Author Archives: Sarah Maddox

7 Archetypes of Video Storytelling (stc14)

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2014, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Where feasible, I’ll take notes from the sessions I attend, and share them on this blog. All credit goes to the presenters, and any mistakes are mine.

This session promises to offer The Content Wrangler at his best: Scott Abel on “The Power of Emotion: The Seven Archetypes of Video Storytelling”.

From Scott:

We’re wired for stories. Human beings are designed to consume stories. It’s how we understand things.

Stories are an art form. They’re often performed, and it’s the emotion in the story that makes us remember them.

Seven recurring themes

Scott showed us examples videos that harness the 7 recurring themes or story archetypes:

  1. Overcoming the monster. David and Goliath, good versus evil, nature versus machine.
  2. The rebirth, revival, renaissance.
  3. The question. A mission to change things for the better.
  4. The journey, or the return. Moving from one idea to another, or growth.
  5. Rags to riches. Overcoming adversity or poverty.
  6. Tragedy. An unhappy ending, or a twist that you don’t expect, almost always involving the main character.
  7. Comedy. Humour, sometimes with a little satire.

We also saw a cute hybrid: a musical comedy

Transmedia

Scott says we need to think about how we’re going to tell stories in our new world of interconnectedness. Send out our message on all channels – the omni-channel approach.

See the retelling of Cinderella in the video below: “Transmedia Storytelling” – liquid content that’s adaptable for distributing to different media. A different way of telling stories altogether.

Cinderella 2.0: Transmedia Storytelling

Don’t be afraid to use emotion to engage your audience!

Thanks Scott

This was a cute, amusing and engaging session. :)

Patient Education and Health Literacy (stc14)

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2014, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Where feasible, I’ll take notes from the sessions I attend, and share them on this blog. All credit goes to the presenters, and any mistakes are mine.

This session appeals to me as something a little different. Corinne Renguette discusses “Patient Education and Health Literacy: Examining Interview Discourse”. Corinne is from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

In particular, I’m interested in this bullet point from her session summary:

[Attendees will] understand more about issues in patient education and informed consent and the benefits of collaboration in this interdisciplinary field.

Background and definitions

Corinne’s session is about a collaboration between academia and industry, which she feels is interesting to technical communicators.

The aim of the study is to focus on the learner (patient), looking at the language the patients use when they’re discussing a particular procedure, both before and after using the learning materials. The subject matter was obesity and bariatric surgery.

The patient education materials were multimodal.

Corinne talked about the complex terms used in the study, and defined some of them for us. One of the terms is Body Mass Index (BMI) as used to define obesity. The participants in this study had been classified as severely obese, and had high risk of morbidity (death) due to their obesity.

Another term is “health literacy”: The word literacy has a complex definition. You need to define the difference between acquisition (gaining knowledge without conscious learning) and learning (gaining conscious knowledge through teaching).

In the US, over 90 million people have limited health literacy, meaning that they don’t understand basic health information. This results in poor patient health outcomes. Patients need to be able to read and understand health literature, and also be able to make decisions and act upon them.

An example is filling out informed consent forms. Bariatric surgery is major surgery and can have a big effect on someone’s future.

Theoretical framework

It’s hard to measure what someone has learned. Often you have to use a test or questionnaire. In this case, Corinne looked at the language people used after doing the learning.

Because of the combined disciplines in this study, Corinne used a blended theoretical framework to see if the learning objectives were met. She discussed the specific theories used. I took this screenshot of her slide:

stc14

Assessing the outcomes

Corinne looked at the interview discourse. The assumption was the the patients’ answers showed their ability to recognise and recall the information about bariatric surgery.

Methodology

The clinic selected a representative sample of people who would normally be offered the surgery. Corinne coded the pre-test and post-test answers to judge the improvement. For example, she used a plus sign to mean an improvement, a minus sign for a deterioration in the response, and an equals sign if the response was of the same quality.

The entire study happened during the same day. The same questions were asked in the pre-test and the post-test sessions. The test group and the control group had the same questions.

Results

These were the results as shown in the post-test versus pre-test answers:

  • 52% of the test participants gave improved answers.
  • 23% of the control group gave improved answers.
  • More than half of the test participants improved their answers in 53% of the questions.
  • More than half of the control group improved their answers in 16% of the questions.

Corinne now showed us some detailed responses from three of the questions. This was very interesting. For example, we saw new technical vocabulary and lengthier procedural information in the post-test answers. People might struggle with the exact terms, but clearly had a more specific knowledge of the procedure that would be performed on them (the bariatric surgery). When asked how much water you should drink after your surgery, the test group showed a 94% improvement, while 0% improved their answer in the control group. This is an important result for post-surgery health.

Conclusions and ideas for more studies

The test groups shows consistently better results. The multimodal educational materials may have helped to mediate the learning processes. More studies are required, because this was a small control group.

Other studies could add social elements such as study groups, online chats, and experiential learning projects in the classroom.

Corinne pointed out that we, as technical communicators, could ask ourselves how we could work on a partnership to test our communicational materials and what types of collaboration could be useful to us.

Thanks Corinne

I didn’t have time to take notes from everything Corinne said. This was a fast-paced and interesting session, offering a glimpse into the world of academic studies. Thanks Corinne!

The Making of “The Language of Content Strategy” (stc14)

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2014, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Where feasible, I’ll take notes from the sessions I attend, and share them on this blog. All credit goes to the presenters, and any mistakes are mine.

The Language of Content Strategy is a book by Scott Abel and Rahel Anne BailieIn this session at STC Summit 2014, Scott Abel discussed the content strategy, tools and technologies behind the making of the book.

Problem statement

Time, money, skills and experience are in short supply. Hand-crafting content is expensive, time consuming and not scalable.

The demands of the audience are changing. People use social media, rather than going to a specific website to gather information.

To meet the demands of content delivery today, we need to adopt manufacturing principles. The is made possible by content engineering: The application of engineering discipline to the design and delivery of content.

Case study: The making of  The Language of Content Strategy

In this session, Scott will show us how he and Rahel created a book, an eBook, a website, and a set of learning materials, from a single source, without breaking the bank. They did it by harnessing technology and crowd sourcing.

Scott talked about the differences in approach between technologists and editorialists. Conflict and time wasting arise because of a lack of a common language. Rahel and Scott wanted to craft a solution: A crowd-sourced book about content strategy that is both a case study in content engineering and a practical example of content marketing.

Setting up

The team started with careful analysis of the educational landscape, contributors, and more. Then they defined the content types they needed.

  • The smallest unit of content they would create would be a term and definition pair.
  • Another content type is an essay of 250 words.
  • Then there are contributor bios, statements of importance, and resources.

For the authoring environment, the team selected Atlassian Confluence. It’s a wiki with support for XML content re-use.

They also chose a gimmick: 52. The project included 52 terms, 52 definitions, by 52 experts, published over 52 weeks, and one of the output formats was 52 cards.

Then they selected a team of experts: the best and brightest in tangentially-related fields.

Other roles and responsibilities: markup specialist, editor, indexer, peer reviewers, and a graphic artist.

The source data

The source was authored in Confluence wiki. The content types are clearly labelled: Biography, importance statement, topic name, definition, etc.

The output

In the various output formats, the content is structured differently but still consists of the various topic types. For example, in the printed book every chapter is two pages long, and consistently structured. The eBook format is slightly different, as are the website format and the flash cards learning format.

Each Thursday, one chapter is automatically published. The web output also contains audio files, photos, and additional resources that are not contained in the book.

The advantages of a future-proofed content strategy

The team was able to add content after the fact, such as the audio files for accessibility. The content strategy was designed to future proof the content, so the team was able to adjust to challenges and opportunities. And the strategy is repeatable. Now that it’s been done, it can be done again.

Scott told an amusing story of how he disobeyed his own rules, and tried to create another channel by copying and pasting instead of using the single-sourced content. A marketing person asked him to create a slide deck from the content. He was on a plane, without WiFi, so decided to do it by cutting and pasting. Needless to say, this didn’t work. By the end of the flight he had only 13 slides of the required 52, and had run out of laptop battery!

Cost

The cost of the project came in at under $10,000USD.

  • Approximately $4000USD forgraphic design, indexing, editing, markup assistance, audio tracks and hosting, the URL for the first year, and site hosting for a year.
  • Approximately $5,440 for book donations, postage, Adobe InDesign, Confluence Wiki, and overhead/administrative costs.

Scott’s promise

Scott finished by saying that if you want to undertake a similar project, ask him. He will try to help.

This was a fun and inspiring talk. Thanks Scott!

Information Architecture Bottom Up (stc14)

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2014, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Where feasible, I’ll take notes from the sessions I attend, and share them on this blog. All credit goes to the presenters, and any mistakes are mine.

Mark Baker, author of the book Every Page is Page One, presented a session on Information Architecture Bottom Up. The outline of his talk ends with this summary:

This session will look a practical examples of top-down and bottom-up information architecture and will illustrate where top-down fails, and how to create a bottom-up architecture to replace or to supplement your top-down approach.

Bottom up

Traditionally, information architecture organises knowledge from the top down. As examples, Mark showed us the Map of the System of all Human Knowledge from the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert, the Linnaean classification system, and the Dewey Decimal system.

One of the simplest forms is the table of contents. You start with a general concept, and then drill down to the details. Such classifications tend to end with a category of “miscellaneous” items.

Sometimes tables of contents even act as a classification scheme, such as a clickable classification of organisms.

Another form is a system which lets you find out what medical problem you have, by progressively narrowing down your symptoms.

Mark showed us other examples of hierarchical organisation of data. Then he showed how hierarchies don’t necessarily meet a user’s needs. For example, if you’re looking for a convertible car, and the information on a car sales site is organised by year/transmission/price… and eventually by body type, you’ll need to move up and down the hierarchy a lot before you find what you want.

We will never find the hierarchy that will suit all users’ needs, because people have different needs.

Faceted classification

Such systems let you choose the things that are important to you. For example, a car sales site may have a set of various selection criteria in a side panel, such as price, transmission, mileage, year. You can choose to fill in some selection criteria and not others, and so find what you need.

There’s a big technological difference here. Paper can’t provide faceted classification, but computers can.

This is still top down. It’s a collection of taxonomies that define the things people are interested in, with respect to buying cars. It works, because most people buying cars know this particular taxonomy. But it won’t help people who don’t know the taxonomy. There are still classification problems.

Experts classify, the rest of us name things

A nice quotation from Mark:

“Experts classify. Everyone else names.”

Looking at flowers, and pansies in particular, the scientific classification of a pansy isn’t particularly useful to most of us. Looking at a Google search for common names of pansies:

  • Searching for “stepmother flower”, you find plenty of information and images for pansies. That’s good. In such cases, a search engine like Google works.
  • Searching for “football flower” shows images of pansies, and also of footballs made of flowers. Some good, some potentially confusing.
  • Searching for “Three faces under a hood” is particularly interesting says Mark. Looking at the images, you see a pansy (good), a girl in a hood, two people under the hood of a car, and a composite photograph showing the three faces of Mt Hood.

Scalability

None of the classification systems scale well. Tables of contents can get immensely long. Mark showed some examples from a book and an online help system.

There’s often too much variety, which leads to complexity and unevenness

Mark quoted David Weinberger: “Everything is miscellaneous”.

Everything flows to the Web

We shouldn’t attempt to push content into channels. Reuse is a big subject, often for the sake of being able to deliver the same content to multiple channels.

Problem, says Mark! There are no channels any more. All content flows to the web.

If people search for something on the Web, they will find the most popular hit – which will probably be your most popular product, even if published a few years ago.

Moving towards bottom up

What happens when someone does a search and ends up on a page in your content? They don’t start at the top. They start on the page that Google sends them to.

Mark isn’t saying we should throw away all the top down architecture. But we do need to start adding bottom up information architecture to our content.

Subject affinity

Looking at Wikipedia: it’s highly organised. There are various links and ways to move around. But it’s not ordered. Organised, yes. Ordered, no. The links point to related information, which provides a type of semantic clustering.

Dynamic semantic clustering

Mark showed us examples of information clusters that are dynamically organised:

  • Twitter hash tags
  • RSS feeds
  • Forums. Sometimes these are organised by number of votes.

Linking interesting connections without making a bowl of spaghetti

Most of the problems that people find are the irregular associations, and multiple connections. If things are regularly organised, people don’t usually have problems. So we need to help people with the irregular associations.

In a bottom up architecture, it’s easy to link to the interesting associations. If you tried to map all these associations from the top down, you’d soon have an incomprehensible bowl of spaghetti. In a bottom up architecture, the links show connections that are relevant in this context.

“A topic in a bottom up architecture is a hub of its local subject space.”

How do you make sure people don’t get lost?

This was a question from the audience. Marks’ answer was that you have to design the content for a bottom up architecture. You can’t just take the content from a top down hierarchy and put it into a bottom up system.

You must build context into the subject matter. Context in the table of contents doesn’t matter, but context within the subject matter does. Every page is page one, so every page must start by establishing the context. “Where am I.”

How can you filter the links based on the reader’s context?

In a tech comm point of view, you must have a systematic design for linking. A taxonomy is vital here. So, a taxonomy is not used for generating a table of contents, but instead for organising your links.

What about procedures and workflows?

What if a sequence must be performed in order? Mark’s answer is that a procedure should be the subject of a single topic. In top down design, a table of contents should not express a workflow, although it often does. So, workflow is one of the most important use cases for a bottom up architecture.

A person from the audience mentioned that you can illustrate workflow via a progress bar or images illustrating steps, which can link to steps in a complex workflow.

Topic types

Due to lively discussion with the audience throughout the presentation we ran out of time a bit, so Mark ran quickly through the types of topics in a bottom up architecture:

  • Workflow topics. We mentioned these above.
  • Pathfinder topics. These are about how you get from a business topic to an action in the system.
  • Big picture topics.
  • Tasks.

Walled garden or bazaar

Mark finished by comparing the top down approach (a walled garden) to the bottom up approach (a bazaar). The main difference: in the pictures Mark showed us, the bazaar had people in it. :)

Thanks Mark

It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear you speak.

Minimalism (stc14)

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2014, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Where feasible, I’ll take notes from the sessions I attend, and share them on this blog. All credit goes to the presenters, and any mistakes are mine.

Barbara Beresford‘s session was entitled “Minimalism—It’s Really About the User!” Here is an extract from Barbara’s summary of her session on Lanyrd:

Minimalism is a widely accepted and influential methodology in technical communications, but it is not a simple method to understand or apply. John M. Carroll’s two books on minimalism: The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skills (1990) and Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel (1998), provide the best source for the ideas behind the theory.

Minimalism begins with understanding your users—in particular, how they need to use your software in order to accomplish their specific business goals. Designing content that really addresses this problem is notably more difficult than simply documenting the features of your software. But tackling this problem can help you develop much more usable content!

Introducing minimalism

“Minimalism” – It’s seemingly a simple word, says Barbara, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get your head around it.

Barbara talked about her path to minimalism. She says she has some “special expertise as an impatient user”, which gives her a special insight into minimalism. This got a laugh of recognition from the audience. She also gave us a useful list of influences, including books, articles and methodologies. These include DITA, content strategy, Information Mapping, Every Page is Page One by Mark Baker, and more.

Update on 14 June 2014: The above paragraph previously stated, erroneously: “She also gave us a useful list of references to books, articles and methodologies that have influenced minimalism.” I have now changed it to say, “She also gave us a useful list of influences, including books, articles and methodologies.”

Minimalism is a theory of learning developed by John Carroll at IBM in the 1980s. He used the term the Nurnberg Funnel to describe the way people learn. They’re not passive when learning. They want to drive their learning experience, based on what they already know and what they want to achieve.

His study found that when people are handed a comprehensive set of instructions, only approximately 1 out of 20 follow the instructions from beginning to end. The others jump around, do their own thing, make mistakes, get lost, and have trouble finding their way back. People like to do things their own way.

In response, Carroll decided to design tutorials that start users immediately on meaningful and realistic tasks – things they needed to do. He also wanted to reduce the amount of content, and make errors and error recovery less traumatic.

So instead of comprehensive coverage, he aimed for selective coverage based on the user’s goals.

Barbara used the terms “minimalist design” and “systems design” to compare the two approaches. (At first I was not quite sure why the term “systems design” was used here. But later during the presentation, I think I know: it denotes a manual whose structure is based on the structure of the user interface it’s describing, rather than on user tasks.)

Minimalist design

Marta talked through these points of minimalist design:

  • Brief orientation
  • Prerequisite tasks
  • Learn by doing, start straight away
  • Modular, self-contained topics
  • Support error recognition/recovery

We looked at an example of a legacy document, which was organised to match the menu structure of the user interface. Barbara described how she reorganised the document along minimalist principles. She started by identifying the key user roles (booking officer, investigator, administrator) and their key tasks (create booking records, search for new records, etc). The new guide was then organised on sections based on tasks (use the import queue, create inquiry records, create booking records, etc).

Questions from the audience

At this point, a member of the audience said that the minimalist guide would be more of a quick-start guide, but a comprehensive user manual is still required. Barbara’s answer was that a system-organised reference manual is typically not used very much. Users typically want to find their information within the context of the key business task. If it’s important to explain specific elements of the screen, do it as part of the business task.

A number of related questions arose, which Barbara answered authoritatively and clearly. One audience member made the point that you could start with the minimalist guide and allow people to drill down to the more detailed information. Barbara also said that part of the role of technical writer is to point out what the primary focus is: serving the users’ needs based on usability studies. We don’t need to document everything that other people tell us to document.

Psychology of learning

Barbara related the principles of minimalist design to the psychology of learning, which shows that we are complex, emotional beings, not machines that run scripts. We do things for complex reasons, without necessarily understanding the reasons ourselves. We need to act, even to struggle, in order to learn and to retain information. People may even be too busy learning to spend much time on the instructions.

Developing minimalist documentation

Examine the system you’re documenting, decide where it’s not intuitive to use, and help the user with those areas. Discover the user’s mental model, and find out if it matches how the tasks are carried out in the system. If not, help orient them to the system. Find the common error situations, and help users through them.

Thanks Barbara

I’ve never consciously used minimalist design, although I’ve attended a few talks on it through the years. I feel that some of the principles have rubbed off on me. This talk helped crystallise and solidify the concepts and practise of minimalism for me.

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