Category Archives: Content strategy

An image with an impact

If good writing is the foundation on which technical communication is built, then visual elements provide the curb appeal.

Even though most of my training and experience are in writing, not illustrating, I’m keenly aware of the huge effect — for good or ill — that visuals can have on content.

I pay close attention to how the artist chooses to present data in maps and graphs, because that choice can strongly influence the reader’s perception.

I like to spotlight images that are informative and well-executed — like the map in ProPublica’s story on last summer’s Houston floods and the Tampa Bay Times‘ 2015 infographic about the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Unfortunately, the Times has removed the infographic from its site, but a small piece of it survives in my post.)

Then there’s the recent op-ed by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof on gun violence in the U.S. In an article full of bar graphs and maps, one image in particular made my jaw drop.

Wishing to point up the lack of research into gun violence, compared with research into diseases like cholera and diphtheria, Kristof had a Times artist compare two data points for each problem: number of people affected and number of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health over the 40 years ending in 2012.

As you scroll down, try to set aside your political views — whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control — and evaluate this image on how effectively it delivers its message.

graph juxtaposing 4 million gun-violence cases and 3 research grants

I’ve seen very few images that delivered their messages so startlingly, so resoundingly. The numbers are impressive, but the huge red circle and the three tiny boxes thunder out the message: gun violence, while a serious threat to public health, is woefully under-researched. (Kristof says that’s because of lobbying by opponents of gun control.)

Feel free to disagree with the message. But don’t tell me that it wasn’t delivered effectively.

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Why do people mangle the language?

confusedAt the recent Australian STC conference, Neil James was asked why people write Manglish, or mangled English. I very much like what he had to say.

(As quoted in Sarah Maddox’s blog, ffeathers. Emphasis mine.)

  • At school, we imbibe the notion that complex writing is better writing. Waffle gets reasonable marks, provided it’s elegant waffle.
  • Early in our careers in the professional and technical workplace, mastering and using the technical jargon of our field gives us a stronger feeling of belonging.
  • When we learn the tech vocabulary of a particular industry, it’s difficult to adjust to communicating with a lay audience.
  • Institutional culture reinforces the language patterns. Large organisations move slowly. It’s hard to change their processes. When you do successfully introduce change, the organisation moves steadily along the new path.
  • Language is used as an expression of power. Sometimes, people deliberately use jargon to protect their financial interests or to manipulate public opinion. An example is from the airline industry, when people use the term “loss of separation” of two planes, which means the two planes collided.

What do you think? Have you experienced a “loss of separation” with some mangled English lately? What might’ve caused it, do you think?

Yes, and: Helping you communicate better

When actor Alan Alda signed on to host the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, in which he talked with scientists about their work, he did what most good interviewers would do. He read up on his subjects and their research, and he prepared a list of questions.

As Alda tells it, the first interviews were dull, dull, dull.

Cover for If I Understood You bookThen he tried a different approach. He did only cursory background reading. He didn’t prepare a list of questions. Instead, he sat down to have a conversation instead of an interview.

In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alda describes what happened. The scientists, realizing they were talking with an interested layperson, started connecting on a personal level rather than delivering lectures. Alda, able to sense the scientists’ thoughts and feelings in the moment, let the conversation flow naturally and comfortably.

Instead of playing the role of a lecturer to a student, or an interviewee to a reporter, the scientists connected with Alda — and, by extension, with the PBS audience — as people talking with people.

Empathy: the key to communication

Alda’s book bears out a lot of things that technical writers already know. Empathy, he writes, is “the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”

Empathy comes from knowing your audience — whether it’s the person across from you in a coffee shop, an audience in a lecture hall, or a datacenter manager who reads your web page. Empathy comes from knowing who they are, what they’re thinking, and what they’re feeling.

Alda writes, “My guess is that even in writing, respecting the other person’s experiences gives us our best shot at being clear and vivid, and our best shot, if not at being loved, at least at being understood.”

He’s right.

He’s also right when he talks about connecting with an audience: “You make a connection by evoking emotions. A great way to evoke emotions is by telling stories. Stories are most effective when you establish commonality with the listener.”

Alda backs up his experience on Scientific American Frontiers with some impressive scholarship. He talks with an array of experts. (It’s easy to get a meeting when you say, “Hi, I’m Alan Alda and I’d like to chat with you about your work.”) He reports on a number of research projects.

Some of the projects were Alda’s own handiwork. He was and continues to be a guiding force behind the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. His contributions to the science of interpersonal communication are such that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) named him an Honorary Fellow in 2014.

Inprov: new insights for technical writers

Still, despite all of his scholarship and all of his hard work, Alda’s conclusions come as no surprise to most technical writers. We already know about analyzing the audience, about connecting with readers, and about telling stories.

Where Alda adds real value for me is when brings his life’s work – acting – into the picture. Much of the book describes his experience with improvisation, in which actors create scenes together without a script and without any expectations as to the outcome. Continue reading

Survey says: DITA’s benefits and challenges

DITA SurveyWhat are DITA‘s biggest benefits? Its greatest challenges?

The Content Wrangler is surveying DITA users, and last week Scott Abel — joined by DITA cognoscenti Rob Hanna,Mark Lewis, and Keith Schengili-Roberts — presented some preliminary results.

I’ve listed the rankings here, along with some thoughts of my own. Each numbered item is from Scott’s presentation; the commentary between the numbered items is mine.

(The survey is still accepting responses. If you haven’t yet weighed in, you can do so right now.)

What benefits does DITA provide?

This section was open to all respondents.

1, Consistency: content reuse/single-sourcing
Yes: when I think of single-sourcing, I think of consistency. But I also think about flexibility — of being able to publish the same content on the web, as integrated help, as PDF, and in other formats. For me that’s a big benefit, just as much as — and probably more than — consistency.

2. Usability: structure provides predictability

3. Translation: savings from reusing translation
The panelists remarked that they expected this one to score higher, and theorized that many of the survey respondents were content creators but were not the people actually responsible for translation. I think they’re probably right — and I’d also point out that a lot of organizations simply don’t translate their content. It would be interesting if the survey asked how many are currently translating DITA content.

4. Customization: segmentation, personalization
Nice to see this one crack the top 4. I think we (the community of DITA content producers) are just beginning to take advantage of features like metadata and keys. There’s so much more we can do to adapt content based on the audience’s geographic location, experience level, and so forth. (Key scopes and branch filtering in DITA 1.3 hold out even more promise.)

Rank the biggest challenges associated with using DITA

This section was open to respondents who said they use DITA.

1. Reuse: determining reuse strategy
Conref or keyref? What taxonomy to use, and where to put the metadata (in topics or in maps)? Who “owns” the library of reusable content? There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on best practices when it comes to developing a reuse strategy. Maybe, like the consultants always say, it depends — on what the writing team is
used to, on which groups are collaborating to produce content, and on what the corporate culture will support.

2. Usage: making DITA do what we want it to do

3. Training: equipping staff with skills needed
DITA logoThere’s a ton of training out there — in the basics of structured authoring, in DITA itself, and in the various tools. So I’m not sure what the problem is, unless it’s that companies don’t want to pay for training and want simply to hire people who already know everything (see #7 below). Even if you could hire fully-capable DITA writers off the street (and that’s a big if), they still need to be trained in how to use your local style, transforms, and so forth.

4. Technology: understanding software

5. Formatting: developing stylesheets and rules for content
This isn’t rocket science, but it is serious, hard work. It’s often not considered when companies plan a transition to DITA — which makes it even harder.

6. Governance: enforcing the rules
See number 5 above.

7. Staffing: finding experienced talent

8. Creation: understanding how to create DITA content

9. Measurement: what to measure, how to decide
Let’s be honest: rather than what to measure, don’t we really mean making the business case? We still struggle to quantify the cost savings and revenue enhancement associated with structured authoring and DITA. Translation savings, of course, are a big part of the story. But increased usability, customization, and brand consistency have value too. We just have a hard time quantifying their value.

10. Translation: issues associated with DITA content

So there you have it. What do you think? Do any of the rankings surprise you? Is anything missing from either list?

Do you agree with my take?

Thanks to Scott Abel for conducting the survey. Like so much of what he does, it’s of great value to the technical writing community. Thanks to Rob, Mark, and Keith for their contributions as well.

Will you still need me? STC at 64

Today, the first full day of the annual STC Summit, marks the 64th year that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) has been in business.

Sgt. Pepper's album cover with STC logo

Hmm…What if I Photoshop all of the STC staff and directors’ faces into this image?


Which brings to mind a Beatles lyric:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

The “Will you still need me?” question is especially relevant as STC — a 20th century organization — copes with flat membership numbers and attempts to navigate the changing professional landscape of the 21st.

As I’ve said before, I think the technical communication profession — and the people in it — still do need STC. But the reasons are changing, and have been changing for some time. As a result it’s not a sure bet that STC will remain relevant over the next few years. Continue reading

DITA satisfaction: Take the survey

Want to know why people are using DITA? Want more insight into the challenges as well as the benefits?

DITA Survey bannerHere’s a way to get those insights — and do The Content Wrangler a favor in the process. The Content Wrangler, the online persona of Scott Abel, has been for many years a leading voice in the worlds of content marketing and technical communication.

If you’re using DITA, if you’re evaluating it, or if you’re in the process of adopting it, take the 5-minute DITA Satisfaction Survey.

The results, which will be sent to you when the survey is over, will provide helpful data about what people see as the main reasons for using DITA as well as its risks and challenges.

The data will benefit individual DITA users and the DITA community as a whole. It’ll equip us to respond to common problems and complaints, and it’ll inform the DITA Technical Committee about what changes and enhancements are most needed.

Take the survey by May 15 and you’ll be entered into a drawing for Google Cardboard.

Is “soup to nuts” what we need?

For almost as long as I can remember, pitchmen (especially on late-night TV) have been selling all-in-one gadgets that slice, dice, puree, and do pretty much everything.

In our world of technical communication we have something similar: “soup to nuts” authoring systems that combine all the major steps of the content workflow under one banner:

  • Creating content
  • Managing content
  • Reviewing
  • Publishing
breakfast_gadget

This is actually a thing — but are you using it in your kitchen? (Source: Nostalgic Electrics)

Vendors have been offering systems like this for several years. The sales pitch is alluring: unify all of your content under the banner of one integrated toolset. Lots of content, a multi-step workflow, and one brand to rule them all.

Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company, or even a decent-sized organization within a company, use one of these single-vendor systems for its entire content workflow.

I’ve used parts of these systems. For example, I’ve used easyDITA for content management and publishing, but not for content creation and reviewing. I’ve used XMetaL, but only for creating and publishing content.

In fact I’ve never used these systems for reviewing. All of my SMEs have said the same thing: “Give me a Word document or a PDF that I can mark up. Don’t make me learn a new tool.”

Do any of you use a single, soup-to-nuts system to create, manage, review, and publish content? If so, I’d like to hear from you. Is it working well for you? How easy was it to set up, get buy-in from content producers and SMEs, and train everyone? Continue reading

Timing is as important as delivery

Dear technical writer:

Your content is well-written and accurate. But what happens if you put it into your reader’s hands at the wrong time?

This is what happens.

 oscars17.png

At last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway came onstage to present the award for Best Picture.

When it came time to announce the winner, the card said

Best Actress
Emma Stone
La La Land

Beatty hesitated. Dunaway read the only thing that made sense in the context: the name of a film, La La Land.

It wasn’t until several minutes later, during the acceptance speeches, that the mistake became known. Beatty and Dunaway had been given the wrong card. The Best Picture winner was actually Moonlight.

Dear technical writer:

You might not be embarrassed in front of tens of millions of people. But when you provide the right content at the wrong time, no matter how good the content is, you’ve betrayed your readers.

As every good actor knows, timing is every bit as important as delivery.

Video source: New York Times

I know it when I see it

Who makes the rules of the internet? Who judges what’s offensive and what’s OK? What are the implications for those of us who create content?

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the State of Ohio could ban a film it deemed to be obscene. Famously, Associate Justice Potter Stewart wrote that while he was hard pressed to define what qualifies something as obscene, “I know it when I see it.”

Where are the boundaries?

ericpetersen_skyscraper_rgb_3000x1500__1_-0-0

Image source: The Verve (Eric Peterson)

The boundaries of offensiveness have always been fuzzy and subject to change. Movie scenes that horrify one audience might not elicit even a blush from another. Books that would’ve gotten me in trouble had they been found in my high-school locker are part of the curriculum today.

Despite the lack of rules, the boundaries are very, very real. Most of us would say with all sincerity that, like Justice Stewart, we know when something transgresses a boundary. There are standards, even if they exist only in our minds and are sustained by our (illusory?) sense of belonging to a community.

The secret rules of the internet

This week I came upon The Secret Rules of the Internet, a long piece that describes the ways in which content is moderated on the major social-media platforms.

To the extent that I’d thought about how moderation works, which admittedly wasn’t much, I never would’ve supposed that:

  • Moderators often work with guidelines that are slapdash and incomplete.
  • Moderators are poorly trained, if they’re trained at all.
  • Moderators are prone to depression and other psychological disorders, largely because their jobs force them to see things they can’t bring themselves to describe to anyone.
  • There are no standards or best practices for moderation; rather, most media companies treat their moderation practices as trade secrets.
  • Moderation is often shoved into a “silo,” segregated from the rest of the company, even — especially — from areas that set the company’s course in terms of legal and ethical principles.
  • Some platforms are better at moderation than others. (The article contrasts Facebook, with its relatively well defined Safety Advisory Board, and Reddit, which has weak guidelines, a small team of moderators, and a reputation for harboring lots of offensive content.)

According to the article’s authors — Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly — all of these things are true. Continue reading

Our creative future

ai_oracle

Image source: Oracle

Happy new year. Or, to phrase it differently, welcome to the future.

I’ve just read a couple of fascinating takes on the technologies and the jobs that await us in the not-too-distant future.

Innovations in artificial intelligence

In Big Tech’s AI Predictions for 2017, experts from leading technology companies provide a peek into technology that will arrive in the next couple of years. We’re treated to new advances in voice-recognition technology, new uses for AI, and more. A couple of examples:

“In 2017 there will be a chatbot that passes the Turing test, exhibiting responses so human-like that an average person wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s human or machine.” – Jim McHugh, Vice President and General Manager, NVIDIA

“2017 will see product developers rapidly adopting the latest AI-powered voice recognition technology, [using] speech APIs and tools that are now free to use.” – Adam Coates, Director, Baidu Silicon Valley AI Lab

Reading the article reminds me of my childhood trips to the World’s Fair, where futurists paraded their visions and inspired me to dream of seeing in my lifetime a wonderful, exciting world enabled by technology and human ingenuity.

Tomorrow’s design jobs

The Most Important Design Jobs of the Future lists new jobs that, according to a panel of design experts, will need to be filled within 3 to 5 years.

Some job titles are self-explanatory (though still fantastical), like Augmented Reality Designer and Human Organ Designer.

Others, like Cybernetic Director (responsible for the creative vision and execution of highly personalized media services) and Fusionist (envisioning and creating cross-disciplinary links between art, engineering, research, and science), reflect new directions for technology and for the way people will use it.

Technical communication blogger Danielle Villegas (TechCommGeekMom) laments that she feels unprepared for the jobs of the future. “How does one train or learn [for] these kinds of positions,” she asks, when it’s hard enough keeping up with the technologies and opportunities that exist today? Continue reading