Accessibility is not only for people with disabilities

Accessibility is in the news again:

“Advocates for the deaf on Thursday filed federal lawsuits against Harvard and M.I.T., saying both universities violated antidiscrimination laws by failing to provide closed captioning in their online lectures, courses, podcasts and other educational materials.”

“Much of Harvard’s online content is either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, the complaint said, echoing language used in the M.I.T. complaint. Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

“I’m also hopeful that Accessibility is the next big project to tackle for the engineering team. A 2.0 release, if you will. But more than anything, I am dismayed. I am dismayed that Accessibility was treated not even as a mere afterthought, but as something worth sacrificing completely for the sake of flashiness.”


“Website owners, audio and video producers, event organizers, those considering careers in captioning and interpreting, and anyone interested in improving communication and information access will find this book useful and enlightening. It dispels common myths about deaf and hard-of-hearing people, describes my personal experiences with deafness, and shares some examples of quality captioning for various types of aural information that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of hearing abilities.”

Many organisations have made their websites accessible, but there’s many (us included) that need to add subtitles (known as closed captions in the USA) to all the videos they publish.

Hopefully, the case for accessibility will continue to pervade over the desire to use the latest flashy, inaccessible, technology.

Is it possible for Technical Authors to write content more quickly?

Approximately 50% of a Technical Author’s day is spent writing. However, when Technical Publications teams look for efficiencies, they tend to focus on the 50% of time spent on non-writing activities, such as researching, reviewing and planning. They assume the content itself cannot be written more quickly. To an extent, they are right, as the querty qwerty keyboard is not an optimal layout.

We’ve been going through a process of transcribing our early e-learning modules, in order to have scripts upon which we can base future course updates. As part of this project, we’ve been using a free application called Plover to help us write the content. With Plover, you have the potential to create content (in Word, RoboHelp, Flare, Oxygen XML etc) at up to 225 words per minute (wpm).

Plover is based on chorded typing. You press more than one key at a time to create words. Chorded typing isn’t new – for example, it was demonstrated in Douglas Engelbart’s famous “The mother of all demos“.

Below is a five minute lightning talk on Plover and some of the emerging hardware:

So far, in my case, I’ve been able to double my typing speed. Realistically, those of us participating in this project at Cherryleaf aim to get to 180 words per minute. The reason for this is that most people speak at 160-180 wpm. At that speed, you are able to transcribe subject matter experts in real time – which means there’s no need to record an interview and then type it up at a later date.

There is a learning curve to this method, but it is based on over 100 years of theory and practice. It is tremendous fun – a bit like learning to use a querty qwerty keyboard for the first time.

Customers as advocates

I attended the Customers as Advocates conference yesterday, at the invitation of the hosts Strand Writing and Design. Strand is a copywriting company, and their conference focused on the challenges of creating relationships with customers that will lead onto them providing customer references and case studies.

Although the conference was focused on case studies and advocacy, I was struck by the implications for the user assistance and technical content that organisations produce.

Below are my summaries of two of the presentations.

Ian Williams – Customer Experience and the disappearing sales process

Ian Williams, of Jericho Consulting, looked at what he called “the disappearing sales process”. He quoted research from Google, IDG and Forrester showing how important content and customer recommendations are in the buying process today:

  • 57-70% of the buying journey is complete before a potential customer looks at marketing content or engages with anyone in the sales team (source: CEB/Google).
  • 21% of buying cycle is spent by business buyers in conversations with peers and colleagues (source: IDG).
  • 56% of the buying cycles is spent by business buyers searching for and engaging with content (source: IDG).

He also stated that Customer Experience, and an organisation’s brand, is about “keeping your promise” – that the customer’s expectations must be matched by what they actually get.

Implications for technical communication

This is more evidence that the content Technical Authors create (user guides, FAQs, Help, getting started guides, troubleshooting information etc.) can be an important factor in the buying process. Prospects will do their research, and they seek out trustworthy content about a product.

It also highlights the importance of a consistent message and experience throughout the customer journey. The “promise” must be consistent in the marketing and the user assistance. You also need to deliver on that promise; poor quality post-sales content just won’t do any more.

Mark Gallagher – How Formula 1 will affect your business

Mark Gallagher has been a senior F1 executive of over 20 years. He talked about how the business of Formula 1 is changing, and how those developments are likely to affect the wider business world.

He explained that the Formula 1 constructors were now the world’s experts in capturing data, analysing data, and providing information on performance improvement to the end user. Constructors, such as McLaren, were now applying this expertise to a wide range of industry sectors.

Mark predicted that this expertise could be applied to the “Internet of Things”, where devices capture data and provide advice and information to the end user.

IMPLICATIONS FOR TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION

If these capabilities were applied to mainstream software, perhaps we could see applications such as Word and Excel capturing data on how you use the software, and then providing advice on how you could have completed that task in a better way.

In fact, some applications are providing this type of feedback already. Here’s a screenshot from an Android app called Steno Keyboard. It analyses your keystrokes and tells you if there was a better way:

Screen from Steno Keyboard app

The type of development would change user documentation into performance support, and move more of the user content into the application itself.

Conclusions

This post represents just a few notes from the conference. It’s clear that content, in all its forms, is becoming a key factor in the buying cycle. User Assistance is not just for customers, it’s for prospective customers as well.

Teaching non-readers to read

Cherryleaf has been working on a project which shows people how to teach non-readers to read. We’ve been working with Elizabeth Ainley, who has written a book, go for it!, which can be used to teach illiterate and/or dyslexic adults.

Elizabeth asked Cherryleaf to help her re-write the existing instructions aimed at the adult coaches who will be using go for it! This involved making the instructions clearer, and clarifying the learning outcomes.

Schoolchildren in Sierra Leone have been the first users of the project. It means a 12 year old child who can read can now teach others. The school is run by Miriam mason-Sesay MBE for the Educaid, who sent Elizabeth these photos of the teaching materials in use:

IMG_2713Dyslexia teaching in Sierra Leone

Dyslexia teaching in Sierra Leone

Five predictions for technical communication in 2015 and beyond

It’s time to put our heads above the parapet, make ourselves hostages to fortune, and predict what will happen in technical communication in 2015 and beyond.

1. “User Churn” will lead to SaaS providers looking to assist users in better ways

The move towards Software as a Service (SaaS) has led to organisations worrying about “user churn” – if users give up using the application after only a short period of time, the company won’t generate enough income. This means it’s becoming more important to assist the users when they begin to use the product.

2. Organisations will take a more holistic approach to communication with users

We’re seeing organisations looking at the all the ways it communicates with users, and making sure they are consistent and supportive of each other. For example, the training emails sent out to new users, the User Interface text, the Help and the training videos.

3. Software developers will see Help as part of the product design, as first user Help grows in popularity

Instead of seeing the user documentation as almost as an afterthought at the end of the project, we’re seeing organisations considering the first user interaction Help you see in mobile applications. This has to be planned into the UI itself, which means technical writing can no longer be left to the end of the project.

4. Microsoft’s greater level of informality in its Help will be copied by others

Microsoft’s “No more robot speak” programme, which has lead to a more empathic and informal tone will be noticed by more companies. We understand Microsoft has only spoken officially about this change twice; it’s likely that many organisations will misunderstand what Microsoft is doing and make mistakes when they try to adopt a similar approach.

5. DITA will make slow progress

It’s easy to forget that the DITA technical writing standard is used by fewer than 10% of technical communicators. When the Lightweight DITA standard approved later in 2015, it may become easier for smaller organisations to adopt DITA. However, the adoption of DITA is likely to continue as its current rate – a slow, but steady 1% per annum.

Your predictions?

A lot of these trends actually began some time ago, but we’re likely to see them adopted more widely in 2015.

What you see as future trends? Use the Comments box to let us know.