Back to school part 2: enhancing my technical communication skills

Back-To-School-Books-And-AppleJoe Welinske’s talk, Key Trends in Software User Assistance, has inspired me to learn new skills, or burnish my existing skills, so that i can continue to succeed as a technical communicator.

In my last article I described 3 of those skills: search-engine optimization (SEO), video production, and storytelling.

Here are the rest.

User communities

Our readers no longer live in isolation For help and guidance they look not to the official company-produced materials (like manuals and context-sensitive help) but to each other.

Smart companies, like the one I work for, host user forums and post knowledge bases on their websites. Customers can ask questions and get answers from each other and from experts on the company’s technical staff.

In many cases, online communities exist independently as well — on sites that aren’t affiliated with a product’s manufacturer. Those sites might have a lower signal-to-noise ratio, but they’re still popular. In some cases they’re preferred because, many believe, you’re more likely to find the unvarnished truth there.

I would be arrogant and a blockhead if I, as a technical communicator, chose to ignore these sources and insisted that my readers rely only on the official documentation.

I need to learn where my readers are seeking information about my products, and then I need to come alongside them — for example, by answering a question on a user forum and providing a link to the appropriate section of the documentation.

I also need to learn how people are interacting with my company on social media and be ready to step in when someone is looking for something I can provide. And when I step in, it should go without saying that the phrase RTFM is strictly verboten.

Designing and writing for the small screen

Joe noted that the most popular documentation format is still PDF, with web- and browser-based content cutting into its lead. However, the adoption of tablet- and smartphone-based formats like eBook remains flat. I think it’s because most technical documentation simply doesn’t lend itself to being read on a small screen.

MALE HAND HOLDING SMARTPHONE 2.jpgIt isn’t that people don’t want to read our content on a smartphone. It’s that we haven’t made it feasible. Yet.

We’re starting to see tools that can break up large technical documents into topics and push them to a tablet or smartphone in such a way that they can be updated automatically and the reader can make bookmarks and other notations.

So the technology is coming. Now we need the skills to create content for the small screen. Break large oceans of text into something more succinct. Find a better way to present content that exists today in large tables or complicated graphics.

How will we do that? I think we’ll have to pick and choose: figure out what content lends itself to a small-screen presentation and concentrate on that. Then provide download links to everything else. We’ll also need to evolve a skill we should already have developed: telling our story as succinctly as possible.

There’ll surely be demand for small-screen content. We have to figure out how to meet the demand.

UI strings and embedded assistance

The most direct way a technical communicator can show people how to use a product is to design the product’s user interface — or at least write the text strings in the UI. In the software world, more and more of us are getting to do just that.

When an input field is labeled in a way that makes sense for the audience, with a well-written help tutorial, the software becomes much easier to use and much less in need of detailed instructions.

Joe noted that in this area, technical communicators might have to fight to earn our place at the table. After all, there are already software developers and UI designers who consider this to be their jobs.

But some technical communicators have already gotten the chance to create UI strings and embedded assistance, and they’re making the most of it. As we — the technical communication community — develop a track record of success, with specific examples of how our work improved a product and made money for the company, we’ll get even more opportunities.

When those opportunities come, we need to be ready to seize them.

 

User communities. Designing and writing for the small screen. UI strings and embedded assistance. Have you been honing your skills in these areas? What other skills are you looking to update? What tips can you share with others?

Back to school: enhancing my technical communication skills

Here where I live it’s back-to-school time: a reminder that no matter how long I’ve worked in technical communication, there are always new things to learn.

Back-To-School-Books-And-AppleThe skills I’ve already mastered, while still valuable, won’t be enough for me to succeed in a world of new technologies and new ways of consuming information.

What will I be looking to learn this year? The following list is inspired by Joe Welinske’s talk, Key Trends in Software User Assistance, which
he gave last week to the STC Carolina chapter.

Search-engine optimization (SEO)

Joe’s succinct advice, to everyone in the room, was “Learn this.”

No matter what kind of technical content you create, it’s going online. Even the lowly (but still popular) PDF. And your readers will find it using a search engine.

So you need to understand how the right words and phrases, both in text and metadata, make your content bubble to the top of the search results. The best advice: don’t try to game the search engines. Make sure your content is relevant, and use terminology appropriately. Continue reading

Take your eyes off your feet

Crater_Lake_Panorama,_Aug_2013It was unmistakable, the inner voice I heard as I hiked the rim trail at Crater Lake National Park.

Take your eyes off your feet.

I learned long ago, around the same time I first flew in an airplane and looked out the window, that I’m not afraid of heights. But I am afraid of falling. Put a barrier — a railing, a stone wall, an airplane window — between me and thin air, and I’ll walk right up and soak in the view. Take away the barrier and you’ll find me inching back from the edge, looking for a safe patch of ground.

There was no barrier along this stretch of trail. Just some grass and brush, and then a cliff of several hundred feet — the edge of Crater Lake. The view was amazing. But much of the time my head was down — noticing every bit of mud and every uneven spot that might make me slip or stumble.

That’s when the inner voice said Take your eyes off your feet.

Busted! I’d been so focused on avoiding a fall, that I’d lost sight of my goal: to enjoy the hike and see the scenery. I knew I had no excuse, except plain old fear.

So I took a deep breath, focused my eyes on the top of the next rise, about 100 yards ahead, and started walking. Continue reading

Trump’s Icarus moment? 

We learned in school about Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, fascinated by the idea of flying, fashioned two pairs of wings for himself and his son, Icarus, out of feathers and wax.

Gowy-icaro-pradoThey began to fly, and it was wonderful at first. But then Icarus, ignoring his father’s warnings, flew too close to the sun. The wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea.

Are we seeing Donald Trump’s Icarus moment?

Fascinated (perhaps obsessed) by fame and adulation, Trump put his name on everything he touched and became a TV celebrity. Then he thought of the ultimate ego trip: running for president.

It was wonderful at first. Probably even better than expected. Trump’s words resonated with a large and vocal segment of the population. He found his rallies filled with people who roared their approval at everything he said.

Trump flew higher. The news media flocked to him. In the candidates’ debates, the spotlight shone on him. He won a succession of primary elections.

He flew higher still. In an upset that nobody predicted, he won the Republican party’s nomination for president. He said whatever outrageous things came into his mind, just so he could hear the crowds roar with approval.

Now his wax is melting. Continue reading

Technology for the gray at heart

My hair has long since gone from graying to gray. So I was happy to read Andy Patrizio’s article in CIO magazine debunking the myth that older workers struggle more with technology than their millennial counterparts.

handtech2.jpg

I’m an old hand but I know how to use the technology.

Citing research by cloud storage provider Dropbox and a marketing firm called Ipsos Mori, Patrizio finds that older people are just as likely to use a variety of technologies in their work — and are less likely to be stressed out using them.

For Patrizio, the findings reflect people’s level of frustration with their workplace technologies. And younger workers actually feel more frustrated because, being accustomed to really good technology in their personal lives, the have higher expectations when they come to the workplace.

Maybe that’s true. Another reason, I think, is that older workers tend to take a pragmatic view of technology. For us, technology is a means to an end. We evaluate it simply on how well it helps us get our work done. Not on how elegantly designed and shiny it is.

I applaud Patrizio’s assertion that older workers are just as effective using technology at work as their younger counterparts.

But I’m taken aback by the last thing he says. Quoting Rick Devine of TalentSky, a job-search website, Patrizio writes:

…the burden of keeping people’s technology skills up to date falls on the employer. “Employers need to see where your deficiencies are so they can provide for you. It is the moral obligation of every employer to see the deficiencies of their workforce, so if these older professionals are falling away in skills, shame on their employer for not providing them with the work experience to be employable,” [Devine] says. “And that’s a failing of the system and we all need to come together to right that wrong.”

Is it really up to my employer to make sure my skills stay current? Sorry: I might’ve believed that in 1986 — and then only because I worked for IBM, where the “you have a job for life” culture was still in place. But I’ve known for decades that no one but me cares about keeping my skills current. I’ve counseled countless colleagues and students to take charge of their own skills development. It’s why I encourage people to attend conferences, to get training, and to read up on what’s happening in the profession.

If the onus is on employers to keep their people’s skills up to date, many employers will use that as just one more reason to push out older workers and replace them with younger ones fresh out of college or grad school.

I appreciate it when my employer gives me work that hones my skills. I appreciate it when they train me in new technologies that I’ll need on the job. But I, and I think they, understand that I’m ultimately responsible for maintaining a skill level that makes me valuable to them and to potential future employers.

What do you think? Have you found older workers to be just as skilled as younger workers in using technology at work? Do you agree with Patrizio that employers are responsible for keeping their people’s skills up to date? Why or why not?

Am I ready for feedback?

Liane Davey just posted a terrific article about giving feedback to professional colleagues. Don’t do it, she says, until you’re ready.

ProfessionalsFor example, if you’re giving feedback so as to punish or humiliate someone, even just a little, you’re not ready. You’re ready only when you can honestly say that your motive is to make the other person more successful.

Liane gives other tips for knowing when you’re ready to give feedback. (Read her article — it’s well worth your time.) Beyond those tips, I think there’s one more: you’re not ready to give feedback until your colleague is ready to receive it.

People are usually receptive when — calmly and in private — you offer to give them feedback or advice. But not always. Sometimes, either verbally or nonverbally, they’ll say Not now. This is often true when the colleague is a peer; it can be especially true when the colleague is your boss.

No matter how helpful your feedback would be, and no matter how pure your motivation, don’t bother giving feedback if the other person isn’t ready to receive it.

Pondering this, I confronted a couple of questions:

  • How ready am I to receive feedback?
  • Do I ever tell my colleagues, verbally or nonverbally, that I’m not ready?

I like to keep an even keel at work, not appearing stressed even when the work is hard and the deadlines are closing in. I like to be seen as a steady, dependable teammate.

But how does that look to others? When my head is down and I’m focused on my work in the face of that looming deadline, is there a big “do not disturb” sign on my forehead?

When I try to look cool and unflappable, do I actually look unapproachable? Do I send the silent message that I don’t need help from anyone?

Do I ask for help when I should? Do I take advantage of opportunities to ask for feedback? (I’m pretty sure I fall short on both counts.)

While I plan to take to heart Liane’s advice about giving feedback, I’m also going to focus on making sure that I’m ready to receive feedback — and making sure that I’m communicating my readiness to those around me.

In what ways do you let colleagues — managers, subordinates, and peers — know that you’re ready to receive feedback?

The church’s champion

This morning, as the curtain rose on the Republican national convention, I — and people in many other Christian churches — read the 15th Psalm as part of the appointed lectionary.

The contrast between the person depicted here, and the person about to be nominated, couldn’t be more vivid.

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
      Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
      who does what is righteous,
      who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
      who does no wrong to a neighbor,
      and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
      but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
      and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
      who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
      will never be shaken.

Why, then, are so many professing Christians supporting Donald Trump?

bibleI suppose you could say, as James Dobson did, that Trump is a “baby Christian” — still new to the faith and prone to making mistakes now and then. Dobson, who usually has the phrase leading evangelical next to his name in news stories, should know better. So should Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, who endorsed Trump before the first primary election.

So why are many self-appointed Christian leaders backing someone whose character is antithetical to what Jesus Christ (and the Psalm writer) taught? According to a well-reasoned piece by Robert P. Jones, it’s because they feel vulnerable. As traditional Christian values erode (they would say), they seek a champion who talks tough about turning the tide and restoring those values to preeminence. About “making America great again.”

Jones wrote:

Mr. Trump’s ascendancy has turned the 2016 election into a referendum on the death of white Christian America, with the candidate appealing strongly to those who are most grieving this loss.

Here’s the truth, though: the church doesn’t need Donald Trump to fight its battles. The church already has a champion — the one we call Lord and Savior — to fight for us. And to teach us how we should live.

I suppose the Trump nomination is inevitable. My prayer, then, is that every Christian will weigh the nominee’s words against the words of scripture. Words like Psalm 15.

Words like the ones Jesus spoke in Matthew 7:15-16:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.

An agile STC?

How well does the Society for Technical Communication (STC) provide value for its members? For others who are studying or working in tech comm?

STC logoWe had a lively conversation a few weeks ago on this blog. I’d like to move that conversation forward.

Today’s news stream brings an article by an Australian technical writer, Swapnil Ogale, titled The ASTC is failing us. In it, Swapnil shares an idea that might breathe new life into STC.

First, by way of background: ASTC is the Australian Society for Technical Communication. Despite the name it’s not part of STC. Like STC, however, it’s a membership organization that seeks to advance the profession through published articles, events and activities, and community building.

In his article, Swapnil airs some complaints about ASTC that might sound familiar to STC members:

  • Not enough effort to attract and retain members
  • Not enough communication from the society to the members
  • Not enough workshops and events, especially for people who aren’t located near major cities
agile_dog

Hey, if a dog can be agile so can we.

Then he makes a suggestion: Instead of relying on the traditional committee structure — a structure he calls “outdated and archaic” — the organization should adopt an agile methodology like software development teams use.

Agile, or “just-in-time development,” is a set of processes designed to make software teams more flexible and able to respond quickly to the needs of their customers. Agile teams produce frequent, small software updates rather than big roll-outs.

Here’s how agile could help STC. Continue reading

Eluding the curse of knowledge

This week’s Tighten This! game exposed a pitfall that good technical writers learn to identify and avoid: the curse of knowledge. Let’s talk about how that plays out in our day-to-day work.

two heads explaining and thinking differentlyThe curse of knowledge strikes when we become experts in the subject we’re describing, and we forget that others — especially our readers — don’t share our expertise. What’s become obvious to us, isn’t at all obvious to them.

Our subject-matter experts have the curse of knowledge. Our readers count on our not having it.

Mark Baker says that the antidote to the curse of knowledge is domain awareness:

Domain awareness means not only knowing the subject matter of your domain well, but also understanding your domain as a domain and its place in the universe. It is only in a state of domain awareness that you act as a useful and reliable tour guide to your domain.

In practical terms this means putting your subject matter into the context of what your readers already know. It means giving them stories and signposts so to help them relate the new ideas and new skills to what they already know..

As you move from novice to expert, you must never forget that your readers need those stories and signposts.

Day in and day out, how can you elude the trap of the curse of knowledge? Continue reading

My hopes for my country

On this, the 240th anniversary of American independence, these are my hopes for my country:usflag

  • That all of its people value truth and resist falsehood. While it’s fashionable to distrust “experts,” the problem isn’t too many experts. It’s that the experts’ stories aren’t hitting home.
  • That we recognize our place in the world: not acting the part of the 800-pound gorilla, not hiding behind a wall, but collaborating and leading by example.
  • That we’re all safe as we go about our daily lives. Safe from terrorists, yes, but especially safe from Americans with too many guns and too little sense.
  • That no black parent ever again has to give their child “the talk” about how to keep from being shot.
  • That everyone who comes here to live, work, or study — regardless of where they’re from, what they believe, or who they love — knows they’re welcome.
  • That our attitudes and actions toward each other, and toward the rest of the world, are never rooted in fear.
  • That we elect leaders who are better than we deserve.

We can have all of this if we, collectively, want it badly enough. For a long time I assumed that we did. Now I’m not so sure. I pray that we’ll find the will.

What are your hopes for the U.S.? I’d love to hear from you, wherever in the world you live.