AODC day 1 – What if the reader can’t read?

This week I’m attending the 2009 Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) in Melbourne. Today is the first day of the conference.

Here are some notes I took from the session on the changing language and technologies of communication, by Tony Self of HyperWrite. I hope these notes are useful to people who couldn’t be at the conference this year. The AODC organisers will also publish the session slides and supplementary material once the conference is over.

What if the reader can’t read?

In this presentation by Tony Self, the theme was the changing language and technologies of communication. He gave us a number of things to think about and gently nudged us towards the ways we might need to change in order to continue working in the technical communication field.

He asked us to think about our readers, the most important people in our world. Our “typical reader” is changing. A good way to see what they might look like is to examine our university undergraduates. They’re the people entering the workforce now.

Tony showed us a video about a survey of students at Kansas State University. For this online survey, 200 cultural anthrolopology (digital ethnography) students edited the survey page themselves, and made 367 changes to it. So this means that they surveyed themselves. Here’s some of what I deduced from what the students wrote:

  • They spend much of their time online.
  • They multi-task.
  • They’re concerned about the wider world’s problems.
  • They read Facebook and other online stuff during class.

The survey showed that the average university student read 8 paper books per year, but 2300 web pages and 1281 Facebook profiles. The average student also wrote 42 pages of assignments but 500 pages of email.

Tony says the way we communicate is changing, and also the rules of language are changing. What’s more, the accepted rules of grammar are no longer so important.

These are some of the points Tony raised, about the way people communicate and their attitude to communication:

  • 11% of year 7 students lack basic reading skills.
  • There’s a lot of reading and writing done on mobile phones, via SMS and via instant messaging (MSN).
  • The so-called “txtspeak” or “txt speak” or “text speak” ignores the rules of grammar and spelling.
  • In New Zealand since 2006, students can use text speak in national exams. Their answers must still demonstrate the required level of understanding.
  • Younger people have an entirely different attitude to copyright and privacy. They know about plagiarism, but they’re not sure how to integrate other people’s content into their own e.g. a page off Wikipedia. The boundary between private and public is different. They might treat their Facebook page as “private” even though it’s open to their friends. And the term “friends” here means something else too.
  • Information overload is commonplace. They encounter as much information in a year as their grandparents did in a lifetime.
  • They’re accustomed to information becoming obsolete.
  • They’re used to sharing their knowledge instantly and virtually. So instead of reading manuals, most of them learn how to use something (e.g. their mobile phone) by talking to their friends.

Also, Tony noted, it’s not just the young folk. Readers are becoming more impatient. Readers will spend about 4 seconds on a web page, in order to decide whether it’s worth reading. That’s about 15 words. So we have to be very careful about those words, and we have to be minimalist.

People tend to power-browse horizontally through titles, content pages and abstracts. They read snippets of text from different sources, rather than going for in-depth vertical information.

Things are changing rapidly, and we can’t just ignore this fact. So how are we going to communicate with people who communicate in this way?

Tony took a look at other technologies and how they are adapting:

  • Print media is changing. Take a look at the “Express News” in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. Also “Shortcuts” in the New York Times. Readers can just read short summaries in two columns, rather than reading the whole newspaper.
  • TV is changing — current affairs programmes spend just a few minutes on a topic, giving superficial coverage, then move on to the next one.
  • Politicians are shortening and targeting their communications too.

So, what can we do in technical communication?

  • Move to topic-based authoring — allows for horizontal skimming.
  • Embrace minimalism (the 15 words rule).
  • Take advantage of blogs, wikis and other new media.
  • Adopt single sourcing, so that we can produce our documents in different forms that suit different readers.
  • Reduce production time.
  • Consider abandoning the table of contents. Tony says that the TOC may no longer be a valid way of navigating. Instead, we should pay attention to search.
  • Drop task information in software manuals. This information should be conveyed intuitively in the UI. Instead, the manual should concentrate on concept-based information.
  • We should look at new ways of communicating concepts, such as graphical. Tony told a story of how he tried to find information on how to reset his iPod Nano. He could not find the information from Apple. He eventually did a Google search, which sent him to a YouTube video showing exactly what he wanted. This video was made by a 15-year-old boy, who had filmed himself resetting his Nano. Tony was learning from his peers, not from Apple. This is the way most people do it now. People collaborate, and trust that the information is good.

So, if the user’s peers are creating the help guides, where do we fit in? Maybe our role is to facilitate this communication, not to write it. We should experiment with alternative communication techniques. Could our manuals be video, or podcast?

The questions at the end of Tony’s session were interesting too:

  • How do we to manage version control and obsolescence if our information is spread out on sites such as YouTube? One answer was that the rating of the obsolescent information would be lower, and people would understand that the older information related to an older version of the product. (I think this is somewhere that technical writers can contribute. For example, we can ensure that the information is clearly marked with the version information. And we can design a storage/serving system that categorises the videos or podcasts so that it can serve multiple versions of the document, depending on the product version required.)
  • In this context, Allyn mentioned the s1000D standard, which tells you how to structure content appropriately, developed to serve the aircraft industry, where it’s extremely important to get the right version of the documentation. (Dave Lowe will talk about this in a later AODC session.)
  • Another person from the floor said that “blended learning” is the way to go. Most people prefer to watch a video because they don’t have time to read a document. Others prefer to read a document. So we need to offer a blended solution.

Thank you Tony for a very interesting session.


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 20 May 2009, in AODC, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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