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.