Should you develop a comic instead of a user guide?

Page from Biological Psychology – An illustrated Survival GuideListeners to BBC Radio Four this morning heard a report that a new study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) discovered comics are a better educational resource than traditional textbooks.

In a related article, called How the humble comic book could become the next classroom superhero, SHU’s Paul Aleixo explained:

“We found that the use of comic books actually enables students to better remember information. Our research showed that the students that read a comic book version got more memory questions correct compared to when the same information was presented in text format alone – or in a combination of random images and text.

This shows that the way comic books are structured – to include a special combination of words and pictures in a certain sequence – increases students’ ability to remember information.”

The key word in the section above is “remember”. The purpose of a user guide is not necessarily to get the reader to remember, but to solve their problem. We want them back working as quickly as possible. Indeed, one of the key principles of Minimalism is “Support reading to do, study, and locate”.

Having said that, there are some interesting findings in the study:

“There are good theoretical reasons why comics might be better at imparting information to students. A lot of which has to do with what the influential cognitive psychologist, Allan Paivio, called “dual-coding theory”. This is the idea that we deal better with material which is presented in both a verbal and a visual manner.”

This means good layout and using graphics will help the readers of user guides.

Certainly for learning materials, comics can be very useful. Indeed, we’ve created a number ourselves.

DITA graphic novel - page 4

What has been your experience of using this medium?

New software updates from Adobe

Adobe has officially released the Adobe Technical Communication Suite (2017 release) including the new 2017 releases for Adobe FrameMakerFrameMaker Publishing Server (2017 release) and RoboHelp. It has also released the 2.0 Release of XML Documentation Add-On for Adobe Experience Manager.

There have been a lot of improvements to the usability of the applications, reducing the number clicks required to carry out tasks.

For both FrameMaker and RoboHelp, Adobe has continued its developments in publishing HTML 5 output and personalised Help content. RoboHelp has a new, frameless Responsive HTML5 layouts that offer more intuitive navigation, and the ability to filter content dynamically. There is also a significantly improved search, which now has autocomplete.

It’s good that Adobe has focused on improving the usability this time – for Technical Authors and for the end users. It must be tempting to keep adding more to an application, when the best gains can be from improving what already exists.

March dates: Advanced technical writing and new trends in technical communication training course

Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication by attending Cherryleaf’s popular training course. Don’t get left behind: past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger, Tekla and Visa International.

The next public classroom course will be held on Wednesday 29th March 2017 at our training centre in central London (WC2R).

For overseas clients, we will hold a class live over the web (on 22nd and 23rd March), if there sufficient interest.

See:

Advanced technical writing & new trends in technical communication training

 

Farewell?

Adrian Warman has started a series of posts on his blog about the future of technical writing. In today’s post, Farewell to the technical writer, he argues the traditional role of a technical writer is no more:

“Marketing and sales specialists, designers, developers, developer advocates, support and operational people – indeed almost anyone associated with the overall creation and delivery of a service or product – are all perfectly capable of creating content that might not be perfect, but is good enough.”

There are many good points in Adrian’s post, and we look forward to the rest in this series. However, there is a counter argument to be made:

  1. Why do organisations still buy Flare or RoboHelp, when they could use Markdown? We would suggest it’s because projects often become more complex over time. You start to need support more than one version of a product (the professional and the standard version, for example); you need to support more than release version; you end up developing bespoke versions for your biggest customer; you need to localise the content for international markets. As the products become more complex, so can the documentation, and it can be a struggle to manage this complexity in an efficient way with Markdown.
  2. While the writing can be straightforward, the publishing process for Markdown content can be complex.
  3. If people have two responsibilities (code and write user content), one of those tasks may be not given the time and attention it needs. It might be better to have one person focusing on a single task.
  4. Only half the time in a documentation project is actually spent on writing. There’s a lot of planning and research that should go on before that into what users need from the content. Programmers may struggle with that aspect (although UX developers less so).
  5. A Technical Author might be cheaper than a programmer or a UX developer. If you can free their time, by delegating the writing activity to a Technical Author, you might enable them to focus on more productive activities.

The traditional role of a Technical Author is certainly changing, and there is likely to be a more collaborative authoring process. However, the Technical Author can still add value.

Review: Modern Technical Writing by Andrew Etter

Andrew Etter has written a short, Kindle ebook called “Modern Technical Writing: An Introduction to Software Documentation“. The book is Andrew’s personal view of technical communication, based on his experience of being a technical communicator in Silicon Valley.

It neatly describes the “Docs-like-code” approach to technical writing, and it challenges the impulse to write about everything. It describes Andrew’s experience of creating documentation in lightweight markup languages, such as ReStructured Text and Markdown, and using GitHub and static site generators to manage and publish the content.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. Andrew describes the benefits from following his approach. Ideally, I’d like to have seen more information and evidence to justify his opinions against other authoring tools. Microsoft Word might be a better choice than Markdown if you need to include complex images, tables or numbered lists. A Content Management System might be a better choice than a static website generator, if you want to provide intelligent content that modifies content to suit different users. The need to manage localised content (in multiple languages) might be easier to accomplish in DITA or MadCap Flare than by using GitHub and Markdown files.

Having said that, the book provides a useful insight into a increasingly common approach to documenting software applications.

New note-taking methods for technical communicators

Note-taking is an important part of a technical communication process. A typical project can move from the account manager to the project manager, and then onto the technical communicator.  Sharing information gathered at client meetings with project team members is often done through internal meetings and phone calls, handover documents written in Word, and other related files uploaded to a SharePoint folder. This type of approach works, but it can be slow and time-consuming.

There are some new(ish) note-taking approaches for students that might also work for technical communicators. We’ve described them below.

Reusable notebooks

The Rocketbook Wave and the upcoming Everlast Notebook are reusable paper notebooks where you transfer your notes into the Cloud using your smartphone. Both notebooks work by you using Pilot FriXion pens. In the case of the Rocketbook Wave, you can erase your notes using your microwave oven (or hairdryer) and reuse the notebook. With the Everlast, erasing is done using a damp cloth.

Everlast notebook

While notebook costs and storage issues are important to students, they are unlikely to be of much concern to technical communicators. You could use the same note-taking system, but with different “hardware”.

The “Bullet Journal” method of note-taking

The Rocketbook notebooks contain dotted paper pages, similar to the Leuchtturm 1917 dotted notebooks, and they are often used in conjunction with the Bullet Journal method of note-taking:

We’ve yet to test the Bullet Journal method, but it might mean that it’s possible for others to read handwritten notes and reduce the need to transcribe them into written notes.

Transferring your notes into the Cloud

There are three popular Cloud storage systems for note-taking: Evernote, Microsoft OneNote and Google Keep. You can use your smartphone to scan your notes and upload them as images to the Cloud. The dotted paper notebooks, such as the Leuchtturm 1917, should improve the scanning image quality.

You can organise your notes into electronic notebooks within these applications, and also add tags to add metadata (See I’ve Been Using Evernote All Wrong. Here’s Why It’s Actually Amazing).

Into those online notebooks, you can also clip web pages and insert files, such as Word documents. It’s never easy to get everyone to use a new application, so OneNote has the advantage of being part of the Office 365 suite and easily integrated with SharePoint. Unfortunately, custom tags can’t be created currently in OneNote for Mac, and this may be an issue for some users.

Which methods do you use?

Please about share your ideas and suggestions below.