Is it ok for technical communicators to experiment on users?

Experiment sign Flickr CC image by jurvetsonBBC News is reporting the OKCupid Website has revealed that it experimented on its users. It decided to reveal the tests after the discovery that Facebook had been manipulating the feeds of its users.

It’s possible for anyone to run experiments on web pages, including technical communicators. You can display one page for 50% of your audience and a different page for the other 50%. Organisations carry out these tests to see if there is any change in user behaviour as a result of making a change to the site.

According to Christian Rudder of OKCupid:

“It’s not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something. Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out.”

So is it ok for Technical Authors to experiment on users? If it results in the creation of better, more effective, Web pages would you, as a user, object? Clearly, most of us would object to a website manipulating us or causing potential harm – could that ever apply to the type of experimentation a Technical Author might carry out?

Technical communication as a brand – The CEO and the technical communicator

The CEO and the technical communicator ebookSince I wrote the post on Technical communication as a brand, we’ve been working on an idea we had for promoting the profession. The end result is another story, another free graphic novel you can download, called The CEO and the technical communicator.

It’s published under a Creative Commons licence, so anyone can forward it on, as long as they don’t modify it or sell it.

There’s a lot of factual evidence about the value of technical communicators to an organisation (such as the ROI calculators on our website), so we thought we’d see if we could appeal to the heart as well as the head by using a story-based approach.

Technical communication comes in many forms, so there were some challenges in coming up with something that was representative of the whole profession. Partly to get around this, the document shows people’s reactions to the content created, rather than showing the content itself. It also uses the word “content’ as a catch-all for document, manual, book, Help file, Web page, illustration, and so on.

We’ve also developed an ISTC-branded version that the Institute for Technical Communicators could use itself to promote the profession. We’ve sent it to to the ISTC Council for their consideration and comments. The document might be modified if they ask for any changes to be made; for example, we’re wondering if there should be greater emphasis on the writing aspect of the role.

You can download the Cherryleaf version from our website. Let us know what you think, using the comments below or by email.

The “Word Crimes” song – does grammar matter?

Wierd Weird Al” Yankovic’s song about English grammar is actually quite good, and it will appeal to many Technical Authors.

It’s important that someone’s message is communicated clearly, and grammar can help achieve that goal. However, the English language is always evolving. Rules change over time, and people should never be too pedantic.

What do you think?

Ted Nelson on the future of text

Mike Atherton, Lead Instructor at General Assembly London, tweeted a link to a 2011interview with Ted Nelson on the future of text, document abstraction and transclusion.

Ted Nelson is one of the pioneers of information technology. He has been credited as being the first person to use the words hypertext and hypermedia (although he denies this), transclusion and virtuality.

Ted Nelson on the Future Of Text, Milde Norway, October 2011 from Frode Hegland on Vimeo.

It’s an interesting description of how content should be independent of format and media, so it can be portable, re-usable and presented in ways that best suit a reader’s needs.

Our Webinar in August will be: From Technical Communication to Content Strategy

MadCap Software has asked me to present, as a webinar, one of my conference presentations from the  MadWorld 2014 conference - Bust a Move: From Technical Communication to Content Strategy.

In this webinar, we’ll look at how technical communicators can get more involved in corporate content strategy. We’ll look at why they might want to do that, the differences between technical communication and content strategy, as well as looking at how they might re-position themselves. We’ll also look at what tools and skills technical communicators can bring across from the technical communications field.

It was a popular session at the conference, standing room only in fact, with 20 minutes of questions from the audience at the end.

This webinar will be held on the 12th August at 4.00pm BST (8:00 am Pacific Time), and it’s a free event.

I’m afraid there was some confusion over which presentation from MadWorld 2014 we would be repeating, and I mistakenly stated the webinar would be on metrics. That was my mistake. We’ve also had to move the webinar from its original date on the 13th August to the 12th August. Sorry for any confusion caused by these changes.

Ellis

Technical communication as a brand

Flickr image by Ruper GanzerOne of the tea break discussions at the Congility conference I spoke at last month was over the need to improve the awareness of technical communicators and technical communication as a profession.

I suggested the profession would benefit from having (and promoting) a simple positioning statement that explains the profession as if it were a brand. This is something I believe Tekom, the German professional body, did in the early 2000s. Tekom carried out some research in Germany that suggested as many, if not more, people were carrying out a technical communication role as part of another job, and that they were not aware the profession of technical communicator existed. So they aimed some of their marketing efforts at these groups, to make them aware of the profession. They wanted to see if they could bring these people into the Tekom membership.

In fact, I think there should be two statements to improve awareness of the profession:

  1. One saying there are these people called technical communicators who could help your business.
  2. One aimed at people who are writing technical documentation, but don’t realise it is a profession, with a professional body, standards etc. that could help them do it better.

Looking at the STC and ISTC sites, there are some useful simple descriptions of the profession. I’ve used content from these two sites to come up with the following description for the first statement:

“Technical Communicators are professionals who take technical and complex information and make it clear to people who need to understand and use it.

They have skills in providing the right information to the right people, at the right time. They communicate by using technology such as Web pages, Help files or printed content.

Having clear instructions can make all the difference to users of products or staff carrying out tasks. That’s because the need for accurate and accessible content has never been greater.”

We hope to progress this idea a little bit further, and produce something that the ISTC, the professional body for UK technical communicators, and ourselves could use.

Do you think the description we’ve used could be improved? If so, please use the comment box below.

What would life be like if there were no instruction manuals you could read?

Illiteracy is, sadly, something that can greatly affect people’s lives. According  to The Literacy Trust, less than one per cent of adults in England can be described as completely illiterate and approximately 16 per cent as “functionally illiterate”.

There are various articles on the Web that indicate how people live with their illiteracy:

  • They depend on people (relatives or the kindness of strangers) to read and explain things for them.
  • They recognise places and the location of things based on colours or shapes.
  • They often have to trust people aren’t scamming them.
  • They generally work within more limited boundaries, keeping to a consistent routine.
  • They often memorise how they completed a task last time.

If we produce a product but do not supply user instructions with it, the user has nothing to read, whether they are literate or not. The user has to fall back on coping mechanisms similar to those used by people with illiteracy. They can function, but they would do much better if they had something to read.

Reputation Management – Can user documentation help quash rumours?

Photo of a tiger in the streetIn the ‘Whispers’ episode of BBC Radio Four’s Digital Human programme, Aleks Krotoski explores how rumours spread both online and in the physical world.

As an example, she looked at how two people were able to spread a rumour that a tiger was running loose in London during the 2011 riots.

Aleks claims we are now in a world of misinformation. For organisations, this means they now have to pay attention to any misinformation or rumours about their products and services, an activity that is often called ‘reputation management’.

Seven minutes into the radio show, Nicholas DiFonzo of the Rochester Institute of Technology states groups believe rumours typically because there is a lack of information from official channels, they don’t trust official channels, or because their friends believe it. People use rumours to figure things out.

This means if there is a gap in information, then rumours may fill that gap. For this reason, it’s important organisations publish their Help files or equivalent on the web, so that there isn’t any uncertainty over what your product can and cannot do. If you don’t, whatever Google serves as an alternative source of information will fill in the gap.

Where people might not trust the official marketing content, they are more likely to trust the technical, instructional information. It’s seen as more ‘truthy’.

What do you think?

Please share your thoughts, using the comments box below.