Why is it so important that STC survive?

Mark Baker, commenting on my post about STC and its future, asked me a question:

Larry, I have to ask why you think it is so important that the STC survive per se? Is it because it performs some vital function that will cease to exist if STC folds? Or is it sentimental attachment based on time sunk into it, long time association, and long standing friendships?

I’ve pondered that question for a while.

STC logo

Yes, STC has been good to me. But that’s not the only reason I want it to succeed.

Of course part of the answer, for me, is sentiment. My experience with STC has been extremely rewarding. I don’t keep up with friends from high school or college, but some of my STC friendships are going strong after 20 or 30 years. In STC, I feel an incredibly strong sense of belonging. This is my tribe.

I understand, however, that most people don’t share that sentiment. And I know it’s not a reason for wanting STC to survive per se.

So is there, in Mark’s words, a vital function that STC provides? I think there are several — or at least there can be.

The role of a society

What’s the role of a professional society in a field where credentialling — that is, licensing — isn’t a legal prerequisite to participation?

Start with networking and information exchange. Several of the more recently formed communities, like LavaCon and Write the Docs, provide both of those. It’s because of that, I think, that people are questioning whether STC has become outmoded.

Yet a professional society ought to perform other functions as well:
Continue reading

STC: Growing in Numbers and Relevance

STC logoIn the runup to the 63rd annual STC Summit, now underway, I posted some thoughts on how the event has shrunk since the late 1990s. The post drew a lot of insightful comments about the Summit and about conferences in general. (I encourage you to read them.)

Two readers — perhaps picking up on my observation that STC membership has declined along with Summit attendance — suggested that STC itself, not just the conference, is struggling to remain relevant.

That’s the issue I’d like to focus on today: How can STC grow in both numbers and relevance?

First I’ll excerpt their comments. Then I’ll add my thoughts. Then I want to hear what you think. Continue reading

On Limerick Day

I just learned that today is Limerick Day. (Not National Limerick Day, apparently. Good. I like it when the whole universe can join in.)

As a serious writer of nonfiction I struggle with this particular form. It’s like, well….I ‘ll just let these speak for themselves.

Quill penIt’s Limerick Day – y’all have a ball
Writing doggerel sure to enthrall
Me, I’m gonna go fishing
(Beats sitting here wishing
I had any talent at all)

A technical writer in Philly
Penned limericks bawdy and silly
He had a grand time
Crafting meter and rhyme
Til his editor made him rewrite them all to conform to corporate style

Scaling (down) the Summit

Next week, technical communicators from around the world will convene at the STC Summit in Anaheim, California.

summit16The last time the Summit was held in Anaheim, in 1998, it attracted more than 2,000 people — about 3 times the number that’s expected next week. (For that matter, STC’s total membership in 1998 was about 3 times what it is today.)

I’ve attended more than 20 Summits. I love seeing old friends and catching up on what’s happening in the profession.

Still, I can’t help noticing that the event has shrunk over the years. While the program still features some great speakers and great presentations, I no longer have the sense that in every time slot I’m forced to choose between 3 or 4 can’t-miss sessions.

I’d like to hear what you, my colleagues, think about the Summit and about conferences in general. Use the comments section to share your thoughts:

  • Will you be at the Summit this year? If so, why did you choose to attend? If not, why not?
  • Has the Summit, once the pre-eminent technical communication event in North America, been overtaken by other events? (In 1998, for example, there was
    no such thing as LavaCon— or any of the other events with “content strategy” on their marquees.)
  • Do special-interest or niche events, like DITA North America, draw people away from more general-interest events like the Summit?
  • Finally, when you look over the conference landscape and see how much it’s changed over the last 10 to 20 years, do you think things are better today? Worse? Or just different?

DITA adoption: What are the numbers?

I just saw this infographic from IXIASOFT about a subject near and dear to my heart: the adoption of DITA.

Cg_W9ieUoAEuhEC.jpg largeLike so many infographics, unfortunately, this one is a mess. It’s cluttered, with so many elements competing for my attention that I can’t tell what its key messages are.

I don’t expect IXIASOFT to know how to create good infographics. That’s not their business. But I expect them to know about DITA and about the technical writing community in general.

That’s why I’m taken aback by some of their numbers:

  • There are 150,000 technical writers on LinkedIn? Even if that’s a worldwide total, it  seems high. What occupations does IXIASOFT lump under the heading “technical writer”?
  • Only 9,000 say they know DITA? That seems about right – as an absolute number, but not as a percentage of the total. Of the people who are true technical writers, surely more than 6 percent know DITA.
  • 4.0 percent of job ads ask for DITA experience? That’s surprisingly low, considering that by IXIASOFT’s own count more than 600 companies have adopted DITA and a growing number of writers claim to know it. I recall seeing another presentation that put this number in the 10-to-20 percent range, but I can’t place my hands on it. Does anybody have data on this?

I looked on IXIASOFT’s website for illumination. There I found a piece in which Keith Schengili-Roberts put the 6 percent figure into context by noting that only 15 percent of technical writers claim to know FrameMaker. That makes me wonder all the more how broad their “technical writer” umbrella is.

I also discovered that this infographic has been around since at least November 2014. In the earlier version (which you’ll find in Keith’s article) the numbers are slightly different. But they still look suspect.

I’d like to find a truer picture of DITA adoption. Does anybody know of one?

Watch out for Survey McSurvface

If you want to improve your product’s documentation — or the whole user experience — there’s a tried and true technique: do a survey. At least that’s what we’ve always been told.

Let me tell you a couple of stories.

The boat

boaty

Come to think of it, “HMS Coke Can” might be a more suitable name. (Source: Natural Environment Research Council)

Earlier this week the British government, in the person of Science Minister Jo Johnson, announced that its new research vessel will not be christened Boaty McBoatface, even though that name won an Internet poll with 4 times as many votes as the runner-up.

Evoking memories of Graham Chapman’s Colonel, Johnson declared that the winning name was simply too silly and that a more “suitable” name will be chosen instead.

The bridge

Much the same thing happened in 2006 when Stephen Colbert, in his Comedy Central days, encouraged his viewers to vote in an online contest to name a bridge in Hungary.

megyeri.jpg

The Almost-Colbert Bridge (Source: Wikimedia Commons / Civertan)

Stephen Colbert Bridge won, garnering more votes than there are people in Hungary. Things hit a snag when Hungary’s ambassador to the U.S. good-naturedly informed Colbert that in order to be honored, he would need to be (a) fluent in Hungarian and (b) dead.

Today the bridge is known as Megyeri Bridge because it connects two towns whose names end in -megyer. I’m not sure that’s better than Colbert Bridge. But I’m not Hungarian so I guess it’s none of my business.

The moral of both stories? Surveys and polls can be entertaining. But their results aren’t always useful.

Your customers

Now I know that nobody is going to turn your customer survey into a prank. Still, when you ask your customers what they want, they don’t always know. Their responses likely will be knee-jerk, not reflective of careful thought.

Want a better index? Sure, that sounds good. Bigger icons? Why not? Soon you’ve got a lot of “results” that you can turn into action plans. Yet you’ve missed the issues that truly affect the UX.

The solution? Don’t ask your customers what they want. Instead, ask them how they actually use the product, and ask them what things give them trouble. Do they have difficulty finding the instructions they need? Are the instructions relevant to their work situations? Are there product features that go unused because they’re hard to set up and maintain?

When you ask your customers how they really use your product, then you can use your own know-how to decide how best to make their lives easier.

There’s an even better way, although it’s harder than administering a survey. If you can observe your customers at work, if you can see for yourself where they succeed and where they struggle, then you’ll know exactly where to focus your efforts at improving both the documentation and the rest of the product.

So there you have it.

Surveys that ask customers what they want: too silly.

Surveys that measure the way customers actually use the product: much better.

In-person observation (including usability tests): harder, but best of all.

Tell me about experiences you’ve had improving your products by gathering information from your customers.

Tell your story, respect your reader

Look at these two maps. They’re based on the same data: population gain or loss by county. But they tell vastly different stories.

In the first map, the graphic artist started with the two extreme values in the data set (-6.3% and +28.7%) and divided the color scale into 5 equal pieces. As a result, all of the counties losing population are lumped together with counties that had no change or that posted slight gains.

usmap1

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

The map tells us that a lot of counties lost population or held steady, several counties added population, and exactly two (one in the top middle and one near the bottom middle) added a lot of population. Frankly, it’s not much of a story.

Now look at what the Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham did with the same data. Ingraham changed the color scheme: blue counties gained population and red counties lost. The color intensity changes for counties that gained or lost more than 1% or 2%.

usmap2.png

Source: Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

Now you can see a story. Continue reading

OrionTeide_Tejedor_960

Seeing the deep-space view

Do you recognize the bright stars in this scene? You’ve almost certainly seen them: they’re the 3 stars of Orion’s belt. But I’ll bet you’ve never seen them like this.

The photo, featured last week as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, is a composite of several long-exposure images taken from a remote location in the Canary Islands.

In this deep-space view you can see the 3 familiar stars along with hundreds of fainter stars and other structures like the Orion Nebula and (near the leftmost of the 3 stars) the Horsehead Nebula and the Flame Nebula.

If you go outside right now and look at Orion’s belt, whether or not you can see anything besides the 3 stars, all of that other stuff is there too. It’s always there, even though it might be hidden from the observer.

The deep-space view

I’ve found that the professional world is the same way. Whenever I look at a situation involving people and projects on the job, I can be sure there’s more than what I can see at first glance.

Here’s an example: In a former job I chatted with a manager who’d recently been hired to run one of my company’s branch offices. She was glad to be there, she said, and anxious to start improving processes and efficiency. She was already sure that the writing team at that location would need training in the tools and processes. Continue reading

DITA lets the authors drive

This morning, April 1, brings welcome news from the OASIS DITA Technical Committee. Recognizing at long last that DITA authors want and deserve the opportunity to screw up the formatting in their documents, the committee has provided new ways to do just that.

dita-bird-drop“Microsoft Word, the most popular text editing software in the world, lets authors make a royal mess out of their formatting,” explained Technical Committee spokesman Mark Upton. “The users of DITA deserve no less.”

Through XSL transforms, the DITA Open Toolkit has always provided ways to make hash out of document formats. But typically those features fall within the purview of the information architect. Most rank-and-file authors can’t, or won’t, master the necessary XSLT coding skills.

With today’s newly announced features, authors can now create formatting nightmares directly within their DITA topics.

Here’s how it works. Continue reading

A little bird told me: Leading from the heart

A little bird told me to vote for Bernie Sanders.

I won’t tell you whether I plan to take the bird’s advice, or whether you should. Today I don’t want to talk about politics. I do want you to watch the video of what happened last Friday when the bird interrupted one of Sanders’ rallies in Portland, Oregon.

First, notice the enthusiasm and the energy of Sanders’ young supporters.

Seeing those young people exulting in the moment, I feel like I’m 18 again. I feel like I can see symbolism in a little bird, and that I can have a part in changing the world.

Second, notice what Sanders does. He feeds the energy, and he feeds off of the energy. He ad libs a few lines. You can sense everyone at the rally jumping onto the Sanders bandwagon. Within a few minutes #BirdieSanders is a thing on Twitter.

After the video ends, after I return to my real age (which is considerably more than 18), here’s what I’ve learned.

Bernie Sanders, who wants to be the leader of this country, showed me that a wise leader tunes in to his followers’ emotions and channels those emotions for his, and for everyone’s, benefit. Continue reading