More goal setting

My blog vision is coming together. Shortly after my last update to the vision document, I realized I had another goal to add:

Limit blog posts to 500 words or less in size (about a 2-minute reading experience)

I’ve been aiming for this since the beginning–my intent being to keep each post succinct for the reader and force me to focus. As a result, I have a few posts still in the unpublished, draft state because they don’t meet that goal, but it’s been good practice.

In reviewing the earlier iterations of the blog vision, there seems to be some unarticulated elements. For example, the first goal was to generate content, but I’ve not set as a goal, develop an audience. While I do, eventually, want to develop an audience, my feeling is that I’ll need some set of content before promoting to an audience will be productive. So, the goal for this year is to accumulate that content. Next year, I might add “attract an audience” as a goal, but I don’t think I’m ready for that, yet.

The question that presents for this exercise is, should my long-term goal of developing an audience be included somewhere in the current vision document? That could be seen as a guiding, long-term goal, or a short-term distraction. As a long-term goal, it would help guide short-term decisions. At the same time, if having that in front of me might attract me to start trying to attract an audience before I have enough content to make it worth their while to stay–making it even harder to win them back, later.

I’ll need to think about that.

The Internet-of-things is not about things

Tracy Rolling wrote a detailed, first-person, customer experience report in Medium about the limitations of activity tracking. It’s not that we can’t track activities, but that the resulting information is something less than useful to the average (read, non-fanatic) consumer. In her article, she describes how her activity tracker can log all manner of data, but it really doesn’t provide much in the way of information that’s useful to her on a daily basis. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that activity trackers are abandoned after just a short period.  Her article highlights the value of the end-to-end customer experience.

Looking in from the outside (I don’t own an activity tracker), I don’t know that this fall into disuse is because the tracker puts itself out of a job (saying, in effect, “You’ve achieved your goal! Congratulations. My work is done.”) or it just doesn’t live up to its promise, whatever that was at the time it was bought. In either case, it highlights what seems to be an inherent challenge that the Internet-of-things hasn’t overcome: providing a durable customer value.

In spite of the recent hype, tracking things isn’t new. I’ve been connecting things to devices and vice versa for 35 years. Connecting them to the Internet is new, but recording telemetry is not. The fact that every person in the civilized world is carrying a powerful computer (usually in the shape of a telephone) is a recent phenomena, that one would think holds some promise. However, without a need (be it present or latent), connecting monitoring transducers to a smartphone or the Internet still seems like it’s in the solution-looking-for-a-problem phase of technology.

It’s not unlike the early days of cell phones or PCs–when the technology was a solution in search of a problem. Eventually, problems will be identified (or invented) and then connected with solutions. However, in the meantime, there’s much to learn about both.

API reference topic study – thoughts

Last month, I published a summary of my dissertation study and I wanted to summarize some of the thoughts that the study results provoked. My first thought was that my experiment was broken. I had four distinctly different versions of each topic yet saw no significant difference between them in the time participants took to determine the relevance of the topic to the task scenario. Based on all the literature about how people read on the web and the importance of headings and in-page navigation cues in web documents, I expected to see at least some difference. But, no.

The other finding that surprised me was the average length of time that participants spent evaluating the topics. Whether the topic was relevant or not, participants reviewed a topic for an average of about 44 seconds before they decided its relevance. This was interesting for several reasons.

  1. In web time, 44 seconds is an eternity–long enough to read the topic completely, if not several times. Farhad Manjoo wrote a great article about how people read Slate articles online, which agrees with the widely-held notion that people don’t read online. However, API reference topics appear to be different than Slate articles and other web content, which is probably a good thing for both audiences.
  2. The average time spend reading a reference topic to determine its relevance in my study was the same whether the topic was relevant to the scenario or not. I would have expected them to be different–the non-relevant topics taking longer than the relevant ones on the assumption that readers would spend more time looking for an answer. But no. They seemed to take about 44 seconds to decide whether the topic would apply or not in both cases.

While, these findings are interesting, and bear further investigation, they point out the importance of readers’ contexts and tasks when considering page content and design. In this case, changing one aspect of a document’s design can improve one metric (e.g. information details and decision speed) at the cost of degrading others (credibility and appearance).

The challenges then become:

  1. Finding ways to understand the audience and their tasks better to know what’s important to them
  2. Finding ways to measure the success of the content in helping accomplishing those tasks

I’m taking a stab at those in the paper I’ll be presenting at the HCII 2015 conference, next month.

Setting a goal

Continuing on my site/personal vision and goal setting exercise (picking up from my last post on the topic), I updated my vision document with my first goal. Goals should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

So, with that in mind, I added my first goal:

Build base of content – at least 1, ideally 2, new topic(s) per week

My vision document is still a work in progress, but this is definitely a goal that fits within the vision and principles and is SMART.

I still have more things to consider. The biggest elephant in the room is the portfolio that I’ve managed to avoid for, well, for the past 35 years. Likewise, I want to add more CV material, etc. to tell more about me, but I need to keep the Achievable and Realistic elements of the SMART mnemonic in mind, while not ignoring the Timely one.

It might only be one step at a time, but it’s one more step.

Checklist for technical writing

Devin Hunt's Design hierarchy
Devin Hunt’s design hierarchy

Devin Hunt posted this figure from “Universal Principles of Design,” which is an adaptation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for design.  It seemed like they could also apply to technical writing. Working up from the bottom…

Functionality

As with a product, technical content must work. The challenge is knowing what that actually means and how to measure it. Unfortunately, for a lot of content, this is fuzzy. I’m presenting a paper next month that should help provide a framework for defining this, but, as with Maslow’s triangle, you must do this before you can hope to accomplish the rest.

For technical content, like any product, you must know your audience’s needs to know what works means. At the very least, the content should support the user’s usage scenarios, such as getting started or onboarding, learning common use cases, having reference information to support infrequent, but important, usage or application questions. What this looks like is specific to the documentation and product.

Reliability

Once you know what works means, then you can tell if it does and determine if it does so consistently. Again, this requires knowledge of the audience–not unlike product design.

This is tough to differentiate from functionality, except that it has the dimension of providing the functionality over time. Measuring this is a matter of tracking the functionality metrics over time.

Usability

Once you know what content that works looks like, you can make sure it does so consistently and does so in a way that is as effortless as possible.

Separating usability from functionality is a tough one  in the content case. If content is not usable, does it provide functionality? If you look close, you could separate them out. For example, a content set can have all the elements that a user requires but they can be difficult to find or navigate. Likewise, the content might all exist, but be accessible in a way that is inconvenient or disruptive to the user. As with product development, understanding the audience is essential, as is user testing to evaluate this.

Proficiency

Can readers become expert at using the documentation? One could ask if they should become experts, but in the case of a complex product that has a diverse set of features and capabilities, it’s not too hard to imagine having a correspondingly large set of documentation to help users develop expertise.

What does this look like in documentation? At the very least, the terms used the documentation should correspond to the audience’s vocabulary to facilitate searching for new topics.

Creativity

Not every product supports creativity, nor does every documentation set. However, those that do make the user feel empowered and are delightful to use. A noble, albeit difficult, goal to achieve, but something worthy of consideration.

This might take the form of community engagement in forums, or ongoing updates and tips to increase the value of the documentation and the product to the audience.

Getting past authentic

I’m still working on the blog’s vision and goals and it occurred to me why authentic was such a sticky wicket–the meaning has been stretched some. To me, it’s summed up as “what you see is what you get,” and therein lies the problem: I don’t look like much, unless you know where to look, I suppose.

The challenge comes when having had to choose between making an impression or making an impact, I’ve preferred to make an impact. Sometimes, on a good day, the impact is what makes an impression. Oftentimes, however, the impact comes at the cost of making an impression, or at least an immediate impression. Sometimes, to be completely honest, I strike out and make neither (or worse). Those, I chalk up to live and learn, and try not to repeat them.

Back to the blog. If I aspire for the blog to have a positive impact and make an impression, but can I do that and be authentic?  I think so, as long as the impression comes from the impact. In a world that can’t see past the impressions, however, that’s going to come with a cost. But it’s a cost that’s lower, in the long run, than optimizing for impression over impact.

I think I can get past authentic now that I’ve operationalized it more clearly.

With that, I’ve updated my vision document.

In this latest update, I:

  • Added a new audience segment: Amateur radio. How could forget that?
  • Edited the vision to engage in a conversation, not just contribute (i.e. toss things into) one.
  • Added a new principle: to strive for craftsmanship.

The last one is a personal goal as well and speaks back to how I’ve operationalized authentic. I want this work to have a clean and professional sense about it. If it doesn’t now, I want it to work towards that goal as I go along.

Interesting. By clearing up one principle, I was able to reveal another.

Cool.

API reference topic study – summary results

During November and December, 2014, I ran a study to test how varying the design and content of an API reference topic influenced participants’ time to decide if the topic was relevant to a scenario.

Summary

  • I collected data from 698 individual task scenarios were from 201 participants.
  • The shorter API reference topics were assessed 20% more quickly than the longer ones, but were less credible and were judged to have a less professional appearance than the longer ones.
  • The API reference topics with more design elements were not assessed any more quickly than those with only a few design elements, but the topics with more design elements were more credible and judged to have a more professional appearance.
  • Testing API documentation isn’t that difficult (now that I know how to do it, anyway).

The most unexpected result, based on the literature, was how the variations of visual design did not significantly influence the decision time. Another surprise was how long the average decision time was–almost 44 seconds, overall. That’s more than long enough to read the entire topic. Did they scan or read? Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell from my study.

Details

The experiment measured how quickly participants assessed the relevance of an API reference topic to a task-based programming scenario. Each participant was presented with four task scenarios:  There were two scenarios for each task: one to which the topic applied and another to which the topic was not relevant and each participant saw two of each. There were four variations of each API reference topic; however, each participant only saw one–they had no way to compare one variation to another.

The four variations of API reference topics resulted from two levels of visual design and two levels of the amount of information presented in the topic.

Low visual design High visual design Findings:
Information variations
High
information
copy_ld_hi copy_hd_hi
  • Higher credibility
  • More professional appearance
Low
information
copy_ld_lo copy_hd_lo
  • Lower credibility
  • Less professional appearance
Findings:
Design variations
  • Faster decision time
  • Lower credibility
  • Less professional appearance
  • Slower decision time
  • Higher credibility
  • More professional appearance

Continue reading “API reference topic study – summary results”

So it begins

Press to start
Press to start

There’s no time like the present.

In the spirit of my last post, I started the vision document for the blog. This wasn’t as hard as I thought, but it wasn’t easy. I ran out of steam at the Principles section. I don’t think that means I’m without principles, just that I want to give them some thought–I want them to be something I can live with, if not aspire to.

Audience

That was easy. It took a little bit of thought, but only to decide how to articulate them.

Vision

That was pretty straightforward, as well. We’ll see how it holds up as time goes on.

Principles

And this is where it got a little sticky.

  • Be honest and accurate
  • Be constructive and contribute to improvement
  • Be authentic

Be honest and accurate – That was easy to put down on paper (virtual or otherwise). Without that as a starting point, the rest is just more Internet flotsam. But I could feel the pressure starting to build.

Be constructive and contribute to improvement – That’s going to take some growing into (so please have some patience). It’s not that being constructive is something I can’t do. Not at all. What’s going to be a challenge is tempering my critical comments (a.k.a. biting my tongue). It’s still too easy for me to slip into my curmudgeon persona. There’s a time and a place to call him to the front of the line, but, it’s usually better if he just stays at home in the rocker on the porch, sipping lemonade, and petting the dog.

Be authentic – …and that’s as far as I got in this try. I got stuck on operationalizing authentic. That shouldn’t be difficult, but for now, I’ll attribute the difficulty to the fact I did all this on a Friday afternoon.

All in all, not a bad start.

Finding my voice

Man talking on phone
Hello?

My blog is getting close to celebrating its six month birthday and I’m still finding its voice. Sure, its voice is really my voice, so maybe I’m still finding my voice as well.

From the first post, I started off with some simple, structural rules. Well, rule. Each post should be less than 500 words. That’s about two minutes for the average person to read. It seemed like a good limit to accommodate the reader’s patience and temper the writer’s proclivity to go on and on (and on and on…). Thanks to editor that WordPress provides, I can  tell when I’ve hit my limit and several posts have been trimmed down considerably to meet the limit.

There’s more to writing, however, than word count. After limiting the length, the next challenge is the voice and tone. How do I want the blog to sound. Looking back at the topics, they seem to wander around with no apparent direction. In some sense, that’s the nature of a web log, but I’m not sure that’s where I want it to go. This became a more pressing problem as I recently wrote several posts that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day, at least in their current form. They appear to have been written by someone who is very impatient and somewhat upset with things as they are. (Oh, right, that must’ve been me). Whether or not that’s what I meant to say at the time, I’m not sure that’s what I wanted to say. So, I’ll muffle those for the time being. Because it’s easier to edit than create (usually), maybe I’ll come back to them and tidy the up. Constructively, I think they represent my state of mind (unfocused), and my annoyance with that. Fortunately fate has intervened to help turn that around.

Now that school’s over, I’ve got time to attend some of the social/professional events that are going on around town (Seattle). In one I attended earlier this week, I saw Steve Fisher talk about Content & Design: Conflict is the Key to Great Experiences. Most of the content from his talk is on his website at Responsive content modeling, if you’re interested.

The key takeaways from Steve’s talk were using and working through conflict to arrive at the design’s:

  • Audience
  • Vision
  • Principles
  • Goals

Those seem like reasonable elements to identify for my blog to help me find its voice. Now to get to work.

Is it really just that simple?

Photo of a tiny house. Is less more or less or does it depend?
A tiny house. Is less more or less or does it depend?
After being submerged in the depths of my PhD research project since I can’t remember when, I’m finally able to ponder its nuance and complexity. I find that I’m enjoying the interesting texture that I found in something as mundane as API reference documentation, now that I have a chance to explore and appreciate it (because my dissertation has been turned in!!!!). It’s in that frame of mind that I consider the antithesis of that nuance, the “sloganeering” I’ve seen so often in technical writing.

Is technical writing really so easy and simple that it can be reduced to a slogan or a list of 5 (or even 7) steps? I can appreciate the need to condense a topic into something that fits in a tweet, a blog post, or a 50-minute conference talk. But, is that it?

Let’s start with Content minimalism or, in slogan form, Less is more! While my research project showed that less can be read faster (fortunately, or I’d have a lot more explaining to do), it also showed that less is, well, in a word, less, not more. It turns out that even the father of Content Minimalism, John Carroll, agrees. He says in his 1996 article, “Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism,”

In essence, we will argue that a general view of minimalism cannot be reduced to any of these simplifications, that the effectiveness of the minimalist approach hinges on taking a more comprehensive, articulated, and artful approach to the design of information.

In the context of a well considered task and audience analysis, it’s easy for the writer to know what’s important and focus on it–less can be more useful and easier to grok. He says later in that same article,

Minimalist design in documentation, as in architecture or music, requires identifying the core structures and content.

In the absence of audience and task information, less can simply result in less when the content lacks the core structures and content and misses the readers’ needs.   More can also be less, when writers try to cover those aspects by covering everything they can think of (so-called peanut-butter documentation that covers everything to some unsatisfying uniform depth).

For less to be more, it has to be well informed. Its the last part that makes it a little complicated.


Carroll, John, van der Meij, Hans (1996): Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 39(2), 72-86.