As a technical writer, anything that mentions “manual” (or “documentation”, for that matter) tends to catch my eye. I suppose it’s an occupational hazard. But when I saw this post from my friend, Steve Jones, it made me take notice.
I’m reblogging this for my own personal reference as much as anything else. Suppose you had a set of instructions for yourself? How would it read?
I might try this exercise for myself at some point, but for the moment, read Steve’s article, and see if you can come up with your own manual for yourself.
Many of us have spent time looking through manuals or the documentation for some software or product. I know I’m on the MS docs site regularly for work, and there is no shortage of times I’ve used various manuals to help me fix something around the house. We usually use a manual when we want to learn how something is supposed to work, or how to get it to do what we want.
I saw a post on a personal user manual that I thought was a good idea for some people, maybe many people. This isn’t a manual for how you should live your life or work, but rather, how others might interact with you. This manual describes how you work, what motivates you, stimulates you, what pleases you, and even the environment in which are most productive.
Whether or not this is something you might give to co-workers…
This will be my first in-person event since SQL Saturday Rochester in 2020, right before the pandemic started! I’m very much looking forward to this trip, as I enjoy traveling! I’ve spoken at a number of virtual events since I went to Rochester, but they’re just not the same thing. I’m looking forward to being able to shake people’s hands (or give fist/elbow bumps, if they’re still anxious about spreading germs), handing out business cards, and taking in the local culture. I’m always game for a plate of Buffalo wings! (My wife and I were in Buffalo last summer, and we made it to the Anchor Bar. I’m hoping to sample some Duff’s this time around!)
It’s been a while since I posted a speaking schedule update, and I figured I was overdue.
Right now, I have only one confirmed speaking engagement: the WE Local Conference in Buffalo, NY on April 8-9. Last I checked, the conference schedule still hasn’t been released, so I don’t know if I’m speaking on April 8 or April 9 (all I know is that I’m speaking!). I’m still waiting for the schedule to come out before I make my travel plans!
This will be my first in-person speaking engagement since Rochester SQL Saturday back in February, 2020, just before the start of the COVID pandemic; every presentation I’ve given since then has been virtual. It’ll feel good to get back on the road again!
This week, I was introduced to a new (to me) methodology called the C4 model. Now, in this context, C4 does not refer to the high explosive. In this case, C4 refers to a development methodology. Mostly, it refers to software development, but it has other applications as well, and that includes document development.
As part of my indoctrination into this methodology, I was provided this link. So far, it looks like an interesting read. I’m still reading about it, but here’s my understanding of the methodology thus far.
First of all, C4 stands for context, containers, components, and code. Think of it as looking at something at four different levels, from the top level (context) that shows the big picture, all the way down to the most minute detail (code).
The top level (context) refers to the big picture. Using maps as an example, here is a map of the United States — for purposes of this example, the big picture. You’ll notice that I drew a black box around New York State, which indicates the next level to which I will zoom.
If we want to drill down to the next level (container), a state would be the next logical level. So for the next map, I’m drilling down to my home state of New York. Again, I’m drawing a black box around the area to where I will drill down next.
A city or region is the next logical step (component). Let’s drill down even further, this time to my home city of Troy. Again, I’m drawing a black box around the next level to which I will zoom.
The bottom level of this methodology (code) shows the minute detail. For personal privacy reasons, I’m not using my home location, so instead, I’ll use one of my favorite establishments: Brown’s.
You’ll notice that I did not draw a black box in the last illustration; this is because we are at the lowest level in this model. I suppose if I really wanted to get granular, I could drill down into building floor plans, but for the purposes of this example, I think the point is made.
From how I understand it, the C4 methodology appears to be used for diagramming and documentation. It addresses a shortcoming in many technical diagrams in which they can be confusing and difficult to follow. C4 addresses this by showing how components relate to the big picture.
While I haven’t (yet) come across this in my reading, I want to note something that I think is important. When I captured the maps you see above, I thought it was important to highlight the context to which each level was related. If you look only at the bottom code level, you only see a building and a street (although I did make it a point to also capture the street name and route number). If you don’t know what city or state this place is located, then this macro level is likely useless information. The same is true for technical documents. Each small piece fits into a larger puzzle. If you don’t understand how the puzzle piece fits, you don’t get a sense of how the piece relates to the rest of the puzzle, and it becomes confusing and hard to follow.
As I said, I’m still reading about this, so I’m not yet sure what additional intricacies about the methodology I need to learn. Nevertheless, the concept does sound interesting, and I’m looking forward to learning more about it as I improve my skills as a technical communicator.
Any application developer will (and should) tell you how important end user testing is for their product development. It’s an important part of the development lifecycle. Developers need to know if their applications actually work, if they work the way they’re intended, and if their interfaces can actually be used. Without user testing, developers put blind faith in what they produce, and they have to assume that their applications are perfect every time, all the time — which, as we all know, always happens. User testing is critical in ensuring that you create a quality product.
So how often does your documentation go through user testing?
I’ve said many times that document development needs to go through the same steps as application development, and this is one of those steps. It is (sadly) common for documentation to be released without being checked for accuracy or usability. This is another way in which document development gets absolutely no respect, whatsoever.
If you’ve written, say, a set of instructions, one of the best things you can do is to give it to someone to make sure (s)he can follow it. How (s)he follows it readily tells you how well it was (or wasn’t) written, what does and doesn’t work, what adjustments need to be made, and so on.
It may not even entirely be the wording that needs adjustment. How easily did the person find information within the document? Was it there but not easily found? Was it overlooked? User testing not only can determine content accuracy, it can also serve the same purpose as UX/UI in that it can determine how effective object placement and document layout is.
And like application development, user testing your documentation determines what adjustments need to be made before it’s released. Additionally, user testing isn’t just critical for development; it’s important for document maintenance as well. Documentation that hasn’t been adjusted for changed environments makes for inaccurate information. Much of that can be caught through user testing.
I’ve said time and again that document development needs to be treated the same way as application development. User testing is an important step in that life cycle. It determines that your document quality is improved when it is released. Without it, you run the risk of releasing bad, poor quality, or inaccurate documentation.
In my presentations, I preach that keeping it simple is key to effective technical communication. It takes effort to read (you can write this on my gravestone: reading is work!), and the less you make someone work, the more effective the document will be.
This particular tip comes with a caveat: “it depends.” (If you’re a DBA, you’ll recognize this as being “the standard DBA answer.”) Among other things, it depends on your target audience, and it depends on the type of document you’re writing.
Consider the audience. If you’re writing for peers, chances are that you’d be okay with including technical jargon or abbreviations that your colleagues will understand. But if you’re writing for managers, other departments, external customers, or anyone who doesn’t understand the technology that you see regularly, chances are that you will need to keep it high level.
Most of these people don’t want to see, and often aren’t interested in, detail. I once had a manager who was fond of saying “don’t tell me how to build the clock; just tell me what time it is!” In other words, just get to the point. Don’t get bogged down in the details. Unfortunately, this is a habit that I see all too often with technologists who feel that they need to include every single little detail. Chances are, it isn’t going to be read. Don’t do it!
It also depends on what kind of document you’re writing. If you’re writing, say, a glossary of terms, a systems administration manual, or a data governance document, then yes, things will need to be spelled out and defined clearly. But if you’re writing a step-by-step guide, a checklist, or a quick-reference manual, things need to be interpreted in a few minutes, possibly even seconds. For example, if I’m writing a step-by-step guide, my rule of thumb is, if an instruction cannot be followed in a few seconds, the instruction has failed, and it must be rewritten.
Good writing matters
I said in my previous article that you don’t necessarily have to have command of a language to be a technical communicator. At the same time, the better command you have of a language, the better your writing will be.
In my documentation presentation, I cite an example of why good grammar matters. Take these two sentences which basically say the same thing, but one is written in active voice, while the other is written in passive voice.
The boy mowed the lawn. (Active)
The lawn was mowed by the boy. (Passive)
Question: which sentence is easier to read? I’d say the active voice (and I’m sure many English teachers would agree).
There are many more examples, I’m sure, where good grammar makes a difference, makes things clearer, and contributes toward more efficient writing. Bottom line: if you write well, your documentation is better.
Stop saying “PLEASE!!!” (Avoid filler words)
One of my biggest technical writing pet peeves is using “please” in technical documentation. I’ve written about this before. You are NOT asking people for a favor, you are TELLING them to do something! “Please” is a filler word that not only takes up space unnecessarily, it is downright annoying to read.
“Please,” however is not the only filler word to avoid. I don’t have a comprehensive list of words to avoid, but off the top of my head, words such as “like,” “professional,” “extremely,” and so on should be avoided. The more words that are added, the more difficult it becomes to read.
Some other statements may not necessarily be fillers, but they might not add anything, either. My advice: if you’re trying to tighten up a sentence, eliminate unnecessary words. If the sentence reads well without them, leave them out.
Use illustrations and examples
The adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true! An illustration often describes a concept much better than just words can.
Which of these instructions would you rather follow? Would you rather follow this…
Even if I’m looking up an instruction, if it includes an example, I will often refer to the example first, and not even bother with what’s written, unless I have to glean some information from the text.
Let me ask a question. If I wrote this ‘blog article without any headings, would you want to read it? You’d likely see lots of black text paragraphs without any idea as to what each one is about. Headings provide an overview of each section and topic. They provide a reference that’s easy for the reader to find what they want. They can even determine how a document is structured. Long story short: headings make a document easier to reference.
Let someone else do it
No, I’m not saying this as a cop-out! We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and for many people, writing and communication might not be a strength. So why not let someone else do the documentation heavy lifting for you?
Even if you’re not the one doing the actual writing, you’re still an important part of the writing process. It’s called being an SME (Subject Matter Expert). You have valuable information that you want to pass along. The writer is your interpreter. The writer will refer to you for information. (S)he will likely be asking you a lot of questions, which very much makes you part of the documentation process. Even a conductor is playing an instrument; (s)he is playing the ensemble that (s)he is directing. Being an SME is the same principle; you’re directing someone to do the actual writing.
These are only a few suggestions toward making your documentation better. There are many more ideas that I didn’t even touch, and they would likely make this article much longer than it already is.
Good documentation is essential for any business, and can often prevent issues before they arise. Keeping it simple goes a long way in making your documentation efficient and easy to follow.
If this is your attitude, you are effectively taking a crap on my profession.
This is what drives me to defend what I do, write ‘blog articles like this, and speak at events like SQL Saturday and PASS Data Summit. This is something I am extremely passionate about, and I consider this a war against attitudes that technical communication is a soft skill.
However, before I start screaming from my soapbox, let me back up a little bit. My first question to myself was, what exactly are soft skills? Sure, people will say it’s the ability to get along with other people and to communicate effectively (more on that latter part in a moment). I did a Google search and came across this Indeed article on what they say are “soft” and “hard” skills.
Let me expand on communication as being a soft skill. It’s true that the ability to communicate is definitely a skill that should be honed and polished by nearly any working professional; indeed, nearly all my presentations are geared toward professional development and soft skills. And the ability to communicate technical concepts is a skill that, I believe, every professional should develop.
But here’s where the trouble starts. Too many people — I daresay, nearly everyone who is not in the profession — lump “the ability to communicate effectively” — a soft skill — together with “technical communication” — which is a profession and a hard skill. There is a major difference between the two. And I think this is what gets us into trouble. That communication is often listed as both a soft and hard skill gets people confused. You never see “the ability to write effective code snippets” or “ad hoc engineering” listed as soft skills, and nobody ever confuses software development or engineering as being soft skills. But communication is a basic soft skill, and this is where the trouble for us professional technical communicators begins.
For starters, a well-developed technical communication project makes use of a life cycle, and — I’ve said this before — it is no different from SDLC. The processes are identical. There is planning involved. If you work in an Agile environment, you should even create tickets for the projects. I once spoke at a user group meeting where I was asked, how do you plan a documentation project? My answer: treat it the same way you would a software project (hence why I always say, “treat documentation like software”). A well-organized documentation project involves planning, building, testing, adjusting, and versioning — just like software.
Technical communication also requires certain skill sets. Anyone can communicate technical concepts. But it takes a professional communicator to organize those concepts in a way that can be used by audiences. Some of the skill sets required include, but are not limited to, design, writing skills, graphic design, information architecture, UX/UI, and a solid command of the language of your choice. These are skills that are required by professional communicators, but not necessarily by non-communications professionals who are looking to improve their soft skills.
Some of us sing Happy Birthday, or sing along to the radio, and some of us do a pretty good job of it — but that doesn’t make us professional singers. Likewise, many of us communicate well, but that doesn’t make us all professional communicators. While there may be some overlap, there is a big difference between effective communication as a soft skill and technical communication as a profession. Professional communicators, like other technical professionals, need certain resources in order to perform their jobs effectively. And if you refuse to recognize the level of effort and professionalism that goes into it, you are effectively disrespecting the profession.
I went grocery shopping the other day. I picked up what I thought were two identical bottles of salad dressing (in the photo above). I remember thinking how strange it was that they put the same bottles of salad dressing in two different spots on the shelf. Nevertheless, I took one from each side and tossed them in my cart. It wasn’t until much later, after I was home, when I looked in the pantry, saw the two bottles sitting together on the shelf, and realized that one was organic, while the other was not.
To be honest, I really couldn’t care less as to whether a food product is organic or not. I usually buy the regular product because it tends to cost less and usually has a longer shelf life. (Personally, I believe the purported health benefits of organic products are minimal and overhyped, but I digress; that’s not what this is about.) But what I am wondering is how I was blind to the fact that one said “organic” while the other didn’t.
I’m sure there are cognitive and behavioral studies as to why people are blind to certain pieces of information, but that’s a topic that goes beyond my level of knowledge or expertise. (Before anyone says anything about information bias, I will mention that while I do tend to buy non-organic products, I really don’t have a strong bias one way or the other.) Rather, what I’m writing about is the fact that information can and does get overlooked. So what do technical communicators and UX/UI designers do to combat this?
For starters, I’ll say that the fact that information is missed is a matter of when, not if. Using myself as an example, I’m the first to admit that I often have the attention span of a flea, and as such, I’ll often skim, as opposed to deeply read, documentation that isn’t my own. As such, I’ll often overlook information. Granted, many people are more thorough than I am, I’m sure, but I guarantee that everyone will miss at least one thing. We are humans, not computers, and we are not capable of scanning, parsing, and processing every little bit of information that comes our way, so it’s unlikely that we’ll absorb or retain everything that’s thrown at us.
This brings me to another of my mantras: reading is work. (You can put this on my gravestone.) Reading requires effort. The more effort that is required, the more something is likely to be missed. One of my biggest documentation pet peeves is anytime someone says “it’s right there in the documentation,” but when you look at the documentation, the information is buried like a Where’s Waldo puzzle. Nobody can be expected to find information like that, and people who insist that that is valid documentation are not, in my honest opinion, technical communicators. Bottom line: if you have an important piece of information, don’t expect it to be read if you bury it within bad design or a large black paragraph swath.
However, that wasn’t the case with the bottle of salad dressing. The bottle was clearly marked. Yet I didn’t notice it until I got home. So what can writers and designers do to mitigate missed information? I don’t know if I have the answers, but I do have some ideas.
For starters, placement matters (good designers understand this). I admit that I was confused that these bottles were on opposite sides of the same shelf. Maybe this wasn’t enough. Placing them on separate shelves likely would’ve helped. Or, maybe separating them a little from the other group of bottles (the documentation equivalent would be utilizing whitespace). Maybe even placing the bottles in a separate section dedicated to organic products might’ve made a difference as well.
Another idea would be to use different appearances, such as varying fonts, graphics, or colors. As you can see in the above photo, both bottles use white labels and feature a picture of a peach. That design led me to believe the products were identical, but yet, I completely ignored the fact that one said “organic” while the other didn’t. We often comprehend visual cues before text, so changing the picture or the label color likely would’ve been enough for me to differentiate them at a glance.
I’m sure there are other ideas as well, but the bottom line is that information can and will be overlooked. By considering better information design, the chances of information being overlooked can be minimized.