Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
You've got 6 seconds
Mashable's Learn How to Cook in 15 Vine Videos should be deeply disturbing to instructional designers, at least at first glance. It's a laughable idea to learn how to make a dish in a six-second or less video. But, after you watch them, many of them are surprisingly useful.
According to Attention Span Statistics, about 12 seconds and 593 words is all you'll get from your average reader. Make the most of it.
Press 1 for more options that don't make sense
Mark Evanier, writing Phone-A-Friend, describes the pain of navigating an automated telephone system. It strikes me how the user experience challenges of these systems are similar to those being faced by instructional designers created video-based instructions. The sequential nature of the instructions, the primitive navigational controls, the penalty for making an incorrect choice are present in both mediums. If you approached your company's answering system as a documentation problem, how would it differ from it's current implementation?
Museums for technical writers
Dawn Stevens, writing Your Documentation Belongs in a Museum! for CIDM, describes what technical writers can learn from the instructional design of museums. Highlights include supporting non-linear access, recognizing that not everyone wants to read so much, and keeping things fresh. Some good food for thought, for certain.
If you'd like to see some computer documentation that's in a museum, you're looking for Computer History Museum instead.
Another reason not to rely on FAQs
A reminder from Chicago artist Matt Fagan.
See also: Measuring Your FAQ
Writing to avoid trunca...
There's no surer sign of a sloppy engineer, and perhaps a tech writer sleepwalking through their job, then a UI string that doesn't fit in its allocated space. The anonymous example below is a good one. Detect End-of-What, exactly?
Apple Style Guide 2013 released
Apple's in-house style guide, last publicly updated in 2009, is now available in a 2013 edition. Previously called "Apple Publications Style Guide," the introduction says the book has been renamed to reflect non-printed deliverables. It's available in PDF and browsable HTML.
See also: Justifying a Style Guide
Is text-speak really teh sux0r?
John McWhorter, a linguist, has a great TED Talk on the subject of "texting grammar" and how it compares to the traditional written word. It's easy to dismiss the evolving style, but McWorter's perspective just might change your mind. And we all know that technical writing is a bastion of old-school style.
The talk, "Txtng is killing language. JK!!!," is discussed (and embedded) at John August's Writing vs. Speaking.
The novelty of actually reading the manual
The Internet is awash in advice about how to increase your productivity, but there's one tip that is such common sense it is often left unsaid. Namely, read a product's manual. Even if you've been using a product for a while, and consider yourself an experienced user, there is likely still something to learn by skimming the doc. That's the premise of Victor Agreda, Jr's Productivity Tip.
Agreda links to The Manual--And Why We Don't Read It, and it's also worth perusing. Gary Hoffman argues that manuals are too often written for "blithering idiots" and, he says, learning how to do something would spoil the fun of figuring out how to do it yourself.
Justifying a style guide
Patrick Cox writes Do I Really Need a Style Guide? While it's focused on web style guides, the rationale it provides applies to documentation style guides, too.
See also: Developing a Useful Style Guide
Usable Help on Flipboard
If you're a Flipboard user, and want to receive Usable Help using that fine app, you can subscribe to the new Usable Help on Flipboard magazine. All future posts will appear there automatically. Thanks in advance.
Will Flipboard's magazine platform succeed? Beats me. But Paul Armstrong thinks it's a big deal. It's certainly interesting, at the very least.
Wabi-sabi and Minimalism
As an avowed minimalist, I often encounter people who think that it represents doing less and omitting important things. But that's a negative way of viewing what it's really about---providing only what's truly necessary. Similarly, the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi focuses on keeping things clean and unencumbered, but not removing their essence.
One challenge of minimalist documentation is that it requires careful and attentive reading. The usual cruft of 'blah blah blah" has been omitted, but readers encounter "comprehensive" documentation so often that they've been trained to skim and skip over bloated descriptions. When there's no fat to skip, readers can miss important info.
The discussion about Wabi-sabi's simplicity at 37 Signals is instructive about the challenge of maintaining, but not emphasizing, importance.
Edward Tufte's website has a fun discussion about Instructions at the Point of Need. A concept that is related to, but not as fancy as, contextual help.
For my own contribution, here's a photo of what a Panasonic projector shows when there is no video source connected to its input. The screen describes how to activate a laptop's video-out functon.