About Ellis Pratt

Ellis Pratt is Sales and Marketing Director at Cherryleaf. You can follow Ellis on Twitter. Cherryleaf helps you provide technical and user documentation your customers will love - through our content development, recruitment, consultancy and training services. See the main Cherryleaf web site for more details.

Ellis will be speaking at MadWorld 2016

MadWorld conference

Cherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt will be speaking again at MadCap Software’s conference on technical communication and content strategy conference. MadWorld 2016 will be held between the 10th and 12th April 2016 at the Hilton San Diego Resort and Spa, in San Diego, California.

Continue reading

New date for our advanced technical writing course

Trends in Technical Communication Course – Advanced Technical Writing TechniquesWe’re moving our public classroom course on Trends in Technical Communication Course – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques from the 18th September to Tuesday 22nd September. There are places available if you’d like to book.

We’ve also run this course a number of times during the summer as an “onsite” course for clients, using WebEx and Lync (soon to be called Skype for Business). Using online meeting technologies like these means we can deliver training to authoring teams throughout the world.

We have been asked if individual delegates overseas could use these platforms to participate in our public, classroom, course. I’m afraid we don’t offer this. The “online meeting” courses involve using special lighting and audio equipment that isn’t available in the training rooms we use for the public courses. Also, it would be very difficult for the trainer to manage two different delivery methods simultaneously.

Software companies are not selling boxes anymore

Wistia’s Chris Savage has written an article on how the company focuses on articulating its company vision to differentiate itself in a competitive marketplace.

In the article, he states:

“To buy software back in the day, you’d go to the store, buy a box, and bring it home. Inside of the box would be a shiny CD, which had your new program on it.

You’d install the program on your computer, and then you’d use it for a few years. When the next version came out, maybe you’d get a discount because you bought the previous version. If it had some good upgrades, you’d consider making a purchase.

That’s all changed.

Now when you’re buying software, you’re not getting a static product. You’re buying something that’s continually evolving and changing. At Wistia, like most SaaS companies today, we deploy fixes and improvements multiple times per day.

When we buy software today, we’re not just buying into the current benefits, features, and price. Instead, we’re making a bet on the product’s future.”

Customers expect a continuing relationship with companies. They expect the product to grow, to see an ecosystem to evolve. Interwoven into this, is the support they receive. They expect high quality information when they want to explore how to get more out of the product, or troubleshoot any issues. This means User Assistance, the online Help, must become part of the initial design, and part of the user experience. It can no longer be an afterthought bolted on once the product has been developed.

Squares v circles on screenshots?

We were asked:

“Do you know whether it is better to use squares or circles to indicate something on a screen shot? I use circles with thin border & compliment with an arrow. My colleague uses squares & the Subject Matter Expert prefers circles. I was  just wondering whether there is a best practice for this or not.”

It’s a good question.

Gestalt theory states:

“Elements with a point of interest, emphasis or difference will capture and hold the viewer’s attention.”

This indicates the reader’s attention will be drawn towards contrast, which means the element that is different from others in some way. So there is an argument for having a different shape if that element doesn’t stand out. However, shadows, colour and thick borders can also create contrast effectively.

We would say if you are highlighting a button, or some area that is roughly square or rectangular (such as a window or a field), use a square or rectangle. You can add emphasis by making the surrounding area darker (so the key area is in a spotlight) or perhaps an arrow.

You could use a circle if you wanted to point to a spot or an area that is small in size. Circles require less space, so they are good where you need to have a number of elements highlighted within the same screenshot.

Arrows are often affordances, something that affords the opportunity for that object to perform an action. They are good for highlighting an action. They can also work to help the user focus on an area of a screen, and are often used for that purpose.

It also depends on the graphics tool you are using. If it’s easier to create circles than squares, you’re more likely to use circles. If it’s easy to add an arrow, you’re more likely to use arrows.

What do you prefer: squares or circles? Do you have standards for which to use, and when?

Creating palaces of almost forgotten things

Museum of almost forgotten things brochure

This weekend, we went to the Fabularium on London’s South Bank, where the programme highlighted The Museum of Almost Forgotten Things. It struck me that this concept could also be applied to technical communication. The impetus to write things down, to document policies and procedures and to write user documentation for software written in a Sprint, is often due to organisations worrying that important information might be soon forgotten. Technical Authors often capture and record almost forgotten things. They might, however, object to the word “museum”, because they are working with how things are today much more than how things were in the past. So perhaps “palace” could be an alternative word to use.

Ben Haggerty, the storyteller whom we saw perform, started by trying to discover who we, the audience, were. He quoted a west African saying that there are four types of people in the world:

Those that know and know that they know. These are called teachers, and should be respected.

Those that know, but don’t know that they know. These people are asleep.

Those that don’t know, and know they don’t know. These people are students.

Those that don’t know, but don’t know they don’t know. And there are 630 of them sitting in the House of Commons on the other side of the Thames.

It’s interesting to see how close this old African saying is to competency models used in training today: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) for content

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is an increasingly popular technique used in the construction industry. It involves creating XML digital models of buildings and tunnels during each stage of a project. However, these are more than just 3D animated models, as they also embed information about physical objects in the building. According to Wikipedia:

“A building owner may find evidence of a leak in his building. Rather than exploring the physical building, he may turn to the model and see that water valve is located in the suspect location. He could also have in the model the specific valve size, manufacturer, part number, and any other information ever researched in the past, pending adequate computing power. “

It means architects and engineers can “see” behind walls and discover if there are any pipes or cables that might be affected by any planned works.

This concept of an intelligent model that can be shared between stakeholders throughout the whole lifecycle is also the future for content. Organisations want the ability to know how different items of content are related, what is the structural and metadata information behind the presentation layer and how content has developed chronologically. They want the ability to use a model to plan and modify before they start the more costly work of implementation.

BIM could perhaps provide a useful analogy for Technical Authors, procedures writers, and others developing text-based content, when they are explaining the purpose and value of structured content, single sourcing and Component Content Management Systems.

Teachers need content management systems, too

The Guardian has an article today called “Teachers and parents criticise ‘robotic’ software-generated school reports“. It explains teachers are finding report writing software isn’t meeting their needs:

“It often frustrated as none of the options would quite capture what he wanted to say about a child and the end product was never satisfactory.”

It states, as an alternative, some teachers have a comment bank, which they use to cut and past into school reports. One teacher said

“I’ve got a bank of literary comments, maths comments and general comments. You can pick one that sounds about right, whip it out and plonk it in.”

A better solution might be a content management system that could contain a single-sourced comment bank, templates and some advice of what to write where.

As the spokesman for the National Association for Head Teachers said:

“Headteachers invest a lot of time and effort into making sure this happens. Technology can help that process but it should never get in the way of a truly personal report for each and every child in the school.”

Common sense isn’t always common

Here’s some examples from Munich of what might seem to obvious and common sense to the one audience, but not to others.

Traffic lights that have four lights, with the symbols , O, I and K:

Munich traffic lights

Pedestrian crossing lights that have two people instead of one:

Munich traffic lights

The second set of lights is still comprehendible (hold the hand of the person next to you, whilst you’re waiting to cross the road 😉 ), but the first set didn’t make sense to even the (non-Bavarian) German members of our party.