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.

Lessons from Ray Gallon on cognitive UA design

Context is everything: Support your users in their integrated competency learning and embed user assistance in the user interface and conceptual context in task topics. That’s in a nutshell what I took away from Ray Gallon‘s  webinar “User Become Learners”, the first in a series of 3 webinars on “Cognitive Design for User Assistance“.

To catch up before the second webinar on Tuesday, 29 January, read on or watch the recording made available by Adobe who hosted and sponsored the webinar (requires an Adobe ID) or check out Ray’s slides.

Evolving learning needs

What we need to learn changes all the time – it even seems to change faster these days. So for us technical communicators, says Ray, it’s not sufficient to show users how to use or learn a product. Beyond that, we need to teach users how to learn to adapt a product to their evolving needs.

To back up his claim that learning needs are not static, Ray showed OECD statistics for the last 50 years: In average European working days, routine manual tasks are down. Routine cognitive tasks way down. Non-routine manual tasks are way, way down. By contrast, expert thinking is way up. And complex communication is way, way up!

To help users meet these challenges, technical communicators need to offer decision support and to convey knowledge. Users need to be able to decide which problem they need to solve and if and how they can go about it. This requires knowledge: They need to understand contexts, underlying concepts and applicable tools. All this means much more than just explaining a product’s user interface – which would be routine manual and cognitive tasks that are on the way out.

How minimalism can help

Ray recalled the core principles of decision support, according to the U.S. National Research Council. Half of them relate directly to the tech comm principles of minimalism (as summarized by JoAnn Hackos on her blog recently):

  1. Begin with the users’ needs in decision support; focus on users’ actions in minimalism
  2. Connect information between producers and users in decision support; understand the users’ world in minimalism
  3. Design for learning in decision support; ensure that documentation is findable and contains troubleshooting information in minimalism

Just because minimalism emphasizes hands-on practice doesn’t mean it shuns conceptual information, says Ray. So to add value to the documentation, describe applicable tasks, not just the user interface.

That means we tech comm’ers don’t just merely describe the menus and icons. Instead, we must also get involved in the design of the product, especially the interface with its labels and error messages and pop-up hints.

This way, usage of our documentation can improve drastically: Rather than supporting rote memorization or, worse yet, require users to look up the documentation repeatedly, users can learn from the documentation and apply what they find to decide what they need to do and how.

To carve up or synthesize?

One of the most important consequences of Ray’s paradigm for us tech comm’ers is that it effectively abolishes a dear dogma of topic-based authoring, namely the separation of concepts and tasks. Ray explains that just because we need to understand these areas separately (when we make sense of products during analysis) doesn’t mean we need to keep them separate when we present them again to users (during synthesis). Imagine a pizza: You need to understand crust, tomato sauce and toppings separately – but you would never serve them separately to the user. (For more about this, see Mark Baker’s blog post.)

For documentation, this means to empower the user: Read/understand once, apply many. I think the parallel to single sourcing is obvious and deliberate: Write once, use/publish many. Give users all the information they need – and only that, no more, nada mas! (And offer it in a way it’s findable immediately.)

Specifically, put conceptual information where it is most useful, into tasks. Integrating conceptual information into tasks avoids that concepts remain abstract and removed. In addition, progressive disclosure can help with the efficient embedding of user assistance into the user interface.

My lessons learned

I think Ray’s approach makes a lot of sense. It can improve many a help system that follows the letter, but not yet the spirit of topic-based authoring.

But two factors in my daily work dampen the effect of Ray’s ideas for me:

  • We use a DITA-based information model which allows and in fact encourages contextual information as part of task topics. We want to ensure that users understand when they need to perform a task and why. I believe the <context> and also the <prereq> element in DITA serve this purpose well, without fully replacing concept topics.
  • Ray’s assertion that “good user assistance is only needed once” is a bit too idealistic for many software products I have documented. Many are very complex, some are poorly designed to boot to allow the user to safely deduce a general principle about the product. So Ray’s paradigm does require not merely the technical communicator’s participation in the design phase, but actually good design. As Ray said during the Q&A session, “This is easy to explain, but hard to do.”

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: Internationalisation as an accessibility issue

Addressing internationalisation and accessibility issues are two complementary ways to make technical communications (as well as products and web sites) more inclusive. Attend a panel discussion at TCUK in October to find out what pitfalls internationalisation and globalisationcan bring and what others have done to address them.

The panelists

The panel brings together four internationally experienced technical communicators:

  • Karen Mardahl is TCUK’s keynote speaker of this year’s accessibility stream. She believes in encouraging technical communicators to develop their skills and knowledge to strengthen their role in any organisation, but especially to do their part in making products and services more inclusive for all people. Living and working in Denmark, she has experienced the subtle challenges of negotiating technical communications in an international, intercultural context first-hand.
  • Robert Hempsall is a specialist information designer whose international clients, such as international airlines and telecommunicartions companies, require forms, bills and letters designed for efficient localisation and maximum accessibility.
  • Ray Gallon is currently an independent consultant, specializing in the convergence of user guidance and usability for international companies such as General Electric Medical Systems, Alcatel, and Ilog-IBM. Ray is currently a member of the international board of directors of the Society for Technical Communications (STC) and past president of the STC France chapter. He shares his life between the Languedoc region of France and the city of Barcelona, Spain.
  • I will be moderating the panel and insert the occasional anecdote or lesson learned from my experience of 13 years of writing software documentation in English that is accessible and useful for users all across Europe.

The topics

The focus of the panel will be a dimension which frequently shuts out wide ranges of customers and users: National borders and the languages and cultural conventions they denote. Internationalization is an accessibility issue in user interfaces and documentation. In several ways, it affects whether you can reach your customers and how well.

For example, in documentation (and user experience design as a whole), language can be:

  • Inclusive when it is comprehensible to customers who speak English as a Second Language
  • Exclusive when it relies on specific cultural conventions, idioms or references, including common items, such as date and time Readability can be

The presentation of examples and entry forms can be:

  • Inclusive when they support different international conventions
  • Exclusive when they are limited, for example, to 5-digit zip codes

How to distinguish corresponding strategies?

  • Localization: The adaptation of product and documentation to a specific market, a locale.
  • Internationalization: The presentation of product and documentation that enables efficient localization in different cultures and languages.

Our panel discussion discusses these issues and more with examples and suggestions how to make technical communications more inclusive in terms of language and culture and hence more successful internationally.

If you know additional questions or topics of internationalisation as an accessibility issue, please leave a comment.

Tech comm meets content strategy, with Ray Gallon

Technical communications and content strategy have a lot to say to each other.  Bloggers have frequently related the two disciplines. Tech comm conferences run streams on content strategy, for example, tekom11 dedicated a whole day to the topic.

Content strategy for software development

Ray Gallon at tekom. Photo by @umpff, used with permission.

Ray Gallon at tekom. Photo by @umpff, used with permission.

Leave it to Scriptorium and their excellent webinars to shed some light on the situation. Recently, they invited Ray Gallon to present his “Content Strategy for Software Development“. (To learn more about Ray, read his recent interview over at the Firehead blog. Or you can check out the very similar presentation which Ray held at tekom.)

Ray’s presentation was very enlightening to me, because he applied content strategy to software development. I create documentation for software applications, so I can relate to creating content for them. In the following, I’ll mainly focus on the first half, but I recommend watching the entire webinar.

Software development as information-rich environment

For the sake of his argument, Ray set the stage by looking at (complex) software developments not as products or tools, but as information-rich interactive environments. Software could thus be an expert system that supports users to make an appropriate decision, e.g., a medical diagnosis.

The first question to content strategists is then: What does the user need from the software? There are several answers; the user may need to

  • Know something (relating to concept topics)
  • Do something (relating to task topics)
  • Explore or understand something
  • Integrate or combine the software with his other tasks and processes

Plan to help your users

Ray then presented several document types which help content strategists to plan how they can best support users in their tasks and decisions. Among them was the Content Requirements Worksheet:

Ray Gallon's Content Requirements Worksheet

Ray Gallon's Content Requirements Worksheet explained. Click to enlarge. (Pardon the mediocre quality; prezi > WebEx recording > SlideShare is one compression too many...)

This document was a real-eye opener for me. It represents a holistic view of all user-facing content in a software application:

  • Informational, editorial content
  • Structural software content, such as user interface messages
  • User guidance, such as tool tips, help screens
  • User decision support to help users do the right things for the right reasons
  • Dynamic content, such as search results
  • Live interactive content as preesented in forums and social networks

Content workers, unite!

The Content Requirements Worksheet can be very beneficial to future users of a software. But it presents a challenge to content strategists to get a wide variety of requirements right. That is the opportunity for technical communicators and user experience designers and information architects to pool their skills and join forces.

As Ray said in his comment to my previous post:

Many tech comms do a bit of, or a lot of, content strategy in their work, and if an organization has a content strategy then everyone, tech comms included, needs to understand it and be on board.

So let’s transcend the silos of our systems, their manifold features and the artefacts we’re used to creating. Let’s start with good, thoughtful design from which our users benefit.

Your turn

Is this a good way to relate content strategy to technical communications? Or do you know better ways? Feel free to leave a comment.