Friday, November 20, 2009

Editor Fight!

Click cartoon to enlarge

Click cartoon to enlarge

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reverse Engineering SIGs

This blog is very STC centric (as it seems a lot of my life is these days). I just got off a strategic planning call where we were discussing ideas for expanding our income base. I noticed that several of the areas that had been identified involved taking what we already have, e.g., webinars and training, and marketing them into other professions. Part of an action item I was assigned was to help identify what those other professions might be.

As I thought about how to go about doing that, it occured to me that many of our Special Interest Groups (SIGs) are really focal points for larger professions. Our SIGs, in those cases, focus on the technical communication application. For example, Usability and User Experience is a large profession outside of technical communication. Our Usability and UX SIG focuses on the technical communication specific applications of that field as indicated by their mission description: "The Usability & User Experience SIG focuses on issues related to the usability and usability assessment of technical communication..."

So SIGs are like areas where outside professions insert specialized instances of their expertise into our profession. But what if we could reverse that gateway?

Our SIGs could be an excellent outreach channel to market our specialized knowledge into those other professions.

For example, my "official" professional education is in instructional design and technology. As I was getting my PhD in that field, I found a great formula for getting published. I would specialize ID topics for technical communication, and then I would specialize technical communication topics for ID. Instructional designers are pretty smart folks, but you know, they don't know a lot about writing manuals! Look at the raw .doc file that a "classically trained" ID person does and you will not find a style tag anywhere in it. And what ends up in headers and footers is any body's guess. So I was able to use my technical communication expertise and spin it to meet what I knew their needs were, i.e., how to design and develop student manuals.

Our SIGs are a great opportunity for us to do the same as a Society. Look at the list of the current STC SIGs:
  • Academic
  • AccessAbility
  • Canadian Issues
  • Consulting and Independent Contracting
  • Content Strategy
  • Emerging Technologies
  • Environmental, Safety, and Health Communication
  • Europe
  • Illustrators and Visual Designers
  • Information Design and Architecture
  • Instructional Design & Learning
  • International Technical Communication
  • Lone Writer
  • Management
  • Marketing Communication
  • Online
  • Policies and Procedures
  • Quality and Process Improvement
  • Scientific Communication
  • Single Sourcing
  • Technical Editing
  • Usability & User Experience
Some, like the geographic specific ones don't meet this model, but most of them represent professions that could use training or other resources around technical communication expertise aimed at the specific needs or contexts of their industries.

So I'd like SIG folks to start thinking about what it is about technical communication that could be of value to the professions at large your SIGs represent. How can we reverse the star gate and insert ourselves into their worlds? Specifically, what are the professions and what would be good topics?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dip Management

Make sure the chip is thick enough to scoop the density of...oh wait, it's not about that kind of dip. Today's blog is about managing technology acceptance and the negative dip in user performance and proficiency that occurs when the user must learn a new tool or new technology.

The figure below illustrates a phenomenon known as the "j-curve." Dotted line "x" represents the user's current state of proficiency using the current tool or technology. Dotted line "y" represents the user's potential new level of proficiency with a tool or technology innovation. Hooray, look at how much better the innovation will make us!!!

Uh, what's that nasty little dip at the beginning all about? What's up with that? Well, that's the reality of the j-curve; it reminds us that we go from one moment being very proficient with our current tool or technology to being pretty stupid with the new one. This is why I hate doing upgrades, I go from smart to stupid in the time it takes to click "Install Now." They might as well relabel the button:

How bad the dip gets is indicated by the distance labeled "A." I am working on a current project where one of the managers named that area "the valley of suck." How much better the new proficiency (or user experience will be) is indicated by the distance labeled "B."

So the basic question every user ends up answering is Was the improvement labeled "B" worth the pain and humiliation labeled "A?"


I recently sat through a presentation where Tom Gorski, STC Director of Communication, demonstrated what the new electronic version of our magazine Intercom would be like.

My first reaction was "bright and shiny, cool" but then very quickly as I watched Tom click this, mouse over that, and a variety of other user interactions, I felt a dip in my enthusiasm--along the lines of "Gee, ten seconds ago I knew how to read a magazine, seems I don't any more."

Then I began to realize that with this new kind of magazine came a new level of power, due to new ways to navigate, search, drill down, and email snippets to friends that did not come with Intercom as I know it and love it today. I also saw how advertisers could provide links in their ads. Hmm, double thrill here. As a board member my first reaction was, great! added value to advertisers (more STC revenue), and as a reader I was equally pleased. As with most professionals, I find vendors to be a major channel of professional education. That's why the Expo hall has become such a mainstay of professional conferences. Being able to click over to their web sites would be a positive for me.

In short, as I better understood my potential new value distance of "B," I became more willing to tolerate "A."


A couple of lessons come out of all of this:
  • As technical communicators, we need to help users understand the improvement represented by distance "B." This means overviews of upgrades and new technologies must be benefit-oriented and situated in user contexts. Help make that formula B/A more acceptable by making B bigger.
  • As technical communicators, we need to minimize the pain represented by distance "A" through good user assistance. Once again, make B/A more tolerable but this time by making A smaller.
And as users ourselves, we should try to understand better what the new proficiency level "y" is and accept that some effort is required to get there. As I think back on all of the innovations I have opposed, most of them I would now fight for to the death if you tried to take them away from me.

OK, Twitter I would only fight for to near-exhaustion, but you get the point.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Edit my Wiki, please!

Click cartoon to enlarge.

Click cartoon to enlarge.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Comic Relief

As part of a project I'm working on, we are going to develop a comic-style collection of user scenarios to help communicate best practices around a security service we are offering. This is just experimental at this stage, mainly doing a concept piece to see 1) will it work and 2) will stakeholders buy into it. The model I am using is Google's Chrome's Googlebook for web app developers.

There can be a number of advantages to using a comic-style treatment:
  • Overcome traditional disinterest in "User Guides"
  • Allow a friendlier, instructive tone
  • Use line illustrations of screen areas to focus user attention on critical details
  • Use "illogical" shifts, such as going from a "white board" type overview to the narrator standing in front of a large UI pointing to an area of interest
  • More easily translated than screen cam tutorials
  • Can be randomly accessed for review purposes (something hard to do with video-based training)
The coolest part, though, is this gives me a legitimate reason to be playing with comic styles while at work and on the clock. How cool is that? Actually, I have a real by-gawd graphic designer assigned to the team, but I need to get more familiar with the genre...yeah, that's the ticket; I'm doing comics at work to get more familiar with the genre. Actually, my next column in UXmatters does deal with how I use comics in an internal Wiki-based status report.

So for a while, Fridays will be "Comic Day" in this blog. Just trying to get immersed in the genre--all work and profession related. I'll try hard not to enjoy myself :-)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

I am sitting in my cube in my "Army Strong" baseball cap and my khaki green fatigue-style jacket with my sergeant pins on my lapels. I was a patriotic draft-dodger of the late sixties: Low draft number so I enlisted and became an Arabic linguist for the Army Security Agency. It got me to Ethiopia and out of Viet Nam.

Actually, my tour was fun--more like a PG-13 Hunter Thompson episode--so I take the opportunity today to thank those who have truly served and who are serving by going into harm's way.


\:-| (lame emoticon of a salute)