User testing is important — for documentation

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.

Keeping documentation simple

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.

However, keeping things simple is easier said than done. Taking a complex concept and explaining it in simple terms is a skill (and it keeps me employed as a technical writer). So what can you do to simplify concepts?

Well, here’s a few tips that might help you out!

Keep it high level

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…

(Source: https://www.realsimple.com/beauty-fashion/shoes-accessories/tie-necktie)

…or this?

(Source: https://steemit.com/fashion/@ighoboss/style-made-easy-tie-knotting)

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.

Use headings

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.

Summary

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.

The myth that technical communication is a soft skill

I’ve said many times — and I still continue to preach this — that technical communication is likely the least respected of technical professions. There are very few things that piss me off more than any technical manager or developer who says, “we’re all done with the code. We have ten minutes left. Let’s write the documentation.”

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.

If you don’t think technical communication is a profession, explain to me why an entire professional organization, academic degree programs, and professional positions exist for it.

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.

When information is overlooked

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.

Tools are not documentation

I’ve been running into an issue that I’m not sure how to get around — mostly because it’s somewhat political, and I don’t like to play the political game — and it’s frustrating. Because the issue is work-related, I am intentionally skimping on the details, but I’ll give you the gist of what I’m dealing with.

I’m trying to document a procedure for engineers to obtain temporary administrative access. In order to do so, the engineer needs to fill out a form to request the access. I’m trying to write about how to find and complete the form.

I spoke to the form’s owner (this is where the political part comes in). I explained what I was doing. However, he keeps insisting: “it doesn’t have to be documented, because the form is the documentation.”

He showed me a screen shot of text on the form that explains how the particular request works. The text made a lot of sense, and it would have been ideal to fulfill at least part (if not most) of my needs. I decided that I would create a reference to it. So I looked around the form for it… and could not find it anywhere.

He finally told me that “you had to click a specific button on the form to view the text.”

How was I (or anyone) supposed to know that? (Answer: you couldn’t.) Just by that alone, he contradicted his statement that the form is documentation. (It isn’t.) I wrote about this earlier; he is under the (potentially) dangerous assumption that everything on it is obvious. (Disclosure: the form in question is exactly the same one that I wrote about in the previous article.) He keeps insisting that the form is the documentation. But in spite of that, he gets frustrated that his department continually fields questions about how to do things that could be handled by the form — if it was properly documented. if the form actually was the documentation, it violates a major principle of technical writing: documentation is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work.

Now, I will mention that I like the guy. He’s personable and pleasant, and I do enjoy talking to him. But he is stubbornly clinging to his belief that his tool is the documentation. I try to explain to him that it isn’t, but he won’t have it. And I have to admit that I’m not sure how to handle it.

I pinged the project manager to get her thoughts on how to handle this (I’m still waiting to hear back from her as I write this). She has a better rapport with this person than I do, so she might have some insight as to how to handle this. Nevertheless, I think this is another case where you need to keep an open mind to improve a product, and realize that tools are not necessarily obvious in how to use them. Even a hammer can do more than just drive a nail.

#DataSaturdays #13 Minnesota — I’m speaking! #SQLSaturday

My speaker train continues to roll! I was informed yesterday that I’ve been selected to speak at Data Saturday #13, Minnesota on October 16!

I’ll be doing my presentation about how to speak the language of technology to those who don’t understand it.

Again, this is a virtual event; I will not be traveling to Minnesota. Use the link above to register for this free online event. Hope to see you there!

When information is removed (or, Never Assume It’s Obvious, Part 2)

I have an app for my local convenience store that I use to purchase various items, including, among other things, gasoline. On my way home this afternoon, I decided I needed to put gas in my car and stopped at the store to do so.

To use my app to buy gas, I need to input the store number (usually not a big deal — it automatically detects my store location, and does a good job of it) and the pump number. I opened the app to input the pump number, then looked at the pump for the number… and looked, and looked.

Hey, what happened to the pump number?

I looked at the pump. The number was nowhere to be found. Upon closer inspection, I saw a clean square area on the pump — where the sticker identifying the pump number was once located.

I looked at the other pumps. Same thing. No identifying numbers on the pump. At this point, I had spent several minutes trying to figure this out, and I was starting to get irritated.

I finally noticed it. The only place where you could find the pump number was on the sign above the pump (similar to the picture above).

Let’s be honest, people. How many of you would’ve thought to look UP to find the number, and not on the pump itself?

The app has a feature that allows me to send feedback. I finished filling my tank, got in my car, and used the app to send a very irate message. I’m not going to lie. I was (and still am, as I write this) very irritated. There is absolutely no way that it should’ve taken me several minutes to figure out the pump number.

Additionally, the stickers didn’t just have the pump numbers; they also had the store number. I mentioned that the app does a good job of identifying what store I’m shopping, but what if it isn’t working for whatever reason? (Note: I’ve had that happen before.) Also, it serves the purpose of confirming that the store number that appears on the app is correct.

I’m hoping that the store was looking to upgrade the stickers on the pump, but of course, I didn’t (and still don’t) know if this was the case. In the meantime, the fact that they removed information from the pump made it more difficult for me to do what I needed. What I feel, however, is that whomever made the decision to remove the numbers — a horrible decision, in my honest opinion — decided that the numbers on the signs above the pumps were enough, so the numbers on the pumps themselves were no longer necessary.

I wrote earlier to never assume that anything is obvious. This doesn’t just apply to documentation; it applies to everyday objects as well. Not including this critical information someplace where it can easily be seen (numbers on the sign above the pump does NOT count as “easily seen”) is a blatant example of information ignorance and horrible design.

Upcoming speaking engagements (as of 8/30/2021) #ProfessionalDevelopment #TechCon21 #PASSDataCommunitySummit #DataSaturday #SQLSaturday #Networking #SQLFamily

Now that I have a couple of confirmed speaking engagements, I figured that this was a good time to update my upcoming speaking schedule!

Confirmed

These engagements are confirmed. I don’t have exact dates or times for either of these (and I might not for a little while); all I know is that these events are confirmed, and I am definitely speaking at them!

Note: these are both virtual events. To the best of my knowledge, they are both free to attend (well, I know PASS Data Summit is, anyway), so check the links for more information and to register.

All my presentations (so far) are professional development sessions, so feel free to register for these, regardless of whether you’re a techie or not. Don’t let the “technology” conferences scare you!

Still waiting to hear

I’ve submitted to speak here, but as of right now, I don’t yet know whether or not I’ve been picked to speak.

So, that’s my speaking schedule so far. These are all virtual conferences; I don’t yet have any in-person ones scheduled. Hope to see you at a conference sometime soon!

Never assume it’s obvious

When I was in college, I remember a professor who seemed fond of saying “it’s intuitively obvious.” I don’t remember a lot from that professor (other than that he was a good professor and a good man), but I vaguely remember my classmates making fun of that line, partially because he used it often, and partially because it often was not “intuitively obvious.”

How many of you remember way back when the “this beverage is hot” warning labels started appearing on coffee cups? Many of us (myself included) ridiculed it, responding with, “duh!” But of course, there is usually a good reason behind the story. Now the hot beverage warning label is ubiquitous on nearly all hot beverage cups, and most of us don’t give it a second thought.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I worked on a project. I won’t go into the details (I don’t like to share details of an in-house work project), so I’ll give you the high-altitude view of it. I’ve been trying to solve a problem where multiple people are asking IT Support for assistance, and IT Support is overwhelmed by requests. IT Support does have a website where many of these questions can be answered, but it seems that people either don’t know it exists or don’t know enough to look for the answers there.

I went poking through the website. It did seem to have the tools necessary to answer many questions, as well as resolve a few issues I’m working on. It then occurred to me — the very fact that I was poking around the site to figure out how it worked. In other words, it wasn’t entirely obvious as to how to get the answers from the site. It occurred to me that what was missing was a user guide for the site. I’ve been pitching it to several people, as I believe it’s a good idea, and I think it will resolve a number of problems. Nevertheless, I’ve gotten a little bit of pushback, along the lines of, “of course it’s obvious how to use it,” and “we have links everywhere that explains how it works.” (Also, IT Support, as just about any department, tends to get somewhat protective — understandably so — of its assets and material.)

So if it’s so obvious, then why are you getting overwhelmed with questions?

As a technical writer, “never assume it’s obvious” is one of my biggest mantras, and I think it should be for anyone involved with technical communication, UX/UI design, teaching, or documentation. Simple instructions can often be overlooked (how many times do I have to say that reading is work?!?), and people from other cultures may not always understand the language or context that you’re writing, so that’s something else to consider.

Never, ever, assume anything is obvious — because more often than not, it isn’t.

Upcoming speaking engagements (as of 8/6/2021) #DataGeeksSaturday #ProfessionalDevelopment #DataSaturday #SQLSaturday #TechCon21

I figured this was a good time to post an update of my upcoming speaking engagements…

Confirmed

I will definitely be speaking at the following events.

Still waiting to hear

I’ve submitted to these events, but I’m still waiting to hear whether or not I’ve been picked to speak (so if you’re expecting to hear me at these events, don’t book them just yet).

  • Some CASSUG meeting in 2022, TBD — I told Greg that I was available to speak, and I haven’t spoken at our local user group in a while, so I figured I was due. Stay tuned!

I present on professional development topics for various conferences. Hope to see you at one soon!