31 January 2013

Language marches on

One of my fascinations is the evolution of language and the force that we as writers can sometimes exert to change or preserve it. I feel that the study of the origins and history of the words we use are eximius (that being, something that used to have high value or standing that has fallen out of favour, practice or repute... by learning this word and definition and possibly using it yourself you’re joining my ongoing quest to get a dead word together with a revised and pertinent meaning back into the language and the OED!) and sometimes feel that as authors we have a role to play as the stewards of the language.
This week I’m onsite with a client, sitting next to their existing and quite large technical authoring team. It’s fun to sit with other technical authors shooting the breeze and debating issues for the style sheet. One of the debates has got me thinking about the future of the language, and one about its past:
Articles with extensions?
When mentioning .atd files in a sentence, is it “a .atd file” or “an .atd file”? There didn’t seem to be a definitive source, and we found that we were divided between those who say “an Ay Tee Dee file” and don’t include the dot in the file extension, and those who say “a dot Ay Tee Dee file”. It might sound like a small discussion, but it’s one that would not have been necessary before the computer. Sooner or later, based on consensus, or diktat from one of the style manuals, this issue will pass into a formalised convention and technical communicators will have changed a small part of the grammar and style of English usage.
Wordy Recipes
The second discussion that came up was the consideration of the plural of “formula”. I am pleased to say that as the team was quite strongly weighted with both chemists and those with theological training, the Latin based “formulae” won out. I’m sure there are those out there who think that it doesn’t matter, or that the alternative plural endings we find on some words are tricky to teach the iTunes addled minds of the young. Yet the chemists and theologians amongst us feel compelled to go for the older ending. This was perhaps because in some ways the older variant feels like a richer source of information. Like an old bemedalled soldier on a park bench, the word seemed to lend an air of intrigue and respectability to the otherwise ordinary scene that is painted by a manual.

Back when understanding language was more cool than eximius, an old man was receiving a literary award. He included in his speech the idea that “Broadly speaking, short words are best, and the old words, when short, are best of all.” This is good advice for a technical communicator, if acted upon it leads to writing that is accessible and understood by a wide audience. The implication however is that if we are to marshal words and have them merrily marching across landing pages, fields, sheets and books we must know something of their character. Given the influence this individual had on history, it will surprise some to know that his eventual Nobel Prize wasn’t in something mundane like peace or economics but Literature which goes to show that words do carry extraordinary weight. To borrow from another of his contemporaries, I feel we should tread softly, and carry a big book.

18 January 2013

Spreading the word

I’ve just found myself involved in TCUK13 (the annual conference hosted by the ISTC to which all are welcome). Kai Weber (Technical Communications blogging legend) and I will be delivering the social media build up to what promises to be a signification event on the international technical communications calendar.

Now, as with any big event, some of the details are currently on a need to know basis, but it has been revealed that TCUK13 is going to be held in Bristol on the 24–26 September this year, and will feature some well-known technical communication personalities from around the world. Last year we had Leah Guren, Scott Abel, and Karen Mardahl as keynote speakers, with other presenters including Dr. Tony Self (of DITA fame) who travelled all the way from the southern hemisphere. This year is going to be even bigger, so if you’re a scientific or technical communicator, or know someone who is, you’ll want to follow the #tcuk13 twitter hashtag and @tcuk_conf feed (which I'm administering this year) where all the important news and information is going to be disseminated.

The next big opportunity is the call for papers, which is where everyone gets a chance to pitch their idea for a presentation or workshop. The call will go out in the near future via the @tcuk_conf twitter account and other channels. Presenting at any conference is an important career milestone, and presenting at the annual conference of a nationally recognised and internationally affiliated professional body grants you a metaphorical ostrich feather for your cap.

The really great thing about technical communicators (who include illustrators, authors, presenters, trainers and anyone else involved in the sharing and communication of scientific and technical information) is that we’re really a very supportive bunch. Even if you’ve never done anything like this before, it’s well worth getting your ideas down on paper and giving it a go as experienced presenters are available to steer you in the right direction.

Will I be presenting? Well, that’s down to the programme committee. I had half an idea for a joint session with Alison (a.k.a. mum) but I’ve been advised that juggling chainsaws has already been done, so I’ll have to think of something a bit more appropriate.


14 January 2013

The hidden costs of dodgy documentation

I’ve just finished opening a bank account for my son. This would have been done a while ago, but the bank lost the copies they’d taken of my driving licence. This means that I had to make another trip to the branch for them to re-photocopy the document (I could name and shame the bank, but in general they’re a very good provider).

What I’ve discovered is that I struggle to turn off my inner documentation beast. They sent me a sheet of A4 paper with two lists on it: one of these lists was titled “identity documents” and the other was titled “proof of address”. The instructions (personalized to me at the top of the screen) said “provide one document from list B”... as neither list was labelled A or B, I had to phone the bank to find out which of the two lists was list “B”. (This was further confounded by the fact that a driving licence is acceptable as both proof of ID and address, and yet was only in one of the lists!)

The implications of that simple mismatch between instructions and the reference table can be far reaching for a business:

The number I called was an 0800 number, so the bank was paying for my call. I spoke to the member of staff for approximately 12 minutes (as they had to “take me through security”). I’d just cost the bank wages and overheads. The individual I spoke to in the bank’s call centre said that they got calls about this “all the time”, which I suppose from their perspective is a good thing as horrid and mismatched documentation is keeping call centre staff in work.
How many people would decide not to pursue things any further with the bank in question? There are plenty of competitors who I wouldn’t have to phone after they’d bodged the letter that they sent through after they’d lost things.
An easy way to tell the difference between a phishing email and genuine communication from a bank (or any business) is the way the conman modifies the language at will, not so much to suit their own purposes, but as a clear indicator that they learnt English gathered around the village TV watching 80’s B movie re-runs. I was given the option of sending my original driving licence to the bank in the post, but there was no way I was doing anything other than taking it into the branch after they’d appeared even slightly dubious.
Bad Press
I suppose this blog is an example. Every time documents are inaccurate and it creates hassle for a customer, they’re likely to repeat the tale later in the day when blowing off steam. This could have serious repercussions for a brand, particularly if your marketplace is somewhat niche.

So that’s the breakdown of the repercussions of bad documentation. There’s a builder in my local area who I haven’t asked to quote for me because his business card is mis-spelled, and there are call centre staff in India who I’m on first name terms with because their employer’s FAQ section consists of 2 FAQs and a smiley face (David Hamill's treatment of FAQ usability is well worth a read). The question to ask is how many of your customers are doing the same because of simple and easily fixable mistakes.


07 January 2013

It’s only words...

What is it about writing, especially factual (technical) writing, that has so many people believing they can do a better job than – or at least, as good a job as – someone with training and experience? Is it because everyone (at least, all of you reading this) can read and, by extension, write? In the sense of putting one word after another on a piece of paper or a screen, that’s true: everyone can write...but can they write well.

There’s something about the written word that seems to encourage people to do something they would never do with other professions. Or maybe they would. A recent experience reminded me of the attempt by an amateur to restore a Spanish fresco.

I had been commissioned to write about a technical process in an engaging way to highlight the innovative practices a company were following. The first draft was duly submitted and reviewed by my client, quickly followed by an updated version incorporating requested changes – so far, so good. After some time chasing for feedback, I was told that my client’s customer (about whom the piece was written) had made a large number of changes.

I was astonished, amused and annoyed in turn: astonished that someone should take it upon themselves to make changes instead of simply asking for them to be made (especially when someone else was paying the bill); amused (and dismayed) at the stilted and disjointed result and annoyed that my client was subsequently told a ‘favour’ was owed because of the amount of ‘necessary’ work incurred.

I have no problem with people wanting changes to things I have written – this is normal in my world, and part of what I am (and was) paid to do. However, it would have taken seconds for my client’s customer to say, “It’s factually accurate, but I would prefer a more formal style” instead of the hours that apparently were spent ‘improving’ the vocabulary and sentence structure. The changes would have taken me much less time than they reportedly took my client’s customer – and they would have been seamless.

No accounting for taste!


04 January 2013

New year tech

I’ve just read an article on five technology developments that could rewire our world. It’s quite informative, but three of the predicted developments have massive implications for technical authors:

Self-driving cars
I believe that smarter devices often make the world accessible to people without the skills they would otherwise need. Once upon a time (yes, it really does seem that long ago!) computers were only really accessible to those with the ability to code and manipulate command prompts; in the modern world even keyboard skills aren’t that essential thanks to the nature of modern tablets. The same change happening in motor vehicles means that there is going to be a sea-change in the way that we categorise drivers and mechanics. Expect drivers to have far less knowledge of vehicles in future, whilst mechanics will need to further develop into gurus of GPS and guidance systems. The documentation provided to both groups will need to change accordingly, and somewhere an entirely new vocabulary will have to be developed to describe how self-drive cars operate (possibly by tagging the word ‘manual’ onto everything we currently do: “I manual-steer my car round corners and manual-brake for traffic lights”).
Flexible screens
As technical communicators, we still haven’t quite shifted away from the flat nature of paper in books and manuals, as screens are also flat. The issues for our field in terms of accessibility and re-skilling are massive when we consider that our output may be curved around the surface of a cylinder, or even a sphere... This doesn’t make our job impossible, but it may mean fundamentally reconsidering some of the givens in the field (e.g. “in European languages, the eye tracks from top left to bottom right” because on a round surface, there suddenly isn’t a top left and bottom right).
Augmented reality
This has been around for a while in science-fiction (one of the most interesting mentions was in Michael Chrighton’s Airframe) and video games (Batman: Arkham City amongst others) but is yet to make it mainstream. This is about to change and I think that augmented reality is going to be one of the biggest changes to hit technical communications in the next decade. Instead of writing so that an individual user is constantly looking from product to manual and back, we’ll be writing so that the user is seeing and hearing the information overlaid on the product they’re currently looking at.

So there we have it, not necessarily the big five, but the big three. Personally I’m quite looking forward to what the future holds.