Reflections on the TCUK15 conference

I was one of the presenters at last week’s Technical Communication UK 2015 (TCUK) conference. TCUK is the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators’ (ISTC’s) annual conference for everyone involved in writing, editing, illustrating, delivering and publishing technical information. It’s an opportunity for Technical Communicators from the UK and mainland Europe to meet up and mingle, learn and present.

auditorium at tcuk 15 conference

Here are my reflections on the event.

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The ContentHug interviews

I was asked to take part in the ContentHug series of interviews on technical communication and content strategy.

It was fun and challenging, going through the questions.

ContentHug’s Vinish Garg is interviewing a number of consultants involved in technical communication and content strategy, and asking them essentially the same questions. By reading the interviews, you can see where there are areas of agreement and where there are a variety of opinions. In general, there is a fair bit of consensus. They are worth reading.

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.