Blog Archives

What’s exercising your brain at the moment?

What are you thinking about at the moment? My recent musings are on the usefulness of technical communication skills to other people. By that I mean that people other than technical writers would benefit from learning core technical communication skills.

For example, organising information into chunks is a useful skill for all sorts of situations, including:

  • Compiling your resumĂ©.
  • Writing an executive overview of your project.
  • Asking people to take action on something, based on your email message or a post to a social group.

Clarity and direct language are useful in all the above situations, and also in the following:

  • Putting your point of view in a fast-moving debate, or even in an argument at a dinner table. 😉
  • Communicating with people who speak your language at only a basic or intermediate level.

Short sentences and indeed short docs are useful when:

  • You or your readers are in a hurry. I guess that includes most situations these days!
  • Your words need to fit into a small space, such as a poster on a door, or a book review, or a Facebook page.

And so on.

Do you have any rambling thoughts to share, tech comm wise? (I’m enjoying the ambiguity of the last part of the previous sentence.)

STC Summit 2017 wrapup

This week I attended STC Summit 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ve written summaries of the sessions I attended. This post is a wrapup of the conference as a whole, with links to my session summaries.

A huge thanks to the STC Summit committee, who’ve put together a fantastic conference this year. It’s been a few years since I was last able to attend a Summit (the last time was in 2014) and it was an absolute pleasure to be here again. I’ve met many friends, made new acquaintances, and learned what people are doing in tech comm.

There were approximately 600 attendees at STC Summit this year. The venue was the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, MD, close to Washington, DC. The conference theme was:

Gain the Edge to Get Results

Session summaries

There were approximately 85 sessions, with 5 to 8 sessions running concurrently in each time slot, over the course of 2 and a half days.

I wrote notes on most of the sessions I attended:

Other blogs

Kevin Cuddihy has posted session summaries on the STC Notebook. For example, here’s the post for Tuesday morning, which includes a writeup of my session. Thanks Kevin!

Here’s a good summary of the STC Summit from STC San Diego.

Social event: dine around

On Monday evening we gathered in groups and went to a few of the restaurants in the area. I chose Rosa Mexicana, where the food was good, the decor lovely, and the company outstanding.

The venue and surrounds

For a touch of local colour, take a look at my bookmark’s latest blog post about Georgetown, Washington, DC.

Here’s a view from inside the atrium of the Gaylord National Resort:

A view from the gardens:

The Potomac River at sunset, just a block away from the hotel:

It’s a wrap!

I’ve loved meeting everyone and attending all those interesting, entertaining sessions. Thanks so much to all the organisers, speakers, and attendees!

Catering for novices and expert users at stc17

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. These are my notes from one of the sessions at the conference. All credit goes to the presenter, and any mistakes are mine.

Laurian Vega presented a session titled “Novices AND Experts, Not Novices OR Expert Users”. I’m very interested in this topic, as it’s a problem that most creators of documentation face: the people coming to your docs may be new to the topic, or seasoned users looking for help with one specific task/concept. How do you optimise the docs UX (user experience) for both types of audience? Laurian’s talk focused on user interfaces. I figure a doc set has its own user interface, and as tech writers we’re responsible for the information architecture of the doc set too.

Laurian is a UX engineer. Her team writes all the words for the user interface (UI) and documentation for around 30 products.

Experts and novice users

Should we have two difference pieces of software to support the two types of users? No, says Lauren.

She showed us Adobe Photoshop as an example of a tool made for experts: graphic designers. But a number of people who are not graphic designers need to use it, and it’s flabbergasting.

People move from being novices to experts. They do this for various reasons, including necessity and initial simplicity of the task. There’s a spectrum of people, from novice to expert. By designing for the extremes, we also cater for the people in the middle.

Novices do well if the UI is simple, and there’s a single, clear call to action. They benefit from tutorials.

Experts know the task they want to complete, and they know how to do it. (Remember, we’re talking about UI here, not the docs.)

Laurian showed the Google search page as a good example of a design that caters for both novices and experts. Note the large expanse of white space, which focuses the user on the main task. The search box is right in the middle, so the eye is drawn to it. There are only two buttons, and you don’t even need to use them. For the expert users, there are extra controls at top and bottom, which you can find if you’re looking for them.

Expert users tend to have extensive domain knowledge. They may not necessarily have knowledge of modern UI design, because they’ve been doing the same task for so long. Expert users tend to take less time to complete a task, and often perform multiple tasks.

If a user doesn’t like your UI, they’re less likely to do well with it. They also don’t tend to spend much time attempting to learn it.

How to design for both experts and novices

Create separate personas to represent novices and experts, and use those personas to step through each task. Aim for 5-7 personas. Laurian walked through some sample personas for novice and expert, using the example of a UI for an online shoe shop. The novice in this case had high domain knowledge, but was a new visitor to the site. The expert had low domain knowledge, but had browsed the shoe shore’s site often.

Make sure you have a persona for the people who hate your UI!

Take a look at usability.gov for useful resources.

Design patterns

Do’s and don’ts in design:

  • Don’t make separate user interfaces. Design the right tool from the beginning.
  • Don’t ask your users if they’re experts. You won’t get a useful answer. Look at your analytics instead.
  • Don’t use different tones for the two types of users.
  • Don’t test with only one segment of your users.
  • Do provide default options, as they help novices as well as experts, particularly for complex features.
  • Provide both a quick and an advanced search.
  • Provide help text and clear feedback. Avoid big blaring red text. Be helpful without being angry.
  • Allow users to skip or dismiss the help features.
  • If you have a lot of jargon in the UI, which assumes domain knowledge, link to a place where that jargon is explained.
  • Provide advanced options as part of the interaction flow. Use progressive disclosure.
  • Add labels to indicate advanced features. Consider hiding the advanced features until the user has gained enough experience to handle them, but make sure users can see those features if they want to.
  • Take care with custom icons. Icons can offer a quick way for users to find what they need, but remember that novices don’t know the icons. Provide tooltips.

Thanks Laurian for your useful insights into designing for a variety of user experience levels and behaviours.

Emotive analytics at stc17

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. These are my notes from one of the sessions at the conference. All credit goes to the presenter, and any mistakes are mine.

Allie Proff‘s session had the intriguing title of “My Android Dreams of Electric Cats: Are You Capturing Your User’s Emotive Analytics?”

Allie took us through a fast-paced view of analytics and emotions. She started by looking at traditional analytics: bounce rate, time on page, number of views, etc). But this measures the “what”, and not the “why”. The “why” is emotions: how the readers are feeling when they come to the docs.

She talked about emotions, why they’re important, and the science of emotions. She told the story of Phineas Gage, who had a staking pole punched all the way through his brain, and lived to tell the tale. Later studies have shown that when you damage the areas of the brain that connect your emotions to your logic, you can’t make decisions. You can list pros and cons, but not make the decision.

We actually use the emotional part of our brain to make a decision, then use our logic to justify that decision. Emotions engage more of your brain than logic: 7 areas as opposed to 2.

Significance for technical documentation: Story telling engages emotions, which makes it very powerful. User experience focuses on delight. Gamification is a specific example of engaging emotions.

Emotive analytics

Also called emolytics, or emotional analytics: The ability to measure emotions of your reader, for example through their face, voice, wearables, bio-feedback, or text. For example, Facebook infers emotion from people’s updates.

Affective software is software that can analyse a user’s emotions and provide appropriate responses. As a simple example, you might display radio buttons asking how the user is feeling, then provide textual help based on the answers. Allie gave the example of cheery text delivered when the user is filling in a tax return, if the user says they have children.

A more complex example is voice to text software, which can analyse your words and meaning as it processes the input. Beyond Verbal does voice analytics. Their main focus is health care. You talk into the app, and it tells you how you are feeling, based on your tone, with a view to telling whether someone is well or sick.

Also face detection software, which discovers a face in an image. CV Dazzle is a website where you can find out how to trick face detection software. For example, cover up the bridge of your nose between your eyes, and add asymmetrical patterns. Sunglasses dont work. Affectiva provides software (Affdex) that can quantify emotion, such as joy, surprise, anger, based on your face as you watch a video. There are SDKs available for developers to use. A cat scored 99% disdain.

There are a number of companies providing affective software. Allie’s presentation deck lists a number of them.

Allie also showed us some companies producing robots that show or teach emotions to some extent.

Thanks for a fun and informative session, Allie!

APIs, maps and apps at stc17

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. This post is a summary of the session I presented.

My session was titled “A tech writer, a map, and an app”. I told the story of my odyssey into app development, and used my own journey as a way of teaching attendees about apps, APIs, code, maps, open source, and hackathons.

The slides are available on SlideShare: A tech writer, a map, and an app.

We explored some technical details:

  • The nuts and bolts of a web-based application like Tech Comm on a Map: where it’s hosted, where the data is stored, the JavaScript code and the APIs that create the map and the app’s functionality.
  • How the app’s data is crowd sourced.
  • What open sourcing your code means, and why you may want to do it.
  • The difference between a web-based application and a mobile app. Tech Comm on a Map is available as a native Android app as well as a webapp.
  • The information sources that I used when developing the app.

And we examined how such a project can help develop your soft skills:

  • My engineering colleagues helped me kick off the development of the app, and made ongoing suggestions for refinement. The resulting interactions increased mutual understanding and respect.
  • Fellow technical writers all over the world help compile the data. A project like this is a good way of connecting with your peers.
  • Developing an app can help you better understand your subject and your audience of software engineers and other specialists.
  • Such a project gives you confidence in your own abilities, even if you’re just skimming the surface of code complexity.

There’s more about the app on this page: about Tech Comm on a Map.

Thanks to everyone who attended the session!

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