A Cognitive Design for User Assistance – Comprehensive Links

Update, 17 September 2015: Adobe has a new platform for its recorded webinars. Links to the recordings are now updated and will work correctly.

It is important to follow the Instructions for viewing them, which is also updated.

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I’ve had a number of emails, tweets, and other requests for information on how to get slides or recordings of the webinar series I just finished for Adobe.

Thanks are in order

First off, I need to thank all of you who attended, asked questions, passed me feedback and food for thought.

Thanks also to Adobe for giving me the space and the freedom to present these ideas, and promote the research we are starting to do in The Transformation Society. I’ll be blogging about that more in the near future.

Some Practical Information

Slides are posted as pdf files to Slideshare. You are welcome to use, but not modify, these slide decks, with attribution.

Recordings of the webinars are on the Adobe site – you need to have an adobe.com account to get to them. This will not hurt, I promise ūüėČ You can get the account for free, and there’s no obligation attached to it.

 Instructions for viewing webinar recordings 

When you click the links to the webinar recordings, you’ll arrive at the webinar description page. Click the “register” button, then fill out the form. You’ll be sent a link that will activate watching. The user experience is less than stellar, but don’t worry about it – just plod through, you’ll end up at the recording, just as we promised ūüėČ

The Links

Session 1: Users Become Learners

Session 2: Empowering User/Learners Through Cognitive Development

Session 3: Integrated Learning: Building Customer Loyalty

¬†I’ve tested the links, and as of this writing, they all work as advertised.

Enjoy!

 

Let’s Break a Tech Comm Rule

Update: Links to all session slides and recordings are grouped here.

I’ve been a technical communicator for nigh on 20 years. I teach technical communications. I theorize about technical communications. And for all this time, I have steadfastly held to the great rule that you do not mix concepts with tasks.

DITA has three major topic types. Two of them are Concept and Task. Why? To keep them separate, of course – everyone knows that!

And yet – and yet – and yet – here I am, telling you that “everything we know is wrong.” Continue reading “Let’s Break a Tech Comm Rule”

Preserving Golden Opportunities

Well, cherry picking season passed long ago, but it was followed hard by apricot season.

It’s really been a remarkable year for apricots. The variety of apricots in our region is essentially biennial. Oh, they produce some fruit in the “off” year, but it’s not much. Last year I think we got five altogether. Most people in the region have two trees, producing in alternate years. We’ve also got two, but they produce in the same year. Why the previous owner did this I am not sure, and probably it was unintentional.

In any case, when they come ripe, the apricots come falling off the tree faster than you can pick them up off the ground. You sit under the canopy of branches, on a warm summer day, clearing the ground in front of you. While you’re picking the fruit up, you hear more drop into the space you thought you’d just cleared. The insects buzz, the birds are in intense song mode, and all seems right with the world. You’ve got so many new apricots.

Oh yes, did I mention that you’ve got so many new apricots? You see, it’s a problem. These are not just low hanging fruit, they are golden opportunities, waiting to be picked up.

Golden Opportunities

Like fresh ideas, new initiatives, or “urgent” matters, if you leave them lying about too long, they go bad. Apricots get stale, fresh ideas get pigeon-holed for “later” (I.e. never), new initiatives lose their energy, and urgent matters not only cease to be urgent, they cease to be, period.

Since we can’t eat all those apricots in such a short time, we get cracking:

  • We make jam
  • We use them in chutneys
  • We freeze some
  • We make pies and cakes

In our profession, of course, we can often have the luxurious gift of abundance of ideas and initiatives, without the time, resources or support to realise them all, and of course, we end up frustrated, often cursing our bosses or our cruel fate.

The trick lies in knowing how to seize these golden opportunities, which are often unexpected. We don’t have to realise all these great things at once, but we do need to keep them from going bad. This often means slowing down the decay process. So we can consume (realise) some opportunities right away, and use the others to make jam, chutney, pies and cakes, and so on.

Making jam, pies, etc. for us means transforming our brilliant but currently unrealisable ideas into realisable alternatives or derived products. Obviously, the biggest obstacles are time and resources, and they are usually interconnected. to give a simple example, maybe you’ve got a great way to put all your XML topics into a jazzy CMS. But you don’t have the budget to buy the CMS nor the tools people to configure and maintain it according to your great plan. Well, why not model your structure in your existing software configuration management system? You can leverage existing resources, and probably get your software team interested in helping you set it up, especially if it helps them pull your information into their builds.

You can also freeze some of your projects; freezing is a preservation method. Preserve your projects and ideas by taking the time to detail them, so you can come back to them with the same excitement and enthusiasm you had when you dreamt them up.

Only one thing: unless you can get this project or idea into action immediately, please DO NOT put it into the system to linger and die while everyone tells you what a good idea it is. Pick your moments strategically. Even if you have an abundance of good ideas, it’s best to use just one or two at a time, and pull the frozen ones out of the freezer when you need a little sweetness in your professional life, and golden opportunities are out of season.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that we give a lot of our fruit away. Pies, cakes, jams, chutneys, too. That’s something else you can do with your good ideas – give some away to others in your organisation who might be able to use them, probably sooner than you can. Some people won’t credit you, and that hurts, but you’ll have contributed to your organisation, and what goes around, comes around, not always in the ways we expect.

Another thing I forgot to mention about our local variety of apricots: they get black gnarly spots all over the skin, that look like nasty canker sores. But when you peel them, they are lovely inside: fleshy and tart if you take them a bit early, or juicy and sweet if you take them at their prime of ripeness. I was talking about this with our deputy mayor, recently, and he said, flat out, “black spots are quality.” Remember, that the real source of quality is almost always hidden, and many a truly golden opportunity can be stained with black spots.

Otherwise put, “perfection is the enemy of the good.”

Cherries as Metaphor

At our property in the Languedoc region of France, we’ve had a bumper cherry harvest this year. Seems like it will be an excellent year for fruit in general. I hope so, because the veggies are in desperate shape. Some of our onions are having near-death experiences, for example. The problem with conference season is – you don’t get to work your vegetable garden.

But I digress – back to the cherries. Every year, as I pick the handsful of glorious, abundant cherries, I thank the birds for staying mostly up high.

Low Hanging Fruit
Low Hanging Fruit

Cherry picking, of course, is a time honoured art. We cherry pick through bargain bins at our favourite stores. We cherry pick the best ideas dreamed up by our colleagues. We cherry pick those parts of a political philosophy that are convenient to our world view. Etc.

Anyway, the birds – they get the ones I can’t reach, or won’t climb to, anyway. I go for the low-hanging fruit.

A few years ago, right around cherry picking time, I was telling a few of my colleagues much the same story, and mentioned that I go for the “low hanging fruit.” I then added, “Isn’t it interesting, how a business expression can be applied to a natural activity?”

No one laughed.

Minimalism and Dogma

Let’s talk about minimalism for a minute.

A recent emailing on the subject from JoAnn Hackos emphasized the need that

“..users get only the information they need… And, the more languages we translate means that we cannot afford to add “nice to know” extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals. Their critical goal — getting their tasks done as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

I’d guess very few of us would argue with this position. At the same time, I’m not sure we’d all agree on what constitutes “nice to know extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals.”

If we define extras as “any non procedural information,” for example, we come into conflict with another important trend, the need to include decision support in on line help. Getting tasks done quickly and efficiently might mean, in some circumstances, having the answer to “why would I want to do this?”

Let’s be clear – most of the time, these days, we’re talking about software, and thus, online help. If you’re doing paper documentation, or even electronic, but related to electro-mechanical operations, or chemical processes, or manufacturing operations, you might have a different view of what constitutes essential information, even if you buy into minimalism as a principle.

The answer to “why would I want to do this?” or other decision oriented questions needs to be clear, concise, and limited to the immediate need. In most cases, probably not more than a sentence or two.

It means that those of us with an editorial function have a particularly onerous task. If we’re to practice minimalism with intelligence, and really provide service to our users, we need to avoid the dogmatic approach of ideas such as, “if it’s not procedural, cut it out.” ¬†On the other hand, if we favour too much conceptual information, we’re not minimalist any more.

How much is enough?  How much is too much?

I’d like to take a stab at a simple guideline: ask yourself, “if I didn’t know anything about this software (or whatever it is), would I know when and why I need to do this?”

If the answer is “yes,” see if there’s anything to strip away, and ask the question again. Keep at it, until the answer is “no.” Then put back the smallest number of bits that make it “yes” again.

As you might imagine, this can’t be done by the numbers – it requires judgement, intelligence, and intuition.

What do you think?