Please Release Me!

 

As soon as I thought about writing a post about Release Notes, I got that old Englebert Humperdink song stuck in my head, “Please release me, let me go..” and it’s been stuck in there ever since. When that played on the radio when I was a kid, it was the worst earworm ever! But it has nothing to do with writing a good set of release notes, and it just serves to distract me from the task at hand.

As technical writers, we are tasked with documenting (we hope) multiple releases of successful software products. A vital part of that job is letting customers know what has changed from one release to another, especially when something might alter the way a customer uses the product. Sometimes the change is exciting – like a new feature. Sometimes it’s less glamorous, like the deprecation of code functions.

At their most minimal, release notes are merely called changelogs, and are not full-blown release notes at all. Changelogs are just companions to the documentation that can be sent along periodically and take far less work than the notes that accompany a Generally-Available Release. For a major GA release, you can and should anticipate preparing not just technical notes, but a greater suite of materials that will help your product succeed in the market.

Ahh..but I am just a lowly tech writer, you say. Well, if you choose to remain so, then only prep a section of tech doc that discusses the technical aspects of the release, and there you have it. If you want to view your software as an asset and you’d like to continue writing doc for it and for your company, listen well.

What to Include in Release Notes:

New Features and Functionsnew-sign-ID-33314

Let readers know what new features are packed in to the product, and how those enhance their experiences. The Release Notes section allows for a teensy bit of latitude where you can provide an information-loaded summary of what that feature means and how users can implement it. What does it mean to them? What is the business value? Depending on your business’ practice, you might be able to include a screenshot, an illustration, or a video demo.

If the feature or function came out of ideation, you could link to the community where the request was made, so that customers know that their voices are being heard. They really dig that.

Make sure that New features is the first item in your Release Notes. Don’t let it be overshadowed by anything else, like…

Bug Fixes                                                                                         scared-bug

Listing the bugs that your team has encountered and corrected is important in the upfront Release Notes, but even more important is linking to the documentation where the bug reports and further information resides. It’s no good to just say, “hey we fixed this,” but not to say “here’s where to get that new stuff.” I’ve seen plenty of doc that does the former but not the latter. It’s just a courtesy to point your users directly to the goods.

It is important to note the Bug Fixes, but don’t let them get anyone down. They were glitches, after all, so celebrate the fact that they were Fixed! Go, you! Because next up, you deed to call attention to deprecations.

Deprecations                                                                    Fox

Nobody celebrates these, and yet you have to let users know about the parts and pieces that are just no longer useful. If part of your product is headed out to pasture, you’ve got to say, “sorry, folks, this is being taken off the shelf.” You don’t necessarily have to say why, because hopefully you’ve covered that in sprint reviews and whatnot, but you do have to make sure you place this prominently in your Release Notes, because not everyone attends those review meetings, or knows in advance about such retirements.

On the other hand, don’t dwell. Do let customers know if there is an alternative – like substituting margarine for butter or stevia for sugar, that sort of thing. Absolutely link to a migration guide so that they know how to get the job done moving from one release to another. Don’t leave anyone hanging without the tools they need.

Why did I bother to put this little guide together?

Well, because I have seen some good release notes and I have seen some bad release notes. I troll around in other product documentation; I don’t keep my head in the box at my own company. I find it intriguing to look around at best practices and see what’s going on. I strategize and learn. One of the things I like to do is to put myself in the shoes of my user. If you don’t do that, you are not a good writer. There. I said it. We are not writing fiction here, folks. These are user guides. USER.  So look at things from that vantage point and see if it works. Not only if it works, but if it is easy. Do you enjoy it? I don’t mean if it’s superfun, because no, it is not super fun. Dancing on Saturday night with your besties is super fun, but is it a pleasant experience that you do not hate at 2:00 on a Thursday? Good. Then you wrote some good documentation and that is all we can ask for. Congratulations.

notes (1)

Once you have that all set and in place, jot down a section of “Other Notes.” This is stuff you grab from UX, from your internal SMEs, things that are overlooked and the orphans of the whole set. The “junk drawer,” if you will. Toss it in a section, build something for it. There is a reason that nearly all of us have a junk drawer in our kitchens – we have odds and ends, but they are useful little nuggets. Your Release Notes might have those, too. But before you toss in too much stuff, take a good look at those nuggets and really ask if they don’t belong in one of those other categories. They truly might. A very smart designer friend of mine once told me that stacks of things are really just unmade decisions. She’s right. So don’t stack your stuff, that junk drawer of doc, just because you don’t want to deal with it. Make some decisions. But even that smart designer friend has a junk drawer. It’s just a nearly-empty junk drawer.

And there you have it. Delight your customers with neat, tidy, efficient user-friendly Release Notes, and be on your merry way. Strategy 101.

By the way, I think the real reason I wrote this is because…guess what…I just finished writing, you guessed it…a whole new set of release notes. With a very small junk drawer. Yay, me.

Advertisements

Strategically Named

 

letterpress

So very often I hear about how tech writing is a dying industry, and it makes me sad. Then, I remember that our name has just changed. The bluster is just bluster. We are content managers, information engineers, media strategists, and so on. The funny thing about some of this rebranding is, I recently looked on Glassdoor, and learned that, depending on what you call yourself, the salary for those titles varies widely.

For example, the average “media strategist” nationally is clocking in at $46,736, while the national average for a “content strategist” $70,000. I’m wondering what the huge distinction is, to be honest. And, I can admit that I don’t really know. My work title is information engineer because I am in a company full of engineers. We make software, we build solutions in the fast-paced software world, so my work is a little more specialized. If you want to know the national average on that salary, I’ll let you do your own research, and then I’ll reassure you that I am not making what Glassdoor says.

smart girlI looked on Wikipedia, and the generalist definition of Information Engineering is that we take a software engineering approach to writing and developing information systems, or that mostly we are computer geeks who write. Well…I’m actually a writer who enjoys software systems. I was hired to work specifically on mainframe systems even though I knew almost nothing about mainframes when I joined the company. I think the big distinction is that, as writers, we know how to communicate complex information and that we have knack for learning things. Definitely if I was not into learning, I would stink at this job. But what actually separates me from a “media strategist” in terms of my skillset? That is to say, what if I wanted to leapfrog from my current job into media strategy? Am I working on the tools that might be portable enough to move from one position to another? Yes. And you should too.

In this field, I argue that it is critically important to continue honing not just the technical acumen, but the strategy, to keep abreast of what is going on in other writing areas in order to be as portable as possible. My specific company is using what might not be considered the most cutting-edge authoring tools, so I make sure I learn some techniques and tools outside of my daily grind in order to stay on top of what’s out there elsewhere. So, if you are in a particular niche, say Information Engineering, it is not an altogether terrible thing to make sure that you know that a “media strategist,” for example, is an increasingly complex role that puts you in charge of content delivery in broadcast arenas. Knowing this, in my role as a software documentation writer, I step up on a regular basis and record videos, work with a program called Captivate (an Adobe product) and just play around with what is out there on YouTube in instructional video land. Admittedly, this is never going to put me in the C-Suite of media strategy, but neither is it going to leave me looking like a gasping fish.

Likewise, I try to keep tabs on other media and collaborative tools like #slack or Asana for collaboration tools. If you are knee-deep in managing content projects, you’ll surely want to be adept with these beauties, or at least one of them. My company is currently using Flowdock. It’s not my favorite, but it is a powerful tool, proven with doc-sharing and it gets  around. Some companies are making great use of Yammer as a powerful intranet communication device as well. I recommend at least having a working knowledge of these gadgets. You can’t go wrong, and a broad skills base is never a bad thing, right? Right.

What about the idea of content strategy, you say? These things lean on media management. A recent post was about content, and I daresay I could reiterate that everything I do is about content – content is text, video, graphics, interfacing all of these things into a usable, consumable, findable set or even suite of instructions and understandable items that users can then put to use, find again if necelightbulbssary and move on if not. From an installation guide to a set of scenarios for implementation to third-party software agreements, it all has to be chunked into usable bits of information in the best way(s) possible, and it is up to us – the wordsmiths, the video script writers, the graphic designers, and the UX specialists, to get it right. And often, more and more and more often – we are the same person.

 

 

I suppose all of this goes to say that in the pool of tech writing tools, we aren’t supposed to stay focused only on the items that specifically make us “tech” writers. So grab that pint and start spending part of your day – every single day – finding what’s out there to make you the best writer, editor, designer and consumer. Because that is your new name. It’s been mine for a while. Communications specialist? A rose is a rose is a technical writer is a media strategist is a content implementation designer. All I know is I craft exceptional messaging every day.

 

Nice to meet you.

 

 

Is it Writing or is it Content?

 

 

 

In my not-so-distant past, I read an article by a writer, who posts things in a forum which I respect, pleading that we no longer call our writing Content. She ruminated deeply on this topic, outlining reason after reason why we should respect writing enough to ditch this term, (she called it a “catchall”) and give ourselves the respect that we deserve. She argued that there was, in fact, no way that a writer came up with the term “content” to describe what we put into phrases and paragraphs every day for a living.

I felt maligned. Insulted, even. My feelings were hurt partly because I am currently writing-voicepursuing a certification in Content Strategy. Yes, content. I rather enjoy thinking of my writing as “content.” While I agree that there may be more nuanced terms for some forms of writing – and we may be more specific: poetry, haiku, essay, short story, etc., in the world of technical communication, marketing and corporate communications, what we create is…wait for it…content. But I was more bent out of shape because when asked, I introduce myself as a writer. I rarely qualify this term unless I need to.

I am a writer.writer

The words, phrases, and paragraphs that I construct are inextricably linked to a perception of the company for which I work, its products and its mindset. What I write for them is not the great American novel, nor do I wish it to be. This writer argued that “to write is to find out what you think.” How very noble. I wish that I was finding out what I am thinking while I am creating dozens of web pages that instruct software users in the intricacies of an installation process that is many steps long and requires detailed diagrams to accompany my flowery prose. Alas, I am not. What I am doing is creating useful, tangible prose that goes out into the world and does real good. My writing takes root, grows, and from it blooms a garden of procedures. Those procedures help make sure that your debit card works every Monday morning. It’s a beautiful thing, but I won’t be nominated for a Pen Faulkner any time soon.

Because I create content.

She even maligns content as a marketing strategy, which I found specious. I generate literally dozens of tweets per month in order to forward the ideas and goals of my company. That is writing – and it’s hard writing. I have to be creative, pithy, sometimes funny, sometimes I do a lot of research – and all in a very tight space. It’s called brevity, and Mark Twain said that was the soul of wit. I’m with him. And it’s writing. It’s writing content. That content helps users get to my products and helps people understand my work. Plus it’s darn good writing. So there.

books4People consume my content, not the way they consume a classic novel or even a beach read. They do not recommend my work to their friends as the next great thing to read, and they do not say, “Hey, did you see that great process that Susan just created? Wow! Talk about incredibly lean doc!” That, my friends, is the dream of any software documentation writer, I assure you. But maybe, just maybe, what some of my friends say is, “Susan wrote an insightful blog about the value of Content Writing and how it is important, just like writing your memoir. After all, that technical document will show you how to set up your new laptop so that you can write your memoir. And then you can stick your nose in the air and claim that is real writing, not merely content.”

Picking up the #Slack

I recently read a post that another tech writer wrote about the great value he got out of attending a conference, and it got me to thinking about whether I missed the academic conferences I used to attend when I was in Higher Education, that conference-heavy publish-or-perish world that used to frame my professional life.

I do rather miss those conferences, but not because they helped in my professional conferencedevelopment at all. I miss them because they were rather fantastic social networking events where I got to visit nifty cities and see old friends, meet new friends and make some cool connections that would become Facebook pals I’d never see again anywhere other than social media. I’d occasionally hear a good lecture, but more often than not I would gain little professionally and more socially from those conferences. Even the ones where I was a presenter. Don’t get me wrong – there is assuredly professional gain. It is a boon to my resume that I gave a talk at The Rhetoric Society of America. That I delivered a conference paper at The Conference on College Composition and Communication when it was in New York City. It’s kind of a big deal. I did my share of networking, it’s true.

But it is also true that when I was at a conference for Professional and Technical Writing programs and a primary speaker was delivering a talk about women in the professions and helping each other through academic networking I sought her out afterward, only to email her and never hear from her again. Talk about deflating. I did, though, enjoy the venue and the cocktail hour and I made a friend there who is totally into mountain biking and lives in Colorado and we are Facebook pals and we swear one of these days we are going to get together and bike in Utah which we both love. We’ll do it, too, I just know it! The experience of making that Facebook friend is obviously the more valuable experience. Totally worth the money I spent on the conference.

In my professional life, I gain much, much more from networking threads like Slack and Google Plus or Google Docs because I get actual work done there. I collaborate on the daily with other professionals who do what I do, who think like I think, and they interact and respond in real time without the hotel bar chit chat and the façade of friendly. I’ve yet to have a Google hangout with my colleagues fail to result in real feedback, but I’ve definitely had conferences end with “sure, I’d love to look at that manuscript,” only to have neither party send a manuscript or even reach out with a professional email. At conferencing events, offers of reach-out are made, but they are sometimes disingenuous. With options like LinkedIn or Slack, the work is in front of you and the gift is made. It’s in print – albeit digital print. It is more difficult to retract if the ask is not made with a glass of pinot noir in one hand. The work is sincere and the response is real. We work hard in this business, or in any business, and time is short, days are long but wide. It is time to put shoulders to the grindstone if we want real results.

New-Orleans-for-desktopDigital is the new real, and though those professional conferences sure are delightful if they are in Vegas or New Orleans or New York, I’d rather get my work done from my Pittsburgh home office and go out to celebrate after the amazing writing hits the screen – like it just did!

Messaging from the Inside Out

 

The most important messaging of all might not be advertising, tweeting, or all those posts on LinkedIn. Sometimes, it’s the internal message that rings loudest and clearest.

Why? Because that is the message that carries far past social media and proves that a company is worth working for, and sticking with. A clear internal message increases productivity, which increases growth, and we all know what happens next.

According to Karen Johnson of Chron.com, effective internal communication “is particularly critical during tumultuous times for an organization to ease anxieties, boost morale and inhibit inaccurate information.” If employees know that their company has a solid plan in place, that eases tensions across the spectrum. But even if the staff knows and recognizes that the company is on unsure footing, if that is communicated well – and openly – they know they can trust upper management and will follow as a team.

Team-builnewpathding and loyalty is perhaps what is at the very epicenter of good internal messaging. When a company is trying out a new path, forging new avenues into new markets, a straightforward, clear internal communications plan is essential. Knowing
that while some areas of the business are under reconstruction, others are steady and moving along as predictable honesty and thoroughness is as important as it gets. What I mean to say here is that especially in a large company, if change is afoot, it is essential to let staff know in the most assuring ways possible that rollouts are going well (when they are going well) because the rumor mill is stronger than any tweet, LinkedIn post or slide deck. Employees will fill in the blanks with conjecture, so it’s far better to have a strong team approach, even when the future is unclear. A well-crafted message can often be the steadiest hand in the entire organization.

Let’s not forget what was perhaps Yahoo’s greatest stumble. Just when they could have been focusing on long or short-term development goals, they decided to pivot toward using Microsoft’s failed QPR (Quarterly Performance Review) system, whereby team members were stack-ranked.

This created an interior bias sentiment, rather than a feeling of open communication system-wide. Stack-ranking is generallyteam-rocks perceived to be a non-transparent business communication system, and a poor employee motivational approach. While it is not strictly a communication practice and is more closely related to HR, the rollout in Yahoo’s case was greeted with a great deal of pushback on Yahoo’s own communication message boards. It was met with deafening silence from Yahoo’s CEO, Melissa Mayer. The response is the internal communication failure. The non-collaborative practice practically urges people to stop working together. When expectations are unclear and competition is the goal, people almost always underperform.

If the internal messaging is strong, employees feel connected to their company and feel confident in the direction it is taking. This, in turn, creates a connective tissue which bonds the team together, and creates a greater return on the productivity of the team. With strong communication, a company is without a doubt greater than the sum of its parts. The tensile strength can be tested and measured in terms of its output.

This begs the question, then, how do we get internal communication right instead of wrong?

I have some ideas about this. (You probably guessed that , or I would not be blogging on the topic!)

First, connect actions and words. We have tons of jargon in every professional field, and we say that some things are important, but we must follow through. We only develop trust if the actions follow the words. If a promise is made in a document, it must be adhered to in action.

Th100ese days, trust is hard to keep. It is easy for a slide deck to appear in New York, and for those employees to tweet the content of that deck to their colleagues in LA to let the cat out of the bag before the presentation is even complete. We must be trustworthy in all our messaging. This means that those of us who are preparing internal messaging must be certain that we are on point long before the cow leaves
the barn. No guessing, no conjecture, no half-baked plans. We owe it to our colleagues to be sure before we print, upload or speak. If we cannot be 100% certain, we must be 100% open about that as well. We must be willing to say, broadly and loudly, that whatever plans we have in place are conjecture. Or else we should not be publicizing those plans.

As communicators, we must be willing and ready to work with managers to build daily, intimate relationships with leadership and staff alike, not sheltering ourselves from both customers and idea-makers in order to understand the whole ball of wax. Internal communicators have a great view, from the top, from the bottom and from the middle. What a great opportunity to see the inner workings of a company, and what great trust is bestowed on the messengers, eh? A vision like no other. But if a communicator is unwilling to see that the message can be transparent but not translucent, then we have done a bad job of being what the company – and the staff needs us to be.

plainlanguageClear and consistent jargon-free messaging has to become part of the company culture. If we can’t get past all of the marketing pizzazz, which is necessary, and the emotional protection, which is also necessary, then we weaken the relationship that we strive to build. Erwin Steinberg, the ubiquitous professor of Professional Writing at Carnegie Mellon University captained “plain language” writing in the professional sphere. That is precisely what is called for here. If we can master that, we will all have done our growing companies the best service of all.

All of these together – simplification in communication, building trust between leadership and staff through openness and idea-sharing, and delivering clear, consistent content in internal communication without the outdated and misguided notion that employees should be somehow shielded or separated from the plan – this is what forward-thinking corporate communications is about. I’m not saying that any company today, especially a large-scale one, should be completely revelatory to the entire workforce. That would be risky and unnecessary. What I mean is that a new level of transparency begets a new level of loyalty, trust, and productivity. We expect our teams today to be agile, responsive, and to deliver not just products but ideas in rapid turnaround. We ask for nearly unprecedented levels of buy-in and conceptual trust at the development level as we test methods of agile release trains and try to get to market faster, better, and leaner than ever before.

If organizations, in turn, create messaging at a similar level of speed, engagement, and positivity, the sky’s the limit in terms of engagement and trust. A facile win for all. Indeed, the communication will flow from the inside out – a great investment.

 

Shifting Seats

November is that time of year when I am involved in a fantastic event in Pittsburgh called Red Chair.

red-chair

It is not a Pittsburgh-only event; it’s an event held in many locations around the country for women in technical fields, STEM fields, and it should be much more active than it is, but it’s a grassroots thing, and it’s taking hold. It takes time to build, it takes momentum and it takes money and dedication, but it’ll get there. The idea is big, and hopefully it will grow. But we struggle. The question is, why ?

There are plenty of smart women, talented women, out there, and the numbers of us are growing, and we are not as timid as we were a generation ago, so that’s all good news. But according to a 2016 survey of 263 tech firms, 18% of those companies said their offices were 25% or less female, and 2% had no women at all (Fortune.com 2016). Perhaps of the greatest concern in all this is that, according to Fortune Magazine, although “the majority of tech execs in London realize that their firms don’t have a diverse workforce…a full 46% of them don’t think increasing diversity would improve their company’s growth” (Fortune, 2016).

There have been plenty of articles written about this, and lots of research in the field, and yet we still lag behind. I’m no expert, but that won’t prevent me from trying one more time (one hundred more times) from weighing in, from passing along the knowledge of others to try to keep the conversation going. Because keeping the conversation going is the crux of the movement, ladies.

A September, 2013 piece in the Harvard Business Review noted that many CEO’s make gender diversity a priority, choosing to insist on placing women in top positions, trying to guide women to senior positions. That was three years ago, so you would think we’d have seen some results, right? Well, part of the problem with those leaders’ approaches, we’ve found, is that they “don’t address the often fragile process of coming to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader” (Ibarra, 2013). There is a tendency to inadvertently undermine a woman’s trajectory toward leadership when advising her to actively seek a role for which she feels mismatched. According to that same article, “the context must support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood that others will recognize and encourage her efforts.” What this means is that the surrounding employees have to see her as a leader, too. That is not always the case.

how-women-leadWomen who are encouraged to be leaders have to internalize that role and believe that they can be that role. Leadership is an identity, not just a title. Part of what stymies women in escalating toward these roles is the “human tendency to gravitate to people like oneself,” in which case women are lacking in examples of other powerful women (Ibarra, 2013).

The Red Chair event is not just about women in technology, or I wouldn’t have written the last two paragraphs about leadership. Women leaders encourage growth in female staffers. Perhaps they do so no better than their male colleagues, but perhaps they do. The jury’s out, because we lack a breadth of examples, it would seem.

The problem is “that business execs still don’t understand the benefits of having a diverse workforce” (Fortune, 2016). Many organizational structures are, quite simply, designed to fit the lives of men more than they are the lives of women. Consider it – climbing up the career ladder sometimes assumes mobility of place, leadershipwhich then assumes the “trailing spouse” (wife) who can pack up and move along with the new job offer. A wife who has no career can easily pack up with the kids and relocate with little trouble to follow the new promotion opportunity. This work-value is much more difficult if the “trailing spouse” is a man with a career trajectory similar to that of his wife.

These practices did not set out to stifle women, but nevertheless they do. Women tend to steer clear of jobs, opportunities, and even promotions that might require those types of challenges. We even steer clear of those lines of work completely. And gender-biased hiring managers who do not intend to be gender-biased may consider whether a woman will have the mobility or willingness to pursue the opportunities that a job could offer, both in hiring and promotion.

It’s not so clear, and yet it’s all too apparent.

The weird offshoot of this is that the women who DO succeed end up being the exceptions, not the rule.

At Red Chair, I was surrounded by women who moved across the country, their husbands either followed or they had no husbands. They were either supported or they were alone. Either way, they were touted as exceptional. Why not the norm? There were successful men there who were just…successful. There were women who had “executive presence,” as though this was a characteristic that is unusual. Why so? Many of the men stood tall in their business suits, commanding a certain executive presence merely by being in the room, holding a beer.

Fortunately, the keynote speaker, Lenore Blum,truly is a remarkable woman who deserves to be set apart from the rest. Her accomplishments in the field of mathematics are noteworthy by any standard. She teaches at my alma mater and I admire her work on many levels in the technological field. Many women could look to her and be in awe.

But all of the women in the room were successful, and we need to pull many others in to the room with us, every day, day in and day out, to sit with us in the red chairs, technological and otherwise. We must show our male colleagues and our female colleagues that careers from technical writing to product development are as open to us as anyone, and that our presence in the field improves the field overall. That second-generation bias is present, and unfortunate, but present.

Consider which person in your sphere could use a hand. See if you are the hand she needs.

 

 

 

Refiguring The Primary Measure of Progress

pencilIn Agile Software Development,

“working software is the primary measure of progress” and the manifesto values “working software over comprehensive documentation.”  That is all well and good, but as a writer, I often pause on that one word – comprehensive. I take a moment there and wonder who determines what comprehensive means, and whether sometimes we leave the customer, and the customer’s needs, in the dust when we use that word.

instructions2

Before every developer everywhere has a head explosion, I think we can all agree that expansive documentation is silly and frivolous. So maybe I would swap out comprehensive for expansive. Perhaps I’d have chosen “frivolous documentation,” or “needless documentation.” I’m just not sure I would have chosen the word comprehensive. I get what the manifesto is going for. I do. I want to create lean, usable doc every time. I don’t want to give more than is needed. I want to respond to change fast. My goal is accurate, deliverable doc that addresses stakeholder needs. I suppose I would like to think that, by definition then, my doc is complete, or…comprehensive…in that it includes everything a customer needs. But I agree that I don’t want it to include anything more. I just want to avoid coming up short.

What if I rewrote the twelve principles from a doc-centric focus? Would they work just as well?

  1. My highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable documentation.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in documentation. Agile processes harness edits for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver accurate documentation frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people, developers, and writers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Write documentation around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the doc written.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a writing team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Clear, concise documentation is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable writing. All team members should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to linguistic excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of writing not done or words not written – is essential.
  11. The best architectures, sites, and manuals emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to create more effective doc and then adjusts accordingly.

Okay, so some of this is silly, and I just wasted twelve lines by playing it out all the way to the end, but it was for good reason. Continuous deployment can happen not just with techmanualdeveloping software, but in the embracing of documentation as part of that software, but instead it is often “kicked to the curb” by many teams as a misinterpretation of that one element of the original manifesto.

 

 

It’s not that documentation should be cast aside; it’s that comprehensive documentation is being misunderstood as frivolous or extraneous documentation.

I did not realize that this was a pernicious issue quite so much until I was giving a workshop to a small class of new developers from across my company, hailing from a variety of offices, and they looked at me funny when I described some of how my team does doc (we are pretty good at the whole agile thing, but sometimes we regress into “mini-waterfalls” and I hate them). One of the young devs was astonished that I manage to get my developers to hand over documentation early in the process so that I have it in a draft state, while the code is still being written, not after the code is all in place. It’s a struggle, I’ll admit, but when I this happens, the result is a joyous celebration of shared workload and well-written doc. We can collaborate, change, shift and learn. And the sprint goes more smoothly with only minor changes at the end, not a doc dump in week 4.

To teams who are not doing this: cut it out with the waterfall, guys. Doc is essential, and your users need it. Otherwise, they are calling support and costing your company thousands with every call. Change your practice and build your doc while you build your product.

You might be asking, “How can you possibly write the doc when you haven’t written the code?”

You are not the first person to ask this, trust me. The answer is pretty simple. A long, long time ago, you couldn’t. Or, at least it wasn’t wise to, because it was a redoubling of work. When writers put their stuff into pdfs or word documents, and then had to make major changes, it meant a bunch of editing and rewriting things. Therefore, developers got in the habit of writing all of the code, then examining the processes and hunkering down to crank out the doc. Fair enough. Now, though, we developed wiki spaces and collaborative tech writing tools that now allow inline editing and let developers look at the cool formatting and linking that tech writers have done with our work.

And – before the code even gets written, there is a design plan in place, and usually a design document to go with it. There are code specifications, right? You can have a nice chat with your friendly tech writer and go over this, either through a face-to-face (see Agile point #6) or via any of the vast number of other tools designed to communicate with your team. Before a developer starts coding, there is a project plan – share that plan. Once the general information has stabilized, it’s okay to let the writer have at it. The benefit is that the writer is having her way with the general plan while the developer is coding away. At the end of both work days, the writer and developer have each created something. In a typically short iteration, it is unlikely that the coding will change significantly, so the two can touch base frequently to mark changes (See Agile point #4).

Are there risks to this process? Of course, just like there are with waterfall. Remember that with waterfall, there were a fair amount of times that programming crept right up to the deadline and documentation was hastily delivered and could therefore be sloppy and lacking. And in this method, it is far easier to tell you about writing documentation continuously than it is to actually do it. It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes dedication – because the primary risk for doc is the same as it is for the software: that the customer’s need will change midstream. That problem was (more or less) solved by short iterations in development, and it is (more or less) solved the same way in documentation.mario

The benefit is this – by writing the doc alongside the development, you can be sure that you deliver the doc in sync with the product. You’ll never sent the product out the door with insufficient instruction, and you will never cost your company thousands of dollars in support calls because your customers don’t understand how the product works or how to migrate it. But deliver a product without comprehensive – yes, I’m back to that word – deliver it without a complete doc set, and you may regret it. Trial and error is okay if you want to see how fast Mario can get his Kart down the hill in order to beat Luigi and save the princess, but do you really want to rely on that when the client is a multi-million dollar bank?

I’ve been teaching writing and writing processes for a very long time, and believe me, the action of draft, revise, revise, revise is not new.

It’s just Agile.

 

Future Content…I’m Content

 

 

The buzzword I keep coming across lately (and I am not a fan of buzzwords) is “future content.”

dilbert-buzzword

But I have to admit, this one sticks with me because it’s not an industry-generated term that is used to sell stuff or a new word packaging an old idea this time. I keep stumbling across this term, I think, because those who are savvy in the industry are (finally?) grasping the notion that we are writing not for the now, or for the past, like we once were, but we are truly writing to an audience that is ahead of us, and that our writing will span media and must address that. I mean MUST address that.

Future content is not a particularly new idea, though. It’s not like this emerged on the stage in 2016 and I am revealing something that you should congratulate me for. No, sadly, I am not that innovative. It’s just that the idea is sticking with me right now because I am thinking a lot about content strategy and where it will lead me. In my own work, for example, I am poking a lot around in a project that quantifies writers’ work and evaluates and measures product and rule-adherence while at the same time examining SEO, incoming links, and a few other metrics that are of varying levels of importance to a range of stakeholders.

In some ways this aligns with, and in some ways this competes with, my interpretation of real content strategy. My understanding of what I need to do to build great content is this:

  • Customer research
  • Competitor research
  • Company research

…and likely in that order

So I’m talking Content Strategy. But how do we define content strategy with an eye toward future preservation? Way back in 2009, Daniel Jacobson, who is now the VP of something called Edge Engineering at Netflix, wrote a guest post for NPR since he was then the Director of Application Development there.  Jacobson’s post is a great look at a concept called COPE – Create Once, Publish Everywhere, and it’s a great concept that definitely tunes into future content because who wants to work three, four, five times as hard to cover all platforms accessed by the customer, and yet we are responsible to all of those platforms. Jacobson points out a well-designed pipeline from the Data Entry Layer to the Presentation Layer where at the data entry layer there are people and automated functions, but at the output, or presentation layer, there are six different outputs, with presenters ranging from NPR to station modules, all pushing content to users in an array of settings. According to Jacobson, COPE is a philosophy that encompasses areas of content management systems (CMS), a way of thinking about content more broadly. It is important, then, to think of content as fitting within a whole distribution system. Jacobson was keen to distinguish COPE from a Web-publishing tool, even in 2009. (This explains why he is now at Netflix, folks.)slick-tablet

Looking back to 2009 does not detract from looking to the future. Navigation that leads from data entry to presentation and results in well-organized content that users can access from a laptop, a phone, a tablet, or whichever device they happen to find useful at the moment – that is future content. Content that is driven by text, video, sound, some combination of all three, or a weaving of two or an overlap – that is future content. Linking in media when it is needed, and knowing when it is not – that is future content.  It’s useful, accessible, usable, understandable, customer-driven, and attractive. (I saved the best for last there.)antique-book-18

If it looks good, feels good, is easy to find and use – it’s future content. Now isn’t it odd that it seems to me that with each new concept in writing: the sheaf of paper, the bound book, the glossy magazine, the e-book, the slick tablet, the iBook and whatever comes next…each one is future content? The thing that makes it valuable is whether it is well-written, understandable and worth reading? What makes it worthwhile is whether or not it is worth my time? Does the content deliver against objective? Does it stand out among all the other content?

So I truly need to go back to determining if someone has done his or her:

  • Customer research
  • Competitor research
  • Company research

Right? And that is content management. For the future.

A User Experience View

obstacle

One of the roadblocks Technical Writers experience quite often, especially in software documentation, is overcoming obstacles in the usability of our doc. In a fast-paced environment like software development, staying ahead of the curve is important, of course. There is always a new program or product to help us write our doc. But will our company invest in it? Is it worth the cost? It’s expensive to train teams on the technology, right? And integrating those new features into existing documentation is not seamless. Competing programs don’t typically work seamlessly with each other. I just read a post about the most valuable tools to tech writers, and while many agreed that Madcap Flare is the tool du jour, that came as no surprise, since a handful of the writers referenced in the article work at MadCap. Other tools noted included Camtasia, Adobe products and even my personal nemesis, Acrolinx  (In a later post, I’ll explain why I am not an Acrolinx fan, but let’s save that for another day.)

While the tools we have at our fingertips certainly have a great impact on the work we are able to produce, we as writers can lean on those tools too greatly if we overlook the simplest of design elements and forsake the foundation of what our documentation must be in the first place: usable.

We know that Technical Documentation has a utilitarian function. It has a use purpose: it meets a need of the user because the user requires documentation to, say, install a product. So we have already jumped the first hurdle of the UX measure by designing something that fills a customer need. Check that off the list.

The second hurdle is Usability. We must jump this hurdle by creating something that is easy. In a UX model, we are tasked with creating something that can be navigated with ease. This is where our tools come in handy (or not). If our customers cannot use our documentation easily, we have not cleared this hurdle. Think of the handheld electronics that come packaged with the foldout instructions in print so small that one needs a magnifying glass to decipher even the battery installation. Do we really want to continue that trend? Of course not. Creating easily-used documentation is key.

The next area is Desirablility. Normally, in the past no one thought of technical writing, least of all something like software documentation, as having a desirability factor. Well…I’ve spent a good bit of time creating some YouTube videos that are not necessarily going to win any MTV awards, but they are not exactly difficult to watch. If my customers desire the video over the lengthy text, so be it. This is why a tool like Camtasia or Captivate9 is my favorite tool today.

If my customers feel no pain in clicking through the doc I’ve created because the experience is smoother than tabbing a PDF, it’s a win. In today’s field filled with rich media, documentation is often more off the page than on. Creating pleasing ways of reaching customers with information is an essential piece of the puzzle. So, if I can set up something for a customer whose reaction is more or less, “I like the way this looks,” or “I’ve had a satisfying experience,” then my goal is achieved. It’s why I often marvel when any company is reluctant to jump on board when a technical writer shows management the latest tool toward potential great documentation. (If any of you in management anywhere are listening – equip your writers with the stuff they need to get truly creative. You are unlikely to regret the monetary investment in truly slick presentations, but you are very likely to regret being late to the game. I’m just sayin’.)

Last on the list is to create an overall satisfying Brand Experience. When the other hurdles have been cleared – and generally only when the other hurdles have been cleared – the Brand Experience can be a positive one, because the Utility (need), Usability (ease of access), Desirability (want or perceived want) have been met, and they lead to loyalty. According to J. Josko Braus, of the University of Rochester, brand experience is primarily a sensation or a feeling, but it is part of a brand’s “identity, packaging, communications and environments.”

Braus points out that when customers first engage with a product, they are engaged with its “utilitarian product attributes,” so in this case, my customers are engaged with product documentation (after all, as a technical writer, I’m really selling my doc, but on behalf of the product at large. My customers will associate that documentation with my company’s name, logo, and more, but only on a broader scale. I can hope that customers will be delighted with the overall experience of the end-product, but only after they are satisfied with the Brand Experience they’ve had with my doc.

I could get all academic here, and take you down the rabbit-hole into the debate surrounding Brand Experience, but my focus is on User Experience and how it centers in documentation. If Usability is all about being able to use something, then the User experience differs here because I want my users to be able to have a good feeling about using my documentation – to experience it in a way that enhances their overall engagement with the documentation.

Think of it this way: a usable stapler is one that performs the task. It staples papers together.

Ugly stapler

And yet when you have mastered the hurdle of mere utility, you can also move ahead with usability, desirability, and brand experience. Because who wouldn’t prefer a really good-looking stapler?

Building a Better Mousetrap, or Better Mousetrap Documentation Anyway

 

MOUSETRAP

In the days of Waterfall Software Development, nobody wanted to pay much attention to Doc Development. I mean, let’s be honest. It was the second-to-last step in the whole process, and pretty much the least glamorous. Although documentation had the potential to occur at any point in the product life cycle, as we have proven with Agile methodology, everyone saved it until near the end, believing it had to be placed until after all of the development, coding and testing was complete, but until before packaging was ready.

We now know that Doc is part of the system, an integral one at that, and yet sometimes it is still the redhead in the room, not getting its due unless it steps up with its fiery temper, begging for the attention it deserves. We know that in some very successful organizations, Documentation gets a well-earned 20-40% of total development effort, while in other organizations, it falls by the wayside, and that lack of effort shows. A perfect example is any company (and there are many) who believe that good technical documentation can be cut in the budget, because support can handle the issues, only to discover that one call to support costs far more than creating good documentation in the first place. Content Strategy 101 offers some insight on the fallacy of low-cost documentation.

So with today’s evolving documentation practices, we have to work hard to improve that documentation mousetrap. We don’t build manuals any more. We don’t ship CDs with pages and pages of tiny-print leaflets of unreadable instructions, so what are some ways to make our ever-evolving documentation relevant?

I suggest that there are a top 5.

Of course there are more like a top 100, but if I put them all here, I will have blogged myself out of a job and I’ll be the irrelevant one, so stay tuned for future blog posts with other super-engaging titles like “Top 5 ways to Test Your Doc!” and “Coordinating Internal Systems!” you get the gist.

For now…

#1

Give User Examples

In Online Documentation, unlike print matter, there is room for Use-Case. Scenario-Based Documentation is popular now, so learn to make it your friend. The SBC is an online user’s friend. Embrace the SBC.

Examples are a superior way for end users to see and experience concepts that are difficult and new. An end user learning new software can experience the software much more easily with a walk-through than with just a third-person explanation.

Switch to second person and allow for a full flow. For example, “When you click on the water icon, you see the mermaid swim across the screen.”

#2

Use Diagrams and Images if Possible

This seems like everyone already knows it, and yet they don’t. OR, if they know it they are not doing it. When the internet was young, everyone was slapping pictures on everything. All of a sudden, we are back to wordiness. I’m a fan of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Explain a process with a picture, will ya? Not everything needs a photo, but a process sure needs a diagram. If you can minimize the complexity of your documentation by offering a table, do it. Or if you can make it a bulleted list, get on that.

#3

Assume Nothing

You may not know your audience, but presume that they know even less than you do. If you think that the average user is pretty well-versed in computer skills, and you want clutter-free doc, at least take a moment to offer a hyperlink to a basic skills set in an appendix for those who know pretty much zero. Change your mindset to that of a brand-new user who has never seen this stuff. Fully document the process from beginning to end, and then go back and follow your process.

#4

Anticipate Difficulty

Try to break your stuff. You have QA testers who have tried to find issues with the software, so you should try to find issues with your documentation. If the software you are writing for has defects (end users call them bugs) you’ll need to document workarounds for those, providing useful ways to save your users calls to the help desk or support, and proving yourself to be a very useful doc writer. This is a tender spot to be in with developers and testers, but your relationship here counts.

If you are working in an Agile environment, (most of us are these days) you can usually test as you go. You’ll get smaller chunks of doc to try out, in smaller increments, which is nice. Find the zones where your doc is unclear, or could be clearer, and prop it up.

#5

Explore New Technologies

Hey, Documentation is expensive even when it is done correctly, implemented flawlessly and delivered on time and on budget. Doc departments cost money, and we are not the primary product. Is it any wonder doc departments are often trying to justify our very existence?

New technologies will perpetually be the key to creating more effective documentation that is less expensive to develop. New tools are opportunities to reduce time and the cost of the whole process. Look into text-to-speech. Look into better visual editors. Check out the latest in fill-in boxes, component editors, macro checkers – the whole shebang. You will cast aside 90%, but you will find some of them are magical. Remember the little paperclip that sounded like it was tapping on your screen?  Annoying, yes, but nifty nonetheless. Remember the first time you opened Power Point?

Holy cow! Remember the first time you checked out GeoCities?   Now think about the first time you edited in Adobe. Or edited your content into 140 characters.

Check out all of the ways to document.

Myriad. Seriously. Mousetraps upon mousetraps.

And the mousetraps are getting better. The mice are smarter. But the mousetrap builders are pretty smart, too, and we are acquiring better ways to go about it. So don’t move the cheese, just build a better trap. Follow the documentation, and you will have all you need to get the job done right.

Behe's mousetrap