimate!"

Let me offer a radical proposal: What if projects were open ended? What if a product didn't ship until it was ready? Instead of dates, we had feature and performance specifications, resource allocations, and release criteria. "Nothing would ever ship," might be a reasonable rebuttal. That is pretty telling in and of itself.

I know the devil is in the details, but it might be time to rethink our current model of design and development.