29 September 2014

Hail to the Chief!

I’ve been away with the Army Reserve for a couple of weeks, and it seems that things have been moving quite rapidly whilst I’ve been gone. Firstly there’s the start of Alison’s tenure as President of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators. This is a voluntary position that Alison will hold for a few years as she juggles Clearly Stated with providing leadership and direction to the wider profession. Her first official engagement after becoming president at TCUK14 was an appearance on Radio 3’s The Verb where she talks about the importance of good technical communication in an ever changing world. The show is entertaining as Alison shares the floor with both a comedian and a poet in an exploratory discussion.

Now it would be nice to spill the beans about some of Alison’s plans for world domination the development of technical communication in the UK, but that would probably sit best in other forums (like her inaugural presidential article in Communicator) but it’s nice having a famous mum!


26 August 2014

Professional Memberships

I know I’ve been away from the blog again, as I’ve been busy. This hasn’t just been work (although that’s part of it), but in a wider professional sense. In recent months I’ve stepped up to full membership of the ISTC, and become a Fellow of ITOL.

Today’s blog post can be read from a few distinct perspectives. Perhaps you’re a recent graduate wondering what all those extra post-nominals you see on business cards are for, or maybe you’re a peer thinking about joining or staying in a professional organisation. Then again you could be involved in running a professional body in some way, and you want to know what your members think. You’ll have to read between the lines a little bit – and this is very much my perspective – but I’m sure you’ll find something here of use.

It was tempting to create a series of tables and infographic you to death at this point in an attempt to compare various types of qualifications and professional bodies... but I’m afraid that if you want an answer to “what is chartered status?” or “what is a regulated profession?” you’ll have to head elsewhere. It suffices to say that the professional bodies I’m thinking of are those like the ISTC and ITOL where there is no qualification-based route to entry, and no statutory requirement to be a member (which means the same article written by a surveyor or surgeon about their professional memberships will reach somewhat different conclusions). Here are some of the things that you get – or don’t get – as a member of a professional body.

When you put in for membership of a professional body, you are scrutinised by a committee of Fellows (note the capital F) who are at the top of their profession. At the very least they’ll look at your CV and qualifications, and possibly a few samples of your work... they may also seek references. When they decide that you’re eligible for Membership, this means that you’re competent in the field, and when they opt to make you a Fellow, they’re acknowledging – for the record – that you’re at their level. For example, the team who decided to make me a Fellow of ITOL decided that I’m as capable a trainer and training consultant as they are – although we may train and consult in quite different specialist fields.
With the status comes a bit of a confidence boost. I wouldn’t say that I've become a better trainer or communicator solely because of my memberships, but the validation has made me more confident. As a training planner, I’d occasionally run into situations where my plans were questioned and I was guilty of backing down and delivering a weaker solution as a result... but I now feel more resistant to those pressures.
Further Growth
Once you’re in a professional body, there’s the opportunity for further growth and development as part of that group. Those of you who keep up with my output will know that I regularly write for Communicator, and this quarter I’ve used my involvement with the journal to get to interview one of my ‘heroes’ (this blog is spoiler free, so you’ll have to read Communicator to find out who this is). I’ve spoken at TCUK and roped one of my favourite journalists into being the keynote at last year’s conference – something I was sadly unable to capitalise on when it came to wrangling a writing gig!
Jobs Contacts
While we’re on the subject of failing to capitalise on things, professional membership isn’t a route to getting a job (unless you happen to be in a regulated profession or require chartered status). Professional membership is a route to building your contacts and meeting the people who can guide you as your career develops, but unless you’re very lucky they’re not going to offer you a job. Similarly, unless you’re dealing with a company already very aware of the organisation, you’re unlikely to find membership as part of a job description... but you can still talk about it at interview as an example of how you’ve validated your professional practice, developed confidence and kept up to date.

So, I’ve become more “active as a professional”, which should hopefully lead to bigger and better things and I’ve learnt a little bit about professional bodies as a result. It’s good – in a warm and fuzzy way – to know that my work as a trainer and communicator (and indeed, trainer of communicators) is recognised and respected.


02 May 2014

Saving a life

It’s not every day that something potentially life-changing happens. A few days ago, I’d been gone from work about 30 minutes when Alison got a 3-sentence phone call in which I identified myself, told her my location and instructed her to ‘come now’. When she arrived, I was shaking and covered quite liberally in blood (all of it belonging to someone else).

It had all started happily enough. I’d left work with the dog on her lead to go and collect the boy from nursery before heading home for whatever culinary delight was on the table. I was speaking to a potential client on the phone when an old lady in a wheelchair asked me if I’d call the police. As I hung up, I noticed that the children gathered around the old lady were scared of something. They asked me to ‘tell the police about the scary man near the swings’.

As someone else was able to make the call, I decided to wander a little closer towards the man as the children were obviously very frightened.

I must have been about 8 or 10 metres away from him when the side of one of the cars near him changed colour from white to too-fast-red. The guy stumbled a little then collapsed – and that was when I noticed the knife.

Finding the spot where that much bright, spurty blood had appeared from so quickly was vital, as it meant an arterial bleed... the kind that kills in minutes and seconds rather than sensible portions of hours and days. After taking his knife from him (in uniform you learn to disarm the casualty prior to treatment), I slid my hand up his sleeve to his upper arm. The blood was pulsing against my hand and no matter how hard I leant against the cut it wouldn’t stop. His jaw was slack, his eyes weren’t moving and his face was palid... but I knew he was still alive because of the flush-flush of blood against my palm.

By this time, an ambulance was on its way and a man asked if he could help. He took hold of my dog while I used her long canvas lead to wrap tightly around the arm until the bleeding slowed.

Sirens in the distance, then paramedics arrived to take over while two police officers arrive to do their bit with the knife, the public and any other fall-out. I can finally relax my grip after a really interesting bandage is applied that has a plastic cup fitted to one side, so that it places pressure into a puncture wound. Finally the guy’s on the stretcher, then in the ambulance being stabilised before the vehicle growls away with all the lights flashing.

The street is a mess. I realise just how much blood he’d lost...and how much of that had soaked into my clothes and skin. I gave my details to the officer, collected my dog, got into Alison’s waiting car and went – covered in blood and shaking – to collect the boy from his nursery.

Later the phone rings, and it’s the police to let me know that the man was rushed straight into surgery. Stopping – or at least slowing – the bleeding at the scene is probably what kept him alive.

I’m still jittery when I think about it, but I won that one. I’m a first aid instructor and an army reservist... but very little prepares you to deal with a casualty who’s inflicted such a horrid injury on themselves and is conflicted over whether they want to be saved.

I know this isn’t really a tech-comms posting, but somewhere I had encountered instructional materials that prepared me to do what I did today. They’d have been written by some long-dead scout master or an army surgeon, and they are memorable enough that when everything’s going crazy, the content comes to mind. Would your materials survive the ‘blood everywhere’ recall test?


05 April 2014

Limitations, empathy and accessibility

Yesterday I found myself curled in a ball on the floor of the gym surrounded by a pool of my own partially digested lunch. It wasn’t pretty, and was the result of trying to perform like a teenager whilst drastically under the weather. Through pushing myself, I’d found my limit, and upon making that discovery I didn’t want to do anything other than adopt the foetal position.

Why is a discussion of physical limitations important to technical communicators? Well, it comes down to how we prioritise and incorporate accessibility into documentation and therefore the products they support. By losing my lunch during physical training, I have some empathy for the individual whose mobility, stamina and coordination are at levels that mean they have to live in a bungalow, and find walking to the shops a herculean task… sure it’s a different thing they’re doing, but the end result of exhaustion, dizziness and curling into a ball on the floor are about the same. I’d suggest that a professional athlete is more likely to empathise with someone with a physical disability than a normal, unchallenged member of the public would.

We’re the pro-athletes of the communications world. We can produce copy, content and a whole gamut of useful and info-blurb on a variety of subjects. Worse, we often have these jobs because we have acquired various qualifications… proof that we’re super-sponges and masters at absorbing information. So how can we relate to the reader or end user who may be having to sound out each word, whilst repeatedly flicking between ‘the thing’ and the documentation about ‘the thing’ like a lost tourist? The answer is, most of us can’t innately empathise that way… we see the man in the mirror as ‘average’. We can’t ‘read till we’re sick’ to build the empathy, but there are things that we can do that may help:

Study something new
If you’re feeling smug and secure in your Engineering degree, go and learn poetry, or French, or even French poetry… if you’re more of a linguist, then why not try a course in mathematics or the physical sciences. The struggle you’ll have reprogramming your brain to ‘the new’ is what clients feel when the safety blanket of their old ways is yanked from them and that starting next week they’ll be using your firm’s solution.
Spend time in noisy places
I used to think I was good with noise… then we had a child, and I find that I now go to an artillery range to catch up on sleep. Turn the TV and radio on, grab yourself a copy of War and Peace and ask your partner to talk to you about shoes/football/North Korea. Imagine you’re going to have a quiz at the end of it all and you’ll have some idea of the pressure documentation and information can place on some people.
Wear sunglasses
Not when outside in the sunlight… but when inside reading a book, or using a screen. It’ll give you some insight into the importance of big, clear fonts with lots of white space on the page.

If you find your limits, you may have more empathy for those who are reaching theirs, and ultimately you’ll be willing to go the extra mile to make your work more accessible.


26 March 2014

Gathering evidence...

It’s easy to say that you’re good at something. The difficult part is getting some hard evidence to back it up – especially when ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ (in other words, you don’t really know until you’ve tried).

It’s a problem we’ve always had – many of our existing clients are reluctant to publicly acknowledge that we’ve done work for them, let alone share whether we’ve done it well or not.

We’ve been giving this problem some serious thought over the last few weeks, especially as we’ve been trying to promote our writing skills training courses a little more. We’ve managed to gather a few testimonials on LinkedIn, and (with permission) have posted them on our website as well. But that still leaves a huge gap.

Our credentials speak for themselves in terms of our writing (and other communication skills) – we publish some of our own stuff on our website, and we keep ourselves up-to-date. After a bit of investigating, we decided that the courses we offer fit best under the umbrella of ‘business skills’ and the most obvious place to look for more information was ITOL (Institute of Learning and Occupational Training).

After a lot of hard work making sure everything was just as it should be, I joined the organisation as a member. (You need to be a member in order to have your courses accredited... but more than that, I felt I needed some validation of me as a trainer.) We then submitted samples of our materials, course overviews, details of course objectives and so on for scrutiny.

Success! All three of our core courses are now ITOL-accredited!

What does this mean? Well, we can point to an external source of verification that the methods we are using to teach are sound. It gives us a slight edge over some of our competitors. And if trainees want an official ITOL certificate, they can have one.

It also means that Andrew gets a few days in Slovenia. To become a member of ITOL himself, he needs to have completed an ITOL-accredited train-the-trainer course. I did the ‘How to Become a Brain Friendly Trainer’ myself a while ago, and that is an accredited course, so it seemed sensible to send Andrew to do the same... The next one is being run in Slovenia. (I can highly recommend this course – it helps you think of some creative ways of training that drive away the monotony.)

What’s next? Well, now we’re accredited (which should help with the in-house courses we have been running for some time), we are going to run our first public open course in Nottingham on 18 June 2014. It’s a scary proposition in many ways. When we are commissioned to deliver a course in-house, we know the course is going ahead before we have to invest anything beyond a little time. With a public course, there will be the nervous wait to see what the uptake is like. Watch this space!


26 February 2014

Talking to users

This week I’ve been preparing Captivate videos with voiceovers for a client. It’s a task I particularly enjoy, and wish that more clients would request this kind of service. I think adding sound to training materials is brilliant for accessibility reasons, as well as improving the customer engagement with what can otherwise be very dry texts. You may be thinking of producing something similar in your organisation, so here are a few tips:

Learn the tools
Preparing a good software simulation or e-learning experience is a very different task to writing a manual or online help file. I see a lot of adverts out there for technical communication roles where Captivate is thrown in on the same list as Word. Captivate is excellent software, but in terms of complexity it sits somewhere between PowerPoint and the high end production software used to make movies. It’s relatively easy to learn, but tricky to master, and the difference will show in your final products. Help is at hand with some very nice on-demand training from Adobe, but nothing beats a bit of practice.
Choose a voice - watch the Simpsons!
If you don’t know the show, listen to a few episodes of the Simpsons before voicing training material... it’s an excellent guide to the non-verbal qualities we hear when people speak. When doing voiceovers, I’m always tempted to channel Troy McClure; the character famous for introducing himself at the start of his segments with comments like “Hi, I'm Troy McClure, you may remember me from such instructional videos as Mothballing Your Battleship and Dig Your Own Grave and Save”. I’m not talking about dropping in my own name, or having some other semi-comedic catch phrase. However, choosing Troy’s confident, paced timbre over Crusty’s manic laugh, Homer’s grunts, or any of the accent-heavy, metaphor-rich, and confusing dialogue we find from Willie, Apu, Mo or Bart pays off. Accents are a wonderful sign of the breadth of the English language, but if you’re constantly frustrated by automated telephone systems failing to understand you, then you might want to consider finding a colleague to read your script. Back up your planned voice with a nice microphone and Audacity and you’re good to go.
Have a conversation, with pauses
If users were able to cope with a deluge of information, they wouldn’t have started the training video in the first place. The last thing they want is more self-loathing because they can’t execute the steps fast enough to keep up with you. The lazy solution to this is to put a loop into the video so that they see and hear everything twice, in the hope that you’ll catch them the second time round. What I prefer is to have a more natural conversation with the user that includes details from the user case I’ve generated... so when documenting a course management platform, I’ll include information that may not make it into the manual, like the reasons an experienced teacher would choose to set certain genres of reading assignments, to give the user time to catch up with the on-screen steps.

A good tutorial video has many uses, it becomes business-wide content that can be streamed to the TV in the reception area, used by the marketing team at client presentations and trade fairs... most importantly it gives a real alternative to the written manual for users with accessibility issues or a paucity of time. If you’ve had any experiences (good or bad) with training videos and e-learning content, feel free to share in the comments below.


17 February 2014

Intentionally bad

Have you ever encountered tasks or subjects that are are written about so badly or sparsely, you get the impression that it’s been done on purpose? I can think of two topic areas where the documentation fits this description together with some pretty good reasons why.

Gunpowder, treason and plot
Most people know the composition of gunpowder and the ratios of the mix aren’t too hard to come by. If you watch the news you probably have a reasonable idea of what goes into home-made high explosives... but that’s as far as it goes. Most descriptions of anything that goes “bang” are curiously short of a step by step guide to manufacture, whilst the literature that does exist seems subject to a campaign of nay-saying and warnings of disaster. The reason (of course) is that those of us who understand how these things are made would rather people who shouldn’t have explosives blew themselves up in their own garden shed when getting it wrong.
Hacking is performed much like any advanced task on a computer. It’s not The Matrix, often it’s just a case of putting the right bits of SQL into a box on a webpage or working out that email addresses in a company follow a pattern (such as [firstname].[lastname]) and going through their login page one employee at a time to find the dude who’s been allowed to use 123456 or password for their login credentials. In a less than ideal world, admin@[company].com with an obvious password will exist with all the implied access. More advanced hacking (the kind that makes the newspapers) requires detailed knowledge of exploits and weaknesses in systems (that I don’t have) which are painstakingly researched and closely guarded secrets. Often tutorials on hacking stop just short of allowing the reader to do any damage, whilst most of what happens has no easily accessible knowledge base as it would allow software companies to conduct a bit of counter research and fix their products.

What are the implications for technical communicators from these two nefarious examples? Well, firstly, there is a rebuttal to the school of thought that says “share everything, and put it on the web“ – anything that gets released out the door should be vetted so that it doesn’t give away commercially sensitive details or allow harm to come to the organisation and its customers – this includes the habit that some software providers have of publishing their default admin account details and passwords in manuals available in soft-copy form without reminding (or forcing) their customers to change them. Somewhere, a customer will place these documents on an unsecured intranet, and that will open up a vulnerability for every client you have who hasn’t bothered removing or changing the default account settings.

Secondly, there’s the social proof provided by these well known examples... if products don’t have documentation, or if documentation is incomplete, there is a risk of damaging reputation because clients will identify the product with the dodgy, and one way or another they’ll trust you less than they should.


30 January 2014

New devices, alien worlds

I wrote earlier about the way in which new devices with curved, round or irregular shaped displays would need new standards and vocabulary in order to describe the interactions with those screens and surfaces, partly because those surfaces are likely to be touch sensitive. It’s not an insurmountable problem, and the biggest issue may well be the politics involved in getting professionals from a variety of manufacturers and background’s to agree. That being said, there are authors who’ve developed a lot of time and thought to the description of novel geometries and I’d like to think that when standards committees meet, they’re going to channel some of the greats of science fiction.

Disc shaped, or round screens
An “always up”, round screen would make a lot of sense for tablets of the future (if Apple are reading this, I’d quite like royalties). We’d have to get used to seeing web-pages cut or scaled in interesting ways, but for many other applications including games and creative apps, there would be many advantages (not least because our eyes are “round” and much of our visual field is wasted with traditional screens). For movements around the screen or involving rotating, we have clockwise and anti-clockwise to fall back on, but what about moving to and from the centre of the screen. Perhaps the best known vocabulary for describing a surface of this type is found in the work of Terry Pratchett who coined four cardinal directions of “Hubward”, “Rimward”, “Turnwise” and “Widershins” to describe navigation on his Discworld. Turnwise and Widershins only really work for a disc already in motion, but hubward and rimward are the words we’re going to need the day we get an iDisc.
Rings, bracelets and wearable tech
As we start to see devices like the Smarty Ring, become more popular we’re going to be looking at non-visual interfaces that work with touch, motion or other forms of manipulation (the link here is to an excellent paper from the University of Glasgow... it’s well worth a look as it gives a good summary of what can be done and isn’t trying to sell anything). Describing the control of such a devices is going to be tricky, in part because the device can rotate around the arm, as well as being touched or manipulated by the voice. I couldn’t really find anything that worked for touch sensitive bands in professional or academic literature but an answer comes, yet again, from a fictional world. This time we turn to Greg Bear and his writing set in the fictional Halo universe. He uses turnwise and crosswise to describe movements around and across a band respectively and this could work when coupled with “left”, “right”, “clockwise” and “anticlockwise”. I initially toyed with the idea of using the geometry and layout of the human body to help with the descriptions, but realised that these devices may be worn on either arm by left or right handed.
Projected space
By projected space, I mean 3D environments created by devices such as Kinect, Google Glass, and the very Minority Report-esque Leap Motion controller. I feel that many of these systems will be dictated by the intent and application of the software and hardware being used, but it’s quite obvious that any directions being given will need a reference point. An example of this being done well can be found in the work of John G Hemry who tells tales of wars in space together with a spatial reference system he’s thought out that allows for ships to quickly orientate themselves in the 3D environment of a new solar system. Documenting a system that relies on the body for imput would not just need a way to describe the like this may well not look forward at all, as what we’re really talking about is whole body movement. The language and presentation of the documentation may borrow heavily from descriptions of other physical movements, whether that be those found in martial arts text books, reference works on magic tricks or even the Karma Sutra.

Answers on a postcard (or in the comments section) for what you think the biggest new interface will be, and how we could go about describing it.


27 January 2014

That was the year that was...

Thirteen is considered by some to be an unlucky number, so my first thought as I settled down to write was to wonder why. After a few minutes of pleasurable distraction (what did we do before search engines?), I’ve discovered that there are a lot of theories but no hard evidence to support one over another. So how was 2013 for us, good or bad?

Well, as with every small business, we’ve had our ups and downs – sometimes exacerbated by the fact that a family crisis (no matter how small) tends to affect every member of the business when you’re the same family! I’m not going to dwell on the negative, though... there isn’t a lot of that, and I’d much rather focus on the positive.

So, what happened in our world in 2013? Quite a lot, now I come to think of it! In no particular order:

  • We changed the legal status of our business – we activated Clearly Stated Limited on 1 November 2013. The company had existed since Clearly Stated started, back in 2004, but had been dormant as until recently the advantages of trading as a company were negated by the extra administrative burden. Now, however, we are beginning to spread our wings a little, and the change in status fits with where we see ourselves going in the future.
  • We presented at TCUK 2013 – both Andrew and I delivered sessions at our professional body’s annual conference, and both were well received.
  • We delivered more writing skills training courses – both to local authorities and at a university.
  • I dusted off my clinical knowledge to work on a health-related application.
  • We received a SaBRE Certificate which acknowledges Clearly Stated's support of Andrew's reserve service.
  • I developed a CPD framework for the ISTC.
  • Andrew passed his first module on the Graduate Certificate in Technical Writing with the University of Limerick.

All things considered, that’s a pretty good year. 2014 is already shaping up quite nicely. We’ve made contact with a few people we’re looking forward to working with and are already planning conference attendance and milestones for the next phase of our development.