Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It ain't the walk, it's the talk.

I have a new column out today in UXmatters. It has to do with managing design tensions, but I talk a little in it about Action Science.

During my doctoral research, in which I studied how development teams learn collectively during usability tests, I came across a field called Action Science, which analyzes dysfunctional communication with a focus on resolving contradictions between stated beliefs and theories in use. In cliched terms: A lot goes wrong when there is a disconnect between our talk and our walk. When confronted with such disconnects, most of us tend to blame our walk for failing to meet the standards of our talk—and we vow to do better. But Action Science also challenges the validity of the talk. Many times, it provides a surprisingly simple answer: Stop saying what you obviously do not believe. You’re just confusing people.
It seems we carry a lot of scripts with us that are so ingrained we never question them. Yet, they don't seem to really work for us, so we behave to a different set of norms. What I personally found so liberating about Action Science was the throwing out of these scripts that just confused me and those around me.

As I say in my column, however, we have a natural response to beat ourselves up when our walk doesn't match our talk, as if we are failing to meet our standards. As we get ready to go into the new year, I invite us all to review some of our talk that doesn't match our walk and ask ourselves if we are reading from irrelevant scripts.

Some examples:
  • When I hear writers discuss the writing process (including many a writing professor) they invariably say "Start with an outline." I said that for years. But I never actually started with an outline, and most writers I have observed don't either. Most of us jump in and do some stream of consciousness writing or we jot down disconnected snippets of ideas that we don't want to lose. Later, we start to see a pattern or structure emerge and then we start rearranging the pieces. So why do we say we start with an outline? There's a script I plan to throw away.
  • Companies love to talk about teams and how they evaluate employees based on the success of the team. Yet, I've never been called in for my annual review as a team. It always feels like it is about me. Why can't companies say, "We will certainly consider how well you support teams we put you on, but essentially you will be evaluated and your raise based on your individual performance."
  • For many years I worked in management because my script said "I want to coach others." I was unhappy and the people I managed weren't all that thrilled. Finally I threw away the script that said "I want to be the coach," and replaced it with what I really wanted:" I want to be the quarterback." Nothing wrong with that. I'm happier and all the folks who do not work for me should be delighted as well.
So think about this. At this stage in your life, there is a good chance that you do a lot of what you do because IT WORKS FOR YOU! If you find a big disconnect between what you say and what you do, don't forget to challenge what you say with the same rigor that you challenge what you do. It might not be your walk, it could be your talk.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Picture Is Worth...hmmmm

I think we use icons way too much!

I'm working on a project right now where we are updating a web app and so I'm getting to talk to users and customers. One weakness that keeps coming up is that they can't figure out the icons.

Not all of them, and that's been the important aha for me. Here's my new insight:
  • Icons that differentiate among broad categories = good
  • Icons that differentiate among nuances within a category = not good
For example, imagine a menu bar that has career choices like doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker, construction worker. Icons would work pretty well in that instance. Now imagine clicking on the doctor icon and getting a drop down of specialties, identified by icons. Not so clear (even ignoring Bevis and Butthead out there giggling over icons for urologist, gynecologist,  etc).

In practical terms, I see this problem showing up in grids a lot. For example, in a web app that manages customer service tickets, we have columns for things like priority and status. Our priorities are High, Medium, and Low, and we have about six statuses like New, Assigned, In Progress, etc.

In our zeal to be more graphic, we have icons for the priority levels and for the statuses. Looks good! Problem is that no one can remember the icons and they have to mouse over the icon to see the tool tip.

In this case I think words are better than pictures, and users would rather have  dull and useful over graphically rich and obtuse.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Most Unlikely Pub

On Wednesday I went to the Irish Bred Pub in Rex, Georgia.

Rex (now that I've been there, I feel as if I am on a first-name basis with the town) is a bit south of Atlanta, just off exit 2 on I-675. I went there to celebrate David Ellis's birthday and to hear his band, 3-Way Street, play.

I've been in pubs all around Ireland and consider myself to know one when I see one. The one in Rex is, shall I say, a unique interpretation.

For one thing, no Guinness.
Not much along the lines of Irish food either. No, O'Potato Skins, Kelly Green Spinach Dip, or that kind of thing. I do think there was fish and chips on the menu, but it was more like the Captain Dee's and not what you would find wrapped in newspaper in Dublin. I had the Patty melt--sounds Irish at any rate, as in Saint...

Other interesting features:
  • Decorated for Christmas on November 9. Couldn't tell if it was decorated already or decorated still.
  • Brightly lit on the inside
  • Pool tables
  • Overwhelming smell of french fries--reminded me of the fries they used to serve at the Dew Drop Inn, a "private club" my parents belonged to in Mobile
  • Smoky 
  • Clientele that said the parking lot would be filled with pick-ups and harleys. Not a Prius/Audi crowd

And one more thing. Their logo was a leprechaun  dropping his pants in a "kiss my ass" pose. They explained that in the menu. It is their way of saying it's an adult bar and they don't want any "snotty-nosed kids" in it.

Well, you put all of that together with a 90-minute set from David and 3-Way Street and what do you get?


3-Way Street plays there every Wednesday. Go there, trust me, it's great.

And oh! That patty melt? I put it right up there with The Grill in Athens, GA.

[photos from Tim Harlan's FB]

Monday, October 24, 2011

The crowd goes wild

When working on new material, pick a small venue and pay attention to the audience reaction.

Note to self: Don't make Wagon Wheel a signature piece

Friday, October 14, 2011

Less tap, more glide

About three years ago I had a big Aha! moment. I had just decided to get serious about playing the reso I had fooled around with for 15 years and went online to learn about this box that had the cool sound and why I wasn't sounding a bit like the stuff that got me interested in the first place. I found a lesson by Ivan Rosenbeg and learned Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Well, the light went on.  I had been playing the reso like it was just an open tuned guitar played with a slide. I applied what I had learned from over 40 years playing folk music. I was using my basic Travis style picking, occasionally throwing in some rolls from my banjo days. You know, laying down a substrate of notes from the chord and weaving the melody line through it.

That's not what Ivan was doing. He was throwing something into the mix that had never occurred to me: silence. He was shaping the sound as he played individual notes, sometimes with some picking around it, but a lot of the time just letting the voice of the reso sing the melody. And he'd let it stop to breathe. And sometimes he'd slide the low D up to a G and let it drone the open G string right above it. I got it! This was a unique instrument and not meant to be played the same way I would a regular guitar.

Lesson learned and apparently forgotten. As I was getting ready for my first Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp last year, I bought Steve's four-hour bluegrass workout book and CD and started learning some fiddle tunes. One I learned was Saint Ann's Reel, arguably the prettiest fiddle tune of them all. But Steve's arrangements were for flat pickers, either guitar or mandolin. None the less, I learned them note for note and played them on my reso. Pretty, but one problem--practice as much as I have, I just can't get up to jamming speed.

Then the next Aha! There is no way that I was ever going to be able to match what a flat picker with fingers and frets could do by finger picking and playing with a slide. Please spare me your links to some Jerry Douglas recording and your "Oh Yeah?" I didn't say Jerry couldn't do it; I said I couldn't. So last night I'm jamming at the Red Light Cafe in Midtown Atlanta and sure enough the mandolin player says "Let's do Saint Ann's Reel." Well I tried to keep up but ended up playing what felt like every other note just to stay with the others. Hmmmm, it didn't sound real awful. So this morning I worked through it and paid attention to the "money notes," i.e., the ones that really defined the melody, and I ignored the flourish notes. All of a sudden what came out was Saint Ann's Reel at jamming speed.

So I opened up my Mike Witcher book to see how he played it and, lo and behold, I wasn't too far off of what he did. Just for grins, I counted the number of notes in the first three bars of the B part. Steve's flat picker arrangement had 21 notes. I was playing 15. (Mike's arrangement for reso had 17--well, that's why he's Mike Witcher and I'm Mike Hughes.) Just that small reduction in notes, though, was all it took to get me up to jamming speed.

Being a tech writer by trade, my first analogy was that it was like editing a text, taking out the non-essentials and leaving the meat. But that wasn't quite right. In editing, we take out parts that don't add value, but in this case Steve's extra notes all added value.

It's more like watching Gregory Hines tap dance. Fast, furious, fantastic! But now imagine another dancer joins him on stage, Fred Astaire. Fred dances to the same beat, but fewer movements. He glides, lingers in space for a moment, then seemingly falls into the next step. Beautiful!

One's not better than the other; each is bringing his unique artistry and talents to the stage. The reso is more like Fred Astaire. It glides, it lingers, it uses its special tonality to add voice to the melody.

So my new mantra is "Less tap, more glide." I think there are some life lessons outside of music somewhere in that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Live vs. Recorded

Warning: I have absolutely NO data to support the following assertion.

People have different tolerance levels for filler talk depending on if it is a live presentation versus a recorded one.

If I dial into a webcast, it doesn't bother me so much when the speaker starts off, "I'd like to thank Frank for inviting me here today, before I get started I'd like to let him say a few words." "Thanks, we are thrilled..."

BUT, if I encounter that at the start of a recorded webcast (where all of this goes on with just the boring cover slide up for the first five minutes) I go bonkers and drop off.

I'll leave it to others to prove such an experience is general (which I think it is) or to examine why we have different expectations. But if you believe it to be true, you should do two things:

  • Prompt the opening speaker to have a clear jumping point from intro filler to meaty start of the presentation.
  • Edit the intro filler out and start the recorded webcast at the meaty start.
Why not just start with the meaty start? Because I think the intro filler serves some real need in live presentations, it lets folks jostle the chairs and get situated, in reality or in virtual equivalents.

At any rate, think about it the next time you are doing a presentation that will get distributed in a recorded format. Right before you get into the meat, pretend the camera just got turned on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Consultancy 101

I have a really important presentation today in which I am bringing major stakeholders who have diverse opinions into an overview of a proposed UI redesign. I'm anxious because I already know they are opinionated and their opinions do not agree. Hence the meeting.

I'd like to get out of this alive and on good terms with everyone, so I am drawing on my old consultant days and a three step process that has served me well:

  1. Share my data with them, including the problems the solution is trying to solve.
  2. Give them my expert recommendation (after all, they've paid for it, they're entitled to it).
  3. Do what they want. It's their money; it's their project.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The warning signs that you are pushing for an unwarranted change

Seth Godin has an excellent blog called "The warning signs of defending the status quo."  It's good and I agree with everything in it.

But I find it interesting that the rather obvious assumption is that defending the status quo is wrong--something that deserves a warning. Often the existing state of affairs is a desirable state--that's why it is the status quo.

So I did a little Zen thing where you contradict your assumptions to shake yourself up a bit. Here are some of Seth's warning signs in their original (in italics) and then in their contrary form.

When confronted with a new idea do you:

  • Consider the cost of switching before you consider the benefits? Consider the fun of switching before you consider the costs?
  • Highlight the pain to a few instead of the benefits for the many? Highlight the benefit to a few instead of the pain for the many?
  • Exaggerate how good things are now in order to reduce your fear of change? Exaggerate how bad things are now in order to instigate a change?
  • Undercut the credibility, authority or experience of people behind the change? Undercut the credibility, authority or experience of people who support  the status quo?
  • Grab onto the rare thing that could go wrong instead of amplifying the likely thing that will go right? Grab onto the rare thing that goes wrong with the status quo instead of amplifying the many things that go right?
  • Focus on short-term costs instead of long-term benefits, because the short-term is more vivid for you? Focus on short-term benefits instead of long-term costs, because the short-term is more fun for you?
  • Etc, etc. I'll let you do the rest if you want.
Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against change. I just don't have anything against the status quo either.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What to do when you screw up

I screwed up at work. Details are not important. We all screw up in a number of ways: We make a bad decision, we behave poorly, or we just make a mistake ("Hmmm, it was such a small change, who would have thought it would have taken the entire stage environment down"), etc.

So you're telling me icebergs are bad things?

However you get there, you find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of having caused a problem and now having some degree of scrutiny coming at you. There are three ways you can handle it (hint: two of them are not good):
  • Aggressively snap back. "I wouldn't have made the mistake in the first place if so and so hadn't done such and such."
  • Get all passive and pouty. "Fine, I'll just do exactly like I'm told, Now, exactly, how do you want me to do my job?"
  • Take the beating and move on.
 I would never advocate deliberately making a mistake, but the truth is that mistakes can have an upside. People will watch how you handle yourself. When I used to play golf, I would occasionally land in the sand trap. So do the pros. The difference is that it would take me three strokes to get out and my exit shot generally landed on another fairway. Pros get out in one shot and put it next to the hole.

The aggressive reaction will be your first and instinctive one. Find something to distract you for 24 hours until it passes. Updating your resume is a good activity for a number of reasons. For one, it restores your self-esteem. It can also come in handy if it turns out that this was a really really major screw up.

When the aggressive reaction passes, you slip into the passive one. Have a drink and keep reminding yourself that this is a much bigger deal to you than it is to them. Go back to work with a bounce in your step.

Then take the beating. Admit the screw up, have a recovery plan, and get back to business. Do something visible that shows you have moved on and you are back in the saddle. It's better if that something is unrelated to the screw up. Something that establishes "Storm's moved on, nothing to see here."

Just like golf, people remember the recovery stroke that lands in the hole, not the slice that got you into the sand trap.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Notes from a Grammar Anarchist

I've been involved in some grammar conversations lately, and I have been reading some recent articles about grammar in Twitter posts. It has reminded me that I am the opposite of a grammar Nazi, I am a grammar anarchist. Man, I am the Che Guevara of grammar!

I hold that as long as the communication is clearly understood, standing on points of grammar is hegemonic. By that I mean that we apply somewhat arbitrary rules as codes to tell "our kind" from "them." The power class assigns the concept of "correct" to their way of speaking and "wrong" to other dialects that identify someone as not being in the power group.

Easy example: the double emphatic negative in English. No one has ever been confused by a sentence like "I don't have no money," although many English teachers pretend to be. We in power have made the somewhat arbitrary decision not to use it (Spanish, on the other hand, includes it as part of its standard grammar) and we wield that rule to sort out those who do use it. There is usually a very slippery slope that gets attached to this: Different = Wrong = Uneducated = Unintelligent.

Let's take an example that might make us a little uncomfortable. Some people pronounce the word "ask" as "aks." This is often viewed as "wrong" by people who pronounce it as spelled, and the insinuation is that the one pronouncing it "aks" lacks education or sophistication.

Instead of branding it as wrong, let's describe it for what it is: it's called a metathesis, i.e., a "transposition, more especially of the letters, sounds, or syllables of a word." There are lots of them around. But if you are a member of the power class, your metathesis is deemed "how the word is pronounced."

Everyone I know who rails against "aks," blithely pronounces the day after Tuesday as "Wenzday" as if it were spelled Wendsday. But it is spelled Wednesday and should be pronounced Wed-nes-day. After all, the day is named after Woden, not Woned. BTW, Woned is the mythical husband of Wonelly and the two of them are the German deities who go around stopping mules.

So why is "our" Wenzday right and "their" aks is wrong? They're both just examples of a common language phenomenon of metathesis.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for speaking clearly and unambiguously, but grammar Nazis stop the conversation. Their corrections are more distracting than whatever aberration they might be attacking.

Bill: "This evening couldn't have been more perfect."
Mary: "You shouldn't modify an absolute--if something is perfect there is no way it could ever be more perfect. So will you call me tomorrow?"
Bill: "Uh, I think I'm leaving the country, yeah, I have to go on a secret mission and will be out of touch for about three years."

So here's my point: Language is pretty screwed up and is full of inconsistencies. We need to be careful when we brand our inconsistencies as "the way it is" and others as "that's wrong."

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Why did it take this long?

Getting old has its compensations for what it extracts from us. Case in point:

I did a demo yesterday of a mobile application we are about to release. The manager of the product management group was monitoring the chat during the demo and forwarded a comment to me over SameTime chat.

"One of the participants noted that the email follow-up icon was not intuitive and looked more like it would be to edit the ticket being displayed. Did you consider other icons, maybe something more intuitive like an envelope?

No action required, I'm just passing this along to you."

I started to respond that we wrestled a lot with the icon selection on that and eventually decided to use the standard mobile icon for email.

I then thought about explaining that icons are a crap shoot at best and that we would have some customer education to explain that entire feature.

Finally I responded:


Why did it take me so long to develop that communication skill?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Two reasons you don't want to carpool with me...

Two reasons not to carpool with me:

The first is easy; I'm a terrible driver. I know this because I just finished a road trip with my 34-year old son who is also my insurance agent. His critiques aside, even I noticed it. I drive like an old man. (Well, I'm 62!) I run over curbs at the drive-through, miss exits, take my attention off the road while I fiddle with x (x can equal radio, CD, GPS, etc), get befuddled about which way I was going before I exited for gas, start the car even though it's already running, etc. In my defense, I did avert an accident when someone who drives worse than I do turned into our side of the four-lane divided highway, but instead of turning into the near lane swung all the way over into my lane (I was doing sixty). I've been meaning to take the new Jeep off roading but the dirt shoulder of a highway wasn't what I had in mind.

But that's not the only reason you don't want to carpool with me.

I just got a new instructional book and CD for Dobro. This one is by Mike Witcher. Now instructional CDs are a lot like girlfriends. At first you go through a lot of them, looking for "the one." Each time, I would think, now I will be able to play like x (x = yadda yadda yadda). But somehow it just doesn't work out. But this time I'm very optimistic for two reasons. One, like with girlfriends, there has to be a bit of "this one is right for where I am now in my personal development." Instructional CDs, like girlfriends, aren't bad, but they might not be the right one for where you are right now. I had Mike Witcher as an instructor this year at the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp, and as I listen to the songs on his CD I can tell that I will be able to learn them. But I've also learned a lot about learning in the last year. For one, I've learned about the incredible amount of repetition it takes for the finger muscles to learn something new. So I'm not so easily discouraged. "This is too hard" has been replaced with "This is new." I know it will be easy--by the 100th repetition.

And there is another trick I picked up at Kamp. This one I got from one of the other kampers at lunch who got it from one of his flat pick instructors. "You can't learn to play a song until you learn to sing it first." That's been one of my problems, I've been trying to learn a song by picking it out from the tab or sheet music. Sure, I would listen to it first, but not learn it. But now I'm trying just to learn the song first by singing along with the CD. And that's the other reason you don't want to carpool with me. I've been playing the 1 min:15 sec version (medium speed) of Angelina Baker back to back to back during my commute to work. I sing along with it, "Lah dee dah, lah diddy dah..." Again and again and again. Not playing (hey, I'm a bad driver but not THAT bad), just singing the melody to nonsense syllables. Now the tablature tells me how to play a song I know, so it's not so frustrating to grind through it trying to figure out how it's supposed to sound in three weeks when I get some kind of reasonable speed.

It's a 20-song set and I've set an aggressive pace of one song every two weeks. So in forty weeks I'll have it. Man, that's gonna be a lot of lah dee dah.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Better to be Dominant (Than Diminished)

[ I first wrote on this over a year ago. I've since gotten some additional insight from my tech writer perspective.]

My first Dobro lesson was with Mark Van Allen who spent two hours reviewing theory with me. It was a fascinating tour of the fret board, scales, and chords. Mark pointed out that if you play the scale of G on all the strings, and if you put a dot down every place you "fretted" a string, you create the basic chords included in the key of G.
G  B  D
0  0  0  GBD  G major
2  1  2  ACE  A minor
4  3  4  BDF# B minor
5  5  5  CEG  C major
7  7  7  DF#A D major
9  8  9  EGB  E minor
11 10 10 F#AC F# dim
Mark describes the patterns as bar, chevron, chevron, bar, bar, chevron, hockey stick (oh yeah, we'll talk more about that hockey stick later).
Recently, I was at the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp where Ivan Rosenberg established the same set of patterns. He did it by applying the following technique for making a triad chord: "Play a note, skip a note, play a note, skip a note, play a note." He started at G and went up the scale, producing the same pattern that Mark had.

The first six chords have a particular beauty and closure about them. The three major chords are the tonic (G) dominant (D) and subdominant (C) chords. The three minor chords are their respective relative minors. (A relative minor is the minor that has the same key signature as its relative major. Their scales share the same notes but start on different roots-one yielding a major scale and one yielding a minor scale.) So for G, we have E min, for C we have A min, and for D we have B min.

Then we get that darn F# diminished! What's with that? It's like meeting the folks in a jam: The banjo guy says, "I'm Fred," the mandolin player says, "I'm Skip," the guitar player says, "I'm Jack," and then the fiddler says, "I'm Throckmorton." What the...??!! How did he end up with the others?
Even Ivan kind of dismissed the F# diminished saying it wasn't very useful for what he wanted to cover that day. The problem I have with it is that it just doesn't seem to belong. Have you EVER played a song in G where an F# diminished showed up? I haven't. But the other six chords are mainstays for G progressions.

I've fretted (no pun intended) over this for a while, and I think I've resolved it, at least for me. That seventh chord is a D7 without the root D. A seventh is the 1 3 5 b7 and in the case of D the 3, 5, and flatted 7 would be F#, A, C--exactly what we have. That would make more sense, except now I have the problem of where did the lost root go? That's the problem I have been pondering for the last year or so.

Then my tech writer background kicked in and solved it. Think of these seven chords as a seven-page document in a word processor. The first six are in Portrait and the page is three strings wide. That's plenty wide enough because major and minor chords are properly rendered with three notes. 1, 3, 5 or a 1, b3, 5.

But what if the last page is supposed to be in Landscape? That would make the page four strings wide and--lo and behold--look what we now see if we go into Landscape view: D, F#, A, C  our D7. We were missing the root because it takes four notes to properly render a dominant 7th and we were looking at just the last three! Now it's as if that fiddler named Throckmorton winks at me and adds, "But my friends call me Buddy." The world makes sense again.

OK, one problem solved, but I now have two more: (1) Why doesn't F# get its own chord and (2) why does D get two chords?

Once again my tech writer perspective kicks in on the first one. In document design or screen layout, there is a well-known phenomenon that if two elements are too close they create a visual tension. For example, text too close to table borders are the visual equivalent of nails on a chalk board. Or put a button too close to the edge of the screen and the user begs for some padding to give it some breathing room. I think F# is just too close to G! Our ears don't like a chord that is only a half-step away from the root.

And as far as D getting two chords when everybody else gets just one? Well, maybe that's why it's called the dominant.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Living Large

For someone who is not the least bit afraid or reluctant to speak in public, I am still quite nervous when I play music in the presence of others. My stint on stage at the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp was a breakout moment for me.

And last night was another step forward when I took the stage for open mic at the Red Light Cafe and got the chance to play with my favorite band, Cedar Hill of Atlanta. I sang "Bring Your Clothes Back Home." When else can you stand up in public and sing "Sure I'm sitting there watchin her flip-flop-a-doopie, oh Baby."

 And in a bar no less :-)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Bucket List...check...check...check

So there I am backstage at the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville, TN. I'm trying to stay focused on my solo that will be coming up in just a few minutes while the stage manager corrals my group in the wings. While I'm standing there, Stacy Phillips (Reso players, yeah, THAT Stacy Phillips) comes up and gives me some mic tips about the resophonic. "Let the mic point here--not there--and during your solo, step in and flatten the guitar out."

Wow, thanks.

Then Ivan Rosenberg (yeah, THAT Ivan Rosenberg) gives me some reassurances that I'll do fine. While he's talking to me, Kenny and Amanda Smith go walking by me.

Wow, wow.

Then I hear them announcing my band and I hear them say my name. The handler herds us onstage. The sound technician positions the mic exactly where Stacy had said it should go. The mandolin player kicks it off and we do our song, "Love of the Mountains." My solo part comes up, I step forward a bit and turn my guitar a little flatter and away I go. Fifteen seconds later I'm done and the crowd applauds for me.

OMG Wow!

That was Friday, June 24, the last night of the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp. At the start of the week, my class instructor asked us to go around and play a little so he could get a gauge on our relative skill levels. I completely froze up and could barely remember anything I had ever played. Eventually I stumbled through "Grandfather's Clock." So I signed up for the band scramble. That's where you put your name in an envelope for your instrument, and on Friday they randomly assign you to a band. You're given 45 minutes to come up with a vocal and an instrumental (along with a band name). Then the competition begins in front of all the other campers. That's one way to get over your fear of playing in front of others. What was I thinking? As it was, my group won and that earned us the distinction of getting added to the Friday night concert as the opening band.

Well, it all turned out well--as the beginning of this blog documented-- and it was the thrill of a lifetime to be on that stage (and to not screw up).

And it was the lesson of a lifetime. I am honored to have been surrounded by these great musicians and witness first hand their humility and ability to listen all week to students and encourage them. Their universal talent across the board was to hear a student play and filter it down to one thing the student was getting almost right. They ignored the good and the truly awful of what you did and went for the one thing that could make you better--the logical next step. And that's all it took.

My personal thanks to my instructors, Mike Witcher and Ivan Rosenberg, for neither berating me nor trying to make me great (in one week). Thanks for accepting the player I was and leaving me just a little better than when you first encountered me. And thanks for teaching me how to make that happen on my own now, week by week.

Did I say Wow?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Something old, something new

My Wrangler died and I have replaced it with a new ride, a larger, more "grown up" Jeep Commander. I now have such amenities like power windows, doors with detents (not web straps) and the like. It is longer and wider than my Wrangler was, so I must align myself with the garage door with a two point turn before going in (as opposed to just a simple turn into the garage I could do with the Wrangler).

One nice feature is that it has an RF proximity detector on the back that alerts me if I am about to back into something, and that keeps me from running into the Red Tips as I back up for my approach into the garage. Hooray, technology!

But I've been having trouble judging the length, and I stop before I'm in far enough for the garage door to close. Hmmm, no high tech solution built in. So I hung some fishing line with a bobber on it so that the bobber taps up against my front windshield when I'm in far enough. The line and bobber were handy, and the ability to slide the bobber up and down the line made it easy to "calibrate."

So I have a RF proximity detector for not backing into the trees and a bobber on a fishing line for getting all the way in without crashing into the front of the garage.

Scoff at at no solution that works.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

One bag and a carry-on

 A principle of Eastern philosophy that I have come to appreciate says that a source of unhappiness is not knowing how the world works. If you do not know the nature of something or someone, you set up the wrong expectations or you attribute wrong causes or motives to others. The end result is you spend a lot of time angry or frustrated. Rocks by their nature are hard; don't expect them to make great pillows, and don't blame them for your sore neck in the morning if you do try to use one for that purpose. (Lesson learned from primitive camping.)

In my current role I do a lot of negotiating back and forth between product managers/stakeholders and development. I am reminded of a study I did back in my doctoral days as I observed the differences between these two camps during a product development cycle. I arrived at the metaphor of a couple packing to go on vacation. One is thinking of being there. That one has an extensive list of things to pack, and can change or add to the list up to the last minute. The other is thinking of getting there, and is focused on getting everything into one bag and a carry on. Every time the former makes a change, the latter sighs deeply, unpacks everything, and adds the new item, sometimes forcing a swap with something already packed. As frustrating as the latter can find the former during the packing phase, once there, all benefit from having what is needed (like sandals AND loafers AND sneakers).

Product managers are like the partner thinking of being there. That is their nature to think of all that could be useful and to keep updating the list until the last minute. Developers are like packers, focused on the constraints that each new item adds--that is their nature.

Whichever side you are on, if you can recognize the value of the other--great! If you can't, at least accept how the world works.

And be happy!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lessons Learned at Armuchee

Went to Armuchee (BTW, pronounced Ar-mur-chee) for a Memorial Day Bluegrass festival. Camped and jammed for two nights. I packed up tired and a little down, thinking about how good I should be playing--compared to the folks I jammed with. Got home and let the Dobro sit a day. Opened it up yesterday and felt all excited about how good I could be playing if I keep at it.

Bluegrass just keeps teaching me about a lot more than music. We shackle ourselves with expectations and drag them around with us like Jacob Marley's chains. It's good to aspire to be better, just don't forget to enjoy where you are in the moment.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Focus, Focus, Focus

If you want to get someone's attention, you have to get their focus. There are two ways to do this:
  1. Figure out what they are currently focusing on and step in front.
  2. Wave your hands and holler until they shift their focus to you.
In the world of web design, some designers employ Flash or other motion techniques as method 2. Not a good idea--this blog is not about that.

I love my email client and I am loathe to use them as a negative example, but they really blow it on method 1 when it comes to adding new contacts. Although I remember each time I go to do it that it does something weird, every time I'm left helpless and frustrated for two minutes until I relearn it. See if you can figure it out:

There is a New contact button way over in the left-hand navigation section. As Norm McDonald would say, "Wait..what??!!" Why is it in a navigation section and why is it out of my field of focus? I would have put it with the other buttons at the top of the Contacts working panel.

Speaking of focus, I once did an illustration where I showed a user focusing on a screen--it looked something like this:
Everyone told me I had the arrow going the wrong way. Interesting that we think of vision and focus as something we project outward into the environment, as opposed to a filtered taking in of stimuli from the environment.

Addendum: After giving it some thought, I thought this might be the more accurate illustration:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Birthday Resolutions

I turn 62 tomorrow, and I feel that's a good occasion to set some self improvement goals:
  • Play slower
  • Play softer
  • Play more precisely
  • Play more artistically
I'll start with the Dobro, but it looks like a good list in general.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Musical dimensions

I am a hopeless Aristotelian; I love to create classifications and taxonomies that make neat little boxes and then I put hopelessly messy realities into them. On my ride into work today, I created a way to classify all musicians (or more accurately the ways we are musicians) along two axes--thus creating four quadrants within which I can box myself or others.

The two axes are
  • Social--essentially a binary axis of "plays alone" and "plays with others"
  • Literal--"free style or creative" on one end and "plays it like it's written" on the other
The illustration above provides stereotypes for each of the quadrants.

There is nothing judgmental about this system, nor is one's position in a quadrant fixed. I, for one, can be found in quadrants I, II, or IV depending on when you snap the picture.

I do think, however, that your dominant quadrant can shape how you play. For example, I spent most of my life in quadrant I, playing folk songs on the guitar by ear and writing my own music. When I started learning Dobro, I stayed in that mode pretty much exclusively. As such, I have a tendency to want to maintain a full picking pattern as "background" and pick the melody line out as I lay down a carpet of notes around it.

I have a buddy who is primarily quadrant II. He's quite literate on piano, and although he learns guitar songs by ear, he can play a very literal rendering of the source he learned the song from. I don't do so well at learning by ear because I have a dyslexic ear. 1. 3. 5 and 1, 5, 3 sound alike to me. Or if I get 5 out of 7 notes, well that's as good as all 7. Unfortunately, playing by ear has been my learning style most of my life.

I've started operating in quadrant IV a lot--participating regularly in bluegrass jams, and this has driven me to quadrant II. I try to learn a song from a jam, but I can tell I'm not quite "getting it." So I have started to read music so that I can get the melody line correct. Then I arrange it for the Dobro. But my quadrant IV perspective has made it so I am not as compelled to lay down the carpet of notes any more. I'm getting used to having others establish the full body of a song, and I am learning to add grace licks or transitions. And since the Dobro does not play certain chords very well (open tuned to a G-major), I'm learning to pick through those awkward chords with delicate melody or harmony lines rather than playing robust multi-string chords.

I'll probably never get to quadrant III, although I envy those folks. That's where most session musicians operate, you know, folks who get paid to play. It's OK, just moving into II and IV has rejuvenated my appreciation of music and my enjoyment.

Be careful about quadrant IV, though, that's a real addictive neighborhood.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Cost of Lost Productivity--Myth?

In a very ironic twist, while working today, I took a Twitter link to a web article that discussed the distractions that keep us from working. It was like one of those dream inside a dream things in Inception. The article showed statistics for the things that distract us (like social networks and reading Internet articles). It did some quick math and concluded "That hour per day translates into $10,375 of wasted productivity per person per year, assuming an average salary of $30/hour."

I see this reasoning a lot, especially in ROIs and such. "By reducing the support desk's search time by 15% we would save $375,000 a year, justifying the addition of three positions to overhaul and maintain the new knowledgebase files."

The flaw is this: If given that hour back, most people would not get an hour's more work done. Especially the kinds of workers who are in a situation where they can get distracted by email and Internet related things.

I was at an STC conference once where a panel was discussing trends and the topic came up of how technical communicators could show their value. One person made an argument similar to the one above, "By making the support group more efficient we can save $x.xx per year in support costs." I pointed out that in my company (not IBM at the time, BTW) such a claim would have to be supported by the Help Desk manager committing to reducing the head count by that equivalent amount. Otherwise, the money will not have been saved. Jeez, you would have thought I was advocating euthanasia.

But it pointed out the fallacy of the argument. If you really were making folks 15% more efficient, then you should be able to get by with 15% less people. The unwillingness to advocate the headcount reduction shows a lack of faith in the assumption.

We all need to be a little bit skeptical of these "productivity" arguments that assume more output automatically follows more bandwidth. ROIs are bogus unless the customers are writing bigger checks or the company is writing smaller checks.

Now, I need to get back to work.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A turn in the road

Ta da! A new brand for my blog. I turn 62 this month--three score and twain--and I feel like it's time to shift my life focus a bit. I'm not changing it entirely, more like broadening it. My tag line still mentions technology, but it now encompasses music and social interaction. And my professional associations and credentials have given way to other associations by which I am defining myself more and more.

In spite of my opening this blog with a mention of my age, I don't see this as a maturing process, not even a moving on (which is a lot like "moving away from"). It's more of a "staying in motion" thing.

As my buddy, Miranda, has wisely told me, "Your gear is your fear." I've dropped some of the credentials that said "I'm smart," but I have replaced them with mentions of clubs that say "I belong." Maybe there is a Maslow's hierarchy of fears theme here.

As my mentor, Carol Barnum, has often said, "Writing is thinking." I'm going to write about different things, or at least write more about things I care about outside of technical communication and software design. I'm afraid of thinking the same old thoughts over and over again. My brain wants to think new thoughts.

Please stay tuned and think some of these new thoughts with me.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Click of Recognition

For every wise adage, there is an opposite and equally wise counterpart. "Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread" can be countered by "He who hesitates is lost." I bring this up because I am going to talk about the acceptability of acting on data from a scant sample, as in n=1. Big disclaimer up front: Don't do it all the time without careful consideration of the context. That having been said...

In qualitative research there is a phenomenon known as the "click of recognition" that the researcher can experience. In UX terms this means that sometimes we hear a user say something or see her do something and a light goes on. We have a clarifying moment or epiphany if you will. That is because in user research, the user is often a lens through which we see the application with our own preconceptions and biases filtered out. Something that seemed so crystal clear to us suddenly becomes vague or ambiguous when we see that same widget or paragraph through someone else's frame of reference.

How can you make decisions based on the input of just one user? Let me give some examples from a writing perspective. In doing so, I'm going to go through my "hierarchy of clicks."

Let's say I have written something, and I give it to my wife to look at. She sees a misspelled word and points it out. Do I say, "Thanks, but let me have twelve other people look at it too." No. It's wrong, I know it's wrong, I was just too close to it and didn't catch it. Little miss fresh eyes did, and I make the change based on an n of 1. The UI equivalent is a bug, or where I failed to apply a known and widely accepted best practice. It takes one user stumbling on it to trigger a click of recognition.

Now my wife keeps reading and comes across the sentence "Tom told Dick to fire Harry, and it made him mad." She makes the following observation, "I'm a bit confused about which of these characters you mean by 'him.' Was Tom mad because he had to tell Dick how to do his supervisor's job, was Dick mad because Tom was making him do the dirty work, or was Harry mad because he was getting fired?" Hmmm. Crystal clear to me when I wrote it because I knew whom I was referring to. Now that I have her lens, I can see how ambiguous (or triguous) the referent is. Do I need to get another opinion? Politics of marriage not withstanding, no. Now that I see someone else's reasonable take on it, I have a click of recognition.

But then she says, "Times New Roman is so boring, I think you ought to use Verdana." "Thanks," I reply while making a mental note to get twelve other opinions.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Eight ways...

I'm going to be running a meeting online in which I'll be showing design concepts to key customers to get their input. One of the product managers can't make it and asked me if I would be recording the session.

It caused me to remember a class I took about 20 years ago in Instructional Technology. The instructor was covering "slide presentations" (yes, I'm THAT old) and said, "There are eight ways to put a slide into a slide tray, and seven of them are wrong."

Sort of summarizes my current feeling about the risks we incur any time we add technology to a meeting or presentation.

I told the product manager, "No."

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Three Mistakes in Social Media

Three mistakes we make when participating in social media:
  1. We fail to recognize that there ARE multiple realities. It is possible for two diametrically opposed positions to both be right--if you account for perspective. This mistake manifests itself by someone saying "You are wrong," when the more accurate statement should be "I have a different perspective."
  2. We vilify those we disagree with. "You are wrong," becomes "You are evil," or "You are a troll."
  3. We comment on political or social issues in inappropriate forums. for example, a website for Bluegrass musicians is not a good place to discuss bin Laden's death.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Association of Technical Communicators

I just had a blog posted at the ATC website. I talk about how technical communicator skills can be useful as a UX architect.

By the way, I really like this new group and the community website. Give them a look over at http://www.mytechcomm.org/main/summary.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Art of Losing

I lost an argument yesterday.

Essentially, I proposed "to-may-to," a peer countered "to-mah-to," I rebutted with some additional facts, and the boss chimed in with "I like to-mah-to."

My first instinct was to rebut again and make my points again but stronger. But my experience and executive overrides kicked in and I reminded myself of an old adage "Before you can influence others, you must first allow yourself to be influenced by them." This has led to my own adage: "Never squander an opportunity to lose an argument." Losing can be good; it gains you equity with the team if you do it gracefully. Here are some points that help me when I need to lose (or when I'm going to lose anyway).
  1. Any time you disagree with another expert, there is a 50% chance you are wrong.
  2. Even if you are right, any time you disagree with an expert, there is a 50% chance that what you're arguing about has no practical significance for the user.

    Let's stop there for a moment. That means there is only a 25% chance that if you continue an argument and win, you will do any good. I think point #2 is generous in assigning a 50% probability that there is any efficacy in the outcome. If two experts disagree, either proposition will probably work. Think about the bottom line impact some of these disputes have or don't have. The answer should be a gauge as to how long the argument should go on. For example, how much will your company's profitability be affected if you use "e-mail" or "email"  in the UI? In this example, flip a coin but don't flip it too high. Every second you wait for it to land is losing money.

  3. Give the other side the last word. Losing with an "OK, but..." forfeits any equity the loss would have gained you.
Here is the truth that took way too long for me to learn. Your value to the company (and your likelihood of surviving the next layoff--and yes, there WILL be a next layoff) is not determined by how smart you are perceived to be. It is determined by how effective you are perceived in facilitating other people doing smart things.

Truth is, most people do not remember who made specific points in a meeting. More times than not I hear the wrong person being credited with a particular statement. What people will remember, however, is how well the teams you are on end up doing.

Don't seek a reputation of being the "guy with the answers." Instead, become the "guy who initiates and facilitates productive conversations."

And many times that means both making the initial proposal and then graciously losing the argument that ensues.

If I weren't so naturally talented at making the wrong proposal, I'd probably have to do it on purpose just to get ahead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Outliers and Parallelism

Sometimes we tout parallelism with the same misguided religious fervor with which we persecute any use of the passive voice. For example, I am not the least bit bothered by the lack of parallelism in the following menu (nouns and verbs mixed):

That having been said, it is a pretty powerful force. And sometimes we must choose between being parallel and some other good rule of rhetoric.

Two examples that vex me periodically:

  • Tables where all of the cells in a column have multiple entries except one. I want to use bulleted lists to make the multiple entries more readable. Do you  bullet the lone item in the one odd cell? I do.
  • Grouping fields on a form where inevitably there is one field that accounts for an entire function and doesn't go with the others. Do you fence in the one lone field with a grouping box or leave it out there as a free range field? I fence it in.

Am I being overly zealous in my desire to have parallel treatments? Are there other examples that vex you? Chime in.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Nudging and Fudging

I went to an interesting TAG (Technology Association of Georgia) Product Management breakfast meeting last week, and I participated in a buzz group that talked about Agile and Product Feature road maps. It was interesting that nearly every company/person in the session had the same experience about how to manage executive expectations.

Executives are focused on dates, much more so than features. Don't miss a date! But what you CAN do is get flexible with the feature set that releases on that date. Or if you like pithy rules: "Don't nudge dates; fudge features.

Now customers are a different thing, and they pay more attention to features. The collective wisdom of the group was to commit to only 80% of your capacity so you had some bandwidth to fix problems or accommodate late entries into the requirements mix. Some also had quarterly communications with customers to let them know what would be rolling out in the near future.

Another interesting nugget from one company was to let product managers communicate only with prototypes and not bullet points. It made sure that PM was talking about things on the "Do" list and not on the "wish" list.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Accessibility: Some honest talk

Sometimes I like to use my blog to wrestle outwardly with conflicts I am having so that others can weigh in with their perspectives. This one can get a little edgy, so let's all stay on our good behavior.

Is it just me or can accessibility be a big pain in the ass at times? As Andy Rooney once said about an entirely different subject "I am violently ambivalent" about this. By that I mean I can passionately argue two opposing perspectives, mainly because I have two opposing perspectives.

The side of me I like holds the position that accessibility is good and anything we do to make our products more accessible makes our products better.

The part of me I'm a little nervous about exposing wants to offer a lot of rich Internet interactions and resents the constraints that accessibility requirements put on that.

These opposing poles can be summarized by what I call the accessibility paradox:
I don't need to be accessible because my clients aren't physically challenged--but none of my client base is physically challenged because my product's lack of accessibility won't let physically challenged persons become my clients.

These debates make great barroom entertainment and inspiring conference presentations, but right now I have some very real design decisions to make. Anyone who has both design and accessibility responsibilities knows the frustration of using AJAX. Anything dynamic on a screen starts to cause problems for adaptive technology devices.

I'm not going to pick on Jaws because it is a good product, but I will use them as an example. Instead of making me constrain my design so that Jaws can handle it, why not beat Jaws up until it can handle these modern types of interactions? Instead of regulating me, regulate them!

OK, it felt good to whine, so let's get practical for a minute.

As a designer I have to strike that balance between rich interactions that enhance the user experience for my majority base, namely folks who can see the screen and manipulate a mouse. I also need to make the content and functionality available to those who can't. Companies, in general, get a little bipolar on this. Marketing wants to say the products are accessible; they also want rich interaction; and they want a lot of new features. How's the classic punch line go? "Pick any two."

I read an accessibility tip yesterday that said to summarize the key points of a graphic in its caption. I work with dashboards where the graphs are dynamically generated in real time with the latest available data. How am I going to do that? You caption a sparkline that contains 30 days of trend data or a tree map that is summarizing hundreds of data points--and generate that caption dynamically.

And yes, I know the classic solution to the problem is linking to the source data  from a longdesc attribute in the image tag. That's work, that's time, that's less features we will be able to build for the release. (BTW, I elaborate on this in the Comment section.)

I'm not saying we shouldn't do it; I just wish the conversation about accessibility would be more frank when it comes to the opportunity costs and real costs to implement it.

And I'm embarrassed by my own petty frustration in having to accommodate someone who has a real beef with the world and a legitimate cause for frustration.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happy pi Day

I love pi! It's Greek; it's irrational; it's a number that eschews exactitude and demands rounding.

What exactly is it? Take a piece of string and tie a loop in both ends. Pin one end in the center of piece of paper and put a pencil in the other. Now, with the string stretched tight, move the pencil around the pin until it inscribes a circle. Now lay another string around the circumference of the circle you just drew. Cut off any extra. Fold it in half and cut it. Lay one of the halves next to the first string. The second string is pi times as long as the first.

Here's the cool part: Even though you have obviously created a physical ratio (second string to first) there are no numbers that can express that ratio. Really pissed off the Pythagoreans ;-)

Enjoy pi today.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

If I only had an *

My favorite quote from the Wizard of Oz:

Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma.

I'm designing a new user experience for submitting technical support requests. The support folks said customers aren't giving them enough information and they specified what fields they wanted to be required. So I mocked up a form and put "*" in front of the required fields. Then I cross referenced it against the existing form and found mine was pretty much the same--except for the asterisks.

Pretty powerful thing, an asterisk, apparently it can make our users smarter.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When did I become "that guy?"

Five months ago I was in the camp of "All I need my cell phone to do is make and take calls." Then I realized that sooner or later I was going to need to design user experiences for smart phones and that I had no direct experience as a user. So I cowboyed up and bought an iPhone.

Fast forward to yesterday. I got a call from our customer loyalty manager late in the afternoon (on my iPhone). We are doing a big customer hoo-hah thing today and we were out of Post-it flip charts. (Who you gonna call? Apparently the UX guy!)

So I go down to the conference room to see what they need. They showed me what they had and suggested I write down the part number and description. "Not necessary," I said. I took out my iPhone and opened my RedLaser app. I scanned the bar code and got a description and the pricing for all the local office supply stores. I put the address of the closest Office Depot in my Google Map app and used my iPhone's GPS to get there.

When did I become "that guy?" Five months ago I'm all about "I don't need no stinkin' camera in my cell phone," and yesterday I'm laser scanning bar codes with it.

Lesson for UX: Discount NO technology. The adoption rate happens in dog years, if not faster.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Hughes' Law of Non-linear UX Time

I've always wanted my own law. Here it is:


User experience time is logarithmic. The user's first 30 seconds on an application or web page is as important as the next 30 minutes. And that 30 minutes is as important as the next 3 hours.

Loren Burke, my usability mentor, created an entire business fixing the first 30 minutes of products that were about to be launched or which were already in trouble.

I am reminded of this as I am working on dashboards right now. Manage the first 30 seconds, then the first 30 minutes.

The next question then is whether to move on to the next 3 hours or to find another 30 second/30 minute problem to solve.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Spherical User

Just read a great joke--OK, a joke I liked at any rate.

"A dairy farmer, in a fit of desperation because his cows aren't giving enough milk, consults a theoretical physicist about the problem. The physicist listens to him, asks a few questions, and then says he'll take the assignment. A few weeks later, he calls up the farmer, and says 'I've got the answer.'

'Tell me,' pleads the excited farmer.

The physicist starts his answer by saying, 'First, we assume a spherical cow...'"

Physicists often have to construct clean, clear-cut laws to describe messy realities. They do this by cleaning up their concepts about reality, assuming frictionless surfaces, loss-less mirrors, and yes, lots of spherical objects.

UX and UI designers sometimes do the same thing, assuming a spherical user who knows what he wants to do, will not make errors in doing so, and will do it in an environment that supports his objective, his timing, and everything else idiosyncratic about him.

Anything outside of those design boundaries we term "edge cases." The result is often a design that works great when it works and that really sucks when it doesn't.

I admit that I laughed at the cow joke, but it was a nervous, could-this-be-me laugh. Maybe because in my Agile zeal, I try to avoid over-thinking the solution at the front end. My scenarios are happy paths that lead to success.

But I'm going to stop and pause more and ask myself, "How can someone do this wrong?" Anyone have any experience or ideas on how to implement that step systematically in an Agile model?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Degentrification of User Assistance

A theme I have watched for awhile has finally caught up to me. There has been a steady movement away from using professional technical writers to produce user assistance and, instead, let subject matter experts do it directly.

Some examples:
  • Wikipedia (I use it all the time to understand security concepts my products naturally assume I already know.)
  • Product-sponsored social networks that let users pose questions to product experts or other users
  • Open social networks where users pose questions for other users in the audience, e.g., Twitter and Linkedin
I am working on a project now to revamp an Internet portal for managed security services. There is a  requirement in the project to provide contextual help at the page level. But there are no technical writers. To date, there has been no formal approach to user assistance, and this particular portal offers a varied set of documents available to users. There are PDF mini-papers, PDF user guides, HTML help for some pages, Knowledge Base Articles that are available to the public, and video tutorials and best practices documents provided by a training group.

And there was a strong sentiment among the project stakeholders to have SMEs write the content directly without having to require engineering intervention to post new topics or edits to existing topics.

As someone who still feels he is a technical writer at heart, my initial reaction was mixed. On one page our current online explanation reads, "This report is ran every hour." Ouch. Also, last year I pulled in user guides from a third party vendor where none of the procedures had numbered steps. Yes, this is what happens when you let untrained writers generate unedited content.

But let's remember Sturgeon's law: "Ninety per cent of everything is crud."

The truth is that in those examples above, there was also some very useful information--just badly written. On the other hand, take a look at professionally written Help and you will find your share of well-stated, correctly punctuated crud. "Type your user ID in the field labeled UserID." Well said but still crud!

My job right now as the UX architect on the project is to translate these high level requirements into scenarios and the starts of stories so that my Engineering cohorts can estimate the various features. So with apologies to my technical writer friends, I have embarked on creating a design that will make it easy for SMEs, who have insight about how to get value out of our portal and services, to pass that insight along. I want it to be easy for the SME to post, and easy for the user to get to it.

So I'm looking at a split pane, embedded assistance panel. The top pane will be for tips and definitions and the bottom pane will be for links to larger files, such as video tutorials and PDF documents that offer more extensive information. It can also contain links to KBAs as well. The split pane approach keeps the external links above the fold.

I'm asking the Engineers to code it to look for HTML files in a database, and to make that database available to the SMEs who are responsible for the content.

So not only I am developing user stories such as:
  • As a portal user, I want to see contextual Help so that I understand how to use specific aspects of a screen I am on.
  • As a portal user, I want to hide the embedded Help pane so that I have more real estate on my screen.
I am also developing stories such as:
  • As an SME, I want to upload content to the embedded Help for a specific screen so that I do not have to be limited by engineering availability to add or edit content.
  • As an SME, I want to provide links to documentation and media that could help a user on a specific screen so that I do not have to be limited by engineering availability to add or edit content.
In addition, I will develop the templates and CSS files for the embedded panes along with guidelines that help SMEs focus on writing effective user assistance.

Not sure what the outcome will be, but I suspect it will be Help that is more helpful but less elegant than if we went with a traditional HAT and technical writing staff. I'm sure there will be examples aplenty that support Sturgeons law, but that is always the case.