STC Newsletter Articles:

I have tried to select some of the articles that are still relevant and may be of interest to technical writers and people in related professions.

STC Meeting - November 2002
'A Unique Experience' for STC Members
Speaker: Kevin von Appen (Associate Director of Ontario Science Centre)

STC-Toronto members at the November meeting held up ropes, put on ties and ate jelly beans to learn first hand about the Ontario Science Centre's approach to technical communication. The speaker was Kevin von Appen, an Associate Director of the Science Centre and head of a team that creates museum exhibits and website content. The centre has developed their own techniques for designing exhibits, and Kevin's presentation both described and demonstrated their approach.

Kevin begun by asking volunteers to assist him in holding up a long rope, which he wrapped around the entire audience before threading it through the centre aisle and back again to the front. When the process was complete he explained that the length of rope represented the history of our planet and that humans had only existed for the final two inches, which he held up for all to see. The point of the exercise was to give the audience a different perspective about time and our history. More importantly for our purposes though, it demonstrated the Ontario Science Centre approach to presenting scientific knowledge. The centre aims to create exhibits that engage multiple senses and feelings, and in doing so create 'unique experiences'. In this illustration, the people involved experience the tactile feeling of the rope, curiosity as to what Kevin is doing, and possibly embarrassment about standing up in front of everyone. All of these things make the experience unique and memorable, and this helps people to accept and understand the message.

Kevin them presented some statistics to show why they need to go to such lengths. The general public is being deluged by commercial messages at a far greater rate than was the case even thirty years ago. Luckily the human mind is naturally resistant to change and so has a defense against getting overwhelmed. However, this means that the scientific community faces a challenge in getting its message across; it has to find a way to cut through the clutter so it can overcome old beliefs and fallacies. While this is difficult, it is not impossible and Kevin cited the increasing concern about global warming as a sign that the scientific community can successfully make a case to the public.

Kevin then presented the Science Centre's ten step approach to creating an exhibit. These points can be applied to almost any work of technical communication.

1) Know who your audience is, know what you want to say and know how you want to say it.
2) Marry your message to the context.
3) Find an interesting angle to attract and keep your audience. (For example, the rope representing time.)
4) Lead your audience, but don't get bogged down.
5) Anticipate and address questions.
6) Make connections between your subject and life outside.
7) Pretend you are talking to a friend. Try putting "Hey Joe..." in front of every sentence you've written and change it if it sounds silly.
8) Be consistent, but don't fall into a rigid design which affects your content.
9) Lighten up... don't be afraid to use word play and humour.
10) Test your writing and approach. Kevin admitted they don't always get it right!

A pair of illustrations concluded the presentation. In the first Kevin showed the difficulty of one way communication by having a hapless volunteer instruct people on putting on a tie, without being able to see the people he was instructing. In the final presentation he demonstrated the difference between 'taste' and 'flavour' by asking the audience to hold their nose and then chew on an orange jelly bean; although the audience could detect the sweetness of the jelly bean they could not identify its flavour (root beer) until their noses were unplugged. As with the rope exercise, both of these illustrations used multiple sensations and emotions to get their message across.

The Ontario Science Centre has been presenting science to the general public for nearly forty years, and the approach they have developed is a useful guide for all technical communicators. Kevin both described this approach and illustrated it, resulting in some unique experiences and a worthwhile evening for STC members.

STC Meeting - April 2002
Get Ready for XML
Speaker: Bernard Aschwanden (Adobe Certified Expert in Framemaker and Acrobat, Trainer)

Are You Ready for XML? According to Bernard Aschwanden, you should be! Bernard has delivered document training in Europe and North America and has helped hundreds of companies develop documentation strategies. He addressed the monthly meeting of the STC Toronto Chapter on April 9th.

A major advantage of XML is that it separates content from presentation. An XML document may contain a title, chapter headings, diagrams and other elements, each identified within markup tags. The application or device reading the document sees these tags and then determines how the content will be presented. For example, while a web browser on a desktop computer may show chapter headings in red, the monochrome LCD display on a cellphone might use bold text or underlining. Both devices will display the same XML document but each one will optimize the presentation according to its own specifications. This is the promise of XML.

Bernard's chosen creation tool for XML documents is Adobe FrameMaker. He showed off the new version 7 which has just been announced for Windows, Macintosh (Classic only!) and Unix computers. Bernard started out with a single FrameMaker document and showed how quickly it could generate a PDF print file, a webpage and a Microsoft Help file. The task was completed in less than 20 minutes, including some tinkering time and some sports banter. (apparently though technical writers don't have much interest in Toronto's teams)

According to Bernard every technical writer will be using XML within two years. The simple reason for this is that the biggest companies in the industry, such as Microsoft and Adobe, are committed to making XML the next big thing. There are also huge advantages to using XML as more and more devices are used to access internet content.

Even if you are not producing XML documents right now, you can still plan ahead and create documents that are easy to convert into XML later. This can be done by applying 'styles' to all the content of your document. Applying a 'style' to an element, such as a chapter heading, attaches a label to that content. When the file is imported into an XML application such as FrameMaker, that label is recognized and markup tags are created. These tags can then be easily modified throughout the entire document.

While XML poses yet another learning challenge to technical writers, the concepts (especially for those who already know HTML) are quite simple and the benefits are obvious. Bernard Aschwanden's presentation convincingly showed how quick and easy it is for a single XML document to be delivered for multiple applications. With clients increasingly demanding output in different formats, XML could be a real time saver for technical writers.

STC Meeting - March 2002
Finding Your Next Job
Speakers: Michael Barwick (STC Toronto Website Manager), Kim Watson (STC Toronto Employment Manager), Mona Albano (STC Programme Manager)

The March meeting of the STC Toronto chapter focused on the highly practical topic of finding your next technical writing job. A show of hands indicated that many in attendance were looking to do exactly that. They were treated to brief presentations by three STC members followed by a question and answer session.

First to speak was STC Web Manager Michael Barrick who works at Sun Microsystems. Having recently hired some technical writers he brought an employer's perspective to the panel. He broke a successful job hunt down into three stages: get the interview, win the interview, and succeed at the job. Your résumé must be absolutely bulletproof for you to get an interview as it will be held to a higher standard than those of other job seekers. In the interview you must appear professional and confident; remember that you are sizing up the company as much as they are sizing up you. Finally, once you get the job you should make sure you continue to learn new things and add new accomplishments to your résumé. This will help you in the next job hunt.

Kim Watson is the STC Employment Manager and a freelance technical writer. She emphasized the importance of maintaining an enthusiastic attitude while job searching. She also suggested that taking a course while you seek a job helps you maintain a routine, builds your skills, and shows potential employers that you like to work.

The third speaker was STC Programme Manager Mona Albano who has been a freelance technical writer since 1991. She identified four qualities necessary for a successful job search; focus, energy, skills and personal approach. To focus, you must treat the job search as your full time job. This will require energy, both to continue the search and to maintain your enthusiasm. Your skills must be kept current and you should not hesitate to upgrade and retool when necessary. Finally, you must present a positive 'can do' attitude... employers want people who solve problems.

After the initial presentations the panel discussed questions from the floor. Asked by the first questioner to recommend a good agency for technical writers, the panel agreed that job seekers should consult with several agencies to see who would work the hardest for them. However, you should not stop there; many positions are not advertised and some companies may not even realize they need a technical writer. To find these jobs you need to find a way to meet engineers and developers... perhaps through their professional organizations or even through other less work oriented groups. Technical writing is not a single industry but a profession serving many different industries, and so you have to cast a wide net when searching for work.

One person asked how to build a good list of contacts. It was agreed that membership in the STC was an excellent start but that you had to go further. After all, if a position comes up through the STC you will be in competition with all the other technical writers. Therefore you need to network effectively and tell lots of people you are job hunting, in fact Barrick said you had to be "absolutely shameless at self promotion". Volunteer work was mentioned as a great way to make contacts.

Not surprisingly, some of the questions to the panel were really complaints about the current job environment. One job hunter said that employers have no interest in his writing skills... they only want to know what software he knows how to use. Another unlucky applicant was lured to an interview only to have an unscrupulous company try to sell him a course with a vague promise that future employment was likely. Several people also agreed that job interviews with Primerica were really just sales pitches.

Other people though shared some useful tips. One person who had his résumé posted to a job website dramatically increased the number of responses he received by updating it daily. This is because agencies favour the most recent postings when they look for applicants. Another person mentioned that a new initiative to speed the processing of mutual fund sales will result in a need for extensive documentation. Her contact compared the impact on the financial services industry to that of the threat of the Y2K bug.

Although many people at the meeting were looking for work there were some signs that the situation was improving and one person even announced that his company was looking to hire some technical writers. This bodes well for the future and hopefully many who attended this meeting learned some tricks to help them find employment soon.

STC Meeting - January 2002
Has Your Writing Been Stress Tested?
Speaker: Klaus Hofer (Training Consultant, Psychologist)

You are a paramedic. You have been called to an emergency. You rush to the scene and discover an unconscious person whose face is turning green. You do not know why. In their pocket is some medication, complete with instructions. You unfold the instructions. You see several pages of small print. Nothing jumps out at you. You start to read. The victim’s face is turning ever more green. What do you do?

Professor Klaus Hofer used this story to kick start his address to the January meeting of the STC Toronto chapter. Hofer holds a degree in experimental psychology and his studies focus on the area of usability. His expertise in this field is widely recognized and he has conducted seminars for many corporate and governments clients.

Stepping back into the shoes of our poor paramedic, what was the problem with the instructions? They were logical. They were accurate. They were even concise. And as a paramedic they were well within your understanding, if only you had not been desperately trying to save the patient’s life. And that is the crucial point... the instructions failed to consider the psychology of the user. They did not take into account that a person trying to save a patient will be very stressed and looking for short, explicit instructions. Finding the answers required concentration and study, and this made the document useless in an emergency situation.

Hofer believes that good design and good writing require a knowledge of your audience and an understanding of human psychology. He illustrated his point with a true story. A European shopping mall was the target of complaints for having bathrooms which were hard to find. To solve the problem, they installed signs all over the mall. As a test, they then led people to different places in the mall and told them to locate the bathroom. The test subjects were able to do this and the problem was considered solved. Except that complaints kept coming in. The reason? The customers had an added cause for anxiety which caused them to miss the signs. Unlike the test subjects, they actually did need to go to the bathroom.

Hofer went on to give some suggestions on how technical writers can reduce stress for their users. One way of doing this is to incorporate ‘rewards’ into your documentation. Hofer used the example of someone asking directions to the railway station. If you tell them to “walk 500 metres, turn left and proceed 600 metres, then turn right and walk 300 metres” their stress will slowly increase until they reach their destination. They might even give up before that point and ask someone else. However, if you tell them to “walk 500 metres till you come to the bank, turn left and proceed 600 metres till you come to the hotel, turn right and proceed 300 metres to the station,” then each landmark is a ‘reward’ that reduces their stress by confirming to them that they are taking the correct route. Interestingly, Hofer pointed out that men tend to give directions using only distances while women tend to use only landmarks. Neither method is complete; while the former creates stress, the latter will lead to big problems if the person misses a landmark.

Hofer concluded his speech by commenting on some examples of good and bad websites. Dismissing superfluous decoration, he emphasized the importance of clear documentation with titles and subtitles which accurately describe the content. Finally he warned writers that gender bias and cultural insensitivity can also distract readers from your instructions and should be avoided. Hofer’s most important message though was that technical writing should enable users to perform actions, rather than teaching for its own sake. A hard point to dispute, especially if you were that paramedic or the even less fortunate patient.

STC Meeting - December 2001
Can Technical Writers Bridge the Ingenuity Gap?
Speaker: Kim Vicente (Professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and Director of the Cognitive Engineering Laboratory at the University of Toronto)

According to University of Toronto Professor Kim Vicente the answer might be yes. Vicente was the guest speaker at the December meeting of the STC Toronto chapter. A member of the engineering faculty, Vicente studies how human beings interact with technology. His recent work entitled 'Cognitive Work Analysis' has been described as a landmark in this field.

Vicente begun by showing some notorious examples of bad design including government tax forms and the ubiquitous unset flashing clock on many VCRs. While these examples were greeted with laughter, the talk took on a darker tone when he turned his gaze to medicine, nuclear energy and the petrochemical industry. In these areas bad design is not just an annoyance but a cause of horrendous expense and even loss of human life.

Vicente believes that bad design is often the result of 'the ingenuity gap', a concept introduced by Thomas Home-Dixon. Very simply put, this gap is the distance between our rapidly advancing ability to create technology and our much slower developing ability to use it successfully. As an example, Ontario's nuclear power plants are being closed down at tremendous expense, not because we lack the technology to make them safe but because that technology is so difficult to understand that the workers are unable to properly utilize it. So how can the gap be bridged?

The answer, according to Vicente, is to adopt a 'systems based' approach to solving problems. Instead of looking for purely technological answers, we must seek solutions which integrate human users and the technology they use. Key to this search is the design of the product interface or controls, the point of contact between humans and technology. The VCR clock is an essential feature but the difficulty of setting it negates its usefulness. The ingenuity gap can only be prevented by considering both human psychology and technological capability when solving a design problem.

It is here Vicente suggests technical writers, tuned to the needs of users, can play a role. If their input is sought at the design stage they can help create an interface that is logical and intuitive to the user. However, Vicente noted that a technical writer brought in at the last minute will be unable to salvage a poorly designed interface with documentation, no matter how well written.

Vicente concluded his formal presentation by urging people who understand the problem of bad design to spread the word and to help create an environment where good, human centered design is demanded. He went on to take some questions from the audience and also talked about his efforts to reform the engineering curriculum at the University of Toronto. His mission is to encourage or require engineering students to take courses in the humanities with the goal of producing better rounded students who will adopt a more human based approach to design. While the process of these reforms is not complete, he feels that progress has been made. Most encouraging though is that the strongest advocates for reform are industry executives, people who can see the costs of poorly designed technology on a daily basis. They regard these reforms as inevitable, and this can only bode well for future VCR clocks, nuclear reactors and everything in between.