Art vs. online: 2 dimensions of curating

Curating is a cool word, or trendy jargon, for what happens in web technologies and in art museums, but they are fundamentally different activities.

In this post, I want to add an alternative view to Rachel Potts who recently wrote about “When software UX met museum curation“. Where Rachel emphasises similarities, I’d like to focus on the differences, especially as they relate to art museums.

Your artefacts

One serious limitation and difference in curating at art museums, compared to anything in software and online, is that you need to care for original, unique works. If you mount a special exhibition, you need to procure them to begin with. And sometimes you cannot get them, no matter how much you want them in the show to present an artist or an era in history or to make your case.

  • Some works don’t travel because they’re fragile or because the insurance is too costly or because they’re centerpieces in the collection that owns them.
  • Some owners won’t lend works to you, because you cannot satisfy security requirements or because you’re too small a museum or because they don’t like your director.
  • Some works are simply lost.

Of course, you can always do with fewer or lesser works or, in the case of historic artefacts, with copies, but that invariably hurts the critical response and your attendance.

"Stalking Christina" - other people regarding my favorite painting

Your objectives

Another difference is that for many art museums “enabling users to learn” is one objective among many. And several other objectives are, unfortunately, at odds with it:

  • Some pieces are too sensitive to light or touch or movement to allow more than very few people to experience them.
  • Some museums need to please or placate donors (who may influence what’s shown and what not) and trustees (who may influence what gets paid for and what not).
  • Some museums don’t have the means: They lack the manpower to accommodate visitors more than a few hours per week. Or they don’t have the expertise to allow them to learn well.

Your audience

A third difference is that art museums who put on ambitious, critically well-regarded exhibitions find that attendance is surprisingly low. The reason is simple and disappointing: Many people don’t want to be enabled to learn in art museums. They don’t want to learn new things, much less have their beliefs challenged. Instead, many people visit an art museum, because of the way it makes them feel:

  • Many go to be in the presence of beauty or to be awed. Hence the success of any show whose title mentions a best-selling artist or any of the words “Impressionist”, “Gold” or “Gods” – even if the title is far-fetched and the show mediocre at best. “Dinosaurs” gets kids, and anything that flies or shoots gets their dads.
  • Some go to feel cool. Hence the success of after-work parties in modern art museums.

The words

Roger Hart once told me, it’s futile to try to stop linguistic change. And the web is a great change agent of language:

  • How many kids today know that women warriors (or a river) gave their name to an online store?
  • The German language has known about “email” for centuries (though we only spell it thus after a recent change in orthography); in English, it’s known as “enamel”.

But if language is to represent the real world, I advocate to respect the differences within one word, such as curating. Conflating two similar activities into the same word cheapens our experience of the stuff that surrounds us.

Advertisements

Proving the benefit of consistency in tech comm

To ensure efficiency and accessibility of technical communications, use consistent, common formatting, for example, for interface elements. What sounds obvious to many technical communicators is actually proven in academic studies. This post is for people looking for proof that consistency has a benefit in technical communications.

I’m taking my cue from a question that appeared in a LinkedIn group:

[I need to] find studies or tests that show that it is value-adding to have consistent formatting on e.g. User Interaction elements (such as buttons or handles) in your instructive documents. Can anyone share studies or tests in this area?

I can offer an answer on two levels:

  • The general benefits in terms of human perception
  • The particular benefits of consistent documentation

The neuroscience of consistency

Human perception favors consistency. The mind groups things easier, faster and with more confidence, if they’re consistent and have something in common.

Gestalt law of similarity illustrated

Gestalt law of similarity: The mind groups similar elements into collective entities, from Wikipedia.

Psychological studies have shown two principles by which human perception groups things: Proximity and similarity. For a comparison of these two principles and further references, see Han, S., Song, Y., et al. (2001). Neural substrates for visual perceptual grouping in humans. Psychophysiology, 38, 926-935. Han and colleagues actually quote several studies that “proximity is a more salient cue than similarity.”

In technical comunications texts, we usually can’t practically lump all names of windows or fields across all topics together to show they’re related.

But we can resort to similarity to help readers understand that we mean a GUI element at each occurrence. If we always write their names in bold, for example, readers will recognize that similarity across topics and learn to scan for it (whether they’re aware of it or not). If we always mark up GUI elements somehow, sometimes in bold, sometimes in italics, readers are more likely to wonder if the different markup has a meaning – and they won’t be able to scan the text as quickly and reliably.

For more psychological research and how it applies to technical communications, refer to Chris Atherton‘s excellent and accessible article “What and where?” in ISTC’s Communicator quarterly, Spring 2011, pp. 28-29.

Studies of applied consistency

So much for the theory. But does consistency, for example in formatting GUI elements, have an actual benefit in documentation?

One very good resource to argue for such consistency is the Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines. This 292-page tome sets out “to provide quantified, peer-reviewed Web site design guidelines”. It was published by the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2006 and is available for free download, as a book and as individual chapters.

Chapter 11 on “Text Appearance” has a couple of applicable guidelines:

#2 Format common items consistently

Common, recurring items, such as telephone numbers, time records, button and window names should be formatted consistently, according to expert recommendations in: Ahlstrom, V. & Longo, K. (2001). Human factors design guide update (Report number DOT/FAA/CT-96/01): A revision to chapter 8 – computer human interface guidelines.

#4 Ensure visual consistency

Visual consistency, including the appearance of characters in interfaces, reduces user errors. “Studies found that tasks performed on more consistent interfaces resulted in (1) a reduction in task completion times; (2) a reduction in errors; (3) an increase in user satisfaction; and (4) a reduction in learning time.” The quoted studies include:

  • Adamson, P.J. & Wallace, F.L. (1997). A comparison between consistent and inconsistent graphical user interfaces. Jacksonville: University of Northern Florida, Department of Computer and Information Sciences.
  • Eberts, R.E. (1997). Cognitive modeling. In: G. Salvendy (ed.), Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics, 2nd ed., New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Ozok, A.A. & Salvendy, G. (2000). Measuring consistency of web page design and its effects on performance and satisfaction. Ergonomics, 43(4), 443-460.
  • Schneider, W., Dumais, S.T. & Shiffrin, R.M. (1984). Automatic and control processing and attention. Varieties of Attention. New York: Academic Press, 1-27.
  • Schneider, W. & Shiffrin, R.M. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: detection, search and attention, Psychological Review, 84, 1-66.

Specifically, Ozok and Salvendy in 2000 confirmed the earlier studies that visually inconsistent interfaces lead users to poorer performance and more errors, see the summary in the Human Factors International newsletter.

– I hope this little field trip into academia can help you to prove that consistency not merely seems somehow desirable and logical, but has actually cognitive benefits proven in studies.

“Statistics without maths” workshop at #TCUK11

Technical Communication UK 2011 is off to good start with around 100 people attending six pre-conference half-day workshops on Tuesday. Even the night before saw about 20 attendees joining the organisers to help with last-minute setup chores, not to mention drinks and dinner.

On Tuesday afternoon, I attended the workshop “Statistics without maths: acquiring, visualising and interpreting your data” by Mike K. Smith, Chris Atherton and Karen Mardahl.

Mike K. Smith encourages us to insist on hard evidence

The workshop was virtually free of math in terms of formulas and calculations. Nonetheless, its introduction of concepts such as different average measurements mean vs. median vs. mode, or such as standard deviation vs. standard error challenged tech communicators. Personally, I’m more familiar with the finer points of language, not mathematical concepts, so it was a bit of a stretch for me.

The focus, however, was on general principles that give well-done statistics the power to infer a greater whole from representative data:

  • Strength of evidence, meaning the amount of data is large enough
  • Quality of data, meaning the data is good and useful to answer the question

A simple example illustrated these points:

1. Survey a group of people whether they like Revels, a British candy that comes with different fillings and hence different flavours, in general.

2. Hand out one Revel each to a smaller group of people and ask them how many liked the specific Revel they were given.

Frequently, the results of #2 are interpreted to mean #1. And that’s not even taking into consideration the alternative suggested by the workshop audience:

3. Watch a smaller group eat Revels (best without their knowing that they’re being watched) and draw your your conclusions how many really like Revels.

Another principle that was presented and discussed was that correlation measured by studies and statistics is not the same as causation: Two things that frequently or always occur together don’t mean that one causes the other. They could both be caused by a third overarching force. Or maybe there’s no causal relation between them at all…

The workshop about these concepts with dozens of examples also showed up a few cultural differences: Statisticians seem to strive for accuracy and precision to the point of not quite intelligible anymore, at least not outside their peer group.

I think some of the finer points about the definitions of averages and standard measurements (see above) were lost on some of us tech comm’ers. Still, the general message resonated with many: Statistics deserve close scrutiny, for the numbers they present, for the conditions in which they were measured and for the questions they seek to answer.

As Mike Smith put it towards the end:

What do we want?
Evidence-based change!
When do we want it?
After peer review!

Are serifs or non-serifs easier to read?

Are serif fonts easier to read than non-serif ones? No, is the conclusion in Alex Poole’s exhaustive post.

After reviewing more than 50 studies, Alex comes to the conclusion that “serifs or the lack of them have an effect on legibility, but it is very likely that they are so peripheral to the reading process that this effect is not even worth measuring”.

Serif vs. non-serif fonts as illustrated by Wikipedia

Thanks to Chris Atherton for pointing me to this post which perfectly complements one of my most popular posts: Ragged-right or justified alignment?

I must admit this came as a surprise to me, since I always liked the argument “Serifs are used to guide the horizontal ‘flow’ of the eyes”. But unfortunately, simply liking an argument doesn’t make it so. 🙂 It might just be a case of confirmation bias, as in this case…

Typography primer

Today’s bonus link is to a cool, comprehensive article in Smashing Magazine about typography including justified text, hyphens, dashes, smart and dumb quotes: Mind Your En And Em Dashes – Typographic Etiquette.

Recommended read: Degree helps tech writers

Here’s an example of how graduates of a tech comm program put their skills to use in a high tech company.

Specifically, National Instruments at Austin contributes two guest posts to the Texas Tech STC Student Chapter blog. Yes, these are recruiting posts, but they do ring true. I think they reflect well how a company can take tech comm seriously and benefit from the formal training and academic skills of graduates. It may be an exception among the employers of tech writers, but it’s an encouraging example. So I recommend these two posts:

Tech Writing…It’s Not Just For Tina Anymore
… asks Texas Tech alumni who now work as tech writers and their managers how they can apply what they’ve learned and what advice they have to students and prospective employees:

  • Rayo emphasize task analysis before tool skills – which I’m glad to hear.
  • Robin gives SME interviews a reality check that strikes a balance between what’s desirable and what’s possible.
  • Heather explains how she determines which documentation formats get produced.

Technical Writing Skills
… has Nathan Stokes list and explain 5 skills which every tech writer can benefit from – especially in this less than obvious combination:

  • Editing, including yourself: If you can edit yourself, you’ll be a better writer.
  • Productivity, i.e., project management skills to keep yourself organized.
  • Enthusiasm
  • Curiosity, which can drive you and help you to grow.
  • Computer Knowledge

– Previously in these pages, I’ve covered a how a (non-tech comm) degree can help a tech writer.

Your turn

Are these skills useful in the tech writer workplace? Can you learn them – or at least expect to learn them – in a tech comm program? If you have any thoughts or experience, please leave a comment.

How a degree helps a technical writer

A college degree can help you in technical writing, though maybe not in the ways you expect.

How relevant is a college education for the field of technical communication? A couple of very good and influential tech writing blogs have recently discussed this issue:

The question is both pertinent and impertinent, because Tom and Ryan frame it in a way that devalues college education [… at least in the specific program they are criticizing, see Ryan’s comment below. 18 Nov 2010]. Tom says tech comm “should not be taught in the context of an English department, because [it] is not understood or encouraged in traditional English curricula.” Ryan says he’s gained more useful knowledge in 5 months in the job than in his entire time in the tech comm MS program. I cannot argue with their experiences, and I cannot hope to convince them otherwise.

To help anyone with similar questions who’s in college now or has recently graduated, I can offer my own alternative assessment: How a college degree helped me become a passionate and, I dare say, good technical writer.

What I sought

Computer Science and Business as a combined major was how I started college. I sought to learn how to build software and how to run a business. What I got was learning by rote, too much how it’s done and not enough why and how it could be done better. I dropped the major after a semester.

I had embarked on rational and reasonable education and found that my heart wasn’t in it. I just couldn’t see myself spending several years getting a degree as a means to an end. I expected college to teach me something that was interesting in its own right, not a promise that I could apply it in a future job, or maybe not.

American Studies is what I declared as my major after two weeks of soul searching. That’s where I found my academic home. The curriculum was heavy on literature, social history and culture. The emphasis was on understanding what holds the USA and its culture together, to come to terms with its cultural and artistic developments, and to use whatever academic theories could be made useful.

Over ten years ago, I’ve received my M.A. in American Studies. I’m a technical writer by choice and practice, with the heart and the outlook of an Americanist.

What I learned

In American Studies, I learned a lot of things. Almost all of them do not directly relate to technical writing. Here are some things that I’ve found useful and applicable as a technical writer:

  • How to write long, coherently argued, understandable papers in correct English. It took me a long time to get it right. It took me longer yet to realize the importance of tailoring my message and language to my audience. And it took me even longer to realize that all this combined is a rare and marketable skill.
  • How to explain something that defies explanation to people who think they already know how it works. After you’ve ever tried to explain America to Germans who have it all figured out from movies and news media, writing user manuals is actually pretty easy. Most products I’ve dealt with are less complex than a country of 310 million people, even if you only regard the most recent 400 years.
  • How to cope with complexity. Literary studies can appear pretty neat, especially when you deal with only one author or one book. Studying a country and its culture is a more daunting task, not least because the people carry on so, with no regard for your studies. Trying to keep your insights reconciled with an ever-changing reality is a good preparation for your survival in large corporate environments and their organisational quirks.
  • How to organize to finish. Formulating a thesis and then framing and arguing it was part of my later assignments. That was a good preparation for writing user manuals from scratch. The “thesis” in that case is the easy part. The customer wants to do stuff with the product and look cool while doing it. But the rest is again up to the writer: Framing the text in a context of use, consulting all available sources, explaining it in the most understandable and most efficient way.
  • A turn of phrase occasionally: That a question can be both pertinent and impertinent (see above) is something that I learned from Thoreau’s Walden, the second paragraph of the “Economy” chapter to be precise.

What I know now

A college education can work very well for you, if you take it for what it is and don’t expect something that it isn’t. Stanley Fish makes a very astute argument for what a university can be and do:

When it comes to justifying the humanities, the wrong questions are what benefits do you provide for society (I’m not denying there are some) and are you cost-effective. The right question is how do … your program of research and teaching fit into what we are supposed to be doing as a university.

It’s important to realize that this kind of education comes with no guarantee: It guarantees you neither a job, nor happiness, nor that you’ll always be right or make the right decisions.

But it gives you the tools to gather information, take responsibility and make the decisions that affect your life. In short, such an education can give you hope. In the words of Václav Havel, writer, dramatist, and the first President of the Czech Republic:

Hope … is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Your turn

What did you get out of a college education? Was it useful for immediately applicable skills? Was it instrumental to become who you are? Or was it a waste of time?

Psychology & technical communication, Chris Atherton at TCUK

Technical communication benefits greatly from cross-pollination with related disciplines, such as cognitive psychology. That was my conclusion after the presentation “Everything you always wanted to know about psychology and technical communication … but were afraid to ask” by Chris Atherton (@finiteattention).

Chris is an applied cognitive psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. She has the rare ability to cut through the crap without shortchanging her subject or her audience. She makes Occam’s razor user-friendly, if you will.

Here are my top 3 insights from Chris’ presentation and how I find them applicable to technical communications:

1. Do your reader a favor and supply context

Context relates different pieces of contents. More specifically, it relates what users already know to what they need to learn right now as they read the help. For example, an essential setup procedure is not helping the user, if they don’t know where to set up stuff. Well-written headings and carefully arranged “related links” help users to establish context and to evaluate whether the content they found is relevant to them.

Context also means the “location” of pieces of content. That location can be in a book (for example, about half-way through), on a page or screen (near the top) or in an online table of contents, such as Word’s document map (a sub-topic on one of the first branches after the introduction). Note that all the examples are really vague. But as Chris says, “we remember the gist and location.” And that’s what we go by when we try to find content again.

By the way, Chris pointed to research by Jakob Nielsen who found that location still works on long pages that require vertical scrolling! Apparently, readers do scroll – and remember the general location of what they read.

(You might recognize these points about context as two of my Top 10 things that users want to do in a help system.)

2. Simultaneity implies causality

That means that we often understand two things happening at the same time to be related by cause and effect. In technical communications, this is most relevant to training videos and user interfaces. For example, two call-outs appearing at once will be assumed to be related somehow. Don’t let the user guess, instead:

  • Be careful to create logical sequences.
  • Avoid presenting alternatives or unrelated items at the same time – and if you do, ensure to label them clearly (which will hopefully clutter up your screen or script enough to convince you to break them apart…).

Another example where simultaneity implies causality is people who can turn off streetlights simply by walking past them – which brings us to:

3. Don’t waste time catering to dogmas

This is a tricky one: Some psychological concepts are generally accepted as facts. Yet they make many scientists gringe, because the numbers and the evidence just aren’t there. For example, Chris referred to substantial criticism that’s hacking away at the alleged foundations of individually preferred learning styles.

For me, as a non-scientist, that means that I can support different learning styles in my documentation if it’s done easily and with no or insignificant additional effort, but I won’t go out of my way.

From here on, it’s a sliding scale into the murky depths of psychobabble which is easier to decode and ridicule. To quote an example from an NLP website: “Use brain gym to calm, energise or reconnect right and left brain for improved concentration.” (Apparently, in most people, the left and right brain are successfully connected, regardless of the brain trouble they may believe to have…)

Your turn

Do you know of other insights from psychology that can benefit technical communications? Or do you want to share ideas or experiences with one of the ideas above? Feel free to leave a comment!