Tuesday, June 24, 2014

I wish more people who like to write would look into technical communication as well as English before they decide on a major.

Joe MosesAssistant Director of Graduate Studies, MS and Certificate Programs in Scientific and Technical Communication

I've talked with hundreds of students who like to write but don't consider tech comm as a career because they they don't have hard science backgrounds and assume they're not qualified. 

They equate writing with English or journalism.

Many tell me they didn't learn about tech comm until they graduated from college, and I'm working to change that because so many people tell me they would have chosen tech writing if they had understood more fully what the field is.

If you know of someone who fits just some of the following description of technical writers, please share this post with them.
  • You're curious about new ways to use your writing skills.
  • Writing is part of your identity. You’re invested in words, style, and voice. You revise and edit because getting it right is part of who you are. 
  • For you, writing is a state of mind. It’s a way of learning, of teaching, and of problem solving.
  • You use writing as a tool to solve problems.
  • You’re an interpreter. You’re good at asking questions and making what you learn come alive for others.
  • Most of the time you would rather be writing.
  • You write stories. You understand the importance of characterization, setting, dialogue, tone, dramatic tension, and a unique voice.
  • You’re interested in helping groups from different backgrounds find common understanding through narratives in which fully dimensional characters reveal human behavior and motives.
  • You have your own views, and your work has to be in line with your beliefs. You’re interested in advocacy writing in private- or public-sector organizations across the political, educational, healthcare, government, or social spectrum.
  • You’re interested in creatively influencing others’ understanding of global climate change, immigration policy, ethics, world food distribution, or intercultural communication, to name just a handful of important issues.
  • You’re interested in publishing. You want to use writing, editing, information design, or intercultural communication to make complex topics accessible to wider audiences.
  • You want to use the latest tools to create Web sites, mobile apps, ebooks, blogs, videos, podcasts, or multimedia presentations.
The traits above are far more important than having a specific technical background. Our program attracts people from English, management, HR, law, medicine, business, history, journalism, chemistry, psychology, and marketing--among many other fields. 

If you're interested in learning more, my email is moses004@umn.edu. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Purposeful Information Design

Prezis often let style and motion overwhelm content. In an exceptional case from Clint Stephens, below, a familiar and relevant image unifies title, content, visual design, and it makes content accessible thanks to spikey chunking; makes content manageable by enabling procedural narrative.
Content categories make hour scannable by quadrant. Radiating minutes divide quadrants by topic while conquering disorientation via topic continuity along the horizontal dimension—a design that exploits the left/right orientation of nav arrows on the Prezi interface.

Equal attention to verbal concision would reduce syllable count by 40% or more—a step that would make text as scannable as the rest of the design.

Original (See “Tap Forms Online” at 10 o’clock): 58 words. 88 syllables.
“Tap forms is an incredible tool for classroom projects and data collection. Not only will it replace the old clipboard, but it will also capture locations and photos – no need for a separate GPS or camera! Once the data is captured, it’s simple to export it out on a CSV file (a zipped archive if you have photos).”

Revised: 31 words (46% savings). 49 syllables (45% savings)
For classroom projects and data collection
Replaces old clipboard
Captures locations and photos
No GPS or camera required
Export data via CSV
Zip photo archives

Monday, June 24, 2013

Thinking of Page 48 in the Second Edition of Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think

I'm reading Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think: A common sense approach to web usability, which is a good resource for anyone thinking about course design, chunking, and a minimalist approach to content development. For one, in its own design it provides several good examples of chunking and minimalist content. It's one of those books that models what it preaches, so when you read it you're also experiencing its principles in use.

 The idea behind the title is that people go to the web to find information that helps them perform tasks, and the best sites help users find what they need with the least possible effort. According to Krug, one way to chunk effectively is to get rid of half of the words on each page and then get rid of half of what's left. He's only half kidding about the second round of cuts, and his point is that people skim Web content, check out what seems close to what they're looking for, and don't read word for word until they find what they need.

When it comes to finding what users are looking for, most words just get in their way. From the content-development point of view, it's easier to chunk less content than more content. Therefore, he says cut all welcome messages and self-promoting "happy talk" as he calls it. Also, and this is the more vital concern for instructional designers, Krug says: "instructions must die."
"Your objective should always be to eliminate instructions entirely by making everything self-explanatory, or as close to is as possible. When instructions are absolutely necessary, cut them back to the bare minimum." 
Then Krug provides an example of instructions that he prunes from 103 words to 41, one benefit of which is to illustrate how much happy talk and how many instructions we tend to write without realizing how pointless they are. The example is on page 48 of the second edition, and if you only have time to read 1 page of the book, that's a good one. Krug is writing about Web usability, not instructional design, but the advice is as important to instructional design as it is to Web usability. Instructors have to give instructions, so getting into the habit of cutting instructions back to the bare minimum is a worthy goal, and page 48 shows you how to reach it.

Nice page.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Traceability Helps Business and Development Understand Each Other

Traceability came up several times in a recent tech-writing seminar I led, although we never called it traceability. The problem under discussion was communication across disciplines, or how to get the people on the Business side and the people on the Development side to understand each other.

The situation

Business Systems Analysts (BSAs) are often in the middle between Business and Development and charged with creating a business requirements doc (BRD) reflecting Business interests and a functional spec (FS) that Development can use to turn the B requirements into D functions on a web site or in software. Traceability is the BSA's best friend.

According to "Never 'Without a trace': Practical advice on implementing traceability," a piece on IBM's developerWorks site, traceability is "...the ability to trace a project element to other related project elements, especially those related to requirements." In other words, traceability shows relationships among functions and requirements (reqs), making it easier for readers with different backgrounds to understand how reqs map to features.

In your undergraduate days, if you were in a non-technical major, you learned about the importance of audience analysis, or the process of figuring out how much readers already understand about your topic so you can decide how much to spell out and how much to imply. Well, the principle of traceability says, just spell it out because audiences are so far apart that when it comes to common knowledge there's little common ground to stand on. Traceability provides common ground.

Traceability comes from information BSAs include in the functional spec that has the specific purpose of validating and verifying requirements and functions and addressing the basic questions--according to author Thomas Behrens--"Are we building the right product and are we building the product right?" Bs care about the first half of that question; Ds care about the second.

What does traceability look like?

It looks like words or grids/tables/illustrations that show a specific req, feature, and use case in relationship to each other. Here's an example.

When you show relationships, it's easier to measure specific impacts on process. Who is the source of most changes? Who provides the clearest, least ambiguous requirements? Whose are vague? Who's reqs are implemented? Whose are not?

Including traceability in your information-design process provides a way to measure your productivity as technical writers and the value added to the project by the tasks you perform. Behrens cites three specific benefits:

Traceability enables you to measure

1. the percentage of requirements actually implemented
2. the percentage of reqs that test successfully
3. the number of tests that have to be rerun due to changes

No doubt dozens of additional metrics can be derived from traceability efforts, and the more you measure, the more concrete, targeted ways you can improve the information-development process.

Monday, May 13, 2013

GPACW13 at the University of Minnesota

The Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota is hosting the 17th annual Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing, Friday, November 8, 2013 at the Continuing Education Conference Center on St. Paul campus. The CFP is here:https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/gpacw13/cfp.
We look forward to seeing you.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Crowdsourced Definition #1

Participants in ETMOOC created this crowdsourced definition of connected learning, demonstrating the limitations of dictionary definitions. Dictionaries can be definitive and interpretive. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Nonprofit Technology and Communications Conference in Minneapolis includes our presentation, "Tapping the Power of Networked Learning for Professional Development"

Tomorrow's Nonprofit Technology and Communications Conference in Minneapolis includes our presentation, "Tapping the power of Networked Learning for Professional Development," based on findings from our collaborative, cross-disciplinary research project. You can preview it in advance here: http://www.slideshare.net/adanders/networked-learning-for-nonprofits

Participants in this session will learn about and experience two new tools for professional development and training: personal learning networks (PLNs) and massive online open courses (MOOCs). During the fall of 2012, a team of scholars from the University of Minnesota system studied strategies and tools for developing PLNs by taking an international MOOC on the future of higher education. In this session, the collaborators will share what they learned about the power of networked learning for both individual development and organizational innovation. The open, collaborative and interactive learning spaces of the future have important implications for nonprofit leaders, managers and program directors in the years ahead. The session will explore how you can adapt and implement the lessons of networked learning for your own professional development or for the advancement of your organization’s staff.

Abram Anders, assistant professor, Labovitz School of Business and Economics, University of Minnesota - Duluth and Joe Moses, senior lecturer, Department of Writing Studies, University of Minnesota