The “risk challenge” for businesses emerging out of the recession

The fear of risk seems to be growing in significance within organisations. According to Intellect, the trade body for UK technology companies:

Operating risks have changed significantly as a result of prevailing economic conditions over the past 18 months. Companies have been under severe economic strain and are focused on adjusting to a drastically changed economic and regulatory environment.

While concentrating on revenue protection and cost reduction measures, companies have not recognised that their risk and impact profiles may have changed substantially while their resilience has deteriorated. 

Intellect states these changes have had a significant impact in a number of areas:

  • Political and corporate instability brought about by the economic downturn has brought with it heightened levels of operational risk for organisations
  • Organisations are required to process, store and secure rapidly increasing amounts of data, which itself poses a huge risk.
  • Outsourcing has been widely embraced as a way for businesses to streamline operations whilst maintaining levels of service
  • The ‘domino effect’ of supply chain problems means that every organisation is at risk from the recession, both in terms of financial performance and operational continuity.
  • Limited capital investment in many organisations has made ‘manual’ services more attractive to CFOs.

The ‘domino effect’ of supply chain means clients are expecting less risky solutions from their software and technology suppliers. Where a software vendor could adopt a “no documentation” or “less documentation” approach six months ago, this is becoming less acceptable to customers.

Indeed, Google has been criticised for only offering user forums to assist  Nexus One mobile phone users and for failing to provide decent user documentation with Google Wave.

There is also a greater need to document processes and procedures, in order to mimimise the risks listed above.

User documentation is in some ways comparable to insurance: sometimes seen as a grudge purchase and something that can be avoided … right up to the point with things start to go wrong.

However, one of the best ways to ensure problems are avoided, processes are followed correctly and issues are fixed is to write it down.

How checklists can save your life

Dr Atul Gawande is currently in London, touring the radio stations to promote his book “The Checklist Manifesto“. Dr Gawande is a surgeon in Boston Mass., who has been looking at how to deal with complexity in surgery and elsewhere.

He has discovered that complex systems work, mostly through people using checklists. Furthermore, no matter how expert you were, well-designed checklists could improve outcomes. So, with some assistance from Boeing, he developed a 90 second checklist (download it here)  that reduced surgical deaths and complications in eight hospitals around the world by more than 30%.

In the book, he shows how low-cost checklists actually work, why some make matters worse and why others make matters better. 

According to The Guardian, Dr Gawande argues that the right kind of checklist liberates rather than stifles professional intuition. A ­concise sumary of what might go wrong, and what to do if it does, galvanises groups of professionals into tighter teams. Indeed, one of the key factors, included in the checklist, was to introduce everyone in surgical team to each other: it leads to people having the confidence to speak up.

Michael Scriven, at Western Michigan University, author of a paper called The Logic and Methodology of Checklists commented,

Checklists have long been regarded as beneath the level of serious consideration by methodologists and others interested in the logic of the disciplines. But they are more sophisticated than they appear–and are perhaps the key methodology of those disciplines that really treat theory and practice as equals, e.g., surgery, engineering, neural and public economics, program and product evaluation.

For more on checklists, see:

Guidelines for Checklist Development and Assessment by Daniel Stufflebeam

The Ten Commandments, Constitutional Amendments, and Other Evaluation Checklists by Daniel Stufflebeam

Useability Evaluation Report for the Evaluation Checklist Project Web Site by Barbara Bichelmeyer

The Evaluation Checklist Project: The Inside Scoop on Content, Process, Policies, Impact, and Challenges by Lori Wingate

UK General Medical Council’s solution for reducing prescription errors? More usable, better designed forms

The BBC News today has a great example of the impact procedures documents and usable forms can have upon people’s lives. It reports the General Medical Council is is calling for a UK-wide standard prescription chart as the best way to reduce the 9% of hospital prescriptions that contain a mistake. Against common opinion, the study found it wasn’t  doctors fresh out of medical school who were making the most mistakes – the causes were mostly down to poor forms and bad handwriting.  

The chairman of the GMC, Professor Peter Rubin, said:

 “Prescribing decisions in a hospital setting often have to be made quickly, so it is important that a procedure is as simple as possible to minimise the chance of an error being made.

To avoid confusion as doctors move between hospitals with very different prescribing forms – including paper and electronic – the GMC wants to see a standardised system across the UK.

A Department of Health spokesman said it would continue to look into the benefits of electronic prescribing systems,

 “taking into account the evidence gained where standardisation of the paper chart has been successfully implemented.”

Dr Hamish Meldrum, of the doctors’ union, the BMA, said:

“It would certainly help if there was greater uniformity in the prescription forms used in the NHS and the BMA would encourage prescribing procedures to be kept as simple as possible.”

 It’s good to see recognition, in such an important area, of the value of good procedures writing and form design.

Training course on Twitter and the Social Web: Developing a strategy for technical authors

We’ve just relased a new training course that explains where the Social Web, and Twitter in particular, can fit into the world of the technical author/writer.

Originally delivered as a presentation for the prestigious User Assistance Europe Conference 2009, it has been extended and converted into a training course, containing videos and demonstrations of software applications, to help it all make sense.

You also get access to the full 37 minute, transatlantic video interview we recently conducted with Anne Gentle, author of “Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation”, where we talked about The Social Web for Documentation.

Can you design your way to a “no user documentation” approach?

Chris Edwards has written an article on product design in the E&T magazine called “The art of avoiding lemons“, in which he looks at whether there is more to product design than simply getting your design to look good or your product to work. He shows there are many situations where brilliantly designed products still fail.

Managing customer expectations

Edwards quotes findings from Elke den Ouden and colleagues at Eindhoven University of Technology and Philips Applied Technologies, who found that half of the consumer electronics products returned to stores worked just fine: the customers simply had not been able to figure out how to get them to operate properly.

According to den Ouden:

For businesses today, the main risk with respect to quality and reliability of new products is not just technical failures, but also failures of a non-technical nature, that is, complaints due to the product not meeting the consumer’s expectations.

He also cited findings from a 2006 report by consultant Sara Bly and a team from Intel Research and the University of Washington, called “Broken Expectations in the Digital Home“. This report listed:

A litany of failure by consumer-electronics vendors to provide products that did what the users wanted. And yet each product surveyed did, at least nominally, what it was designed to do.

Connectivity – A series of unfortunate events

In addition to the broken expectations also mentioned by den Ouden, Bly stated the reasons for these failings were partly due to users being unable to connect one device to another. This complexity issue has also been highlighted by research into how small to medium sized enterprises use IT. Dr Alan Rae’s “Abandoned Heroes” report stated similar findings, where a single individual in the business often had to rely on their own self-taught expertise and felt ill-equipped to carry out the implementation tasks required of them.

Meaningless dialog boxes and error messages

Edwards also claims that users can be stumped by error messages. He quotes Don Norman:

(Product designers) assume perfection, a smoothly operating ticket machine, always performing smoothly and efficiently.

If we also consider Rachel Potts’s article, “3 good reasons software will always need help“, where she argues users may need key concepts and context explained to them, then we may come to understand why dialog boxes such as the one below may need some explaining:

No amount of good design will help you understand a “wiggle factor of 4″, if you have no understanding of the concept of “wiggle factors”.

Different users on the Rogers Technology Adoption Lifecycle Curve will have differing requirements

At last week’s UA Conference Europe 09, IBM’s Mike Hughes made the great point that the adoption of technology over time will have an impact on the effectiveness on your design.

He said that different types of users will have different expectations and needs for documentation. Sometimes, all you need to tell users what is a good choice. At other times, you need to explain how to do things, step by step.

My thoughts

For simple, commonly known actions in a closed environment, you probably can design your way to a “no user documentation” approach. Good design can also lead to less documentation. However, customers may expect to do more than that with a product and, in those situations, documentation can play a key role in meeting those expectations.

Transatlantic video interview with Anne Gentle on the Social Web for Documentation

We’ve just uploaded a 15 minute extract from a transatlantic video interview I recently conducted with Anne Gentle, where we talked about The Social Web for Documentation

The sound is a little patchy on the first slide, but it improves afterwards.

A longer, 37 minute, version will be available to anyone who purchases the Cherryleaf Learning Zone service.

Is search dying? Your manual within 140 characters?

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.

Why you should write Help for your competitors’ products

At our “Developing your career as a technical author”  course yesterday there was a great discussion about meeting the needs of “Generation Y” – the part of the working population under 27 who have grown up with the Internet. It’s a group that makes up about 13% of the working population.

We talked about the fact that they acquire so much of  their information from the Web. From many of them, if Google can’t find your content, it doesn’t exist.

This led me to think, if your competitors’  Help is not available on the Web, then why not write it for them?  With the majority of Generation Y using Google to find Help, there’s a good chance they would end up reading your version of Help.

This gives you the opportunity to explain the complexities of a particular competitor’s product and contrast it with your company’s offering. You could end up persuading prospects to buy your product instead of those of your competitors. You might even win some of your competitors’ customers.