Category Archives: Media and technology

Is augmented reality part of technical communication’s future?

While walking my dog last night I came upon a mother and her young son standing on the sidewalk. She was holding her smartphone high in front of her, pointing it toward the western sky.

As I came near she announced, “Mars and Venus.”

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The Sky Map map (Screen shots from Google Play)

I learned the names of the planets and stars the old-fashioned way: standing outside on cold nights with my dad, and studying the sky atlas he gave me. But today I guess there’s an app for that. There are actually several apps, as a cursory Google search will attest.

I think it’s cool that you can aim your phone at the sky and learn the basics of stargazing. I think it’s very cool that many of the apps are using augmented reality.

When I got home I downloaded one such app, Sky Map. True to its name, Sky Map immediately gave me a clear, easy to use map of the heavens. I haven’t yet sussed out what all of the icons mean. But I had fun using the Time Travel feature to see the positions of the moon and planets on the day I was born.

Do I sound like a space geek? Guilty as charged.

When it comes to augmented-reality apps, though, I’m still unsure about a couple of things.

No business case?

Number one: the stargazing apps are very low-cost. Many, like Sky Map, are free. So it’s hard to see whether there’s a business case for using AR in training and technical communication.

I write documentation for networking hardware — switches and routers. I can easily imagine how customers would like AR documentation that shows them how to attach brackets to switches and mount them together in a rack. But does customers would like translate to customers would pay for? Or to customers would choose my company over our competitor?

In the absence of clear answers, would my company invest in the tools, time, and training needed to develop such documentation?

Not ready for prime time?

Number two (and maybe this follows from number one): it seems so far that AR is mostly the province of gamers and app developers — not technical communicators or training developers.

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Time Travel, Sky Map style. Recognize the date?

Most of the literature about AR in technical communication is still speculative. An article might say, for example, Here’s what AR is, and here’s how I think it could be applied to tech comm. Or: Everyone loves AR, and tech comm is on the verge of embracing it. I’ve seen only a handful of isolated case studies in which AR actually is being used for technical communication.

One such case study is General Motors’ myOpel app. GM began distributing the app to Opel owners a few years ago. Does anyone know if they’re still doing so? Or if they’ve expanded the idea to other brands? (A quick peek at Google Play reveals that myOpel is still available but it’s getting only tepid reviews.)

So, despite the star-struck articles (one of which — full disclosure — I wrote in 2013), I remain unconvinced.

What do you think? Do the stars say that AR will be a big part of technical communication’s future? Have you done AR work for technical communication or for training and if so, have you succeeded in making the business case for it?

Ethel Payne: You should know her name

Ethel Payne. I didn’t recognize her name. But the cover of James McGrath Morris’s biography, Eye on the Struggle, called her “the First Lady of the Black Press” — a pioneering journalist of the civil rights era. I wanted to learn her story, so I picked up the book.

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Ethel Payne (Washington Post file photo)

I learned that Payne was indeed highly influential, reporting on and often playing a part in the big civil rights stories of the 1950s and ’60s.

I learned that Payne made several trips to Africa, believing there was a close connection between the American civil rights movement and the efforts of African nations to gain independence. Late in her life she fulfilled a dream by interviewing Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.

I learned that Payne’s writing appeared primarily in the Chicago Defender and other newspapers targeted to the African-American community — the “black press.” I’d known that such papers existed, but I’d never read them. So it still didn’t faze me that, even though I knew about Montgomery and Little Rock and Selma, I didn’t recognize the name of a key participant.

Then I learned that in the 1970s Payne worked as a commentator for CBS. I learned that she wrote a syndicated column that was picked up by many of the “mainstream” newspapers. As a result, I realized that I’d probably heard her speak on TV and that there’s a good chance I’d read some of her columns.

Now it bothers me that I didn’t recognize Ethel Payne’s name. Why hadn’t I remembered her? Continue reading

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?

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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

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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

Living and learning: 2016

Merriam-Webster picked surreal as its 2016 word of the year, and…yeah. At times this year I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, and I’ll bet you have too.

One thing remains as true as ever, though: if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

Here are some things I learned this year:

The future is technical communication

screen-shot-2016-02-25-at-6-07-54-pmTechnology is moving forward at breakneck speed. People want technology. People have different learning styles.

Who can deliver the information people need to make use of, and enjoy, the technology that’s all around them? Technical communicators, that’s who.

That’s the gist of Sarah Maddox’s keynote speech at tcworld India 2016.

I think Sarah is saying that we need continuously to hone the technical part of our job title, while not neglecting the communicator part. And I think she’s absolutely right.

We care a lot about our professional society

STC logoSome of my most popular posts this year dealt with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its role in a changing world. How can STC remain relevant when the traditional roles of professional societies are changing? How can it serve a community that’s growing ever more diverse, in terms of the kinds of work we do?

As 2017 begins, STC is looking for a new CEO. Whoever gets the job, and whatever things they choose to prioritize, I hope they’ll appreciate the passion and dedication of STC’s members.

DITA isn’t cheap (but it’s still worth the cost)

DITA logoEven as more organizations embrace DITA for developing their content, we hear that DITA is complex and hard to learn. Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles was one of my most commented-on blog posts this year, as was my plea for greater sensitivity to the writers’ learning curve.

Yes, DITA is powerful. But it didn’t get that way by being simple. I’ve come to appreciate that writers need time to absorb the underlying principles, which happen to align closely with the principles of good technical writing, and they need time to learn the how-to aspects as well. It’s time well spent, I think.

A leader is a storyteller

monsterWe saw it in this year’s political news: for better or worse, people are drawn to the leaders who tell the best stories.

As technical communicators, we’re by nature good storytellers.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does.

Don’t take things too seriously

The year truly has been surreal. Many of our deeply held beliefs — about leaders, about governments, about the course of history — have been challenged if not overturned.

Yet my most-read post in 2016, by far, was a collection of jokes. That taught me not to take things too seriously, and especially not to take myself too seriously.

It reminded me that we’re all human beings. We all need to connect with each other and, sometimes, share a laugh.

I hope I’ve connected with you, at least a few times, in 2016. I hope we’ll continue to connect in 2017. And even share a laugh or two.

Related: Living and learning: 2015

The gaslighting of America

gaslight (v.): To manipulate someone into doubting their memories and their perceptions of what is true.

Amid all of the jaw-dropping news that’s been happening lately, here’s a doozy. During the presidential election campaign, teenagers in Macedonia made money by churning out fake news stories designed to be read by millions of people as they circulated on social media.

What’s going on? Well, the truth — as so often is the case — is complicated.

Outright lies and twisted reality

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In case you’re wondering where the term “gaslight” comes from….

Did the fake news stories (including, for example, a report that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president) tip the election to Trump? I seriously doubt it. Even the most gullible American voters probably had already made up their minds to vote for one candidate or the other.

On the other hand, is Mark Zuckerberg kidding when he says that Facebook — which pushed the stories into users’ newsfeeds — has virtually “no influence” on the people who use it to get news? Maybe he’s kidding himself. But everyone else knows better.

You should care about this, no matter who you voted for. The fake stories slanted toward both the left and right wings (although the right-wing ones reportedly gained a lot more traction).

Presenting phony news side by side with legitimate news. The beginning of the gaslighting of America.

Now we’re seeing reports from the mainstream media — not from kids in Macedonia — that treat the preparations for Trump’s presidency as if they were a normal transition of power.

As if it were normal to install Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, an outspoken white supremacist who’s called for “tearing down” the political establishment, as the chief White House strategist.

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The look of someone who’s compromised every last one of his principles (source: Washington Post)

As if it were normal for the Speaker of the House, who over the summer denounced Trump’s words and actions as the “textbook definition of a racist comment” and a “joke gone bad,” to say that he’s enthusiastic about carrying out the “mandate” that Trump has received from the American people.

(Joshua Foust of the Foreign Policy Research Institute has compiled a much longer list of abnormal goings-on.)

These stories are being reported as business as usual, with barely a raised eyebrow.

Reporting the abnormal as if it were normal. The next stage in the gaslighting of America.

What are we to do?

Just in case you’re wavering: the crap you saw on Facebook was false. And the facade of respectability being applied to the Trump transition is false too.

So what can we do to stop the gaslighting, to overcome the lies and the distortion?

Continue reading

Enchanted content

Earlier this month I participated in the Transformation Society’s Probing Our Future study — and wrote about my initial impressions.

The people behind the study, Ray Gallon and Neus Lorenzo, came up with a list of “superpowers” with which content creators (including, but not limited to technical writers) can improve the content they deliver and the way they deliver it.

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Image source: Transformation Society

As I ponder this, I notice that some of the superpowers are rooted in a common objective: knowing our audience so well that we can deliver exactly what they need, when they need it. The superpower of mind reading, for example, would let us know essentially everything about our audience. Things like:

  • The job they do
  • The task they’re trying to complete
  • Their domain knowledge
  • Their cultural preferences
  • Their disabilities and limitations
  • Their socioeconomic status
  • The hardware and software platforms they prefer
  • The choices they’ve made in the past

The list could go on. But you get the idea: if we want to know our audience, there’s a lot to know.

Even though the information industry has made great strides with things like web analytics and inference engines, I think it’s obvious that we’ll never know everything about our audience. Especially since each member of our audience presents a constantly moving target. For example, think of how much you’ve changed in the last year or so in terms of reading habits, or domain knowledge, or experience level with a particular software program.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to know our audience. It’s just that we’ll never know our audience perfectly. We’ll never fully be able to mind-meld with them.

It follows, then, that we’ll never be able to give them perfectly tailored content precisely when they need it.

So what can we do? Continue reading

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

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.

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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?