Design-led technical documentation

Peter J. Bogaards posted a link on Twitter yesterday to an article and a press release on how IBM is adopting a design-led approach to software design.

“IBM Design Thinking is a broad, ambitious new approach to re-imagining how we design our products and solutions … Quite simply, our goal — on a scale unmatched in the industry — is to modernize enterprise software for today’s user who demands great design everywhere, at home and at work.” (Phil Gilbert, general manager, IBM Design)

I understand the IBM Design Thinking approach will affect everything it does: product development, processes, innovation, and, interestingly, the technical documentation/user assistance associated with products. Both design and traditional technical communication share the same goals – to deliver something that is very usable, robust and aesthetically pleasing – so it makes sense to have the two teams aligned closely.

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Where is User Assistance going? A summary of the bloggers’ thoughts

moral compass Flickr image by PSDThere’s been quite a few blog posts recently by a variety of bloggers and companies about the current state of User Assistance (such as online Help) and possible ways it could be improved. We thought it might be useful to provide a summary of all the different ideas floating around.

This summary primarily looks at the ideas proposed by Mark Baker, Ray GallonTom Johnson, ourselves at Cherryleaf, Sarah O’Keefe/Scriptorium and Tony Self.
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Slides from the Adobe Day Europe discussion on “Assisting the millennial user – challenges and opportunities in the decade ahead”

Here are the slides the panel put together for the Adobe Day Europe discussion on “Assisting the millennial user – challenges and opportunities in the decade ahead”. We didn’t get time to cover all of the topics in the time we had available (unfortunately some of the previous speakers overran their time slots).
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You can now create a free iPad magazine for your online Help, training and support content

Flipboard magazineFlipboard is a popular app for the iPad and Android devices that presents information in a magazine layout.

Users can subscribe to different topics, with the content pulled in from the links tweeted by their friends on Facebook and Twitter. They can also view Web sites and blogs (if they contain a RSS feed) as an online magazine.

Flipboard has just released version 2 of its application, which enables users to create their own magazines by clipping content from a variety of different Web sites.

In other words, brands can now curate their own selections and publish these in a consistent and elegant looking format. Flipboard will create a cover for your magazine with “pull out” headlines, and it will notify you if other people have commented on the items you have included in your magazine.

According to Flipboard, since its launch, their users have been creating one magazine per second.

For Technical Authors, this means you could easily deliver online Help, training, user generated and support content in an attractive looking format.

According to The Daily Telegraph:

This latest move marks an even bigger, more significant step, taking the principle of a personalised and interactive internet, and bringing that to mainstream content delivery…This move confirms that the nature of content delivery is changing. It’s no longer about capturing crowds of many, but the audience of one. This audience of one doesn’t care about the usual magazine and newspaper release schedules, or about trawling through multiple sites to find the articles of most interest; it wants to read its favourite piece of content when it wants, and how it wants and values the curation of like-minded tastemakers, who provide a means to discover new content and cut through the clutter.

You can already view the Cherryleaf Blog as a Flipboard magazine (in Flipboard, just search on Cherryleaf or http://www.cherryleaf.com/blog/feed/), and you’ll also find a test magazine we’ve created called “The MadCap Writer”.

Let us know what you think of the potential for using Flipboard in User Assistance.

See also: Cherryleaf content strategy services

New design models for providing end user Help

Ray Gallon has recently completed a series of webinars looking at new models for providing end user Help (A Cognitive Design for User Assistance).

In the third webinar, Ray looked at how people learn today and he suggested a new approach for the future. He used The Common European Framework of Reference for Language‘s description of people’s levels of competences to outline the different ways organisations help people to learn.
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5 Whys – what does this mean for Technical Authors?

The “5 Whys” is a question-and-answer technique used to discover the root cause of a defect or problem. It is an approach used in the Lean manufacturing methodology, as well as the Six Sigma business management strategy. Here’s an example of the 5 Whys technique:

Problem: The vehicle will not start.

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, the root cause)

Solution: Start maintaining the vehicle according to the recommended service schedule.

Some consultants suggest that if you use the 5 Whys approach you’ll conclude you should fix a fault in a product rather than create reams of documentation explaining how to get around the problem. However, if the cause is of the problem is at the customer’s side (for example, their computer has an out-of-date driver), how do you fix the problem? You could control the issue by only selling to those who have the appropriate setup (or training), but, if you want to get the customer to resolve an issue at their end, then the user documentation may be the best way to do it.

Sometimes, the 5 Whys approach will identify the need for a proportionate intermediate fix. Again, User documentation is often the most effective solution, in those situations.

Does looking at online Help make users forget?

Treasury at Petra, JordanOver the weekend, Dr Chris Atherton suggested I look at “the doorway effect”. You may well have experienced walking through a doorway and then finding you’d forgotten why you’d stood up in the first place.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have discovered your brain is not to blame for your confusion about what you’re doing in a new room – the doorway itself is.

 

 

From Scientific American:

The researchers say that when you pass through a doorway, your mind compartmentalizes your actions into separate episodes. Having moved into a new episode, the brain archives the previous one, making it less available for access.

The doorway can be a virtual doorway as well as a physical doorway. The researchers’ experiments involved seating participants in front of a computer screen running a video game.

So is this effect also happening when users need to leave a screen in a software application and read Help – be it delivered as a .CHM file, on a Web site or on paper?

The solution? If we deliver User Assistance (Help) in a way that it is actually located within the application screens, not only can we minimise the need for users having to go through a virtual door, we can also embed the learning into the users’ specific situations.

More: Scientific American article

Measuring the value of Help in desktop applications

One of the challenges for Technical Authors is quantifying the value of what they produce. For example, how can you tell how many people are reading online Help when the software is installed on someone’s desktop computer? One application mentioned in passing as last week’s UAEurope conference, ApplicationMetrics, might be able to provide the answer.

ApplicationMetrics collects usage and platform data, behind the scenes. It’s a product that is no longer being developed any more, but you can still download it. It may enable you to collect “operational funnel” data that’s similar marketing funnel data – test and track whether users are going to the help and resolving their issues.