“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.


Top 5 reasons I look forward to TCUK13

TCUK13 kicks off in Bristol next week, and here are my reasons why I’m very excited about it!

Intimate, professional conference

Of all the conferences I know, TCUK is the most intimate, almost cozy conference, attended by professional, engaged tech comm’ers. There’s none of the stimulation overload or anonymity that can mar larger events. This will be my fourth year in a row, and in past years, I’ve loved every minute – and cursed my travel schedule which made me miss the occasional closing session…

Versatile programme of presentations

For “only” three streams of presentations I think TCUK managed to schedule very versatile sessions. The conference website lists all subject areas, but these are my personal favorites:

… and I’m proud to contribute to the versatility with my own presentation “Addicted to meaning: Mental models for technical communicators“! 🙂

Practical, applicable advice

Nothing impresses my managers and colleagues more than bringing back directly applicable advice from a conference! TCUK has several sessions dedicated to specific Tools & Techniques. Also, for you Flare folks out there, TCUK will see the launch of the youngest ISTC special interest group: The MadCap UK & Europe user group, will hold its inaugural meeting as a TCUK fringe event on Wednesday, September 25 at 5 pm in the Terrace Bar of the conference hotel.

A fully booked workshop!

Chris Atherton from TCUK10 and TCUK11 fame and I will run a workshop “Bake your own taxonomy” about developing a documentation structure, with the emphasis on doing justice to existing, unstructured content – and with a week to go, the workshop is already fully booked. Chris and I are wowed by the overwhelming interest – not to mention spending an extra hour or two to make it worth everybody’s while! (If you had planned on attending, but didn’t register with the good folks at ISTC yet, we might have a couple of seats in case of no-shows, but we can’t promise you a spot at this time…)


One of my regrets at last year’s TCUK was that I spent no time at all visiting Newcastle – and envying those who did. So this year, I’m hoping to take some time to visit Bristol. The conference website has some initial tips for those of us who do.

If you’re a European tech comm’er, especially if you’re a European MadCap Flare user, I hope to see you in Bristol next week!

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. 🙂

Pattern recognition for tech comm at #TCUK11

Our presentation “Pattern recognition for technical communicators” by Chris Atherton and myself at TCUK11 was well-received and brought “Ah-ha moments a-go-go” according to one tweet. Read how it went or download the slides in PDF by clicking on the title image.

Link to PDF slides: Pattern recognition for tech comm

How the session came about

The session (see the abstract) got its start when I met Chris at last year’s TCUK where she spoke about “Everything you always wanted to know about psychology (and how it relates to technical communication) … but were afraid to ask”. She didn’t really talk about pattern recognition, and I didn’t really know what it was, but I had a notion this might be good for another presentation. I contacted Chris, she thought it was a great idea, and so over the year, we came up with this baby.

"Only Chris Atherton can have a picture of a dog's bum in her #TCUK11 presentation and make it relevant." - @robocolumn

And we brought the baby to TCUK11. 24 hours before our talk, Chris and I attended Karen Mardahl‘s and CJ Walker‘s fireside chat-like session “Content strategy year 1: a tale from the trenches“.  Their dialogue format really appealed to us, we decided to replace some of the scripted moments with more informal dialogue – and the baby had two godmothers.

Then we attended Andrew Lightheart‘s “How to be a riveting speaker” (more on that in my previous post) after which we couldn’t very well present something with reams of text-ridden slides. So we threw out most of the text slides – and the baby had a godfather.

By now, it was still the same content, but quite a different presentation. After all the tweaking, we didn’t have a measurement whether it filled the allotted 40 minutes or was longer…

How it went, a view from the lectern

Chris and I met in the auditorium, set up, added some last minute changes. Checking the watch: 2 minutes to go. Looking up: We had filled the place, a good 100 people were keen to recognise a pattern or two…

Karen introduced us, and off we went. I had decided to be extranervous because the session was being filmed and preserved (is my collar right?) – but I completely forgot!

"By creating and following patterns you help your reader understand..." - @dfarb

Through all the changes and tweaks, we had come to know the material so intimately that it seemed to flow quite smoothly. The omitted text slides were actually a relief, because we could focus on the story and the examples, without having to vindicate each and every sentence. We had picked out stories and examples which were easier to tell than some of the concepts we had thrown out.

Karen’s warning of 15 minutes left came around the time I had roughly estimated. We had to leave out the communal brainstorm of more examples and applications, but everything else fit in.

The feedback after the session was very kind and encouraging. I’m glad and proud if we presented something meaningful to our peers.

The slides

The slides are not the actual presentation we showed, but a variation with more text, so they work a little better as a self-contained slide show without the soundtrack.  Click on the image above to display or download. The video by the TCUK crew is forthcoming.

Chris and I sincerely thank the TCUK organisers for inviting us, our peer presenters for valuable inspiration, all attendees for helpful feedback, intentional or not, before and after the session!

Feel free to leave a comment, whether you were there or are merely curious what it’s all about!

“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!

Pattern recognition for tech comm

Chris Atherton and I will present a session on pattern recognition for technical communicators at this year’s Technical Communication UK conference near Oxford. The conference takes place from September 20 through 22.

Logo of the Technical Communication UK conference

Adding up Chris’s interest in evidence-based information design and her background in researching and teaching human cognition with my experience in designing and modelling technical communications, we’re sure it’ll be an interesting, thought-provoking session. Here’s the abstract:

Pattern recognition is one of the essential mental strategies for acquiring and disseminating knowledge, though most of us are not aware of it. This session presents some ideas and findings about human pattern recognition. It aims to help technical communicators think about how they can employ pattern recognition processes to develop their own documentation and user assistance.

The presentation combines the wit and wisdom of a cognitive psychologist and a technical writer who draw on examples and evidence in their respective fields to show:

  • What pattern recognition is and how it works
  • Which mental strategies we employ without knowing it
  • How technical communicators can employ those strategies
  • Making sense of new subject matter
  • Starting to build new documentation
  • Designing and structuring documentation
  • Supporting users efficiently

New conference trend: Collaborative sessions

It’s interesting to see collaborations appear at the conference that create a mushroom-like network of sessions:

  • Chris and I talk about pattern recognition.
  • Chris leads a session with Mike Smith and Karen Mardahl on statistics (without maths).
  • Karen joins forces with CJ Walker to tell about content strategy from the trenches.

Do you think joint sessions are a good idea or not? Have you had bad experiences that we should avoid? Feel free to leave a comment.

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!