Writing From the Other Side of the Screen

What it Means to be a UX-centric Tech Writer

Image: UX Planet

I have been part of the information design and delivery field for nearly two decades now. In one form or another, I have been handling technical information, whether in software, government, or higher education for the better part of my career. It sure has changed quite a bit since I first mapped out my first website, I can attest to that.

To begin with, technical writers came along as the necessary bridge between subject matter experts and customers or consumers. In my original field of higher education (I taught at an R-1 University for quite a while), we worked on the notion that some people were suited for engineering, development, science, and so forth, and some people were suited to understand and explain it in laymen’s terms. For quite some time, passive voice and distanced-language was the norm.

A paradigm shift occurred when we all realized that technical manuals – installation guides, user documentation, and troubleshooting – were all far more palpable if we just wrote them the same way we would explain the processes themselves. Eureka! “Plain Language” was born. One of the leaders in the charge was teacher and scholar Erwin Steinberg. Steinberg championed many advances in technical and professional writing, and moved the needle considerably in conciseness and clarity. (And yes, indeed, Carnegie Mellon is both where I studied and where I taught, so to say I am an acolyte is an understatement.) Steinberg’s text, written along with William Schutte, “Communication in Business and Industry” is arguably almost as relevant today as it was when it was published more than fifty years ago.

What has changed in the years since that first technical writing undergraduate major was launched is the centricity of the way we write technical text. When technical writing fully hit its stride, not long after the personal computer and internet became a true staple of both home and work, the locus of technical writing shifted from the technical user to the everyday user.

Specializations emerged that are now necessary to our function in everyday business that were unforeseeable before. UX and Instructional designers now must envision and create personas for the users in their fields, and imagine who is on the other side, who is consuming their creations and not just how, but why.

Just as automobile designers, fashion designers, and creators of every type in every field, now those of us at keyboards in the technical realm turned to think of our end users not as savvy experts, but as new consumers with specific desires and needs that must be filled, or who would move on to companies with products that could give them what they want at breakneck speed.

In the early 1990s, a hastily written user guide could balloon into the hundreds of pages if we weren’t careful, and little thought was given to the overall design.

Now that we tend to write by working in an Agile environment, more on board with the development team from the start, and with more input in the scope, we can bring a design thinking mentality to the process. The difference between writing and end-to-end manual and wireframing a useful knowledge base website is vast – and fun!

Thinking like a strict technical writer, we might cover every detail, from turning on the machine to creating and logging in with user credentials, to an entire step-by-step process that users are now wholly familiar with.

Thinking like a UX writer, though, we can liberate ourselves from much of that clutter by recognizing that our clientele know full well how to turn on their machines, they understand what it means to log in, they don’t need words like “navigate,” “click” or “enter.” Those are all useless fluff the same way that passive voice once was. The sooner we move on, the better.

As a strict tech writer, I found that rarely did my colleagues engage in discussions with customers about how to improve or streamline their documentation. I got feedback from peers that were mortified at the thought of interacting with their users. But in a UX writing environment, it’s informative and enjoyable to gather feedback from how our users actually apply our work. Knowing what works, and what doesn’t, what is exciting and what fails, helps to create better and better documentation.

In the new formats we are applying, UX writers often have limited information bandwidth, since many of us work on apps and app messaging. A UX writer could realistically have to craft a message that uses:

  • A 30 Character Headline
  • A 45 Character Body
  • 25 Character Buttons or Tags

With these limitations, UX technical writers must be concise, thoughtful, and creative to get the job done and done well. We have to consider user-types, roles, and information delivery in microcopy without losing messaging.

This is, in part, why companies like SalesForce have turned to humor in their technical copy. There’s little room for elaborate text, so having a bit of fun with graphics or pop-ups along the way eases the tension. Take, for example, the cute little bear they use on their learning platform. Not exactly a serious guy.

If you’re interested in upskilling a bit when it comes to Microcopy, a skill that is fairly essential in a technical UX sense, Udemy has an excellent short course. Surely other providers will follow, but so far this is my preferred resource. (Note: I get no reward, it’s just that I have found Udemy to provide good content in this area thus far. Please leave a comment if you have found other useful tools.)

Any of us who fancy ourselves “Content Strategists,” “Content Designers,” or just user advocates when it comes to text and information delivery will be coming up short if we fail to consider UX a vital part of what we do.

Long gone are the days when we must write a soup-to-nuts technical manual. Gone are the users who do not understand how to log in, how to set up credentials, how to read a page, navigate through menus, and so on. Solid research tells us that toddlers are capable users of iPads and cell phone screens. Today’s teens have no notion of what a rotary dial phone is or could be used for, and little idea of the purpose of a cassette tape, but are fully versed in the multitude of Snapchat filters and can adapt to a new iOS software update with no information in under 24 hours.

That, my friends, is our audience. A thousand-page manual is useless, but a thoughtful troubleshooting guide is golden.

Think about who is on the other side of the screen, what troubles they may encounter, and solve them. IF the interface is well-done, the documentation can (and should) be minimal. The help should be robust, and the instructions few. Provide a backup plan for pain points, and explanations for tricky areas, remembering that the tricky areas spotlight poor design. If we write as UX advocates, we will never be out of work, because our designers will help us design better, and there will always be more users for our greater creativity.

Getting SMART in 2022

Photo by Marcus Winkler on Unsplash

It’s that time of year. A fresh, new start. New Year’s resolutions have been made (and some have already been broken), a crisp new calendar is on our desks, waiting for jotted notes and creative meetings.

It’s the time of year for setting goals. Businesses set their goals for the year, what their bottom line should look like, how to inch out ahead (or sprint, perhaps) of their competition. Things feel new, even as it is the dead of winter here in the US, where I sit to write this.

Many of us are asked to think, and think deeply, about what we hope to do with the next twelve months, even as we reminisce about the months we’ve just left behind.

2021 was not an easy year for many of us, finding our way through many changes – in our work environments, our work styles, our social gatherings and tolerances – much is indeed different. But rather than waxing too poetic, it’s time to get down to brass tacks.

We as technical writers have to set goals for ourselves that outpace those of our developers, our scientists, our teams. There’s more to us than just batting cleanup for the tech teams. We know that. So how do we set goals when so much of what we do depends, wholly, on the work of others?

We do it by relying on the business-tested model of SMART goal setting. Many of us are familiar, but for those who are not, I will briefly elaborate.

SMART goals are thus:

Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

I daresay that the two most important words in that acronym, at least as far as I am concerned, are Achievable and Time-Bound. As a writer, I know how to be specific, and relevancy is the home base of technical writers. I truly want to focus in on Achievable first.

I talk, from time to time, about law school. Indeed, even at my age (not terrifically young), I’d like to go to law school. I cannot, though, set “Get a law degree” as a SMART goal for 2022. It simply takes too long, and it isn’t achievable. It is something I can achieve in a few years, if I ever get started, sure, but not before I turn the calendar to 2023. So instead, if I want to be serious about it, my goal should be: “Study for and enroll in the LSAT by July, 2022.” That is a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goal.

How so?

I stated very clearly what it is – study and enroll. (Okay, I suppose that is two goals rolled into one, but they do go hand-in-hand.) I know how to measure it – my enrollment will be provable with a receipt that I’ve paid for and scheduled the test. It is achievable – there’s no reason I can’t prepare in 6 months, realistically. It is relevant – I need the LSAT in order to reach my larger goal, and it is relevant to my career in that it is continued learning. And it certainly is time-bound, given that my deadline is July.

I probably will not take the LSAT this summer. Or maybe I will. We’ll see.

As a professional technical writer, I can hone in more specifically.

My company is adopting a new technology to assist users by adding in-line help to our customer-facing text. It offers targeted help messages, and on-demand walk-throughs. Not everyone on the technical writing is a superuser of this software, but I think becoming one of the experts would be a great thing for me. So… I’d write a SMART goal something like this:

Support technical content team adoption and understanding of customer experience software by attending two webinars and presenting learning to the team by Q3.

Here’s another:

Implement a team adoption and use plan for new customer experience software by becoming a lead learner/power user of the tool and updating the technical content strategy team monthly in Q3 and Q4 at lunch and learn or content drop-in meetings.

Both of these demonstrate ways that a technical writer can work outside the general product domain, but still provide measurable value, and therefore important goals, as a writer.

What if your primary direction, though, is actually product improvement? Well, then, SMART goals are even smoother to set. Think about the specific thing about your product or service that you think needs more clarity. (Let’s say, a migration guide.) Then determine the part(s) that you can improve most effectively right away. (This part is achievable.) Recognize how you will break it into component parts. (How will you measure your progress?) List why it is meaningful to your team. (Relevancy is all over this part.) And last, set a finish date or intended submission. (This is how you make it time-bound.) Here’s an example for that:

My goal is to revise Sections 1-3 of the User Migration Guide to minimize sentence length and remove broken URLs to improve user experience and decrease page load time. By the end of Q2, I should have the first revision ready for review by SMEs and by the end of Q3, a final version ready to release.

This kind of straightforward documentation thinking is how verbose, “clunky” documentation is streamlined and improved every day. Just bringing it up in a meeting with your manager or team can help to spur conversations about ongoing ways to improve documentation that might otherwise be considered final, and not touched again until the next release boundary. With today’s tools and more consistent documentation updates, users really appreciate the tweaks that we can make, like omitting needless words, and broken link cleanup!

When you think about what you want to do in 2022, don’t limit yourself to a specific area of work. Think about whether you want to learn a new skill (Programming in Python), or add another area of product knowledge to your growing arsenal (check out the latest in APIs or integrations), and see where that leads you. And absolutely remember to toss in a personal goal or two (or three). As for me – Law School is not out of the question, but becoming a yoga instructor is definitely on the goals list.

And to that – Namaste.

How Biased Are Your Release Notes?

Your Own Thinking Can Make a Big Difference

I should probably start with a primer on Cognitive Bias before accusing anyone of allowing such biases to impact their release-note writing. That’s only fair.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Hafey on Unsplash.

In a nutshell, Cognitive Biases are those thinking patterns that result from the quick mental errors we make when relying on our own brains’ memories to make decisions. These biases arise when our brains try to simplify our very complex worlds. There are a few types of cognitive bias, too, not just one. There’s Self-serving biasConfirmation biasanchoring biashindsight bias, inattentional bias, and a handful more. It gets pretty complex in our brains, and we’re just trying to sort things out.

These biases are unconscious, meaning we don’t intend to apply them, and yet we do. The good news is, we can take steps to learn new ways of thinking, so as not to mess things up too badly with all of this brain bias. Whew, right?

Now that we’ve established a basic taxonomy, let’s dive in to how cognitive bias may (or may not) be creeping in to things like your technical writing. It’s not just in your release notes; that was just clickbait. But sure, bias can permeate your release notes and nearly any other part of your documentation. (Probably not code snippets, but I won’t split hairs.)

Writers and designers must recognize their own biases so that they can leave them behind when planning. Acknowledging sets of biases helps to shelve the impulse to draft documentation that is shaped by what they already know, assets they bring to the table, or assumptions they make about experience levels.

Let’s start with Self-serving bias. How might this little bug creep its way in to your otherwise beautiful and purposeful prose?

This bias is essentially when we attribute success to our own skills, but failures to outside factors. In our writing, this can appear when we imply that by default, software malfunctions are based in user error. Rather than allowing for a host of other factors, often our writing recommends checklist items that are user-centric rather than system-focused. While it’s true that there are countless ways that users can mess up our well-designed interfaces, there are likewise plenty of points of failure in our programs. Time to ‘fess up.

Confirmation bias can be just as damaging, wherein as writers we craft and process information that merely reinforces what we already believe to be true. While this approach is largely unintended, it often ignores inconsistency in our own writing. We tend to read and review our own documentation as though it is error-free, both from a process perspective and a grammatical-syntactical one. That’s just illogical. And yet, we persist. The need for collaborative peer-review is huge, as even the very best, most detail-oriented writers will make a typo that remains uncaught by grammar software. Humans are the only substitute, and always will be.

We write anchoring bias into our documentation all too often. This bias causes us, frail humans that we are, to rely mostly on the first information we are given, despite follow-up clarification. If we read first that a release was created by a team of ten, but then later learn that it is being developed by a team of seven, we are impressed by the team of seven because they are doing exceptional work. Now, it may be the case that when the ten-member team was working on it, three of them had very little to do. Yet, we anchor our thinking in the number ten, and set our expectations accordingly.

The notion that we “knew it all along” is the primary component of hindsight bias. We didn’t actually know anything, but somehow, we had a hunch, and if the hunch works out, then we confirm the heck out of it and say we saw it coming.

This can happen all too often when we revise our technical writing, jumping to an outcome we “saw coming,” which causes us to edit, overlook, or wipe out steps on the path to getting there. We sometimes become so familiar with the peccadilloes of some processes that we only selectively choose what information to include, and that’s a problem.

Inattentional bias is also known as inattentional “blindness,” and it’s a real doozy when it comes to technical writing, believe it or not. It is the basic failure to notice something that is otherwise fully visible, because you’re too focused on the task at hand. Sound familiar? Indeed. Our writing can get all sorts of messed up when we write a process document, say an installation guide, and don’t pause to note things that can go wrong, exceptions to the rule, and any number of tiny things that can (and indeed might) occur along the way. What to do when an error message pops up? What if login credentials are missing? System timeout? Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for us to drop these into our doc, and many times we do, but I saved this for last because – this will not surprise anyone who knows me – in order to overcome this particular bias, all you need do is become best buddies with your QA person. Legit. I recommend kicking the proverbial tires of your software alongside your QA buddy to see how often you get a “flag on the play.” That will grab you by the lapels and wake you up from the inattention, for real.

Your users will thank you if you learn, acknowledge, and overcome these biases when you write. Is it easy? Not really. Is it necessary? I’d say so. As my Carnegie Mellon mentor told me more than once, and I’ve lived by these words for my whole career: “Nothing is impossible; it just takes time.”

Take time with your writing, and you’ll soon be bias-free.

Are You a User Advocate? You Should Be.

Technical writers wear a lot of hats. That almost goes without saying. And yet, I said it. We are called upon to have “jack of all trades” qualities that stretch into the domains of information design, quality assurance and testing, marketing, and more. There are splashes of business analysis (oftentimes more than splashes), and creativity, lightweight programming, and definitely time management planning.

It takes a natural curiosity and desire to learn to be a successful tech writer, and anyone without significant attention to the details that matter won’t get far. Getting bogged down in minutiae and useless side-work won’t do you any good, but the meat and potatoes – the grammar and syntax, the user understanding – that is where the rubber meets the road.

This is why I call out the question. Are you a user advocate? If you don’t approach all your technical writing as a pathway to advocate for your reader, you are likely missing a great opportunity.

Start with Help Content. Everything from software applications to mobile phone instructions beg for a rich help content guide for users. Without a doubt, users come to the Help when they have a pain point. They are either brand-new, looking to get up and running, or they have hit a snag, and they want to get back at it. There’s no time to waste, so getting the Help right is crucial.

The only way to draft an exceptional Help Content section is to think like your reader, and advocate for her. “What would annoy me most? How can I fix that? What would make me happy? What is the simplest path forward?” When you answer these questions, you write good (even great) Help.

Process Modeling is another area where advocating for your users is what puts you over the top. Remember that there are users out there who thrive on the IKEA diagram style of directions for process, just a simple picture show-and-tell, but there are also those of us who totally cannot follow those drawings and are utterly lost from page one. To advocate for both sets of learning styles, a good tech writer will layer-in a smattering of both, covering the bases visually and linguistically with a seamless pairing.

If conveying information to users in a way that meets their needs means adding flow charts or tables, then model that process from end-to-end and put yourself in your user’s shoes. It works every time.

Rinse and Reuse is a motto I’ve lived by as a user advocate. Many writers and managers call this “single sourcing” but that is just a fancier way to say, “if you wrote it well the first time, don’t write it again.” Walk yourself through the user’s journey, and if there is another place to use your elegantly written prose, do that. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds comfort. A user feels heard and recognized when he sees the same comforting words again. He feels knowledgeable. Wise. Learned. So, rinse off your documentation, excerpt it, use it again. Either link back to the original or include a whole page. It’s comfy.

Design like a trainer. User advocacy in technical writing means, in large part, thinking like a teacher. We never want a reader to feel like we are being condescending of course, but we do want to be on the journey with him, teaching him as we go. Incorporating good text design, like a lesson plan, is absolute user advocacy. Good teachers seek to elevate their students to a new level of accomplishment, and good tech writers should seek the same outcome for their readers. Have you noticed how much friendlier installation and process documentation has become? There’s a reason for that. Just as teachers no longer scold kids with a ruler to the hand, tech writers have softened their approach as well. It’s about elevating the experience, not just imparting the information.

Do these fit well and match my outfit?

By and large, if you put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask yourself, “Do these fit well and match my outfit?” then you have begun the advocacy path to technical writing. More simply put, write like your reader, and speak up for her. You’ll improve your product, your outcome, and you will, at the end of the day, be a much-improved technical writer.

What to Do When Your Documentation Speaks… Literally

 

megaphones

So. It’s just after the holidays, and a whole slew of people opened a new Amazon Echo or Google Home brought by a jolly elf as a gift. Now, they are rolling their eyes or scratching their foreheads over the responses they get from their supposedly smart home assistants, or (if they are like one of my office colleagues) they are claiming the thing is trash, but perhaps better, they are praising the heavens and enjoying the heck out of artificial intelligence and Voice-User-Interface. Hallelujah for converts!

Many along any point on that spectrum are wondering how the heck it could be so difficult to get that stuff right, and many of you, dear readers, are wondering what this has to do with the price of peas and technical writing.

Allow me.

innovationYou see, a few weeks ago, my development team here at my office had what we all an “innovation sprint.” That is where we get to blow off some steam and quit working on our traditional run of the mill development tasks and think, instead, about the kinds of things we would do if we didn’t have customer deadlines and goals. We get to open up our imaginations and play around a bit – so what we did was to imagine what would happen if we could get something like the Amazon Echo to talk to mainframe computers and therefore get mainframe computers to talk back to the Amazon Echo – the ultimate in automation processes, as it were. Now mind you, the entire team does not have to participate. This process is totally voluntary. Team members can catch up on overdue work or sketch out other projects that they may want to work on in the future. They can conceive of ways to make their workdays easier or to otherwise improve the customer experience, that sort of thing.

But I was sticking with the Echo. I did not think it would work, but I am a glutton for impossible tasks.

I was right, and we failed fast. Too many security issues, turns out. But what did work, and what tickled me to no end, was that it IS possible to ask the adorable Voice User Interface to search my well-crafted user documentation (a tome that would be some 6,000 pages if it were printed, mind you) for any string of words or numbers that you wish to find, and the marvelous Alexa can be taught to return results with alarming accuracy. Voila!

Just like Alexa can learn movie trivia or what time the bus will arrive at my stop, just like this model of artificial intelligence can archive my weekly grocery list and take on my daily calendar or read each day’s news from a variety of prescribed sources, this cylindrical wonder will root through those words upon words upon numbers and more words, and even acronyms and reveal the right answer time after time. Once we program her.

Eureka!

In addition to these innovation sprints, my company also supports a project called the Accelerator. Think “incubator” but with less risk. A gargantuan company helping to nurture fledgling startups. It’s pretty great. First there is a rigorous application process and proving ground, naturally, but once you’ve run the gauntlet, it’s quite the ride – a supported startup, if you will. And that is where I am headed, my Alexa by my side.

A technical writer’s dream, and maybe nightmare, all at once.

It seems I have opened an oyster of sorts.oyster

I found a path to documentation using VUIs, a search tool for the largest documentation set with which I have worked. And after all, the Alexa was named after the Library at Alexandria, so it stands to reason. I am pleased as punch. Let the innovation continue, and the documentation shall “speak” for itself.

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.

 

 

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.

 

Why Developers Make Really Bad Tech Writers

 

coding-future

Every now and then, I come across a blog post or other article or column declaring that technical writing for software development is a dying career, lamenting that all of us in the tech writing game should plan our exit strategies and admit that if a product is truly well-designed, our services are simply not needed.

Surely, in some product cases this is true. However, in many high-level software instances, I defy you to successfully install and run the product without some help from your friendly neighborhood tech writer. I pose this challenge because developers think and behave like developers and users think and behave like users. There is a chasm as wide as the English Channel between developer and user, and only the talented technical writer can provide transport safely across.

It’s not that developers are incapable of writing well or that they cannot write documentation, and it is not that users cannot ferret their way through intricate software. Developers could write supporting documentation – IF they weren’t developing that particular product. But alas, developers are too close to the products they are developing. They lack adequate perspective when it comes to their fledgling software, and they have great difficulty seeing it from a user’s point of view. The software, to a developer, makes sense. Developers arrive at a use-stance with some assumptions about functionality and behavior already in hand. So they make lousy content writers because they can’t see it from a user standpoint.

A shift needs to occur in order to artfully create usable content. A developer’s view is, “this is the product, and here are its amazing features,” whereas a technical writer will approach the very same thing from a perch saying, “here is how to do some amazing stuff with this new product.”

Technical writing shifts the focus to a user-centric view that is very difficult for a developer to take. It’s also no small thing that technical writers have been trying to master language, grammar and syntax for the better part of their educations. It’s a sure bet that developers have taken English courses as part of their college education. There are no programmers out there who are illiterate, don’t get me wrong. I work with some really smart people, no doubt about it! But when I tell them that all of our documentation is better perceived in active voice rather than passive, I tend to get a room filled with glassy-eyed folks who really want to get back to their work creating dynamic rules instead of determining whether or not they need a helping verb.

Technical writing in the software field is far from dying. What it IS doing is merging – tightly – with user interaction. It is absolutely, inarguably true that users wish they did not have to read so much in order to get started when they have a new product in their hands. So when we design documentation, we had better design it to work well. Lean documentation is essential – Strunk and White and their mantra “omit needless words” were not kidding.

Working with developers is an art. Letting them do what they do best, and making way for what writers do best, is a science.

I’ve argued more than once that mastering a given tool, like Dita or Framemaker, is fruitful but only if the situation calls for it. I have a totally separate set of tools that I use in my job, and they may or may not prove to be portable, but the skill that is 100% portable is that I can talk to, work with, communicate with, and understand – developers. I let them do their jobs with great enthusiasm, and I encourage them to let me do mine. It’s a synergy that keeps us all smiling, and pushing software out the door at a high rate of success. I work on UX, I design good doc, I focus on usability, I listen to my data.  I look at those sills that simply crackle with career stability. I let the developers tell me everything else that is important. And…I don’t make them write too much. Why? Because they don’t really enjoy it anyway.

And developers make really bad tech writers.

Want The Very Best in UX? Hire a Writer

Saying that all technical systems, website creation teams, and indeed software development companies can benefit from a User Experience Designer is like saying that all human bodies can benefit from water. It’s a simple assertion. We all know it, and yet some development groups assume that they know what is best for their customers, or worse yet, they assume their customers know what they want.
What they (the companies, not the customers) do not realize is that the easiest way to enhance the user experience is to hire a good writer. UX design encompasses art, yes, but it must essentially encompass understanding. This seems intuitive, and yet when we look to engage a User Experience professional we do not always assume that he or she is a talented writer.
How do I know this? Well, I used to teach within a professional seminar for the MA in Human-Computer Interaction at a highly-respected university where they were grooming tomorrow’s User Interaction Designers before I took this primo job writing amazing documentation for this crazy-talented company cranking out top-notch software. Surprisingly, though, when I landed here, we did not have a UX guru on our team. I was a bit taken aback that we didn’t have someone like that on the job, but I figured I was new, so I didn’t make waves. Besides, I knew all on my own that really, if there is no art involved, you don’t need interactiondesign, you need interaction writing. So UX talent is not required – a trusted relationship with your writing team is.
I’m not saying that a writer can replace a designer – that’s just bad math. A company that wants to succeed in designing good software, web interface, and more, needs to hire the people who have expertise in software development and web design. After all, writers can’t develop code! But what writers can do is parse the meanings of things. We have the highly developed talent for taking complex ideas of language and inference, metaphor and symbolism, and making meaning from them. And we can tell you when it just doesn’t work. And many of today’s writing programs require classes like Document Design, Communication Design, Visual Communication, and more – things that are akin to how users interact with the ways we are trying to reach them.

storytelling
Writers understand story. We tell stories. And in agile development, what do we call the very things that are on the table for development? Yes! Stories! In scrum meeting after scrum meeting, we task out stories for development, and the scrum master even relies on scenarios to help the team imagine how those jobs will be completed. It is proven in release after release that picturing how a certain element of the product will be used, valued, and consumed by the customer or end-user is a useful tool to the development team. Storytelling allows agile methodology to work, from start to finish. Good writers understand tension and pain, so writing a story or scenario helps to flesh out the documentation that will guide users through installation and troubleshooting. Writers are instrumental in sensing where and when the struggle points will hit for the team long before the software is released for general audiences.
Writers “get” emotion. We deal with it all the time in storytelling. Put a writer in the room in every scrum meeting and just watch how a talented one can help diffuse tense moments over hours invested in an idea that didn’t pan out. It isn’t foolproof, but a writer is also a good catalyst for humor, empathy, kindness and redirection in the heat of the moment. Many writers have a genuine interest in the investment of people, and writers can often help find a silver lining – if there is one to be found – and can redirect the energy. The User Experience is not always found on the outside of the room. Part of the experience is getting the product out the door without trauma.

traumaThe common argument against having a UX person on the team is cost, so often companies toss out the notion as a line-item veto in budget discussions. If there is a place for everyone at the table, that is fantastic, but in the current economy, often we are asked to develop multiple, portable talents. Those who can carry talents across the table are asked to do so. And they should.
The next time you are wondering how your customer might perceive something, I’d ask you to look across the table at your gifted technical writer, your talented copy editor, your incredible documentation specialist, and say, “How does this read to you? What do you think our customers will say? How does this look? What story does it tell?”
You might just be pleased with the answer. You may have found a user…with experience.