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.

The decline of the gerund in technical documentation?

Louise Downe, who works at the UK’s Government Digital Service, wrote a blog post (Good services are verbs, bad services are nouns), where she stated:

“After several rounds of user testing, the Home Office changed the name of ‘Immigration Health Surcharge’ to ‘check if you need to pay towards your health care in the UK’ – a service that allows visitors to the UK to pay for the cost of healthcare.”

Screenshot of Home office page, where  Heading uses "create"

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The Art v Science conundrum in technical communication

One of the common debates in technical communication is how much the profession is art or science. Can we take an engineering-like approach to assisting users, using tools like DITA, or does each requirement need a bespoke, hand-crafted solution? Can we quantify, using analytics and other means, the effect of technical communication, or do we just have to hope and guess it’s being useful?

There’s been a similar debate in advertising. Indeed, there is the famous quotation, attributed to various people, along the lines of:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

One organisation believes it has cracked this puzzle. On Wednesday, The Saatchi Institute announced a formula describing the correlation between the investments in the art and science of a brand and their financial impact. The new formula has been developed in conjunction with the London Business School, and is based on academic research conducted in partnership with Unilever and Nielsen Research.

Although the formula is presented as a way to predict cause and effect in advertising, and justify advertising budgets, could it be applicable to other forms of communication, such as that created by Technical Authors? We won’t know for a few weeks. According to a press release by M&C Saatchi, the new formula will be explained in detail by Lord Saatchi, Tim Duffy and special guests at a London Business School event on 3 July.