Better to light a candle

My write up about the Hawaii False Alarm left me a little unsatisfied in that it really didn’t offer much in the way of actionable responses.  Fortunately, better minds than mine came to the rescue today.

What Healthcare.gov has to do with the Hawaii false alarm — and what to do about it showed up in my Twitter feed from Code for America and offered some more immediate actions for those who want to help. In that article, Erie Meyer suggests:

  1. Usability Test Your Most Important Services
  2. Adopt the Digital Services Playbook
  3. Get Help

Usability Test Your Most Important Services

While that might seems obvious to many, apparently enthusiastic government lawyers have been preventing usability testing in the past, according to an earlier post. Hopefully, the air is clearing on this.

Recently, our Tech Comm students at Mercer University have been usability testing the Department of Homeland Security’s website to help improve it. Every little bit helps.

Adopt the Digital Services Playbook

I hadn’t see this before, but the U.S. Digital Service’s Digital Services Playbook is an excellent and easy to ready resource for how to design a good service.

Everyone planning to launch a service or website should review it, whether they are a government organization or not. The U.S. Government has a lot of great resources for digital and content design (Honest!) for no charge, such as:

Get Help

Erie’s article concludes with a long list of resources for people tasked with procuring government systems. Designers and developers can use those same resources to find out where they can help out and put their expertise and passion to work.

Hidden in this list is the disappointing observation that, “Government contractors can do incredible work, but the work is typically not set up for success.” Yet she continues to offer some supportive advice, The key to getting the best out of a contract is to include usability testing and the digital service playbook in the statement of work, but also in breaking down the contract into the smallest pieces possible. 18F is doing groundbreaking work on this front and is happy to help(Emphasis mine).

Their problems are really our responsibility

In the end, it’s really up to all of us as taxpayers. Erie quotes this tweet:

I feel better knowing that there are so many ways to actually make the situation better.  Hopefully, by adopting these improvements, the improvements will get as much press (or even 1/10 the press) as the Hawaii False Alarm and it will become easier and easier to improve these vital services.

Hawaii’s alert was not the fault of a designer or operator

OK, enough with the unsolicited design updates to the Hawaii civil defense notification system, please! While the UI design of the operator’s interface could be improved, considerably, that’s not the root cause of the problem.

For those who have been in a cave for the past week, a false alarm sounded through Hawaii last weekend, which has attracted no shortage of design critique and righteous condemnation of an unquestionably atrocious user interface. The fires of that outrage only grew stronger when a screenshot of the interface was published showing the UI used (later, it turns out that this was NOT the actual UI, but a mockup).

Jared Spool describes how such an interface came into being. Prof. Robertson of the University of Hawaii also offered this detailed  outline of what likely happened. Since this post was first published, Vox posted an interview with a subject matter expert to explain how the system works in the national context.

The error was initially attributed to “Human (operator) error.” To which the UI design community (as represented on Twitter) pointed out that the system designers bear some (if not most) of the responsibility for the error by designing (or allowing) an interface that made such an error so easy.

The article linked in the NNgroup tweet observes that, “People should not be blamed for errors caused by poorly designed systems.” I hope the appropriate authorities consider this when they determine the fate and future career of the operator who made the fateful click.

While, NNgroup’s article is titled, “What the Erroneous Hawaiian Missile Alert Can Teach Us About Error Prevention,” I would argue that it is preaching to the choir and is not teaching their readers anything they don’t already know. The article describes a list of design patterns that can help make errors such as occurred in Hawaii less probable, usability 101 stuff, yet misses the elephant in the room–the overall system in which the UI exists. If context is important, and it is, the context of the system, not just that one interaction must be considered before identifying any errors to fix or placing any blame.

Here’s this armchair quarterback’s view.
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Should you document a bug?

By this, I mean, should you describe in the formal documentation the way a feature actually works or the way it is supposed to work?

tl;dr: Yes.

There is a lot of research that says software developers (and, I would imagine almost anyone else, but I haven’t studied that research) expect the documentation to be accurate, so reference documentation should describe how something ACTUALLY works. If “how it works” changes, the documentation should be updated to reflect that. Simple, right?

Well, if a feature is shipped that (let’s say) still has some room for improvement, your accurate documentation will highlight that. A real fear in the hearts of some product managers is that your accurate documentation could turn some customers away saying, “we need something that does X and your product’s documentation says that it doesn’t do X (yet).” Your product manager will have to weigh the cost of that vs. the cost of having the customer build their system around your product expecting “X” only to find out that it doesn’t. A decision that could get your product into market and/or into an unflattering TechCrunch article.

The problem with reference topics (of almost any sort) is that, individually, they don’t do much and don’t get a lot of attention (except, of course, when they do). Collectively, they tell your customers how much you value their time and their business.

Recent events in the news bring this topic into the spotlight.
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Why I’m passionate about content metrics

…and why return on investment (ROI) is not the best metric to use for measuring content value.

I’ve been ruminating on the topic of content value (more than I usually do) since Tom Johnson published his essay on technical communication value last month. I’ve studied measurement, experimentation, and statistical process control in applications other than writing and I have also seen them repeatedly and painfully applied to writing. The results have been, almost without exception, anywhere from disappointing to destructive. Until this morning, I haven’t been able to articulate why. Thankfully, a post in Medium by Alan Cooper provided the shift in perspective to help me bring everything into focus. I’m passionate about this because it’s the new view of tech comm that is needed for the 21st century.

Writing is a process, but it’s not a manufacturing process

Alan Cooper’s post, titled “ROI Does Not Apply,” describes how “ROI is an industrial age term, applicable to companies that manufacture things in factories.” Writing is not a manufacturing process. Granted, there are some manufacturing-like elements of the writing process as you get closer to publishing the content—and honestly, making that part of the process as commodity-like as possible has some benefits. But, writers add the most value to the content where the process is complicated and non-linear: towards the beginning, where concepts, notions, and ideas are brought together to become a serial string of words. That’s were ROI and other productivity measures are inappropriate—they don’t measure what’s important to adding value.
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Do we want more docs, or just better docs?

Yet another study is out, this one from UC Berkeley: Most developers think we should spend more time on documentation, showing that developers, when asked, say that they want more documentation, or, in this case, need to spend more time working on (writing?) the documentation for the software they use and write. The list of related studies is long (by software-documentation-related-studies standards, anyway), a few of which I mention in A brief history of API Docs and in my bibliography.

I understand the the desire to ask developers (over and over, now) questions like “do you have enough documentation?” “what’s wrong with the documentation?” “What do you want to see more of in documentation?” and so on, when those are the questions on your mind. However, that type of question has been asked for over 15 years and the answers haven’t changed.

At this point, we should just assume that,

Developers will always tell you that they want more documentation.

They always have and they always will.

If you want to know why they express this need for more documentation, my hypothesis (based on previous research) is that it’s…

Because developers can’t find the documentation they need when they need it.

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Wrestling with UTF-8

Unicode logoI’m working on a project for an international customer base, initially supporting the Spanish and English languages. Having worked on international projects before, I knew that I’d have to make some accommodations, but I was still, in the 21st century, surprised at how un-automatic the process still was to make it all work. The surprises I’m seeing are now less frequent, but I no longer trust that I won’t find another around the next corner.

The project

I’m developing a small patient automation system (the piClinic) for use in limited resource clinics in developing countries. While there is no shortage of Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems, they tend to work best in well-funded and well-supported clinics and hospitals. For everyone else (which is a rather large population) there are virtually no suitable systems, especially for small clinics in countries that do not (yet) need to support the comprehensive (and complex) data collection and reporting requirements for health information in the U.S.

The piClinic system is designed to fill the gap between zero automation and complete EHR systems until that gap can be closed or the clinic grows out of it and becomes able to install a more full-featured system. Given that much of the developing world speaks a language other than English, internationalization is something that needs to be built in from the start and not just bolted on as an afterthought.
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Documentation as offline memory

While researching my dissertation, I came across a quote that resonated with my experience as a developer and at the same time troubled me as a technical writer (so, you’ll see me quote it frequently). It’s from a study published in 20091 about how developers used documentation while completing some programming tasks.

“Several participants reported using the Web as an alternative to memorizing routinely-used snippets of code.”

Just today, this idea was addressed directly in this tweet:

The tweet resulted in this thread. It’s early as I write this and there are only 16 responses, but I expect this to grow.

Thoughts and musings

From a research perspective, it provides a great collection of cases in which documentation is serving as an offline, community memory that many developers share–more evidence of what Brandt et al. observed in their 2009 study.

From a documentation and usability perspective, it’s a sort of rouges’ gallery of usability fails. Flipping through the responses, it’s interesting to see the different ways that usability challenges have been met by users of the tools.

For example,

  • Mnemonics, in the case of how to use a tar file described in this thread. The conversation eventually refers to this doomsday scenario, so those mnemonics could save the world, some day.

    TAR, as imagined by xkcd. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.
  • Creating an interpreter to translate English(-ish) to regex (Regular Expressions) in this thread. Other comments also refer to regex a the variety of places on the web that try to clarify its opaque notation.
  • Community-sourced documentation was a method described in this thread. Any user of Unix or Linux is familiar with its man pages. This comment talks about simplified versions of this documentation being collected at TLDR pages. According to the site, “TLDR pages  are a community effort to simplify the beloved man pages with practical examples. “
  • Redirection to StackOverflow in which StackOverflow is the community-supported documentation is another way developers deal with common, but not common-enough to memorize, cases as this comment describes.

What does this mean to technical writers?

There’s a recurring complaint among technical writers that no one reads technical docs. This conversation is evidence that if a feature is useful enough and unintuitive enough, that people will read them (or create work-arounds for them). For self-help content in general, however, I’m not sure that having a lot of documentation access is a worthwhile goal when it’s the result of a larger issue (e.g. a lack of usability). In fact, such traffic is often a clue that something needs attention, either in the product, the documentation, or both.

If, for whatever reason, you can’t make the product easier to use, you can use this list as a source of ideas to apply to your technical documentation strategy and help your readers.


1 Brandt, J., Guo, P. J., Lewenstein, J., Dontcheva, M., & Klemmer, S. R. (2009). Two studies of opportunistic programming: interleaving web foraging, learning, and writing code (pp. 1589–1598). Presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI.

Charting the popularity of technical communication

I was exploring Google Trends to see what was happening with tech comm and related terms and found this.

As an added bonus, if you click on Google Trends at the bottom of each image. you can open up the query in the Google Trends site and play with the variables.

Tech Comm ain’t what it used to be

Technical communication and tech comm have been declining in popularity over time. The highest point on the chart is represented as 100 and the rest of the data being relative to that. This chart shows that, the terms dropped in popularity until about 2007, after which they remained relatively stable, except tech comm continuing a slow but steady decline. The joined term, techcomm is even less common, so I omitted it because it ranged from only 0 to 6 over this time period.


Technical communication has annual peaks of activity, which could correspond to TC-related conferences. (I don’t have a database with which to correlate them, so it’s just a hunch.)

What’s moving up?

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Measuring Value for WriteTheDocs Boulder

Presentation for WriteTheDocs-Boulder
Link to presentation given to WriteTheDocs-Boulder

I had the pleasure of joining the Boulder/Denver WriteTheDocumentarians at their meetup in Denver, last month. I presented a short talk on what I had learned about measuring the value of content that is typically produced by technical writing, which started an enlightening conversation with the group.

I’ve linked the slides and provided a brief narrative to go with them, here. Unfortunately, you had to be there to enjoy the conversation that followed–a good reason to not miss these events!

Measuring content value is a process, not a destination

For some, the idea of measuring the value of technical writing requires a shift in thinking. Measuring the value that content provides is just one step in the process of setting and evaluating content goals (see also Design Thinking). Without getting too philosophical, the first realization to make is that

You can’t measure value until you define what is valuable.

Value, however, can take many shapes, and different people in your organization will likely define value differently, especially when it comes to content.
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Is writing API documentation going the way of the keypunch operator?

I’m in the process of writing one of several academic articles that my current profession (professor) demands of me. An essential part of the process is indulging in the diversions and distractions necessary to retain some sanity throughout the process. Today’s diversion was updating my global bibliography. Unfortunately, that idea turned out to have some depressing side effects, which I’m here to share with you.

It turns out that there’s a lot of research being done in how to automatically generate API documentation. Having written a lot of it and read a lot more, I can certainly understand the motivations. What I didn’t realize was from how many different directions the problem was being attacked. Someone even patented an idea for it (US 8819629 B2, in case you were wondering).

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