The Value Question

OK, this is not a blog for or about my family, but I’m going to talk about my sister again.

You see, I pick on her (she’ll tell you I always did) as an example because she’s pretty typical in certain ways.  She’s been carrying on quite nicely as a science writer, web content editor, media rep, and other nifty stuff that technical communicators routinely do, but to my knowledge, she’s never written a user manual or other direct user guidance in her life.

She’s done all this very well over a long, distinguished career (family resemblance is much more than coincidental ;-)) without ever being a member, herself, of the STC.

Suddenly, she gets it into her head to join, partly because of my participation and activism in the society, and guess what?  She can’t find anything that speaks to her.

I’ve already posted about how my sister didn’t go to the STC technical communication summit and I did. So, she looked for a webinar to take, and found one on scenario-based IA. Of course, she had to pay $79 for it. This was her take on it:

I thought this session was far too basic for a tech comm crowd (tell me who doesn’t already know what a scenario is?) and far too limited in scope, with the entire focus on “get your customer to do x monetizing goal.”  …I was looking for something a bit more directed to the education/nonprofit world, and my question [about that] was never acknowledged or addressed in the live presentation. So, what would motivate me to pay that much money for a live STC webinar in future, when it’s essentially a canned presentation?  I could have bought two books on info architecture for that $79 bucks.

This is the value dilemma. When a professional organisation offers a webinar and expects people to pay for it, it needs to make sure it’s delivering good value, or people will spend their money elsewhere. Stands to reason. My own first webinar presenting experience gave me pause to think about this from the other side of the screen – and to feel a bit guilty.

Seems obvious to me, that an organisation that presents webinars for a fee needs to be sure of the quality of the content. Beyond that, however, a proper educational service should be vetting the presenters, and be able to provide some help and support for them beyond managing the technical presentation tool. Those of us who do a lot of teaching already know there’s no better way to learn, and speaking for myself, although an experienced teacher and presenter, the webinar situation was new to me, and I could have used some preliminary coaching.

In STC, in this day when so much information is available free via social networks and search engines, it is incumbent on us to be “serious,” as the French would say, to be sure that our quality, and our image, be consistently above average. I think I’m pretty good, but my webinar for STC was not above average. This is certainly my fault and not STC’s – let’s be clear. But perhaps the education department should have – could have helped prepare me to make sure that my first time avoided the common pitfalls. This is not only a help to the presenter, it helps to guaranty quality for STC.

Software as an Information Rich Environment

Over here, in Europe, the most famous English sentence is, “My tailor is rich.”  All the old textbooks to learn English started with that sentence, and everyone knows it. For some, it evokes groans as they remember the hell of trying to understand when to pronounce l-e-a-d as “led” and when to pronounce it as “leed.”

Today, I begin with, “My software is rich.” Rich in information, that is. Rich in content. What do I mean by this?  I mean that software is quickly transforming from a tool that helps you act on content (the big three: word processors, databases and spreadsheets do just that), to a vector of information that actually informs you. It is irrelevant whether the software fetches information from somewhere out on the web or in a cloud, or actually contains its own database, or invents the information. Software now speaks to us, and sometimes in volumes.

Software today is doing medical diagnosis, it’s showing us how the climate is evolving, it’s even evaluating how well we pronounce “My tailor is rich” and suggesting ways for us to improve our accents. It exists on our desktop machines, on servers, in the cloud or the web, and we don’t really care where it is, we interact seamlessly with it wherever it is to be found. Bill Gates was right about that one.

What this means is that when we design software, we have to take all that content into account. Someone has to manage its life cycle, change out obsolete material, guide its development and make sure it is accurate, coherent, up-to-date, and understandable.

Content in software is no different from content on a web site or anywhere else. Content people need to be involved when software is initially conceived to ensure that this content is integrated seamlessly with the interface, with user guidance, with external (web or cloud based) content sources, etc.

Content strategists and designers therefore need to be involved from day one when software is designed. They need to be part of the design team, and actively involved, since they are working on one of the program’s most important subsystems: the information subsystem.

This also implies having a content strategy in the first place, one that is agreed from top management on down. This strategy needs to include all the different facets of content that the software interacts with, including, eventually, customer support web sites. You should be presenting a unified face to your public, using consistent terminology, information presentation formats, look and feel, etc.

If we don’t do this, our software’s content will be threadbare.

My sister didn’t go to the STC Technical Communication Summit. I did. Here’s how it happened.

It’s been a long time since I posted here. Despite the conventional wisdom about blogging, I only post when I really have something to say.  I’ve been needing to think about this one for a while, and my thoughts are still developing – hence the long hiatus. 

I had a great time at the STC Technical Communications Summit. I’d better have, it cost me nearly 5000 € to attend it, between air fares, hotel, meals, registration, extras etc. There was lots of good energy and good vibes at the society level, but I’m not going to talk about that here, that’s for other forums.

What I want to do is reflect on the summit (and, indirectly, its value proposition) from the point of view of a simple attendee, which, after the first Leadership Day, I was. I was not presenting in any of the non-leadership sessions, so I just attended the sessions that attracted my interest, based on their catalog descriptions.

I’d have to say, as an overall evaluation, that I was neither disappointed, nor overly excited by anything I saw or heard. Unlike last year’s dynamic conference in Dallas, the sessions this year all seemed good, workman-like presentations, well-oiled, well-rehearsed, useful, but uninspiring. At least for me.

What I was looking for and didn’t find was the bubbling excitement of what I think of as the new, interdisciplinary nature of our profession. Last year, in the wake of the European STC groups’ successful Content Strategy Forum ’10, there was an effervescence around the Content Strategy and Usability sessions. This year, both were present, but muted. This year, everyone seemed to be getting “back to basics,” and basics seems to mean docs of one sort or the other.

My sister, an STC member, does very similar work to what I do, but in a different context. I do it for software development, she does it for a web full of scientific content, aimed at a general audience. We were looking for an excuse to get together in sunny California, and the Summit seemed like a good bet, but in the end, she didn’t make it.

Why?  “I don’t write docs,” she said, “there’s not much there for me.”

“Oh, there’s lot’s of content strategy and other stuff you’ll be interested in,” I said.

“Where?” she said.

And indeed, it was hard to find. In fact, the sessions that didn’t deal directly with some sort of subject specifically oriented towards user guidance were few and far between. With all the emphasis on clouds, web content, crowd sourcing, and the rest, this summit seemed to be very firmly anchored in a closed little world of manuals and their extensions.

I firmly believe that the future of technical communication is much more expansive than user guidance (though this will remain important). People who do web content, people who fill information-rich software with content, people who bridge the worlds of science and technology, people who engage the social, political and cultural implications of technology, all need the same kinds of tools, the same kinds of epistemological constructs, the same approaches to designing content and maintaining its life cycle intelligently.

An international technical communications meeting that ignores this, risks losing its relevance, no matter how upbeat, positive, and energetic it seems at the moment of its unfolding.

This year’s STC summit was a good tech docs meeting, and as such it was valuable and interesting. However, as an indicator of where our profession is going / needs to go, it could have done better. As an umbrella for the broad spectrum of practitioners of technical communication, it failed altogether – and seemed very parochial, at least to this participant. Since I am both active in STC leadership and concerned for the society’s future, I attended practically by reflex. If I were not involved (and partially funded by my chapter – thanks), I’m not sure I would have found it worth spending 5000 € just to network with people and attend some decent sessions. For that cost, I’d want the fire, the glory, the inspiration.

It’s been said that this is the best time ever to be a technical communicator, and I agree. I would like to see us break out of our own self-imposed ghettos, and provide that forward-looking, multidisciplinary, global umbrella that will lead us forward into this very exciting century.

Oral Tech Comm

This, too, is technical communication, and it enters perfectly into the “humanist nerd” camp. This TED talk has made a few rounds, but is worth viewing, or reviewing.

Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain researcher who got an insight into her own field through her own stroke.  While this kind of occurrence is dramatic, it is not in itself that exceptional. Many bright people who are researchers have had insights into their own research through a personal accident – the most well-known probably being Sir Isaac Newton’s famous apple.

What makes this one special is the combination of the following:

  • The clarity of the explanation – the technical content.
  • The personal point of view – she describes each of her senses shutting down, one by one, from a first-person point of view that has rarely been possible.
  • The emotion that suffuses the presentation. She manages to communicate an intense personal experience with all its sensations, and at the same time be clear about the scientific part, and for the most part (perhaps not so much at the very end), she manages to keep both clarity and a certain kind of precision in her content, and to convey the human experience.

I’ve noticed some problems using the embedded player, so in case, here’s the URL: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

Lessons Learned:

We technical communicators have come from what used to be called “technical writing.”  We forget, sometimes, that the written word is just one means of communication. We also communicate orally (presentations, webinars, etc. – see my previous post about my experience delivering a webinar for the first time, for example).

The quality of the technical part of the communication – and its ability to stay in the memory of our audience – can often be a function of the human impact (humanistic impact) that it carries.

While this example is probably at the extremes of such a communication, and while some might even criticize the excess of emotion and loss of objectivity, particularly near the end of the talk, it remains a vivid illustration of just how powerful a technical communication can be.

Reflections on Giving a Webinar

Last week, I presented my first webinar, and I think I may have taken away more from the experience than the paying participants!

It should be obvious that a webinar is not the same as a live presentation, but in this experience, I really learned just how different it can be. This webinar, a case study, started as a presentation proposal that got converted into the online format, and I should have modified it much more for the webinar.

It’s about audience expectations. When someone pays $79 or more for a webinar, they have the right to expect they will come out of it with new knowledge, or new resources that will help them learn more.  A case study might provide those things, but it doesn’t do so directly.

Also, when I present at conferences, I’m used to interacting, to getting clues from the faces of my audience. I love the exchange with them. Like a theatre actor playing a first role in the cinema, I found the silence of muted audio was even more challenging than giving a standup lecture course to a crowded amphitheatre of bored students.

In this age of virtual networks and telepresence, we all need to develop our skills in this domain. It will be increasingly important over the next years to know how to present to what might be a vast audience that is, though silent, very actively listening.

Lessons learned: 

  • It’s important to have a web presentation technique, and it needs to be very different from live presentation style.
  • Networking interactively (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) is relatively easy, even if sometimes chaotic. Networking with a vast muted (and invisible) audience requires more preparation and honed skills.
  • Even as a case study, the presentation needed more instructional design with more “how to” content.

For those who attended, and whose expectations might not have been met, my apologies. Next time I do a webinar, I’ll be very conscious of what I’ve learned this time around. We have the right to expect the best of ourselves and of each other, and the experience of mutual learning is a gift.

Transformation and Then Some!

Please watch this TED talk!  In less than 20 minutes, you will learn so many things on so many levels, and have a good laugh doing it!

Hans Rosling is a specialist in public health. This is the story of his discovery of the visual presentation of information. Now, he works with David McCandless, who created the animation I embedded in my earlier post,  A Beautiful Example of Transformation.

This video illustrates transformation on so many levels:

  • Public health
  • Education technique
  • Visual communication
  • Cultural misconceptions
  • Economic disparity

It shows how all this is connected and interconnected, and does it with humour, grace, wit, and intelligence. A lesson for us all.