The return of Clippy?

Are we seeing the the spiritual child of Clippy emerge? Truth Labs’s Stelios Constantinides has written an article on his experiments with conversational UIs.

Conversational user interfaces (CUIs) are a spoken or written way of interacting with a device. CUIs aren’t completely new, but they’re becoming smarter, more natural, and — therefore — more useful.

Here’s where CUIs come in: since users already spend so much time in apps like Slack, Facebook Messenger, and even plain-old email, why not integrate your app inside these platforms?

Microsoft ClippyConstantinides  looks at the design process of creating something that doesn’t come across as a robot, and isn’t as annoying as Microsoft Clippy.

This links in with Ann Rockley’s concept of Intelligent Content: “Content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.”

For conversational user interfaces to work well, they need to be automatically discoverable, adaptable and semantically categorized. Microsoft Clippy wasn’t, which is one of the reasons why it failed in its purpose.

It’s still unclear whether this will lead to content being seen as code, or stored in a semantically rich format and inside a content management system. Whichever way, it’s important to recognize that the conversational language is different from written language. We speak differently from the way we write, and this is reflected in how we use messaging apps and authoring tools. Conversations are typically a one-to-one form of communication.

With Siri, Google Voice and Cortana closed off to most developers, we’re likely to see conversational user interfaces developed as alternatives to these applications.

One school of thought is users will move away from searching using sentences, and, instead,  learn to type commands (they will write command line instructions). In other words, they will begin to think and type more like programmers. This is illustrated in the image below.

Slack command line

I wonder if this might be a bit optimistic. There are many people find Twitter too difficult to use, and I suspect it would take them a long time to adapt to this approach.

This topic is something we cover (albeit briefly) in our Advanced technical writing & new trends in technical communication training course (the next one of which is on the 22nd of March).

See also:

(With thanks to Simon Bostock)

What do you think? Share your thoughts using the comment box below.

Using Markdown to create a boilerplate document for reports and proposals

Following on from our post Cutting and pasting content into Word documents – Is there a better way?, we’ve been looking at how organisations could use Markdown to create reports and proposals more quickly and consistently.

The objective was to:

  • Create something simple for non-technical people to use.
  • Have a collection of re-usable chunks of content that could be embedded into the document (no more cutting and pasting). If a chunk needed to be changed, then the documents where it is embedded would reflect that change automatically.
  • Be able to generate the completed report as a .docx (Microsoft Word) file.
  • Separate the content from the “look and feel”.
  • Enable different people to work on different sections of the document simultaneously.
  • Store the content in an open format, so there was potential to use some of the content in other places (such as on a website).

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How on earth could the Apple Watch be used in technical communication?

Apple watchWhenever Apple launches a new product range, there’s a great deal of buzz and excitement. There’s lots of speculation as to how the technology could be applied by different professions and by consumers. Yesterday’s launch of the Apple Watch was no exception.

The title of this post may give away the fact that this post contains wild guesses. We may well look back on in five years time and ask, what were we thinking?

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Not so cool tools for Technical Authors – speech recognition software

Our method for creating online courses involves making an audio recording of the presenter, transcribing it, editing the script and then recording the final, video presentation. We’ve tried using speech recognition software to create the transcribed script, and it has been a deeply frustrating experience.

While speech recognition is proving successful for searching and issuing commands (using Siri, Google Voice and Amazon Echo), we’re not sure it will replace the keyboard as the way we create written content.

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Cool tools for Technical Authors – video equipment

We’re sharing some of the tools we use at Cherryleaf. This time we’ll look at video recording.

screencast screenVideo is becoming an important medium in technical communication. In addition to screencast videos (walkthroughs of application screens), software like Camtasia and Captivate enable you to include video of people in your presentations. Doing this creates a more TV-like presentation and a more professional feel to your output.

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Cool tools for Technical Authors – audio recording

We’re sharing some of the tools we use at Cherryleaf, and this time we’ll look at audio recording tools.

It can be very useful for a Technical Author to be able to record what someone is saying. If you are gathering information from a Subject Matter Expert, you can let them just speak naturally and quickly. This can reduce the demands on their time, and it often leads to a more relaxed conversation. There can be other instances where it’s not practical to use a notepad or computer to write or type notes.

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Cool tools for Technical Authors – note taking

I thought I’d share some of the tools we use at Cherryleaf, starting with note taking. I’ve not covered audio recording tools, as we’ll probably look at those in another post.


Moleskine notebooksMoleskine notebooks are a great way of taking written notes. The 13cm x 21cm size provides a decent page size, whilst being small enough to fit into an external jacket pocket. The large rule notebook contains 240 pages, which means you’re likely to need only two or three per year.

The elastic closure stops the notebook from falling open, and the bookmark helps you find the next empty page. These can be handy also if you sometimes wake up with an idea in the middle of the night. They enable you to open and find a blank page in the dark, without having to turn on the light. Once the thought is recorded, your brain can settle down to returning to sleep.

Uniball eye pens

Uniball pensThe Uniball eye is a popular, everyday pen you can pick up from pretty much anywhere that sells pens. They are reasonably priced, so it doesn’t matter if you lose one, and they seem to last for ages. You can write with minimal pressure, as the ink flows smoothly. The pens are also comfortable in the hand.

CamScanner Pro

One tool we all use is a mobile phone app called CamScanner Pro. CamScanner enables you to scan a document using your smartphone’s or tablet’s camera. It means everyone has their own personal scanner wherever they go. The app converts the image into a PDF, and then enables you to upload the document to a cloud storage service (such as Dropbox) or email it to someone. The Pro, paid, version can also convert scanned images to editable documents.

Which tools do you use to take notes?

Let us know, using the comments box below.