1st day of sessions at TCUK 13

On its first day of sessions, TCUK13 offered very diverse sessions. My selection of presentations – and hallway conversations – focused on cognitive science, the future of tech comm, the business side of our industry as well as managing tech comm, this year’s specialist stream.

Sarah O’Keefe on “Fame, glory and… tech comm”

Sarah’s opening keynote urged us to unleash our inner pirate and “go for the booty” of corporate resources and attention – in other words: to follow the money. We tech comm’ers need to understand the objectives and KPIs of C-level executives, develop a content strategy that supports these objectives and then profit (before marketing or other departments do, as Ellis Pratt later pointed out in his rant).

This way we can create effective tech comm which meets both business needs and user needs – as opposed to artisanal tech comm which fails business goals or cheap and merely adequate tech comm which fails users.

My session on semiotics and mental models

My own presentation Addicted to meaning: Mental models for technical communicators was attended by approximately 50 people and quite well received, I thought.

It’s essentially a brisk walk through a couple of cognitive concepts that underlie much of tech comm. After considering what meaning actually is and why we technical communicators should even care, I looked to semiotics to explain how meaning works in communication – and why it still sometimes fails in tech comm. The second concept is mental models which can explain how and why we create meaning – and how we can create meaningful documentation.

Adrian Morse on “The challenges of remote management”

Adrian drew on his experience of both working at home and managing technical communicators who work at home to explain many of the challenges of managing writers remotely. His tips applied to most teleworking scenarios, from occasional home office days to full-time teleworking by some or all of the team members.

Remote working and managing requires thought-through policies and a good reliable setup that starts with the appropriate hardware and network services and extends all the way to regulating PC administration, backup policies, etc. and complying with corresponding laws and EU regulations.

Adrian emphasized how important communication is as long as someone, anyone teleworks: You need to agree on mutual expectations in terms of hard objectives and performance, but also in terms of softer factors of answer times and availability for mail and phone contact. Just as working face-to-face, teleworking requires regular meetings, both 1-on-1 and of the team as a whole. Also make sure you have good ideas and policies for when and how you allow people to enter teleworking scenarios and when and how they will end them again!

Ray Gallon on “The Quantum Funnel”

Ray’s talk dovetailed with my own: His reference to creating scripts which explain how we behave in a restaurant was very close to my own example of how mental models determine our approaches to and perceived options in restaurants.

His premise is that today’s practice of learning is much more scattered and autonomous than it has previously been when learning was more controlled and directed. Such learning leaves more and more crucial gaps than before. To make sure that people (and users of tech comm specifically) can successfully fill their knowledge gaps, learning becomes more important than knowing.

One such approach is “connectivism” which understands learning as the process to search and connect concepts, ideas and fields. In this context, learning must not only answer the questions “what?”, “how?”, “where?” and “when?”, but also “how to be?” and “how to be with others?”. People in general and tech comm audiences in particular, increasingly learn in self-directed and creative ways by social collaboration, together with others. The role of teachers shifts to facilitator, that of technical communicator to curator.

This will emphasize both social and cognitive skills in the future, when we learn by moving through these stages:

  1. Exploring and understanding
  2. Representing
  3. Planning and executing
  4. Monitoring and reflecting

Applied to tech comm, this means our model shifts from a gatekeeper of knowledge to that of a curator and storyteller, as we avail ourselves of different types of contextual information, some of which our outside of our control:

  1. Internal documentation, such as progressive disclosure.
  2. External information, such as it is in Wikipedia.
  3. Interactive information, such as MOOCs and commenting functions support them.

– Feel free to leave comments about any of the sessions, whether you have attended them or not. I will try to answer them as well as I can.

“Bake your taxonomy” workshop at #tcuk13

Knowing your audience, their needs and use cases is key, not only when writing documentation, but also when designing its topic structure, navigation structure and taxonomies. That’s the insight  around 50 participants came to at the end of the “Bake your taxonomy” workshop which Chris Atherton and I facilitated at the first day of TCUK13 in Bristol.

The insight itself is not revolutionary, of course, but it gave attendees a chance to try out content modelling and card sorting first-hand and consider alternative designs and difficult decisions that go into structuring documentation just right.

Explaining taxonomies and content models

Chris and I started the 3-hour workshop with a 30-minute presentation:

Organically grown content often develops into a mess of good, bad and ugly content with little or no discernible structure. An information architecture that was designed by central oversight and with a guiding higher principle might resemble a cathedral – but the organically grown reality more often resembles a bazaar.

Both models have their drawbacks: The cathedral might be out of touch with what users need to do and know in their daily lives. The bazaar supplies that better – but it’s much harder to navigate, unless you know it really well.

Chris and I presenting (photo by @JK1440)

Chris and I presenting (photo by @JK1440)

Enter taxonomies, which are hierarchical classification systems. Just as children and veterinarians use different systems to distinguish and classify animals, so users and we who write for them can distinguish different topic types and structures and different ways to navigate topics according to their needs and use cases.

Exercises: “Bring out the scissors!”

Then we formed 12 groups of approx. 4 and set off on a couple of exercises:

  • Content modelling. Take a documentation set (in our example a user manual for a handheld audio recorder) and develop topic types and content models for users, their needs and use cases. Then re-chunk the manual into new topics according to topics types and users.
  • Card sorting. Take the topics and find the best sequence and hierarchy for them.  Also consider the documentation format such as print, online, etc., and topic re-use opportunities between different formats and use cases.
Workshoppers baking their own taxonomy (photo by @jk1440)

Workshoppers baking their own taxonomy (photo by @JK1440)

After the first exercise, we had a short roundup of the different approaches and results of the groups and a short break, before we embarked on the second exercise.

As it turns out, it’s really difficult to separate between content modelling (structuring within topics) and card sorting (structuring of topics). And in many cases there might be few benefits to separate those tasks. However, if you do the content model first and in isolation, you might have a more stable content model that lends itself to more than the structure you’ve used to pour it into.

To sum up, it was a very lively workshop with many good discussions – mostly within the groups of four, but also in the roundups when we collected approaches and insights. Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot about what a diverse bunch not only tech comm audiences, but also we as practitioners can be.

If you’ve attended the sessions or want if to know more about what happened and how, feel free to leave a comment.

Obvious structure in tech comm benefits all users

Informational text that exposes its “structural information, such as hierarchical relations” gets high reading comprehension scores, whether readers have prior subject knowledge or not. This is the result of a study reported in Learning Solutions Magazine by Chris Atherton. And it’s good news for technical communication because it means structured writing and topic-based authoring done well benefit novice and expert users alike.

The study

The study presented a 5,000-word article in three formats to two different groups. The three formats were:

  • A linear document of paragraphs
  • A hierarchical set of linked topics which was basically web site six levels deep
  • A mixed format which combined linear text presentation with links to related topics that didn’t expose structure or hierarchy

The two groups of audience were:

  • Novices without prior knowledge of the subject
  • Experts who had formal training in the subject

The results

It’s best to scroll down to the results graph over at the magazine website, but in case that disappears, here’s a summary of the different reading comprehension scores:

  • Novices understood the hierarchical format best, closely followed by the mixed format, with the linear format a distant third.
  • Experts understood the linear format best, closely followed by the hierarchical format, with the mixed format a distant third.

So exposing the hierarchy and structure of the text benefits novices and experts alike. If you’re writing for experts only, presenting linear text gives them a slight advantage, but “shuts out” novices.

The implications for tech comm

  • Structure authoring helps your users understand and remember. Novice and expert users alike can make sense of the information not only from the individual bits and pieces, but also from the structure how everything hangs together. For example, consider relating concepts and sub-concepts to on another. Or when instructing users to do tasks, consider giving an overview of the big picture process first. Then break down the process clearly into distinct procedures and further into individual steps. For many readers, easy access to structure also helps them to retain information better, regardless how they manage to memorize it.
  • Structured authoring helps you to create complete documentation efficiently. You can organize and maintain your information more efficiently with structure and hierarchy. Structure makes it easier to ensure that each piece of information has a distinct place, so you can avoid redundancies. Hierarchies make it clear where your concepts and procedures are complete and where you still have gaps. It’s easier to note a missing topic or sub-chapter than a missing paragraph somewhere in linear text.
  • Limited advantage of linear text. The study showed that linear text in paragraphs is most comprehensible for expert readers. But I think the advantage of this format is in general limited:
    • For novices, linear text is a distant third, so relying on “linear” requires that you have a homogenously expert audience.
    • For you as a writer, linear text possibly takes more time or effort to maintain, depending on how much text you maintain and how often you update.
    • For other writers who need to edit or update your documentation, linear text is probably harder than topics that expose the internal structure of the subject matter.

By the way: Chris Atherton and I will lead a workshop together at TCUK13 in Bristol on 24 September. So if you’re in the area and want to “Bake your own taxonomy”, consider joining us. 🙂

STC13: Lee LeFever on the art of explanation

Lee LeFever is the founder of CommonCraft, best known for the instructional videos with the drawn paper cut-outs that a hand moves around as a voice explains how stuff works. He presented their approach to explanation which focus on empathy with the audience to foster understanding. (This is part of my coverage of the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta.)

Explanations are hard and try as you might, they can still fail – as anyone knows who has given driving directions to a stranger and then seen them make the wrong turn.

The key to good explanations is empathy with the “explainee”, so you can explain something in their terms. What gets in the way is the “curse of knowledge” which means we cannot remember what it was like not to know how get to the specialty store or how a cloud service like twitter or dropbox works.

To show how explanations increase understanding, Lee used an explanation scale. First you have little understanding, and you care about the big idea, the “why?” Why should you care about a cloud service, why is this important to you? Once you have the “why?” down, you’re ready for basic understanding of the essentials, the “how”? How does a tool work, how can I use it to my benefit? To get expert understanding, you assemble more and more details for different scenarios – and before long, you have all the knowledge to explain this thing yourself!

Four features can make explanations successful:

Context anchors an explanation in shared experience and creates agreement. We all know what it feels like to have misplaced your keys, and we can agree that it’s very annoying. Context is important to show why something is relevant to you.

Story ties together a problem and its solution in a narrative arc. That can be as simple as: “Bob has a problem. Bob finds a solution. Bob is happy!” Story invites our empathy because we can identify with Bob and root for him. It illustrates facts, such as cause and effect, in real life.

Connections can provide a shortcut to other stories we already know. When the producers of the 1979 science fiction movie “Alien” sought funding, they connected their project to a recent successful movie in three simple words: “Jaws in Space”.

Analogies can emphasize “what’s really going on”. Consider an encounter with a bear and how it sets off your “fight-or-flight” impulse with stress hormones. Now transfer that experience: “Imagine the bear comes home from the bar every night.” This analogy gives you a good impression what it feels like to be the child or partner of an abusive alcoholic.

Lee closed by sharing several examples, both from his CommonCraft videos and elsewhere.

Join me for “Mental models for tech comm” at STC 13

I’m proud and happy to be presenting at the STC Summit in Atlanta in a couple of weeks on meaning and mental models and how understanding them can help us in technical communication. If you’re attending the Summit, I invite you to join for me:

Addicted to meaning:
Mental models for technical communicators

Tue, May 7, 4:00 pm in room Hanover AB

My presentation will explore how “meaning” works in technical communications, why it fails and how you can create meaningful documentation. I will draw on the cognitive psychology of mental models and advances in user experience design to show why minimalism works, but FAQ’s don’t, and how to write for users without irritating them.

Being meaningful in technical communications is harder to measure than being correct, concise or consistent. However, it is just as essential: Understanding how and why communication is meaningful to users helps to create more effective documentation. Participants will get a deeper understanding and a fresh perspective on what makes communications meaningful.

Maning proceeds from information to knowledge.

You will learn:

  • What distinguishes data, information, and knowledge
  • How (technical) communication transmits meaning
  • What mental models are and how they shape the meaning that users create from documentation
  • How we are addicted to meaning
  • How to ensure your documentation is meaningful

It’s a G-rated session, so you don’t need any previous experience or knowledge of psychology – just a curiosity what makes us tick when we read and write documentation.

So treat yourself to a fun romp of aha moments in the last session slot of the day – hope to see you in Atlanta!

First day at tekom12

This is my second year at tekom, the world’s largest tech comm conference held annually in Wiesbaden, Germany. tekom is nominally a German conference that coincides with its international sibling conference tcworld in English. As the hashtag confusion on twitter shows once again, the English tech comm scene tends to use both names. (Which makes me wonder why the organizers don’t simply use the tekom name for the whole thing which has sessions in English and German…?)

My session on meaning in tech comm

I skipped the morning sessions, since I was feeling a little under the weather. I didn’t even get to tekom until around 1 pm, but in plenty of time for my own presentation on How our addiction to meaning benefits tech comm. I had submitted two very different talks, and I thank the organizers that they picked the “wacky” one. And to my surprise, I had about 100 people interested in meaning, semiotics and mental models! I thought the talk went well. I had some nice comments at the end and some very positive feedback on twitter afterwards.

You can find my slides on Slideshare and on the conference site. Sarah Maddox has an extensive play-by-play write-up of how my session went on her blog.

Content Strategy sessions

Scott Abel has put together a very good stream of content strategy sessions, where I attended the presentations of Val Swisher and Sarah O’Keefe (I also blogged about Sarah’s presentation). I’m not sure if my observation is accurate, but it seemed to me that there was less interest and excitement about this stream this year than at the premiere last year. As befits content strategy, both sessions I attended were strategic, rather than operational, so they dealt primarily with how tech comm fits into the larger corporate strategy.

Marijana Prusina on localizing in DITA

Then I went to hear Marijana Prusina give a tutorial on localizing in DITA. I have no first-hand experience with DITA, but I use a DITA-based information model at work, so this gave me a reality check of what I was missing by not using the real thing. Seeing all the XSLT you get to haggle with in the DITA Open Toolkit, I cannot exactly say that I regret not using DITA.

Beer & pretzels

Huge thanks to Atlassian and k15t who sponsored a reception with free beer & pretzels – and even t-shirts if you left them your business card. This coincided with the tweet-up. It was good to see tech comm colleagues from around the world (Canada, the US, Australia, France and Germany, of course). Some I had known via twitter or their blogs for a while, so it was a welcome chance to finally meet them in person.

– For more, many more session write-ups check out Sarah Maddox’ blog!

– So much for the first day, two more to come. I’m looking forward to them!

How our addiction to meaning benefits tech comm

Join me for my presentation “Addicted to Meaning: How Good Technical Communication is Like Bad Magic Tricks” at tekom/tcworld in Wiesbaden on Tue 23 Oct at 1:45 pm.

In the session, I will explore how “meaning” works in technical communication, why it sometimes fails and how you can improve its chance for success. Being meaningful in your work is harder to measure than being correct, concise or consistent. However, it is just as essential: Understanding how and why communication is meaningful to your readers can help you to make your documentation more effective and to distinguish good from bad.

Using examples from topic-based authoring and minimalism, I will illustrate the underlying working of semiotics and mental models to show:

  • Why minimalism works, but FAQ’s don’t
  • Why asking a friend is effective, even when he doesn’t know the answer
  • How readers create meaning from documentation
  • … and how good documentation is like bad magic tricks 🙂

I will put our familiar tech comm tool box into a new context, so you can get a deeper understanding and a fresh perspective on tech comm and how it fits into the bigger picture of meaningful communication.

I’ve set up the topic in two earlier posts which give you an idea how I’ll tackle the issue:

3 motivators you share with your tech comm readers

What motivates you to work most likely motivates most of your users in their jobs, too! You still need to know your audience, their tasks and background, but the good news is that you have some basic motivators in common. And these can help you understand what makes you happy at work – and what makes your users successful in their work with your documentation.

The three motivators

I take my cue from Walter Chen’s post “The science behind what motivates us to get up for work every day“. I want to focus on three motivators Chen quotes from Daniel Pink:

The 3 real reasons that motivate us to work hard every day

Pink explains … that there are in fact just 3 very simple things that drive nearly each and everyone of us to work hard:

  1. Autonomy: Our desire to direct our own lives. In short: “You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of your way!”
  2. Mastery: Our urge to get better at stuff.
  3. Purpose: The feeling and intention that we can make a difference in the world.

The motivators for technical communicators

Pink’s model resonated with me, and I think this is exactly what motivates me to do good tech comm work and try to get better at it:

  • Autonomy for me means to find something good in the benign neglect that often meets my efforts. Of course, I have specific products, deliverables and deadlines to comply with, but our documentation team is lucky enough to be able to define its own standards and processes as long as they’re feasible.
  • Mastery is the challenge to write better documentation. When I revisit obsolete documentation that I’ve written some years ago, it makes me smile: Seeing where I’m coming from and what I wouldn’t do anymore gives me a sense of progress. I’m still using task orientation and topic-based authoring – but I wouldn’t awkwardly mix concept and task in the same topic like this anymore.
  • Purpose for me is my reward that my readers can be more successful or simply faster in their work if and because I’ve given them the right information at the right time.

So in a very personal, non-scientific way, I could validate these three motivators.

The motivators for documentation users

I don’t think I’m all that different from my readers in this regard. I believe they get motivated by the same things – they’re just in a different job.

So I try to keep in mind the motivators when I structure and write my documentation:

  • Autonomy is tricky, of course. Someone looking up documentation has just given up the autonomy of a self-directed life and needs instruction or information. But I still try to acknowledge this and follow Pink’s advice above: “You (dear user) probably want to do something interesting (or important), let me (give you what you seek and) get out of your way!”
  • Mastery is where tech comm can really excel. By presenting essential information concisely and clearly we can make it easy for our users to master their tasks and their use of our product. For this mastery, it doesn’t matter whether users learn from the documentation and internalize a skill or whether they simply know where they can look up again quickly what they don’t need to remember.
  • Purpose is frequently neglected, I think. Often documentation focuses on the how, and forgets the why. But there is no sense of purpose without a why. Granted, not every topic can address the big questions of life and the universe. But as long as there is an elegant and possibly noble reason for why our product and its tasks are this particular way, it’s worth sharing it. It will give our customers an extra motivation – and make them more loyal users.

Is this what motivates you? Does it work for your readers or do they have other motivations? Please leave a comment.

How meaning works in technical communication

Considering how meaning works in communication in general, it should be easy in technical communication in particular, because several parameters are fixed.

Last week, I asked whether we actually create meaning in our documentation. Today, I take a closer look at semiotics to find out how meaning is created in communication – and specifically in techcomm.

How meaning gets transmitted in communication

Semiotics is a theory that explains communication as the production of meaning between people who exchange messages in cultural contexts. Semiotics aims to explain how communication is meaningful for a reader. (For much more on semiotics, check out Daniel Chandler’s good introduction Semiotics for Beginners.)

Note that the reader is not just a passive recipient of the message, but the active participant who constructs the meaning of a message. That is not to say that the meaning is whatever the reader wants. Rather, the meaning arises from how readers interpret the signs according to shared common conventions. For example, a user will – more or less – assume that a user manual contains photos or schematic images that represent the layout of the product, not an ideological statement, and try to create meaning accordingly.

Semiotics can get quite complex, due to all the moving parts:

  • Signs, such as words or even images, can lend themselves to creating different meanings at different times or for different groups of readers. (Think of ideologically, religiously or politically charged words or images.)
  • Semiotic “codes” can make you feel a member of the group, like your own regional dialect, or they can exclude you, like academic jargon. Whether you feel included or excluded influences your understanding of the message and the meaning you take from it.

However, technical communication suffers less from these shifts and ambiguities, because a lot of our signs and codes are restricted and well-defined. Or are they?

Why meaning seems easier in tech comm

Much technical communication can avoid some of the semiotic pitfalls because it addresses a limited, rather homogenous audience. We can assume a general willingness to learn the applied “code” of descriptions and instructions such as a user manual contains it. A manual can presuppose a certain vocabulary or define it in its glossary. The context is confined to the intended tasks of the products, and the expected outcomes of the tasks should be clear.

With all these major restrictions on communications in place, the user’s path is confined to a tunnel, and all that is left for the manual to do is to put in some lights and a railing to safely guide the readers through.

– If it was that easy, we wouldn’t find meaning in technical communications so elusive – and we wouldn’t despair to get users to follow the documentation. So our daily experience tells us that it doesn’t quite work that way.

– I’ll explore this problem at my presentation “Addicted to Meaning: How Good Technical Communication is Like Bad Magic Tricks” at tekom/tcworld in Wiesbaden on Tue 23 Oct at 1:45 pm. In the meantime, feel free to leave comments or questions below.

But do we create documentation with meaning?

Being meaningful is an essential, but elusive feature of good technical communications. Yet being meaningful in technical communications is just as essential as being correct and clear, concise or consistent: Understanding how and why communication is meaningful can help you to make your documentation more effective and to make your product more useful.

What is meaning?

Information theory suggests a hierarchy of information which proceeds from data at the bottom via information and knowledge to wisdom at the top. For example:

  • Data is the sheer fact that the Microsoft Office 2007 software has an “Office button” icon in the upper left corner.
  • The information is that this icon gives you access to functions such as opening, saving and printing a file helps you with generic functions.
  • The knowledge is that this functionality has replaced the File menu you’ve been used to. This adds meaning and supports your active experience.
  • The wisdom might be in the affirmation that nothing lasts. Or that Microsoft has flipped-flopped when they abolished something as sensible as the File menu – only to bring it back in Office 2010…

So meaning occurs at the knowledge stage in this hierarchy when you make sense of data and information, when you “connect the dots” into something that you can apply purposefully. Meaning gives answers to questions such as “So what?”, “What does this mean for me, in my situation?” and “Why should I care?”.

Why should technical communicators care?

Technical communicators should care about meaning, because we are in the business of creating meaning and transmitting it to users. We can provide all the data and information we want, if it’s not meaningful to customers, it’s wasted and dead. Any time documentation fails, it’s either because meaning has not been created or not been transmitted successfully. Documentation that merely informs the user “To print a file, click the Print button” does not support any active experience. It does not create any meaning, if it omits the context, such as the task the user may be engaged in, the prerequisites and the expected results of the user’s action.

– How can we ensure that our documentation is meaningful? Should we be thinking about meaning explicitly? Or is it enough to know our audience, use personas and create task-oriented documentation? Feel free to leave a comment.