Why Isn’t It?

In 2009, I delivered a short, light-hearted keynote address to the STC France annual conference, entitled, It’s Not in the Job Description. This post answers that presentation with a question: Why isn’t it there? What is it that we really do, anyway?

Defining Our Profession

I’m indebted to Mark Baker for his post, The Web Does Minimalism, which I recommend to everyone, and for his response to my election post on STC’s business model. His remarks crystalized for me a number of things I’ve been reflecting about over the last few years.

We used to have a pretty straightforward idea of what we did. We were technical writers, and we wrote manuals. We provided the bridge between engineers and their world, and users. We were able to translate from the functionality-based thinking of a product’s creators, to the task-based mindset of the end users.

We were also at the end of the food chain. We had to wait until the product was done, then chase engineers around with our notepads to try and get an idea of how something was supposed to work (not necessarily how it actually did). And we always got blamed for release delays.

Today we do many things that have never been thought of in the context of technical “writing:”

  • Interface design – user assistance is embedded in the interface. How can we design it if we don’t get involved with interface design?
  • Software information content – software today is an information rich environment, and often has to talk to users in one or more clearly defined voices. We write a lot of this content, whether or not it concerns user guidance.
  • Content strategy – this is a new buzzword, more or less since 2009, but if anyone thinks we didn’t do this before, they’re nuts. We’ve always had to make our work fit into an existing strategy, when there was one, and we’ve often helped define one when there wasn’t – it just wasn’t formalized. Now it’s getting more so.
  • Information Architecture – most of us don’t like being told we’ve got to fill in all the lorum ipsum’s that some designer has created for us without ever asking us what we needed to write and what prominence it needed. But we also can’t really start writing if we don’t have an idea of the structure it’s going into. In truth, content and structure need to evolve together and in parallel. So we do a bit of IA as well, and work with designers and information architects to make sure our content has a place to go – the right place to go.
  • Localization – Most of us don’t do translation, even if we are able to. But localization is not just translation. All the activities above also need to take localization into account. You need a good 30% more screen space for material in French or German than you do in English, just take a mundane example. Then there is the HOW you write – there are ways to write that make translation easier – and less costly, too. We have to know about them. Fortunately, most of these techniques also make better source language content.

I’m sure we could find a few more, but you get the idea. The fact that we do all of the above does not necessarily make us experts in all the fields mentioned. We are technical communicators: jacks of all trades, masters of some. We work in teams with other content workers, engineers and developers, marketers and designers, to create content in a variety of environments and situations.

Our skill, today, is not knowledge of English grammar or good style – though these are tools we must have in our kits. It’s not our knowledge or this or that desktop publishing solution, DITA schemas, or CMS systems, though these are also important.

Our primary and most important skill in today’s market is the ability to find information quickly, synthesize it, and make connections where relationships don’t seem apparent.

To quote Mark Baker, knowledge is no longer a salable commodity. Instead, it is “the calling card of expertise.”

In this context, all the definitions of our profession in all the labour bureaus throughout the world are obsolete and out of date.

Advertisements

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.

Don’t geolocate me – it’s bad UX!

Software publishers, webmasters, listen up, and listen up carefully!

The fact that I happen to be in Finland doesn’t mean I need my software or web pages installed or served up in Finnish. That would be true even if I were Finnish. Many Finns speak Swedish as their native language, and the Saami people have their own languages, many of them endangered.

Just because I happen to be in Spain doesn’t mean I need my software or web pages installed or served up in Spanish. That would be true even if I were Spanish. People in Spain also have Catalan, Gallego, or Euskadi for native languages.

I live part of my life in Catalonia, and I speak both Spanish and Catalan, but English is my first language, and I prefer to read material written in English in the original version. All my computers but one have English operating systems installed, but many programmes and web sites insist on giving me the language of my IP address or GPS coordinates, or of the regional settings that I have installed on my system (in my case, French keyboard, date and time formats, currency, etc. – I also live part of my life in France). Worse, some of them don’t let you change even after the fact.

Get it? I’m an international person. My computer And I speak and use many languages. In many places. But we most like to function in English, except when the information is originally in a language I know or is culturally specific.

Here’s a real life experience with a web service many of us use, Survey Monkey. I set up an account using the English interface. If I type the general URL for the site in Barcelona, the interface comes up in Spanish. This is not necessarily bad usability, most people with IP addresses in Spain will prefer that language – except if they are in Catalonia. Except if they are in the Basque country. Except if they are in Galicia. OK, so I type in my user ID and password, but guess what? It doesn’t know me. Now what? Well, one of the things I do is look for a language selection. But would most users know to do that? Anyway, finding it on Survey Monkey’s login page is no easy feat. It’s way at the bottom. I changed the language to English, eventually, and tried again. Success this time, I got in.

Next time I went to Survey Monkey I was on the same (laptop) computer, but in France. Surprise, the French interface comes up, and it doesn’t know me! Change to English, success.

Frustrated, I searched the settings for a language preference. There is none. Come on, guys,
even Google lets you pick your interface language and set it, and they know who you are in any language. And they speak a lot more of them than you do.

In a fit of pique, I treated Survey Monkey to an email with my opinion. I got a terse reply from a French representative telling me that most people in France prefer to speak French and that I could switch languages. Thanks.

Oddly, another offender is Canon printers. If you install their software from a CD it gives you a nice language choice screen. But if you download their drivers or other software, you get what they give you, which is the language of your regional settings. Even from the English download site!

These are clearly examples of poor thinking, leading to poor user experience.

Just because we know how to geolocate someone doesn’t mean we should. I would rather you looked at what language my system is in. It seems to me, this gives you a better guess about what language I want to use.

What do you think?