I Keep Thinking…

…about all this communication stuff:

  • I keep thinking about how information architects don’t like to be called UX designers. “IA is so much more,” they say. The “more” they’re talking about includes content. Not Lorem Ipsum, but real content. Many IA’s think of themselves as content strategists, too. They probably are. In fact, I think IA and CS are interlocking, interdependent parts of a single, holistic process – whether done by one person or a team.
  • I keep thinking about how Map should be an element used on the publishing side of DITA, not the authoring side. Let’s rename Map to Container (that’s what it is) and then a Map could really be one: you could map a layout out on a graphic of a page or screen of your publication, and fill it with DITA elements: topics, concepts, and the newly named containers. Using these graphical elements, you could have text flows just like in old fashioned desk top publishing programs, and you could control the layout and make it pretty – removing one of the most common criticisms of working with XML.
  • I keep thinking how I really want to do it all myself. Not because I don’t like teamwork, not because I’m jealous of others’ competencies, but because I love all this stuff so much, I just want to have the fun of doing it all. Silly of me, I know.
  • I keep thinking how technical communication is a lot like playing the piano. Not just because you need to make your fingers work a keyboard in both cases, but also because, as you develop your skill and hone your craft, you become aware that you are working with subtleties that no one other than a few other specialists in your field would ever be aware of. Quality assurance people would say that this is “too much quality” – you should provide just as much as the customers ask for, and not a jot more. But we do this, every day, even though we don’t really get paid for it, and users do not – at least consciously – notice. Not only that, I encourage everyone to keep doing it.
  • I keep thinking that everything is connected. I’d better quit it, because in the end, it means thinking about the entire, infinite, exquisite universe – makes my head ache.
  • Yeah, but I keep thinking that the only really valuable skill in this age is the ability, just exactly, to make connections between things where seemingly none exists.
  • I keep thinking that one day, we’ll discover basic principles of electronic networking and break through to achieving the wonderfully facilitating type of many to many communications environments we used to have on The Source back in 1985.
  • I keep thinking that Ted Nelson was right. About just about everything.
  • I keep thinking that the more means we have to communicate, the more we seem to be throwing words and preconceived ideologies at each other like weapons.
  • I keep thinking about silence.

Find Your User’s Voice

I’m working on an interesting problem these days. I have a client who is about to release a new software product. I can’t tell you what it does, for obvious reasons, but I can tell you that it does some neat things. Perhaps too many.

It provides users with all kinds of useful information. Some of it is useful for a group of users – call them Group A. Some of it is useful for another Group B.  They aren’t interested in the same things, and for some information,  Group B wants to know about it, but Group A not only isn’t interested, they’re not authorized to see it.

Access to sensitive information can obviously be solved with user profiles, but it’s a challenge to sell the same software to two different audiences. To facilitate the task, we’ve decided to create two different interfaces, one for each of the groups. When a user logs into the software the interface s/he sees is dependent on a user profile associated with the login. The other interface is not available.

That was the easy part. Next, we have to design the interfaces. And each interface has to communicate with its user group in language that makes them comfortable, and, above all, inspires confidence in the software.

It’s early days, but here are a few guidelines I’m working on that you might also find useful:

  • The design (look and feel, user interaction model) of the two interfaces needs to be sufficiently similar that should someone need to have access to both, they don’t need to relearn everything to use it.
  • At the same time, the same elements of the interface need to be fine tuned to appeal to very different user populations – for example, one might be technical, or engineering oriented, the other might be business oriented. One might be implicated in operations, the other might be financial, etc.
  • The language, labels, messages used in each interface need to be 100% adapted to the user group’s profile.
  • When writing the messages and content delivered by the software, we need to think about subtext as well as overt meaning. When two people have a conversation, there is enormous subtext based on power relationships, expectations, tone of voice, etc. When software provides information to a user, there is an implied notion that one or the other is the expert. How the software communicates with the user needs to be aligned with whether the software or the user is expected to be the expert, and the tone of the communication needs to be equally adjusted.
  • The user guidance, also needs to respect the target audience. This is harder the it might seem. Some of the user guidance is common to both interfaces – and needs to maintain that level of confidence for both, despite the fact that the two groups tend to favor very different communication styles.

My takeaway from this exercise so far: when we talk about content strategy for software, we really need to take a holistic approach, and realize that content and style need to be coherent, and in resonance with the nature of the information itself, and the user who must interact with it. Interactivity, in this sense, needs to take certain aspects of human communication into account if it is to succeed at convincing users and gaining their trust.

Where Would You Take This Idea?

I invite your comments, thoughts or reflections.

What’s Emotion Got to do with Technical Communication?

I’ve just returned from the 12th Consciousness Reframed conference, in Lisbon. This conference, started by my friend Roy Ascott, is based on the idea that we can raise our level of consciousness using a combination of scientific research and mental and spiritual discipline. It’s based on the concept that artists are social researchers and socializers of new technologies, and that an artistic regard towards the planet and human existence is as useful as – and is a parallel activity to – scientific investigation. This ideas was also expressed in the 1950’s by Werner Heisenberg, one of the godfathers of quantum physics, and whose uncertainty principle is most easily understood from the point of view of Eastern philosophies such as certain branches of Buddhism, rather than from our traditional Western methods.

I was a presenter at this conference, but also an avid attendee, listening to people from a wide variety of disciplines and experiences speak about evolving ideas of transformation and multiple identities in the age of virtual, networked communication. The point of departure of this conference is to reject any and all dogmas, and be open to the possibilities of any serious study, be they based in science or the knowledge systems of aboriginal peoples worldwide. Thus, the gestalt of the conference is to avoid being boxed in, either by a purely materialistic idea of science, or by a totally spiritual approach that excludes more “rational” or traditional scientific methods.

I was struck by the similarity of approach between the best speakers at this conference, and the incredible balancing act of humanism, emotion, and science that I’ve already related in recommending Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk.

I have since read Dr. Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight, where she likens some of the states she experienced during her stroke and long recovery as akin to the “Nirvana” of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. She goes to great lengths to explain how her brain function, from a physiological point of view, was functioning to cause these sensations. She also swings back from that “concrete” explanation to the subjective account of how she experienced this – emotionally, sensorially, mentally and physically.

There is an incredible lesson in these types of experiences for us technical communicators. Jill Bolte Taylor wrote a book that was a New York Times best seller. It was about her own brain. It is full of technical and scientific information that, at times, can be extremely complex. Yet her book was a best seller.

She didn’t get to have a best seller by going into great detail to explain the intricacies of brain function. She got to have it because she told a powerful, human story.

We’ve all heard about “story telling” as a technique. But how many of us understand it at this visceral level?  How many of us are able to communicate complex, technical and scientific information to our audiences with the clarity and liveliness that Jill Bolte Taylor does either in her TED talk or her book?

How many of us even think about doing it?

Don’t most of us tend to think emotions have no place in technical communication?

But what if that emotional component, the human side of things, enabled our audiences to do what they want and need to do faster, easier, and with more enjoyment? Shouldn’t we be glad to provide that? Shouldn’t we be thinking about the lessons learned from the communications of Jill Bolte Taylor and the speakers at Consciousness Reframed, and understanding how we can tell human stories to our human users and give them a rewarding experience?

How would you do it?

How would you start to include human stories in your technical communication? What methods would you use? What kinds of stories would you tell, and how would you tell them? What delivery methods would you use?

TCWorld/Tekom and STC TC Summit: Two Realities

Since attending the TCWorld/Tekom conference for the first time last October, I’ve been thinking about how it both resembles and doesn’t resemble the STC Technical Communications Summit, an event that I have attended several times.

I had heard a lot of different opinions about this, and find that my own perception of this first dive into the Tekom world is a bit different from many of the comments I’ve heard. Here are a few of my observations, in no particular order, comparing the two events.

Basic Statistics


Number of days:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: 3
  • STC Summit: 4

Cost (member std rates):

  • TCWorld/Tekom: 650€
  • STC Summit: $1 025

Social Events included:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: Refreshment breaks, lunch every day
  • STC Summit: Refreshment breaks, 2 receptions, 1 lunch

Number of sessions:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: English – 62 sessions, 24 workshops German- 82 sessions, 25 workshops
  • STC Summit: 80 sessions, workshops extra

Post event access:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: Some presentation slides available for download
  • STC Summit: Summit@aClick access to full recordings of most sessions

Both conferences include trade fairs (Tekom’s is many times bigger than STC’s), and vendor showcases. Tekom also includes technology sessions that don’t seem to have a direct equivalent at the STC Summit, though some of these themes are treated in STC regular sessions.

Tekom offers a discounted rate to members of TC Europe member organisations. STC members do not receive a discount. STC, to my knowledge, has no discount programme for members of sister organisations anywhere.

Tekom’s trade fair does not include the innovation of the consultant’s corner, the space reserved for small consultancies that has been quite successful at recent STC Summits.

Content

As Kai Weber has pointed out in his overview of Tekom, it really is two parallel events: one in English, one in German. I have the impression (not totally backed up by observation) that more of the German sessions were oriented to practitioners, and more of the English sessions were oriented towards managers or consultants.

Like the STC Summit, presentations are organised in parallel tracks, and you can follow a single track or skip from one to another, as your needs and interest direct you.

Sarah O’Keefe, who speaks fluent German, said that she preferred to attend more of the German sessions. Her reasoning is that she already knows most of the English presenters, and the German presentations offer a different perspective on the themes that occupy our attention. My German is very rusty, and what remains in my head is just enough for me to feel frustrated when I try to decipher a spoken presentation. I must refresh my German before attending another Tekom event, because I would have very much liked to experience what Sarah was talking about.

Scott Abel organized a content strategy day at TCWorld that I took part in, that was the highlight of the conference for me. As I understand it, this was a new initiative for Tekom, not unlike the effort at the Dallas STC Summit. I would have liked to see a more dynamic followup at the Sacramento STC summit, as I have indicated elsewhere.

A major component of the TCWorld/Tekom event is localisation, and GALA is a partner in the event. The result is that if localisation is not at the centre of your concerns, it will seem that a huge part of the event does not concern you. A very high percentage of exhibitors at the trade fair were also vendors of localisation services, software, etc.

On the other hand, TCWorld/Tekom features a separate “Associations World,” a sort of trade fair for not for profits, for which STC has no equivalent. Exhibitors this year included other technical communication organisations such as ISTC (UK) and organisations from India, Japan, Poland, etc. It’s interesting to note that Tekom, a for-profit organisation, hosts associations, and STC, a not-for-profit, charitable organisation, doesn’t really have an equivalent.

Bottom Line

Both TCWorld/Tekom and STC Summits are great events. They have different characters, based in part on cultural differences, and also on the different business models and size of the two organisations. I am pleased to have been able to attend, and present at, both.

Where do You Come From?

How many of you tech comms reading this have a technical or engineering education?

When I ask this question of students in the master’s programme where I teach, or at speaking engagements, it’s invariably a minority of hands that go up. Personally, I’m not surprised. Most of the technical communicators I know have a background in arts or humanities. And the ones that have science or engineering backgrounds often have strong secondary interest in humanities subjects.

My own background is in music, theatre, and journalism. Of those, journalism makes some sense – a journalist, like a technical communicator, explains things to people – often translating from one mode of expression to another (as in: economist to average citizen, politician to skeptical reader, scientist to TV viewer or web visitor, engineer to end user, etc.). The rest?

Well, if you go deeper into it, my musical interests have always gravitated to the avant-garde, especially if technology was involved (computer music, synthesizers, fusion forms, free jazz, etc.), and in the theatre, I always worked with lighting and sound, two elements that are both intangible and related to technology. In short, I’ve always loved technology along with the other things I love doing, and combining this love of many things made tech comm a no-brainer for me.

I used to read manuals all the time – REALLY – I READ THEM!!!!

I found two things: I could become the “expert” about something just by doing this (most people didn’t bother) and I could write it better, most of the time. So, eventually, I started doing it.

Humanists gravitate to tech comm because people in the humanities generally have a wide variety of interests, intellectual curiosity, desire to understand and then to communicate that understanding.

It might be tempting to add that humanists don’t talk nerd – but if you want to be a good tech comm, you’d better know how, even if it isn’t your native language – and I think I can qualify myself as a genuine nerd in my fascination with some of the details of technology – hence the name of this blog.  At the same time, I share with many other technical communicators, a passion to explain it.

We are teachers, Chatauqua leaders, maybe even evangelists for the products and services we write about. At the other end of the spectrum, behind the scenes, we also seem to get passionate about how these things are done, improving processes and facilitating internal communications. There, too, we explain, we teach, we innovate, and we share.

A Rant About Communication Style

OK, in theory, I should not be writing politics here, this blog is about technical communication.

BUT………………

Recent events in the U.S. bring up a question that is related to communication, albeit not technical.

The recent (yesterday) shooting in Arizona, it seems to me, is a logical conclusion of the hate mongering that began back in the 90’s in U.S. political rhetoric.  While it is not exclusively the domain of the Republican party, it seems to predominate on that side of the political fence.

It started with the hate campaigns launched against then President Clinton.  It started with pure lies (yes, I KNOW they were lies) told by a senior senator and former presidential candidate regarding the Canadian health care system when Hilary Clinton was attempting to cobble together some sort of universal health care plan for the U.S.

I know they were lies because I am a citizen of several countries, including Canada, and have lived under the Canadian health care system – something the U.S. senators have not.

Since that time, the entire tone of political rhetoric has hardened, and become still more aggressive and violent. This includes radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who function by innuendo and suggestion, without backing up their assertions with facts (who needs them?).

I would remind everyone, that this tactic, known as “The Big Lie,” was admirably practiced by one Joseph Goebbels during a small military skirmish known as the Second World War.

The Reagan and Baby Bush administrations (essentially the same folks) honed these techniques to perfection – see George Lakoff’s admirable analysis, Whose Freedom? for details.

The now notorious cross-hair post on Sarah Palin’s web site that included Gabrielle Giffords as a “target” is a perfect example of the kind of hard rhetoric I’m talking about.

Let’s be clear here – I am not taking a stand for or against any political position in this blog, it’s not the place to do it.  I am making a very loud, protesting cry against the tone and style of political communication in this day and age.

Ms. Palin is entitled to her opinions about universal health care, but she is not entitled to publish inflammatory texts that suggest attacking (however metaphorically) other human beings. When she tweets out “don’t retweet, reload” to the world, this is, in my view, the kind of limitation to free speech that justice Frankfurter referred to when he said the first amendment does not include the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

I hope Ms. Palin will think twice, three times, and more, before publishing or spouting more “shoot from the hip” aggressive attacks. She should be ashamed.  I fear she won’t be, and that, also, is alarming.

To the Palins, Limbaughs, Becks, Bachmans and other demagogues of media or politics, I say with fervor and sincerity, the fact that someone disagrees with your political position does not render them  a traitor to their country or a bad person.  The fact that you paint them as such, does render you one.

There – I’ve started slipping down the same slope.  Let’s not go there.

A Beautiful Example of Transformation

Friends, check out this video:

It’s a great example of what Edward Tufte has been writing about for decades, and a marvelous demonstration of the power of simplicity to tell an important story.

Check out the site that posted this, Information is beautiful, to see more of the same kind of transformation thinking.

I have written elsewhere about the need for a transformation society (not an information society), where the accumulation of information becomes less important, information gets de-commodified, and is transformed into knowledge, know-how and understanding.

This seems a daunting task, and yet these people have done a part of it so simply, clearly, and (seemingly) effortlessly.

The video embedded above (and you can find a version for the U.K. in pounds sterling, too) shows clearly how we have developed an economy of debt, where we prefer to overspend and play financial games, than to put a relatively small amount of money into really solving some of the world’s problems.

Our information accumulation society has had something to do with this phenomenon, so it is wonderful to see the same technology applied to demonstrate clearly that this is a road we do not want to continue following.

Next step:  Let’s find ways to demonstrate how we can use the technology to implement these solutions.