Address information overload in tech comm

Addressing information overload helps your user assistance succeed when knowing your audience and offering correct and concise content is not enough. You can have great topics well-written and well-structured, if they’re part of an information deluge, they won’t help your users get their stuff done.

I take my cue from a post by Nathaniel Davis over at UX matters called “IA Strategy: Addressing the Signatures of Information Overload“. Nathaniel describes six such signatures. I think at least three of them have something to say why and how too much information fails in documentation, too.

1. Feedback

Feedback is the essential reality check to determine whether users suffer from information overload. Customers may report that they’re not sure they’ve found the right information or they cannot apply it efficiently. Even if the content is fine topic by topic, the bulk of information is unmanageable. In this case, consider improving search and browsability for more efficient use of the documentation.

2. The utility gap

The utility gap means that customers only use a small fraction of all the information they have at their disposal. As Nathaniel says, it’s what I have vs. what I use.

If certain user types experience utility gaps, consider addressing them with special documents. For example, you could assist novice users with a quick start document. Or address a special use case which only requires one of the many processes, plus some reference information. With topic-based authoring, it’s usually easy to create such additional documents by re-using the relevant topics. (Maybe add one or two specific “glue topics” to make sure the new document still flows nicely…)

If all users experience utility gaps, consider progressive disclosure by layering your content. The benefit of offering all content within three mouse-clicks wears off if it’s too much. Progressive disclosure structures content by providing the most essential, most frequently used topics first and more obscure information later. Make sure, however, that all topics remain searchable and findable!

3. Filter failure

Filter failure means that users lack ways to judge which information to trust and use. It’s what I can use vs. what I should use. Filter failure can be solved with tools and with content.

Customers who are confident to use their own judgment require tools to filter information. In documentation, faceted search allows users to reduce search results by categories to weed out inapplicable information.

Customers who prefer to rely on expert judgement will benefit from recommendations in the content itself. Consider adding such recommendations for certain user roles or use cases to guide customers to the most suitable information.

– Have you had symptoms of information overload in documentation? Would these strategies help users to cope? What other solutions are there? Feel free to leave a comment.

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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:

Scott Abel on Structured Content at TCUK12

Scott Abel delivered his keynote It’s All About Structure! Why Structured Content Is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity, Not An Option in his usual style: Provocative, but relevant, fun and fast-paced (though he said he was going to take it slow). He even channeled George Carlin’s routine on Stuff: “These are ‘MY Documents’, those are YOUR documents. Though I can see you were trying get to MY Documents…”

His style doesn’t translate well onto a web page, so I’ll restrict myself to his 9 reasons Why Structured Content Is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity:

  1. Structure formalizes content, so it can guide authors who need to make fewer decisions when writing it. It also guides readers who can find more easily where the relevant information is in the whole documentation structure or within a topic. And it guides computers which can extract relevant information automatically and reliably.
  2. Structure enhances usability by creating patterns that are easy to recognize and easy to navigate with confidence.
  3. Structure enables automatic delivery and syndication of content, for example, via twitter – and you’ll be surprised occasionally when and how other people syndicate your “stuff”.
  4. Structure supports single-sourcing which means you can efficiently publish content on several channels, whether it’s print or different online outputs, such as a web browser, an iPad or a smartphone.
  5. Structure can automate transactions, such as money transfers, whether they are embedded in other content or content items in their own right.
  6. Structure makes it easier to adapt content for localization and translation, because you can chunk content to re-use existing translations or to select parts that need not only be translated but localized to suit a local market.
  7. Structure allows you to select and present content dynamically. You can decide which content to offer on the fly and automatically, depending on user context, such as time and location.
  8. Structure allows you to move beyond persona-ized content. This is not a typo: Scott doesn’t really like personas. He thinks they are a poor approximation of someone who is not you which is no longer necessary. With structured content (and enough information about your users) you can personalize your content to suit them better than personas ever let you.
  9. Structure makes it much easier to filter and reuse content to suit particular variants, situations and users.

Ray Gallon’s Hairball of Content at TCUK12

Ray Gallon‘s session The Hairball of Content was a high-level tour de force where he argued that we technical communicators do much more than just technical writing. However, we rarely get credit for all the other work we do in tasks such as content strategy, user interface design, information architecture, etc.

Assisting the user

Our overarching task is to assist users by translating the functional thinking of engineers into something that users can act upon and experience. That means our content is not just in the documentation, but it’s also in the user interface, in the error messages, etc. So technical communications accompanies the complete design process – and we tech comm’ers need to be involved from day one.

If we take our role as the users’ advocate seriously, we need to tweak some of our dogmas a little to ensure that users get the maximum benefit.

Embedding fosters knowledge

Concepts as documentation content are not an end in itself, but they need to offer decision support to users. A concept should tell readers whether they are looking at the right tool or function at the right time. That means such conceptual information needs to be available right where it matters. Even if it means to give context with conceptual information inside a procedure topic, either in the introduction or even as a short sentence in the individual step.

Yes, such mixing of topic information goes against the rules of topic-based authoring, but it will actually help users: Offering such mixed information in context transforms the sheer information of how to do a task  (which is hard to remember) to knowledge of why and how to do a task (which is easier to remember.)

Context is everything

Ray said: “Context is everything” – which applies across the board:

  • User assistance needs to be available in the context of the user’s workflow. Embedding contextual information in layers, from GUI labels via tooltips to full-blown help topics, will support users accomplish their tasks faster and more easily without taking more of their attention than necessary.
  • Each piece of user assistance also needs to offer sufficient context to be meaningful and “learnable” for users: Only offering steps 1 through 5 in a procedure usually doesn’t offer enough context for users to actually learn how to use a product or a function, if we omit the “when” and the “why”.
  • User assistance also needs to offer enough context to allow users to navigate easily and with confidence through the product and the documentation. Specifically, we need to offer users an easy way back to where they’ve come from and a way back to the product and their task.

Offering successful user assistance isn’t a question of offering more at all costs, because more information isn’t necessarily better for the users. Instead, we need to stimulate cognitive demand, the will to know and learn, in the user by offering the right information at the right time.

TCUK12, day 1: Workshops & company

The first day of the ISTC conference TCUK12 offered workshops and great opportunities to meet tech comm’ers from all walks of life and many corners of the earth.

When I arrived late on Monday evening, I promptly headed for the bar and joined the advance party for a last round – which lasted so late that I’m not even sure in which timezone it was 2 am before I turned in…

Robert Hempsall: Information Design 101

Robert Hempsall offered a great and engaging hands-on Information Design 101 workshop about information design. The workshop focused on the five key areas of content and structure, language, layout, typography, and lines and spatial organization. Using a formal application to vote in English elections by mail, Robert led us through the process of designing the form to maximize clarity and usability.

Thanks to our versatile and engaged group of delegates, our work on the form was not only lively, but showed how different disciplines contribute to the solution of better information design, from tech comm (with its principles of minimalism and parallelism) via user interface design (with its emphasis on making completion of the form as easy and painless as possible) to graphic design.

In this sense, the workshop presented a good example of “design by committee” (which is usually a terrible idea): We discussed the most intuitive and user-friendly sequence of the form’s elements and how best to phrase the section headings, as questions or as imperatives. A seemingly innocuous “all of the above”  check box also caused a debate: Should it precede the individual options, to make completing the form quick, easy and painless? Should it come last, so users hopefully first read and reflect on the options? Or should it be omitted altogether, so users have to think about each option and select all that apply.

Form design is maybe not among the core tasks for many tech writers. Yet I’ve found several challenges in it that are strikingly similar to getting a topic structure just right, whether it’s a consistent, indicative heading, good, clear instructions or logical structure.

Rowan Shaw: Quality Across Borders

Rowan Shaw‘s workshop Quality Across Borders: Practical Measures to Ensure Best-Value Documentation in Global Technology Businesses focused on creating documentation both with authors and for users who have English as a second language (ESL).

As in introduction, Rowan presented us with 10 sentences each of which had some element that can create a problem for ESL readers, ranging from “10/03/12”, which could mean 3 October or March 10, to metaphors and slang.

If you need to hire ESL authors, it can be helpful to ask applicants to sit for an exam which tests skills such as procedure writing, fluency of expression, structuring, detail, consistency – but also their motivation for applying, to spot those candidates who want a foot in the door, but might not be interested in tech comm in the long term. We discussed a sample test, whether it was applicable and appropriate in all cultures.

Rowan suggested that, given the practicalities of global ESL authors, you might have to settle for less than perfect profiles in candidates. Then it is important to know which skills are easier to teach someone on the job, for example, grammar, structuring, capitalization, punctuation and how to use a style guide. Other skills are harder to teach, such as an eye for detail, audience orientation, logical thinking, but also more intricate language skills, such as prepositions and correct modifiers.

Again, this workshop benefitted tremendously from the diverse talents in the room and the experiences delegates brought to the topic.

The right company

I keep harping on how much I enjoy and benefit from meeting other tech comm’ers. Just on the first day:

  • I found that several other doc managers are also wary to hire subject matter experts, who are less committed to tech comm, because they might just want a foot in the door (see above).
  • I had an immensely helpful conversation with someone who’s a visiting professor and who could give me tips and ideas that I can try as I consider teaching as a future path.

So day 1 was very fruitful already, and I’m looking forward to more sessions and conversations to come.

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.