Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ready, Fire, Aim

It's not what you think, I'm actually in favor of that sequence as a development strategy.

At its core, it's the heart of Agile development, rapid prototyping, and all kinds of good things that get people engaged.

There's an old technical writer joke (i.e., a joke told by an old technical writer).

Instructions for getting unlost in the woods:
  1. Pack a user guide with a typo in it.
  2. Pack two loaves of bread and some cold cuts.
  3. Sit and wait for the dozens of people who will find you to tell you about the typo. (The bread and cold cuts are so you can have sandwiches for them when they come calling.)
The point is that people don't get very engaged over abstract ideas or plans, but put some kind of a design stake in the ground and man do they come alive! In short, give them something to criticize or disagree with as early as possible, then make the sandwiches and wait for the crowd.

A problem we have as traditional technical communicators (designers all around probably) is that we are reluctant to show early designs that we know aren't very good. We all want to clean the house before the housekeeper shows up.

I was at the UA Europe conference in Cardiff earlier this month, and one of the presenters, Leisa Reichelt, talked about her experience getting the community actively involved in redesigning their web site. One challenge she had to overcome was her own discomfort at posting "the worst wire frames I had ever done," as early design concepts. But she did it to get early feedback and involvement--and it worked.

Some pointers:
  • Don't be afraid to show preliminary work early
  • Don't over design--early documents, for example, can have just bullet points capturing the key talking points the topic will address
  • Use low-fidelity prototyping tools. If it looks like it was drawn on a napkin, people are less inclined to criticize its lack of polish and more inclined to comment on the essense of the design's objective (check out Balsamiq Mockup).
  • Use collaboration tools like Wikis. Then if someone points out a typo, quickly answer, "Oh, it's a Wiki, you can correct that any time you like."
  • Respond quickly and incorporate suggestions.
These pointers work for all aspects of design: UI, user assistance, and even project plans.

Note: You can substitute pizza for the bread and cold cuts.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Exciting New Assignment

Work is actually fun these days! Of course, when the bar is set by floods and STC meltdowns, "fun" is a relatively easy state to achieve.

I'm lead on a multifunctional team that is tasked with reshaping the user experience for the deployment phase of a SaaS-type application. We have the following types of folks on the team:
  • Information developers
  • UI developers
  • User researcher
  • Visual communicator
  • UX specialist
Wow! That's some collective horsepower.

I'm also experimenting with some new collaboration tools. This will be my second time using Lotus Connections to manage a project team. It's a nifty piece of collaboration software, combining blog, forum, and wiki technology. I'll also be using some other tools, such as Balsamiq Mockup (wireframing), The Brain (mindmapping), along with a proprietary tool for doing affinity wall type of analysis, and of course, my old standby Visio.

And even though I am no longer officially on the Information Development team, it gives me an opportunity to bring that group into the upstream design process in which I have long argued they belong. See my column Use Cases for User Assistance Writers.

I see a case study if this works; I see some self-pitying blogs down the line if it doesn't. Meanwhile, I'll use this blog to maintain a loose journal as I share what seems to work and what doesn't as I go along.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How High's the Water, Mama?

Any time your life can be described by lyrics in a country-western song, things aren't going so well. As I write this, I'm pretty well landlocked from any place useful, like work or grocery stores, by the Yellow River overrunning its bridges. Oh yeah, I live on the Yellow River, or what used to be the Yellow River; it's now the rapidly moving Yellow Lake. My woods are under water and the river has stabilized a few yards short of my house. I could fish from my deck (if I chose to ignore that I am downstream from a water treatment facility).

I think I'll write a country-western song. I've got the opening down:

I got two cigars and half a bottle of bourbon
How 'm I ever gonna make 'em last all day?

Think I'll start a group-write on Twitter. Join me at @michaelhughesua and contribute.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

STC: Quo Vadis?

As long as I'm laying on the gravitas, I'll continue with O tempora, o mores, ubinam gentium sumus?

The times, the manners, where among associations stand we?

I need to figure out where I am with all the STC stuff going on, and blogging will help my introspection. Also, it will let me share with you some of the background and complexity that surround the current state of affairs with STC. My e-mail tag line reads "Anyone who is sure of the answer doesn't understand the question," and this blog is an invitation to join me in understanding how we got here, where we are, and where I think we need to go. And this is social media, so feel free to comment in and share your perspectives back with me.

How we got here

Cindy Currie, our STC President, has already provided the answer in her article in News and Notes:

As I have previously mentioned, the shortfall is primarily due to the negative impact the recession has had on our two main sources of revenue—membership dues and the annual conference. But going forward, we have to solve a problem bigger than the recession. For years STC has been adding and expanding services and activities to benefit members and the profession without taking a hard look at how to sustain those activities. And with only periodic, modest increases in fees, the costs to sustain those services and activities have outpaced our dues and total revenue such that the Society has actually been subsidizing these activities.

A little more backstory.
We have been seeing a decline in membership going back roughly to the technology meltdown of the dot.bomb. Many costs to service members are relatively fixed, that is, rent doesn't go down, we don't pay less for legal services, it costs the same to design and edit a magazine issue for 10,000 as it does for 20,000, etc. So what happens is that as membership declines, the costs to serve individual members go up. But the board has historically been reluctant to raise dues. Part of the reason is that members complain when dues go up-duh!

But part of the problem on our part was that dues and budget discussions were not as tightly linked as they should have been. We were not asking the appropriate question when we discussed dues, namely, "How much money do we need in order to do what we want to do?" We focused too heavily on member reaction.

Another problem is that we often debated programs at the line item level based on their merits. Questions like "Should we get rid of this?" were answered with "No, it's a good thing to do." We missed the "But we can't afford to do them all; something good has to go."

In short, we weren't putting all the pieces on the table at the same time.

Another interesting thing about membership is that even though we get a healthy number of new members every year, we lose more than we gain. Hmmmmmm. Is that saying something about perceived value? Of course it is, and that has not been lost on the leadership team. We tend to keep a core of loyal members (I love all of you), but that has created a demographic problem: A lot of us are older and will be retiring in the coming decade. We are losing our "next generation" of STC members. The upshot is that decisions about how to grow the society are being made by those who often lack the perspective of what the target population wants. Ouch!! OK, that one hits this sixty-year old boy too, so hold off on the flames. (See How Not to Update Your Look and Feel)

Where we are today

OK, so we are in some interesting times:
  • We have a significant shortfall in income caused by the same economic crisis that deflated our reserves that were supposed to get us through just such a predicament.
  • We have a dues structure that can't cover costs of basic membership.
  • Our alternative revenue engine (the conference) has become a big question mark as we try to guess how well it can perform in this economic climate.
  • We're out of step as a society with where the profession is going and who the emerging professionals are.
So if you're wondering what we chowder-heads on the board are doing, welcome to our world :-) No excuses, but we didn't make this world. It is what it is; we're just the ones who must lead during these critical times.

Three things have to happen in the following order:
  1. We must deal with the shortfall.
  2. We must restructure how we manage the finances so our model is based on sustainability.
  3. We must reinvent STC so that it is not only relevant to where we are going as a profession, we must be THE place where the voices who are shaping that direction are heard.
My ship analogy is that the storm has blown us on the reef; here's the drill:
  1. Bail so we don't sink.
  2. Fix the damage and restore physical integrity to the ship's structure.
  3. Set a new course.
As everyone knows, part of the current solution to "we're sinking" is to transfer surplus reserves from the chapters. Wow, that has a lot of problems associated with it, so why are we taking such a controversial and difficult route?

Because those are the only pockets deep enough and liquid enough to solve the problem in time.

By the way, the shortfall is $1.2M, and we are handling all but $470K through cost reductions, debt rescheduling, and negotiations. What we need from the chapters is the $470K we won't be able to cover without their help.

We can do quick things that kind of translate into "Let's have a cake sale." Great, but we need $470K. That's a lot of cakes.

We can offer big programs; our certification task force thinks the potential revenue there could get into millions. Great, great, great, but it will take longer than we have.

So we've gone to the chapters. Not fair, some of that money has come from their own independent efforts (Atlanta still has some great cookbooks, by the way). Not fair! But a necessary sacrifice if we are to survive. I just don't have anything else I can say on that.

Point two, we have created a zero-based budget that looks at the whole picture: revenue, dues, and expenses as an integrated whole. We have a model that will be sound and sustainable. It is built on the principle that members should pay based on the level of services they receive. I can't get into the details, but if you watch those great Progressive Insurance ads (with Flo) and pay attention to the "Build the policy you can afford" one, then you'll get an idea of where we're going.

But dues will go up! The reaction we've already gotten is "How can you raise dues when part of your problem is you don't have enough members? Lower dues and get more members!"

The truth is that we could make it up in volume, but we cannot get to the volume it would take. Not in this economy, not with our current "curb appeal." Step two, then, is get a revenue/expense model that makes financial sense.

Politically, this is a hard sell. We want our national politicians to get rid of our deficit-bound economy, "Balance the budget, you idiots!" Then if one runs for office saying "I'll raise taxes and reduce services," we run him out of town on a rail. You see, he didn't understand that we wanted him to balance the budget by lowering taxes and increasing services.

Where are we going?

Phase 3: We must reinvent STC so that it is not only relevant to where we are going as a profession, we must be THE place where the voices who are shaping that direction are heard.

We need to be about content that helps professionals keep pace in a profession that measures how current you are in the dot releases of the tools you use.

  • We are on the verge of releasing the Body of Knowledge Portal--a critical step in being THE resource to start with with any question related to technical communication
  • We are moving into social media to help connect professionals into communities and resources.
  • We are defining how a certification program will make us the defining group in our profession and draw new members and employers to us.
There are still some glaring shortcomings, not the least is we still do not have a good strategic marketing strategy for moving forward. That WILL come, but we must first solidify a modern value proposition that gives us a compelling message to market.


I hope this didn't come across as whiney--but I want folks to understand the true complexity of the problem space. I'm not standing here saying "Trust us," I'm saying "Help us." But for you to be helpful, you need to understand the full backstory and complications we are dealing with.

Finally, many heartfelt thanks to all who have Ninged and Tweeted with your support and with your criticisms. Stay with STC, be part of the exciting future we are building together, and support our programs as they roll out. Think Dallas 2010 and tell your bosses NOW to budget for it. Hint: Lloyd is working up some sweet early bird deals.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bad Help

I just encountered the worst Help file I've ever seen, and that includes student projects from my days teaching Online Documentation at Southern Poly.

The content pane and the pane for displaying the TOC, Index, and Find (Find? as in can you say WinHelp.exe?) are two separate panes, and the TOC pane is modal!

Click to see enlarged version.

Not only that, but the Help is written at the microtask level--no insight as to how do I use this product to do something useful.

OK, so maybe this is some restaurant management software or some other application written by someone with no concept of user experience.

NO! This is a product designed and distributed by a company in the usability business--one whose product is meant to help you design usable software.

In all fairness, the product is way cool and works pretty well, but why do usability companies get all the way down to the user assistance level and then suddenly get usability stupid?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Dots is important

So I get an email from my IT guy saying that if we haven't already upgraded to WhatEver ver 8.02 we would be vaporized or something. Not being particularly anxious to get vaporized or something, I start to feel a little angst. I click About WhatEver and I see that I am at ver 8.0.2.

Hmmm, 8.0.x would be older than 8.02, but I've never seen a version number incremented with a leading zero after the point.

Am I OK because IT guy is sloppy about version numbers, or am I a candidate for the poof-mobile? Or am I just an anal-retentive technical writer?

I made a screen shot of my version splash screen and sent it to IT guy and asked if he really meant 8.0.2.

A DECENT human being would have responded, "Oh, my bad, I got sloppy and caused you unnecessary angst," and then he would have sent out a new e-mail clarifying his error to the rest of the company, but NOOOOOOOOOOOO. I got "You can ignore the notice."

You'd think folks who work with software day in and day out for a company that develops software would get version numbers better than IT guy.

So what did I learn today?

I'm an anal-retentive technical writer.