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

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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

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The technical communicator’s credo

What does it mean to be a professional technical communicator in 2016? What will it mean to be a professional technical communicator over the next decade?

Hand holding a penAfter pondering those questions I came up with this credo:

I serve my audience. I strive to know as much about them as I can, and I supply them with the information they need, in a way that’s appropriate for their context. (Or, as Sarah Maddox put it: in the language that they understand, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.)

I serve my employer. While always behaving ethically I work to advance the interests of their business and represent them to their customers and to the public as they see fit.

I represent my profession. In my dealings with subject-matter experts and other colleagues, I respect both my work and theirs. I never give them reason to question the value of the work I produce.

I constantly seek to learn new things, while discarding techniques and ideas that have become outmoded. I understand that mastering new tools and techniques, and recognizing and adapting to change, are part of what it means to be a professional.

What do you think? If you were to write a professional credo, or if you already have one, what would it include?

twcredo

The way to deal with a bully

I know something about bullying. From about ages 12 to 14 I was bullied by 4 or 5 other boys in my class. Two things stopped the bullying:

  • I stood up to it. Not every time, but often enough that the bullies saw my self-assurance and realize that I wouldn’t knuckle under.
  • The bullies grew up and eventually stopped bullying. I never became friends with any of them, but we were on cordial terms through most of high school.

Years later I understood that the boys who bullied me were driven by a need for affirmation, by a need to know that they could influence people. For many a 12-year old boy the most obvious avenues to influence are violence (or threatened violence) and verbal abuse. Most 12-year olds grow up and discover better ways to deal with people.

enemies2A few don’t grow up.

In my professional life I’ve never worked for a bully. But I’ve known people who have. The manager who screams and yells, who behaves erratically, who gets his way through intimidation. When I started working, those managers were in the minority but it wasn’t unusual to encounter one.

Today, almost everyone understands that leadership involves mutual respect and instilling a set of shared values. Bullying managers are rare.

Rare, but not extinct. Continue reading

We have met the future, and it is us

A lot of bloggers, including yours truly, have spilled a lot of ink (electrons?) pondering the question, What does the future hold for technical communication?

Sarah Maddox, one of the most insightful technical communicators you’ll ever
meet, recently turned the question on its head.

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Image source: Sarah Maddox (ffeathers.wordpress.com)

At her keynote address at the tcworld India conference last month, Sarah asserted that the future is technical communication — and then made a strong case for why that’s so.

The summary of Sarah’s talk, and her accompanying slides, are two of the best things you’ll read all week.

Here’s a paraphrase of what she said. Continue reading

Taking our work to a higher plane

Try listening to a Beatles song and ignoring the vocals. It’s hard, because the lyrics are so good. But try to focus just on the music and the sounds in Eleanor Rigby, in Strawberry Fields Forever, in Day in the Life.

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966.JPG

George Martin, the “Fifth Beatle,” working in the studio with the other Beatles

What you’re hearing is the genius of George Martin, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90.

Martin was an artist with the sound board, just as surely as Rembrandt and Picasso were artists with the brush. He took great songs the Beatles had written and lifted them to a higher plane.

In technical communication we talk about the words, and we should. The words are important. But in our profession what separates the good from the great is often the nonverbal part: the visual presentation.

  • The use of graphics to supplement the text
  • The placement of text and graphical elements on the page
  • The integration of other media like video and audio
  • The way in which the content adapts to the device on which it’s displayed

In a few weeks I’ll attend Edward Tufte‘s one-day course, Visual Explanations, in which he’ll cover some of the design principles he’s always espoused and introduce some new ideas about adapting a presentation to its audience.

For me, Tufte is the George Martin of visual design. His techniques pick up where words leave off and lift the content to a higher plane.

At heart I’m a “words guy.” I think that I have an instinct for writing, but I’ve needed training to develop my skills in visual presentation. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that every technical communicator needs to be adept at both the verbal and the visual.

RIP George Martin. Thanks for the great music. And thanks for inspiring me to be better at my craft.

Image source: By Capitol Records via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain