Something old, something new – design patterns

I’m feeling a little late to the party of patterns that I’ve been reading about lately, but after attending Michael Hughes’ STC webinar presentation “Pattern Language as a Workshop Management Tool” where we saw patterns for user assistance, and we were really intrigued by an internal wiki page he pulled up giving DITA patterns to IBM info developers. Turns out, he had read my wiki article from STC Intercom and has been working on that internal wiki for a while.

His article, “A Pattern Language for User Assistance” is an excellent read. He introduces the idea that you can use a template to describe where a user might be triggered to seek assistance and then describe how to contextually place assistance and offer wireframe models for others to follow when implementing user assistance. A pattern template can be as simple as “here’s the context, here’s the solution, let’s name it as the How-to pattern.” Michael Hughes’ pattern template is slightly more complex but context and solution are the basic elements.

I went on the hunt for more examples of User Assistance Patterns. I found both JoAnn Hackos’ article “Design Patterns: Creating Consistent Information Designs for Print and Web and the DITA design patterns article on DeveloperWorks. Both are great article, and as a co-worker said, the guys at IBM are doing some of the most advanced information architecture and design available today. And even two and three years ago I might add.

Our group discussed how we’d really like to ensure that our user assistance (UA) patterns follow DITA’s patterns – because in Austin, more and more writers that we would potentially hire will be familiar with DITA. So if our UA patterns already match DITA’s patterns, it’s that much easier to get a new writer up and running.

Don Day said that there is a new Help workgroup with the OASIS DITA Technical Committee that will specify patterns for organizing UA sets. This type of work would help immensely with merged help sets even within one company, not to mention plug-ins for open source software projects and the like.

Don also alerted me to the DITA Troubleshooting plugin contributed by an info dev team at IBM. I plan to investigate further because that work would give any information architect a huge head start on designing topics for troubleshooting. An excellent reusable pattern indeed. They even have 12 role-based elements for use in responses when there is a problem – I imagine the use is for writing different instructions for sysadmins who might respond differently than end-users – but I’d need to really study the implementation.

Bob Doyle has mentioned patterns as well, in this Best Practices Reporting with DITA post. He sees the helpfulness of Object Oriented Design Patterns – which are the famous example among programmers – and he proposes a design patterns domain. Very interesting idea.

So while in some ways I’m late to the pattern party, in other ways, many opportunities still abound for reusable patterns in user assistance and other design patterns for technical communication that can be DITA-based. The ultimate vision – one set of patterns that all technical communicators can use and that these patterns plug in with each other with few seams. (Sewing metaphors should be allowed. This is about patterns, after all.)


  • November 19, 2007 - 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for another thought-provoking entry.

    Personally, I worry that things like industry-wide standards will end up holding us back in the long run.

    While some of us focus on the anatomy of a how to, others are finding out that all our topic taxonomies converge with a single 15-second embedded video. It’s a How to. No, it’s a marketing piece. No, it’s conceptual. No, it’s an example.

    I’m guessing there are accommodations for new technologies, but I didn’t see them in my quick read of your links. I look forward to hearing more as you explore it all.

    Meanwhile, thanks for the grasshopper article!


  • November 21, 2007 - 9:20 am | Permalink

    Hi Cat, excellent perspective and it seems like there are two camps – one wants DITA-based standards, the other wants wikis with embedded video (in fact I just commented on the Wiki as forum, FAQ, HTML editor, XML editor, or CMS? post about such a thing.)

    It’s as if in my work life, I’m seeking standards as a way to wrangle an Author-it database with 20,000 objects in it… but in my volunteer work with OLPC, I’m constantly seeking wiki-based doc with video and images-only to communicate concepts. What a dichotomy!

    So, I hope that there are accommodations for new technologies, but there will be mashups along the way where you simply guide your team that “video is procedure only, never concept” and that’s that. I believe even with mashups like video in wiki, you could apply patterns to assist with consistency so that user’s expectations are met when they click an embedded video.

    That might make no sense whatsoever when I read it tomorrow, but it sounds good this bright November morning in Austin. Thanks for making me think hard about all of it!

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