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.

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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Protecting your brand using technical communication

Lisa Thomas

On BBC Radio 5 live’s Wake Up to Money programme today, Lisa Thomas, Chief Executive of advertising agency M&C Saatchi, said:

“We can’t just think about just one advert. We have to think about the brand and the relationship that consumers have with that brand, and be aware that consumers see your brand and your product everywhere now.

They can have a very direct relationship with that brand, whether that’s via Social Media, whether that’s via just by being more in more contact with those brands and the business, so there’s more imperative now to think holistically about the brand than before, and be more creative.”

The co-presenter, Mickey Clark, commented that he’d heard from David Kershaw (a director at M&C Saatchi)  that even the through the toughest economic times, companies are anxious still to protect their brands, even if they have next to no money.

Brand means the customer’s expectations of what they will get, or experience, when they use a product or service. Today, organisations have to protect the promise, that expectation, and make sure that promise is matched by what they actually experience.

Organisations that think more holistically, and focus more in terms of brand than simply advertisements and sales orders, need to ensure the brand image is consistent throughout the whole of the customer’s experience with it. In this context, technical communication, the instructional content that supports users as they use the product or service, becomes an important means of protecting the brand.

That’s because, when the customer has left the store, all the packaging has thrown away, and the customer is actually using the product, one of the few things left to sustain the brand’s reputation is technical communication – the User Assistance, the technical documentation. This will help support the user through the periods they spend using of that product or service.

Trends in technical communication – the funny airline safety video

The airline safety video is about actions that could save your life, but it can be very dull and mundane if you’ve flown more than once. So airlines are using the third aspect in good design – emotion – to engage with their audience.

The latest video to follow this trend is from Delta Airlines:

Other examples are:

Institute of Directors masterclass on: The written word – creating effective content

Cherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt will be speaking at the Institute of Directors’ June 2015 Members Masterclass on “The written word – creating effective content”.

IOD building

The written word is one of the key ways we communicate with others. Whether we’re telling or selling, it’s important we get our message across. Unfortunately, many people find writing time consuming, and it can often be difficult to get started on a new document.

In this session, we’ll look at some of the most effective techniques for creating the types of content created in today’s business world. You’ll discover some of the approaches used by professional technical communicators, copywriters and report writers.

Some of the issues we’ll look at include:

  • Clarity and persuasiveness
  • Getting started and organising your thoughts
  • How to structure documents
  • Getting to the point and being concise

This session is ideal for managers, engineers and other professionals interested in effective approaches to communicating more clearly and effectively in writing.

The IoD invites IoD Members and non-members to share their expertise and knowledge with other members. It will be held at 116 Pall Mall, London, on the 2nd June (18:00 – 21:00).

See:

The written word – creating effective content.

New training courses in technical communication are on their way

It might seem like we’ve been quiet recently, but that’s partly because we’ve been working on an academic project that we hope to be announcing towards the end of the year.

As a spin-off from this project, we’re developing new training courses in technical communication. These courses are at a more advanced level than our basic/intermediate courses, and they include more references to academic research.

If you are considering any on-site training for your technical communications team, we can now offer these topics:

  1. What is technical communication?
  2. The business case for technical communication
  3. History of technical writing standards
  4. Usability and user centred design
  5. Project planning and its effect on writing documentation
  6. Researching and scoping documentation
  7. Estimating
  8. Information design and content organisation
  9. Writing the topics – overview
  10. Presenting different types of information
  11. Index, search and metadata
  12. Single sourcing and reusing content
  13. Post writing​
  14. Researching technical communication – where to go
  15. Establishing standards
  16. Governance and maintenance
  17. What skills does a technical communicator need?
  18. Content strategy and technical communication
  19. Trends in technical communication
  20. Visual design
  21. Publishing and delivering information
  22. Managing the documentation project
  23. Metrics/Evaluating documents

We may develop online courses for some of these topics in the future as well.