Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Data Transaction

Several times lately I’ve caught myself over-thinking just a bit while typing online. For example, just this week I typed in a tidbit of info, an answer to a question, as a reply on a friend’s status update in Facebook, only to delete it without clicking the Reply button. Once it was in response to a post about countertop materials. Another time it was a query about the best Mac money management software as a replacement for MS Money. Both times, I checked myself because I realized  that I didn’t want Facebook to have knowledge about my opinions or preferences! Now, those that know me would say that I’m normally very open and giving with information online. I love sharing my experiences. But lately I get the willies when I’m on the Facebook site and think of the enormous amounts of data they have about me.

You may scoff at such a realization – especially since I’ve been blogging for five years. But somehow my blog is different. I own the archives, I know how to take down posts, and though they are likely forever archived on the ‘net somewhere, I feel a little more control over their availability. With Facebook, I have no control over their storage or retrieval of my opinions.

Funny thing is, what I’ll often do if I still want to give my friends a bit of info or advice, I’ll hop over to… wait for it… GMail. Why do I trust Google with these tiny tidbits of information about myself and not Facebook? I’m not sure I know the answer yet, but I think about it more and more lately.

Affecting Online Help Statistics

Now, with my blog, I nearly always bring my thinking around to, how does this affect online help? I recently presented at the WebWorks RoundUp here in Austin, and was excited to hear about their new product, WebWorks Reverb. But one audience member asked a great question during my talk about web analytics. “How will data collection be affected if Congress passes a law that regulates how much information can be collected from a browser?” It’s a great question. In fact, just this week, browser maintainers Mozilla (Firefox) and Google (Chrome) have made privacy plugins available that give users the ability to select websites where they do not want to be tracked – using a header indicator, not by blocking cookies or scripts.

Here’s my take on where we stand today as we collect information about our online help and user assistance sites.

Thing is, you can already protect yourself online while browsing by installing plug-ins that refuse cookies, that limit tracing of personal information and identity, but they’re kind of a pain. And you have to understand the whole concept of what’s being collected and draw your own lines. Certainly, depending on the product you’re documenting, the percentage of people with high protection levels on their browser will be higher or lower. Government or regulated industries may already lock their employee’s browsers down tight, preventing data collection while they browse. In open source communities, I believe there’s a healthy disdain for data collection and a heightened awareness of what’s going on under the browser’s hood. It’s possible I’m only tracking 90% of my readers, or fewer. But I think that generally, readers of online help sites are willing to inform us of their searches, their time spent on site, if it helps us improve the content. Sarah Maddox’s post shows that Atlassian and its customers get great value from their online user documentation. As we implement more and more conversational content, it’s apparent that readers want to tell us what’s working well and what’s not. I’m heading to O’Reilly Strata next week to learn more about big data, telling data stories, and Twitter data analytics. I hope to learn more about data applications for technical communication.

What do you think? Are you more aware of the data you’re giving away about yourself? Are the trade-offs worth the data transaction?

techpubs writing

Repurposing and Reinventing Content

I think we’re all adjusting to a new way of learning thanks to the copious amounts of information available. You don’t have to take a class, you just have to do it. And to “do it” often times you need to find a detailed-enough hands-on project to do, or else you won’t learn.

Photo courtesy emdot on FlickrHere’s a case-in-point. Have you fiddled with the knots you’re supposed to tie for your son’s Boy Scout badge, or tried to secure a rock-climbing harness? You won’t learn it unless you try the knot, again and again. I believe that hands-on learning applies to computer and technology tasks, even if they are abstract. When I started with a new version control system, the commands were fumbly to me, and I constantly used “crutches” to get through the task. At first, I had to repeatedly read a wiki page and follow the steps to the letter. Eventually, though, the commands become second nature as I tried, and tried again.

With this in mind, how can you take “learning” content and turn it into a more animated walk-through which will then lead someone to do the example? Let’s take a look at the Animated Knots iPhone App. There’s a great article on the Statesman about an Austin family who have taken web content and turned it into an iPhone app. Austin is a hot bed of mobile development, I think, and this is a great example of a successful mobile app.

Here are some of my observations about their success.


First, they sound like they use persona-based design. They had four ideal audiences in mind – climbers, fishers, Scouts, and boaters. A surprising additional group they discovered later and were proud to serve were fire fighters or rescue workers.

Labor of love

Also, they gave their content time – the original site was a labor of love for ten years. With four million website visitors a year, I’m sure they used both hard data like web analytics along with soft data like the incoming success stories from their main audience members to improve the content in that time.

Visual appeal

They also use a lot of photos – which they shoot themselves. From the Statesman article:

All of our animations are based on individual still photos linked to form a sequence that shows a knot tying itself; the more complex the knot, the more photos and time required to illustrate it properly. Some knots may require only a few images, others as many as 25.

If you’ve worked with images in your technical writing endeavors, you know that this type of training is a lot of work. Knowing exactly how to break a task into steps, knowing what angle to shoot from, and knowing whether you can insert a substep, these are all difficult but if you’re good at it, it’ll show in the training product.

Seasonal timing

Their app was featured in the iTunes store during the U.S. summer months, which was just the right content at just the right time for people enjoying the outdoors with their iPhones in tow.

Existing in an ecosystem with lots of adoption

The reporter, Omar Gallaga, asked Martin Grogono, one of the family members maintaining the site and app, about the platforms they had released on. Martin explained that the iTunes store and high installed base of iPhone users was a boon to their app. They’re considering the Android platform but haven’t pursued the Windows phone quite yet.

techpubs tools

Open Help is Open

The tech writers who are established, recognized figures in open source you can probably count on your fingers and toes. About two years ago they gathered for the Writing Open Source conference, hosted by Emma Jane Hogbin. I couldn’t attend myself – it was the year of the pinata bat incident. But the group of people who were there are passionate about open source and documenting it. Shaun McCance, the GNOME doc team leader (fearless at that), has gathered a program committee of sorts to start a new conference, built on the energy and connectivity at Writing Open Source, called Open Help.

Open Help! I’m immersed in it daily now, coordinating OpenStack documentation. Open Help embraces all the people and systems that enable us to do amazing things with open source software. Open Help promotes open, transparent techniques for documentation and support, whether through community-based techniques, open source culture, corporate and enterprise settings. Open Help is both Open and Helpful! What more can we ask of our community documentation and support efforts than these two things? But how do you commit to openness and deliver on that promise? We all want to talk to each other about that and share experiences.

Scheduled for June 3 to 5, 2011, this conference will bring together the leads and supporting actors for successful open source projects. We will share ideas, best practices, success stories, and working systems that all of us can use to create and manage the best Open Help possible.

Open Help Conference, Cincinnati, OH June 3-5, 2011

Conference Format

Just like Open Help is not your parent’s help system, the Open Help Conference is not your parent’s conference. We want to encourage as much engagement and interaction as possible while still providing learning and sharing opportunities. How? By combining the best elements of traditional conferences, camps, and unconferences.

Conference Schedule

Held over a weekend, the intent is for people to pop in for as long as they can while also encouraging project sprints or retreats following the weekend.


We’re not simply inviting conference participants, we’re encouraging activators to join us in Cincinnati in June. As those who work as community members on open source projects can attest, you get more out of open source when you really connect with the vision for the project. We’re encouraging those who share a vision of better user experience, accurate and connected documentation, and top-notch responsive customer support to participate. Registration is now open for just $80, and will go up to $100 at the end of February.


This event’s success depends largely on participation and sponsorship, so we invite everyone to get involved in some way.

We want to encourage participation and interaction with our supporters. Ideally, a sponsor will send a group of people to participate. There’s real value in the connections and sharing that will happen in-person at the event. Contact me for more information about becoming a sponsor.