Monthly Archives: August 2010

A Simple Thank You

I recently needed the assistance of Apple Care when my iTunes account went a little wonky. Long story short, I needed to disconnect my iTunes account from my credit card.

The support rep was friendly, kind, and understanding. She worked pretty quickly within the system to get me what I needed. All in all, a great customer service experience.

The next day, I received a link to an online survey and was happy to fill it out – whether a sense of obligation or plain appreciation motivated me, I took the time to fill it out.

After submitting the survey, this page displayed:

I love it! It’s simple, minimal, and international. I instantly recognized “Tack” as Swedish thanks to my recent guidebook purchases in preparation for my trip to speak at UA Europe. It doesn’t contain any links, as if to say, thanks for your time, we won’t tempt you to take any more time reading.

On today’s web, where some manipulate content to manipulate people, this was a wonderful page to land upon. Thank you Apple.

Writing Engaging Technical Documentation

Engaging technical documentation isn’t written by Tina the Brittle Tech Writer. Who is she?

She’s the technical writer in Dilbert’s engineering department. Tina believes any conversation within hearing distance is intended as an insult to her profession and her gender. She strives to maintain her dignity while surrounded by engineers who don’t have a proper respect for her work.

Tina cares more about defensible positions on the engineering department than serving the customer. I love it when I hear people say, “I no longer work for development. I work for the user.” They say it with disruption and evolution in their hearts and minds. They fully intend to serve the user the best they can.

Of course, even the best laid plans can get thrown out the window in a tech writer’s daily work. But here are some ways to engage users with technical documentation. If you’re skeptical that these techniques are effective, go straight to the content analysis of user ratings. Helping 800,000 users in a year is an impressive number.

Go beyond text

People are drawn to images on a computer screen. The Community Roundtable has a great report available that you can glean many content best practices from. For example, the report indicates that “People seldom form relationships with text alone.” Boy, that’s true, and should compel us to incorporate pictures or a video.

I know, I know. Screen captures are a pain to take in the first place, and hard to maintain over time. Let’s think outside the box for a moment. Another way to incorporate images is to use artwork, however simple or stylistic. Take a look at this watercolor created by Oceana Rain Fields, a participant in this summer’s workshop at the Rural Design Collective web site. Illustration used under the CC Attribution 3.0 license (credited to Oceana Rain Fields with permission).

This image sticks with the readers of the manual, especially kids like the child-like figure shown. It should help the users identify with the manual (available online) and get cozy with it.

A friendly, helpful, and confident voice goes a long way in building a relationship in this asynchronous conversation. Screencasting, where you narrate while demonstrating a software feature, is one way to go beyond text in user assistance delivery. As an example, offers screencasters and users a voice by enabling video uploads to their site. They pre-seeded the site with about 20 professionally-created videos, but after that, users were encouraged to upload videos.

Write informally

Michael Verdi, the content manager for (SUMO) has an excellent slide deck talking about Awesome Documentation where he describes some writing style choices they made recently to “Engage the Brain” including inserting humor or surprise and writing conversationally, such as “Can’t decide on just one page? No problem. Firefox lets you set a group of websites as your home page.”   Janet Swisher noted on the FLOSS Manuals discussion list that he also rewrote pages to not just answer what you can do, but why you’d want to do it.

Measure and adjust

Copywriters for campaigns know to do AB split testing – try out two brochures or two web pages on a sampling of people in the database. See which copy and design does best, then stick with that messaging until you see a drop off in use of the information. We don’t employ that technique often in technical communications, but as our copy becomes more web-enabled, I think we should start.

For example, some of the rewrites to pages on the (SUMO) site had measurable impact to the helpfulness of the page. For two of the rewritten pages, ratings were enabled. They could measure a 13% increase the number of people who clicked “Yes” for “Was this article helpful?” at the bottom of the How to set the home page article. Because of the high traffic on their site, that’s over 1,000 people per day. Given the number of people who view that page and the similarly-edited Profiles page, the two re-written pages were helpful to 800,000 more people per year. This demonstrates the power of web analytics, especially on high-traffic help sites! This example is fantastic.

Comment and be commented upon

I have many ideas for implementing comments in nearly any online help system in my article on the WritersUA site titled, Putting the User in User Assistance. Comments connect users to each other and to the authors of the content.

Enable storytelling

Your users have stories. Can you find them with some online searches to discover a hurdle they recently cleared or a snafu they’ve found? While case studies are typically under the purview of a marketing department, try to let users tell their stories, or find a way to showcase user stories periodically by linking to their blogs or tweets.

What other ideas do you have for engaging users with documentation? I’d love to hear more ideas.

techpubs tools wiki writing

Even More Technical Documentation Wikis

wiki neon sign

Last spring I wrote up a blog entry pointing out some additional technical documentation wikis to add to a list I had in my “Wiki-fy Your Doc Set” presentation. A recent Twitter request asking for technical documentation wiki examples brings me back to both lists to try to compile an even longer, more updated list. These are in no particular order and the links were tested in August 2010. Other wikis are behind support logins but this list offers wikis that can be viewed without a login.

It’s no wonder I have to keep creating new lists. The examples are constantly changing. For example, the Facebook Developer wiki is being moved to another site.

Finally, if you are considering a wiki for technical documentation, I recommend reading my post, Hurdles and Hardships using Wikis for Documentation, reading Sarah Maddox’s blog, buying my book, and sharing your experiences with others. Here’s to enjoying the wiki journey.

Are TechComm Bloggers Influential?

I’ve been immersed in Social Media Metrics working with LugIron since early 2010. Because of this recent immersion I took a nerds-eye view of the recent post on the MindTouch blog, The Most Influential Technical Communicator Bloggers. Pretty exciting to be in such esteemed company. Excellent to have a badge to display, check it out!

MindTouch Most Influential Technical Communication Bloggers

Thanks go to Mark Fidelman and the MindTouch crew for compiling this list. The metrics nerd in me wanted to investigate further and do some more analysis. So here goes.

Metrics for bloggers and more

To be sure, social networking metrics do not have to be the same as blogging metrics. One missing metric, oddly enough, was number of subscribers. Understandable though. It’s not easy to find out subscriber numbers for other people’s feeds. It’s straightforward to get statistics for Feedburner feeds using either their API or the ol’ ~fc trick (See for an example and my own subscriber stats.) But unless each blogger is willing to share their subscriber numbers, that column couldn’t be filled out. Plus, I know that some bloggers don’t worry about RSS subscribers and focus on building up an email subscriber list instead. For example, Scott Able’s RSS subscribers likely total less than 10,000, but his email lists are upwards of 70,000 addresses.

Then again, perhaps subscriber numbers aren’t all that descriptive of someone’s influence. As it turns out, Google’s PageRank is quite good at social network analysis. It’s on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest rank. The highest of all the tech comm bloggers has a 7/10, which is the same as TechMeme. That’s great for tech comm!

In case you’re curious about the formulas that go into Google PageRank, it takes these four factors into account according to Lithium’s Principal Scientist of Analytics Michael Wu in his post, Are All Influencers Created Equal?:

  1. Degree centrality: measures how many connections a user has.
  2. Closeness centrality: measures how fast a user can reach the whole network.
  3. Eigenvector centrality: measures how reputable a user is.
  4. Betweenness centrality: measures how many critical diffusion paths go through the user.

With those centrality measures in mind, you can see how each blogger’s blog works to help them acquire higher page rank. And these work into other scores on the list, such as Twitter Klout and so forth.

What is influence, really?

Very recently there was a quite loud backlash to Fast Company’s Influence Project. Check out these scathing posts.

Wow! The project was not about influence, nor even popularity. It was plain old link baiting. There didn’t seem to be any goal from the start. Without goals, influence is useless anyway. The supposed goal of a participant in the FC Influence project would be to get a big picture on the Fast Company site. Unfortunately it ignored the fact that many people want not to get attention paid to them but to their cause or passion.

Earlier this year, Lithium’s Principal Scientist of Analytics Michael Wu posted about the six factors of influence in online communities. His model is wonderfully simple – there are influencers and targets. Two factors for influencers are credibility, meaning how much expertise the person can provide in their domain) and bandwidth, the ability to transmit on a particular channel. In this case, both their blog and Twitter use was measured as a channel. The list would be a bit different if it were to measure influence in STC, on the Techwr-l mailing list, or on Twitter alone. I believe combining Twitter and blogging is a good move, because as Technorati points out in the 2009 State of the Blogsphere report, “Bloggers use Twitter much more than does the general population.”

Without targets, though, the influencers cannot share their passion.

Any keys to success?

I’m presupposing with that section heading that you actually want to know how to become an influencer. Perhaps you do not. But here are some takeaways from my experience and from my book about using social media for tech comm goals.

  • Relevance – Make sure your message is nearly always relevant to the subject matter. It’s okay to stray once in a while, to blend the personal with the professional, and make sure people know there’s a real person sending out these messages.
  • Timing – Understand when your audience is listening and looking for articles to read. Be aware of a follow-the-sun message system when your audience spills beyond your time zone borders. If you are looking for a decision to be made based on the timing of the message, put yourself in the readers shoes and walk through their decision process. Watch the stats and see when the most visitors come to your site and when the most conversions occur.
  • Alignment – You can align yourself in one channel for the greatest payoff. For me, I don’t spend much time on mailing lists or forums but mainly use my blog as an outlet for my thoughts. This laser focus over the last five years has paid off for me.
  • Confidence – Being the right person at the right time is one key to success. You have to make sure people have good reason to trust what you say. Whether that’s through proving what you know or admitting when you’re wrong, you have to instill confidence in people to be a good influencer.
  • Proficiency – I’m not as proficient with video for communication as I am with text and images. I’m aware of that in my blogging work and haven’t tested myself recently to stretch those boundaries. Tom Johnson has become increasingly proficient in audio and often works in new media such as screencasting to improve his channel reach and message. We can certainly learn from his good examples.

Notice that I don’t have super prescriptive keys here – I don’t tell you to blog twice a week or make sure your posts are at least 500 words long. You have to find your own ways to make these keys work for you.

My goals certainly involve influence, but also to be helpful. I think you’ll find that in my blogging. Personal and professional connections are also important to me – call them weak ties but I enjoy meeting people through my blog. It has offered me opportunities I hadn’t imagined when I first started blogging for my employer five years ago.  I’m extremely happy that tech comm has emerged as a profession as “one to watch” on the blogosphere.