At some stage or another, a technical communicator is likely to have seen this image from Kathy Sierra:
Sarah Maddox (Technical Writer, Atlassian) is another champion of engaging readers through technical documentation.
Here is a video of her presentation to the Atlassian User Group Wiesbaden. It’s called “Engaging your readers in the documentation. How and why social media?”
One way of checking to see if only new users are using the technical documentation for a product is to check if there a correlation between the number of users reading the user documentation and the sales of the product.
For example, if the product is following the classic “Bell curve”, and users only need help at a certain moment in time, then the number of users should follow the same pattern. You should see a rise and fall in the number of readers:
You can use analytics (and Web analytics in particular), to measure the number of users of any online documentation that you may have. If you don’t currently use Web analytics to measure your user documentation, then an alternative is to use Google Trends to see if there is a correlation between the number of people searching for help for your product and the number of product sales.
Scriptorium has published the recording of the webinar it hosted on trends in technical communication. In this webinar, Ellis Pratt, Sarah O’Keefe and Tony Self discussed emerging trends in technical communication.
There was a suprising amount of unanimity between the three of us.
Scriptorium Inc has uploaded the “Beyond Documentation” Webinar Ellis delivered back in August 2009. In this session he looked at the future of technical writing and likely changes to the ways in which user assistance is delivered.
Are we moving beyond documents?
If so, what does this mean for technical communicators?
You can see more videos on Cherryleaf’s YouTube channel.
Visualisation Magazine has created a diagram showing how you can use Web 2.0 tools to increase the number of readers of your content – “building an online presence”. It shows the extent to which content can be republished today, through free sites, Web feeds and embedded content. It also shows how you can monitor and receive statistical information on its progress.
So why keep your content tucked away in a Help file, when it can be republished in some many other places as well?
Internet Psychologist Graham Jones wrote an article last week, in which he stated, search is dying, and is being replaced by sharing information socially.
“So worried is Microsoft about Google that they haven’t realised that Google is not their real competition any more. It is the likes of Twitter and Ecademy…Google already knows this. Much of their labs work and their adaptations of what they already offer are geared to sharing information socially. They realise that search as we know it is dying. Microsoft is so focused on fighting Google, they haven’t realised they are on the wrong battlefield.”
Let’s assume Graham is correct. Where does this leave online user assistance?
Since Online Help was introduced, technical communicators have provided hypertext links, key word search and an index to help users find information.
Today, there is greater emphasis on key word search (finding stuff via Google), and we’ve seen a few authors add tag clouds too.
So how could online user assistance (“Help”) be shared socially? Is it likely that someone will respond to each question by tweeting a link to a particular page in a Help file?
That’s incredibly labour-intensive. For Support teams to answer queries via Twitter might be less time-intensive than responding to emails, but it may be difficult to provide an answer within 140 characters. Most likely, they could provide to links to places where the question is answered.
We’ve talked about the emergence of “landing pages” in Web based Help (so have Michael Hughes and Matthew Ellison), and that may be a less intensive way to guide people to the information they need. By this I mean, point people towards say 6 landing pages, from which they can be guided quickly to the information they need.
It may also be difficult for users to pose their questions within the limitations of Twitter.
A more likely scenario, I believe, would be to create Twitter avatars. The fictional characters from “Mad Men” post regular tweets about their imaginary lives. If Don Draper and Peggy Olsen can tweet, then why not create a personas for your customers and let them do the same? Billy the Beginner and Patty the Power user, for example? Their posts could guide customers through the key tasks via a series of daily Twitter posts.
Of course, this is more than about how to best use Twitter. It’s about social networks, the ideas from the Cluetrain Manifesto and Web 2.0 ideas of syndicating content, collaborating with your user base and aggregating content.
Graham Jones concluded by saying ”just concentrate on providing and sharing good material”. Technical Authors can help the organisation provide good material. What we may all have to work out is how we can share this material in more effective ways.
There are a number of posts on various Blogs, at the moment, concerning documents as conversation and moving beyond the traditional manual. Some of the comments suggest implicitly that technical authors (aka technical writers) could end up having to resolve two conflicting views regarding communicating with users.
The problem is that many technical communicators work in hierarchical organisations where “authority” is key. Staff (and users asking for support) are expected to follow.
However, many parts of Web-based content are not based on authority or hierarchy. It’s a network, collaborative in nature.
For an organisation with a “behind the firewall” culture – protect your intellectual property, no access to Facebook etc – that’s a really alien way of thinking.
So many technical communicators – particularly those working in large traditional companies – might, in the near future, have to deal with two different and opposing “Weltanschauungen” (viewpoints).
It may be a tension that will never go away. I hope a compromise can be reached. I think it’s possible there will be mediated/edited comments and conversations of certain topics within an overall user assistance solution.
About 44 minutes into his presentation, Michael Wesch talked about network size and the effect it traditionally has on the ways teachers communicate information to students. He said as the audience size increases, teachers have found they’ve had to get their students to participate less and follow more.
He argued educators should and could move back to the more interactive and effective “network model”, by using Web 2.0 technologies.
Technical Communicators – people producing online Help and user manuals – use the Hierarchy or Mass models. We get users to follow, and to return to the Support Desk or Help file, in order to be told what to do next.
A change to a participative approach could be a major cultural shift for them and their employers, so it’s unclear whether this shift will occur in technical communication. Do we want users to do more than follow?
The truth is, in the future, it’s likely all three models will be employed by technical communicators at different times. This means technical writers need to create content that can be used in all three models. This is easiest with re-usable chunks of content, often using the DITA XML schema. Whether the the DITA schema suffciently accomodates participative content, remains to be seen.
July’s edition of Science magazine includes a study that shows scientific researchers are now more inclined to get their information from the Web (specifically, “quick and dirty” searches in Google) than from specialist scientific resources.
If scientists are focusing on only a tiny bit of research – the bits served up by Google – what are typical users doing? Also, what does this mean for organisations whose user documentation or online Help is not available on the Web?
In the abstract for Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship James A. Evans (from the Department of Sociology, University of Chicago) states:
” I show that as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles. ”
”Searching online is more efficient and following hyperlinks quickly puts researchers in touch with prevailing opinion, but this may accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas built upon.”
Evans’s research backs up JD Bernal’s concept of scientific information having a “half-life” : with researchers citing fewer journals in favour of more recent articles, papers peak (in use and citation) and then decline, regardless of their usefulness.
This also suggests another consideration when publishing static content, such as user documentation: how do you keep it fresh and found?