A Transcendent Man

Related imageIf I could meet any person alive today, it would undoubtedly be Raymond Kurzweil. One of the most brilliant thinkers on the planet, he is a distinguished scientist, inventor, author and futurist.

His inventions include:

  • optical character recognition (OCR)
  • text-to-speech synthesis
  • speech recognition technology
  • sampling musical keyboards

If that weren’t enough, Kurzweil accurately predicted:

  • the collapse of the Soviet Union
  • the defeat of the best human chess player by a computer
  • the rapid growth of the Internet, and its move to a wireless format
  • the increase in popularity of cell phones, and their shrinking size
  • the move of documentation from paper form to computers and the Internet
  • the ability to add sound, animations, and video to documentation

Because of his track record, Kurzweil’s other predictions are worth paying attention to. They are based on the Law of Accelerating Returns. This law stems from Moore’s Law stating that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. As a result, computing power is increasing exponentially and will have an enormous impact on science, including nanotechnology and biotechnology. He predicts it will be only a few decades before some astounding achievements are made, including:

  • the “source code” of DNA will be hacked, enabling human life to be extended using nanobots: small programmable robots that repair the human body at the molecular level; whenever we need to heal ourselves, we simply download the latest update into our bodies
  • a computer that fully simulates the complexity of the human brain, allowing a person’s mind to be uploaded to a machine, thereby achieving immortality
  • artificial intelligence systems that make moral decisions and interact fully with humans
  • the ability to send and receive physical objects electronically

Looking further into the future, Kurzweil predicts:

  1. The line between people and machines will blur as machines become more human and humans add more technology to their bodies.
  2. Machines will grow to be billions of times more intelligent than they currently are.
  3. Machines will eventually become smarter than people in a history-shattering event called The Singularity.
  4. Human-machine hybrids will create giant supercomputers from asteroids, planets, stars and whatever other matter they can get their hands on (if they still have hands).
  5. Computers the size of planets will be built; Earth itself will be transformed into a giant computer.
  6. The entire universe will eventually evolve into a new life form: a massive super-computer, transforming matter and energy into a giant thinking machine.

Kurzweil explores this vision of the future in the documentary Transcendent Man. When asked if god exists, he sublimely says,”Not yet.” However, I would say that the Singularity has already arrived; well, at least a portion of it has.

Writers are instructed to write what they know. This applies especially to technical writers. If we don’t know what we’re writing about, the result is a document where the reader doesn’t know what we’re saying.

Beyond writing what we know, we write what we are. We create documentation based on how we perceive it would be best understood. Because everyone’s perceptions are different, no two writers use the exact same text to describe the same thing. All writing is a reflection of the writer.

If we write what we are, then we are what we write. Our writing needs to be clear, logical, organized and methodical; so do we. But if we are what we write, then what are we?

We are, or at least are connected to, the very documentation that we create. All the material that we have ever written, whether personal or professional, is a part of us, and we are a part of it. The merging of people and machines has already occurred: it is called documentation. It is the product of a human mind in electronic form. We live forever through our writings, as long as there is a computer to host them.

We have seen our documentation, and it is us. But will there ever be a time where technical communicators are no longer needed?

Not yet…

A Relatively Unique Document

It’s quite amazing when a theory that’s over than a century old continues to make the news.

European scientists claimed to have discovered subatomic particles (neutrinos) that can travel faster than light. If it’s true, it would contradict a major portion of Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than light. Other scientists are therefore claiming that this new discovery must be wrong.

Now I’m no scientist, but saying that something is wrong because it contradicts the current model is not science. All science is built on updating the science before it. Rules are meant to be broken in order to form new rules, because science is a draft that is never completed.

For now, though, Einstein’s theory of relativity remains an excellent model of the universe. It’s a complex and often very technical theory. Fortunately, I belong to a field which strives to make the technical easy to understand.

Because relativity is so vast, this article will examine it in two parts. Part one will explore motion, gravity, and light. Part two will examine mass, energy, space, and time.

Ride the relative rocket

Have you ever been on a subway train, looked out the window to see the train across from you moving, only to realize later that it was your train that was moving and that the other train was still, or possibly vice versa?

This illusion provides a glimpse into one of the first laws of relativity which states that all motion is relative; that there is no such thing as absolute motion.

We perceive that the Earth is motionless, but in fact it rotates at about 1,700 km per hour. In addition, the earth is part of the solar system, which in turn is part of a galaxy, which is a part of the grand universe.

All of these vast areas of space move in different directions. We can’t sense the movement because we’re moving right along with it. It is therefore impossible to tell if something is not moving, that is, if it is in an absolute state of rest. It is only when we are separated from the thing in motion that we can actually see the motion. From our perspective, we are still and everything moves around us, or we’re moving and everything else is still. Motion is relative to the perspective of the observer.

Users move through information at different rates and in different ways. Some users quickly skim through a guide, rapidly jumping from topic to topic. Others move more deliberately, carefully studying each new concept or task.

Each user believes they are moving at a “normal” speed. A slower user observing a faster one would judge the faster to be moving too fast. Conversely, the faster user would observe the slower as moving too slowly.

Both users would be wrong because there is no absolute standard for the rate of informational motion (“infomotion”) through a document. Infomotion (the rate at which a user moves through and consumes information) is relative to the perspective of the user.

Gravity: You move me

Another principle of relativity states that gravity is the same as acceleration. You can begin to understand this if you take a ride up in an elevator. As the elevator accelerates towards the top floor, you feel heavier.

Astronauts experience this effect much more dramatically when they blast off into space. The force of the rocket accelerating upwards creates a g-force effect, pushing the astronauts down into their seats. Their weight temporarily increases, as acceleration mimics the force of gravity.

There’s actually a formula for equating acceleration to gravity: it is 32ft2.This represents an increase of 32 feet per second, each second.

For example, if you were floating out in space, and stepped into a special elevator that accelerated upwards 32 feet the first second, then 64 feet the next second, then 96 feet the next second and so on, this would mimic the effect of gravity. Gravity, therefore, is a naturally occurring (and much more convenient way) of ensuring that we don’t all fall off the Earth.

There are different ways users can learn how to use or understand something. They can learn it naturally by using the product. Alternatively, they can employ “accelerating learning” through formal training or documentation.

Learning through documentation may not seem as natural as learning by using the product itself. However, a good technical communicator will it make appear as natural, and as effortless, as gravity itself.

But officer, I was only going 299,000 km a second…

According to relativity, nothing can go faster than light, which travels at about 300,000 km per second (km/s). This is the natural speed limit for all matter in the universe, and is represented in physics by the letter c.

Much information today is stored, submitted and consumed in an online format. Because information is stored electronically, it does, quite literally, travel near the speed of light. Therefore, the speed limit for light is also the speed limit for the transmission and updating of information.

However, from the user’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter how quickly  information is transmitted because users perceive it as instantaneous. The much more relevant speed is that which the user can find and understand the information they need. We can call this the Communication Velocity, and can also represent it with the letter c. To distinguish this from the other c, we’ll label it Cv.

We can calculate Communication Velocity as:
the number of relevant concepts (Nrc) understood by the reader divided by a specific time period

Cv = Nrc / T

The objective of the technical communicator is to make Cv as large a number as possible. To do this, you must ensure the end user can easily to locate and understand the topics they require in as short a time period as possible. Recognize however, that just like the speed of light, there is a limit. What that limit is is a product of your skills and the level of your end user.

Got a light? Absolutely.
Imagine that you can throw a ball at a speed of 10 km/h. You get into a car moving at 50 km/h and throw the ball forward. How fast would the ball travel relative to an stationary observer on the ground? We’d simply add the two velocities together (10 + 50) to calculate that the ball would be traveling 60 km/h.

Now imagine that you’re on a rocket traveling 100,000 km per second (km/s). You shine a beam of light forward. Knowing that light travels 300,00 km/s, you would think that an observer measuring the light beam would again simply add the velocities together and calculate that the speed of your light beam was 100,000 + 300,000 = 400,000 km/s.

But you would be wrong.

The observer would measure that your light beam was travelling 300,000 km/s. In fact, they would get the same result no matter how quickly or in which direction you or the observer were traveling. The result would always be the same: 300,000 km/s. The speed of light is absolute, regardless of the speed of the observer and the light source.

1There are two absolute “speed limits” in information development:

  • the speed at which an effective document can be created
  • the speed at which a document can be fully comprehended

Now, it’s always possible to increase the speed (that is, reduce the time) to develop a document. But the document will suffer, and will no longer be effective. The absolute minimum time required to develop a document varies, but that minimum time does exist.

The same is true for our end users. A user can rush through a document, but then they will not understand it well enough to use the product effectively. For each user, and each document, there is absolute minimum amount of time required for a user to understand that document.

Read part two.

Another Relatively Unique Document

Welcome to relativity, part two.

In part one, we looked at relativity’s laws regarding motion, gravity, and light. Part two will explore the connections between mass, energy, space, and time. 

It’s all about ME (Mass and Energy)

Everyone knows e=mc2, Einstein’s famous equation uniting mass and energy. This formula indicates that a small amount of mass contains a tremendous amount of energy.

1Atomic weapons graphically illustrate this: a small amount of unstable, radioactive material is forced to rapidly decay releasing a huge amount of energy in a massive explosion. Nuclear power plants do this on a kinder, gentler scale, but the principle is the same: mass contains energy.

To state it another way: mass (or matter) is solidified energy. These are the two states of existence for everything in the universe.

Information development also consists of two states: (subject) matter and energy. Energy is comprised of the effort required to develop information, including: researching, interviewing, analyzing, testing, writing, editing, updating and managing. All this energy is then channelled to produce a piece of subject matter.

It can take a tremendous amount of informational development energy to produce even a small amount of information. The end user never sees the energy that goes into producing a guide. But technical communicators do, and that’s really what matters.

Time for some space

Relativity states that space and time exist together in a single frame of reference known as the space-time continuum, or simply spacetime. Spacetime is made up of the three dimensions of space, and a fourth dimension of time. Einstein showed that extremely massive objects can bend not only space, but also time, showing that the two are inextricably linked.

All informational objects occupy a point in space, the space being the medium the object resides in: a printed page, a PDF, a website, and so on. But these objects also reside in time: when a user closes a book or turns off or away from the computer displaying the information, the object ceases to exist, if only temporarily.

A guide itself requires space to be usable, specifically, white space. White space allows the information to breathe, improving usability. Documentation also requires time for an information developer to create and update the drafts. In fact, the highest quality drafts result when enough time passes between reviews. This extra time gives the information developer and reviewers a fresh perspective. It is a necessary space of time – a spacetime.

Be small. Slow down. That’s heavy, man.

If we could observe an object traveling near the speed of light, we’d see three incredible things happen:

  • the object would shrink in size in the direction it was moving
  • the mass of the object would increase
  • time would slow down for the object

On the last point, if the object was a clock, we’d see it moving more slowly as time passed at a slower rate. However, from the perspective of the object, time would be passing at a normal rate. This effect is known as time dilation.

1To illustrate the power of this, imagine if you were traveling near the speed of light and looked back on Earth using a powerful telescope. You’d see everything moving more rapidly on Earth, as though it was on fast-forward. You might later return having only experience a few days passing from your perspective, but returning to an Earth where hundreds, or even thousands of years have passed – a one-way time trip into the future.

These three remarkable transformations have been confirmed by science. They also explain why relativity states that nothing can travel faster than light. If an object could travel the speed of light, it would shrink to nothing, time would stop completely for it, and its mass would be infinite. To accelerate something to the speed of light requires an infinite amount of energy, which the universe simply does not have.

The incredible shrinking communicator
As an informational object is developed, it moves through the information development process. It starts out large in size and scope, consisting of many internal notes, documents, functional and design specifications, emails, phone calls, interviews and other meetings.

As the object accelerates through the process, much of the excess information is edited away. The information object shrinks in the direction of its motion, arriving at its final form: practical, relevant, and smaller.

Massive changes
Information mass does not refer to the size of information. Although we can speak about “massive” amounts of information, this does not describe the quality or usability of the information. A massive amount of information is often unusable because the user cannot find what they are looking for.

Instead, mass refers to the substance, practicality and meaning of an information object. The greater the mass, the more valuable the object is to the end user.

Again, as an information object moves through the development process, its mass increases, even though its size decreases. In fact, it is precisely because its size has shrunk that its mass (informational value) has increased, because all the non-relevant pieces have been vaporized.

Slow down, you move too fast
The slowing down of time does not apply directly to information objects, because these objects cannot experience time – only people can. Therefore, the time dilation effect applies to the people involved in the documentation process, primarily the technical communicators.

When a technical communicator moves an object through the information development process, they are intently focused on the development of its content. The communicator’s perception of time changes. Were we to observe the communicator, they might even appear motionless, as though time had stopped or slowed down for them. However, from the perspective of the communicator, time progresses normally. It is only when they stop moving through the process (when they take a break) that they realize that many hours may have passed.

The end user experiences a similar distortion of time when they are so focused on reading a topic that they also lose track of time. However, the effect is not as pronounced, because it requires much more energy to create information that to consume it. When we create information, we imagine all the paths it might take, and will often experiment with different wordings and formats. The end user only sees the one final, simple path.

Who broke my Time Machine?!

Returning now to the original discovery of particles that can travel faster than light: one of the reasons scientists are skeptical about this claim is that if such particles existed, they would travel backwards in time. These types of particles have already been imagined and are called tachyons.

Backwards time travel leads to all sorts of strange paradoxes. The classic one involves going back and time and killing one of your parents before you were born. If your parent is dead, then how were you able to be born and go back to kill one of your parents?

Technical communicators face a similar paradox with their end users. Users are constantly looking for information. However, often users don’t know what they are looking for. But then if they don’t know what they are looking for, how will they know what to look for?

The solution involves not tachyons but taxonomy, the art and science of classifying information into a format that a user can understand and access. This means:

  • giving topics clear, self-descriptive names
  • creating a TOC that groups topics into a logical hierarchy

and, most importantly,

  • creating an index that can read the mind of the end user by imaging all the ways they might look up a topic

Proper informational taxonomy eliminates the docs paradox.

My Crazy Relatives
It’s not surprising that documentation has much in common with the theory of relatively. All documentation is relative, because each user brings to each document their own perspective, knowledge, experience and bias. No two users see the same document the same way. Each document, therefore, appears differently relative to each user.

As we’ve seen, it’s impossible for almost anything to travel anywhere near the speed of light, including our users. But with clear documentation, we can enable our users to see the light.

In doing so, our users will travel, not at the speed of light, but the speed of enlightenment.


A Technical Communication Occupation

The Occupy Movement hurtles towards its expected demise. With the Occupiers (a.k.a. urban campers) now evicted from their various parks, this movement is headed the way of the hippies. As New York City mayor Bloomberg eloquently stated: “Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” What they shall they do to occupy their time?

Has the Occupy movement had any effect? As the Premier of China said when asked in the 1970s about the effect of the French Revolution 100 years prior: “It is too soon to tell.”

Still, there’s lessons to be learned from this movement for technical communicators:

Lesson #1: No leader, no way

Without a leader, a group cannot succeed. The Occupy movement prided itself on having no leader, thereby laboriously deciding everything by committee. Everyone was a leader, so no one was leading. A group with no leader has no future, because there is no one with the vision, authority and responsibility to move the group toward its goals.

That is why every documentation team must have a leader, someone who can guide, enhance and develop the group. With no leader, there is no place for the group to go but off into the various directions each communicator wants to take it. With no leader, there is no way.

Lesson #2: Pursue clarity

The Occupiers had too many demands, and the ones they had were vague, among others: a redistribution of wealth, the restructuring or elimination of capitalism, world peace, a change in the system of government, and protecting the environment. Exactly what the protestors thought each of these entailed and exactly how they were to be implemented is not clear.

Clarity is the essence of effective technical communication. If your documentation is not clear, then you are not clear. If you cannot explain to a stranger a topic you have written, then you are a stranger to clarity.

Go clear, or, like the occupiers, go home.

Lesson #3: Ask Hard Questions

When evaluating news stories such as this, we must do what technical communicators do best: ask what the real, practical effects are.

Regarding the recent evictions, there were only two possibilities before they occurred:

  1. The occupiers would all be evicted, destroying or least severely weakening the movement. Without a physical presence, there is no mental presence. This is exactly what is happening.
  2. The occupiers would be allowed to stay. If this had happened, then the worst thing that could have happened to the movement would have happened: the public would have become used to it. When people get use to something, they forget it, until the NBT (Next Big Thing) comes along.

Now, when evaluating the contents of the document and the document management process, we must ask the same hard questions:

  • Does this make sense?
  • What is the practical value here?
  • What are the logical outcomes of the various choices we can make?

 When evaluating the contents of a document, we ask:

  • What does this contribute to others?
  • Is there a better way to express this?
  • What is missing here?
  • Is anyone really going to care about this?

Similar tough questions need to be asked when looking at the process by which the documentation is created, reviewed, updated and managed:

  • Is there a better way?
  • How can we manage this document more effectively?
  • What are our options, and what is the potential outcome of each?

Companies often fall into a trap of producing poor documents or having poor documentation processes. Their response is often: “That’s how we’ve always done it,” to which our response should be: “Well then, you have always done it wrong.” Another excuse is: “That’s how other groups do it,” to which we respond: “Those other groups are also wrong.”

To effect change, you need to have COP: Creativity, Objectivity, and Perseverance. Specifically, the only way to bring about change in a document or the documentation development process is to be (in this order):

  • ruthlessly objective of the current state
  • incredibly creative when offering the solution
  • mercilessly persistent in actually fixing it

About one in a hundred technical communicators have these three traits.

Are you one of the 1%?

A Note on the New Notes

Related imageWhen not wanting to pay cash, we “put it on plastic”. In Canada, plastic will soon be the only choice, as our paper bills are replaced by polymer ones.

The new polymer bills, to be rolled out over the next few years, contain a number of security features to inhibit counterfeiting. These features include clear panels, metallic images and hidden numbers that appear when the bill is held up to a light.

Because the bills are made of polymer, they will last longer than paper bills. They should also survive being accidentally washed if you forget to take them out of your pocket, giving new meaning to the term “money laundering”.

The Bank of Canada (like all agencies that produce money) plays a constant cat-and-mouse game with counterfeiters. They release new versions of cash, the counterfeiters figure out how to duplicate them, and the cycle continues.

Paradoxically, government agents specializing in spotting counterfeit money don’t usually study it. Instead, they intensely study real money, so that when a counterfeit bill appears, the agent can easily spot it.

Counterfeit docs exists in our profession. These may be legitimate documents included in a product, but are nonetheless forgeries because they:

  • contain errors
  • are missing critical information
  • are unclear or difficult to understand

Studying counterfeit documentation will not make you a better writer. It will only teach you how to be a poor one.

Studying legitimate documentation that is well-written, clear, simple, accurate and easy to understand and navigate might.

How do you like them Apples?

Image result for Steve Jobs logo

The world is mourning the death of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple. He has been hailed, quite rightly, as a creative genius, a brilliant and revolutionary designer, and a bold visionary who completely transformed the world of personal technology. (Full disclosure – my first computer was an Apple IIc, way back in 1985. It was also my last.)

As brilliant as Jobs was, he was also stubborn, arrogant, and an extremely demanding perfectionist who was openly abusive towards his employees. In fact, his arrogance and hubris probably killed him. He refused medical treatment for nine months, insisting on treating his cancer with diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies and a psychic. This delay most likely shortened his life.

Jobs was influenced by Buddhism, which explores the connection between mind, body, and soul. Given how cruel he could be to others, and his frequent violent rages, one could say he had a “cancer of the soul”. Buddhism suggests that a disease of the soul can morph into a disease of the body. It’s a medical fact that some diseases have a psychological basis. Whether this was the case for Jobs, we will never know, for he now resides in the iCloud.

(Speaking of life and death, we now know why Apple devices don’t have an on-off switch. Jobs felt that an off switch represented death. It symbolized for him the terrifying prospect that we’re all machines that simply “power off” at the end of our lives.)

These observations are not meant to criticize or judge, but to point out that no-one is perfect, and that there is more to a person than their technical abilities.

An Untechnical Communicator
A technical communicator may be a technical genius, like Jobs. They may have extensive experience managing a wide variety of complex documentation, thorough knowledge of all the major tools, and can speak twelve languages, human and computer. But if that person comes across as arrogant, obnoxious, highly critical of others and emotionally unintelligent, they will not succeed at job interviews. Even if they do land a job, they may have a tough time keeping it. Jobs himself was fired from Apple, and it was a long road back for him to regain control.

I’ve had the misfortune of knowing a few individuals like these. In the end, they either change or they go, or else every who works for them goes!

All of this means that you can win a job in an interview even if you are not the most technically qualified. The truth is that most software apps can be learned in about a week or two. The more difficult skills to acquire are non-technical:

  • interviewing and listening
  • working well with others
  • oral communication/public speaking
  • time and project management
  • negotiating
  • teaching
  • planning
  • objectivity, seeing the “big picture”
  • being open to criticism
  • handling change, conflict and stress
  • creativity, flexibility and adaptability

If you can show that you have these skills, and a genuine passion for the job, this will greatly increase your chances of getting it.

Research? We don’t need no stinkin’ research!
It’s interesting to note that Apple conducted no market research – no focus groups, no interviewing, no surveys – nothing. They simply designed products that they thought were cool and useful, then unleashed them on the public.

This seems to contradict to one of the tenets of our profession: to actively design with the end user in mind based on their needs and wants. Presumably, this involves working directly with our readers and having them test our documentation to see if it’s useful.

The problem is that we often don’t have the resources to do this. The good news is that we don’t have to, for reasons that are similar to those at Apple.

Users ‘R Us
The fact is – we are users. We should have a good idea of the kinds of information our users want, and the way it should be presented.

When you need information, you want it to be clear, understandable, and easy to find and use. That is precisely what our users want.

Jobs believed it was meaningless to ask customers what they wanted because they didn’t know what they wanted! This was true because the products Apple created were so different from anything that the users had previously experienced. How could users be asked about something for which they had no form of reference?

In many cases, our customers may not know exactly what information they are looking for. The example I always like to give involves the mail merge process.

That Mail Merge Thingamabob
If you were documenting the mail merge process for a novice user who had never even heard of it, you couldn’t simply create a topic called Mail Merging, with a corresponding mail merging index entry. Instead, you’d need to think about all the ways a user could refer to what they want to do, and then frame the topic accordingly.

For example, you might title the topic: Creating Multiple Personalized Copies of Letters and Other Documents or Personalizing a Document that is Sent to Several People. Your index entries could include:

  • addressing one document to several people
  • copies of one document, customizing
  • customizing a document to be sent to several people
  • different names, entering on a document for several people
  • documents, individually addressing to several people
  • mailings, sending customized documents to several people
  • mass mailings, performing
  • multiple copies of a document, personalizing for each person
  • names, changing each on several copies of one document
  • personalizing one document sent to several people
  • sending one document to several people
  • single documents, changing the name on several copies of
  • specifying different names on several copies of one document

You should be able to develop an extensive list of index entries like this without having to ask the user first.

But take great care with each entry – because one bad Apple can ruin the whole bunch.

I Can C Clearly Now

The following article contains much wisdom:
All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.

I would this reword to:
All I really need to know about technical communication I learned from the letter C.

C is the first letter of all the important concepts, practices and other things that you’ll ever need to know about our profession.

We must, of course, excel at Communication, and not just the written kind. We must be excellent visual communicators, with a firm eye for the design and layout of images, diagrams, and text. This includes a good knowledge of typography, graphics, and effective diagramming – for example, formatting screen shots so that each part is clearly identified. We must be effective and Competent informational Craftspeople, taking great Care in every word we write.

We must strive for Clarity in our work. This means being Childlike, with an endless Capacity to ask foolish questions, and thereby obtain the answers our readers Crave.

Clarity includes being Comprehensible. If our readers (or Clients) cannot understand what we’ve written, why did we write it? We must therefore be Customer-focused. Ideally, we should observe our readers attempting to use our documents. At a minimum, we should provide a simple way for them to directly send us their Comments and Criticisms. This involves having Compassion for our readers. They are often stressed when they reach out to our guides. Our job, therefore, is to Care about our readers and create documents that gently guide them onto the right path.

The Content we develop must be Complete and Comprehensive. A document is a puzzle, but one in which you may not know the number of pieces. Knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know is the first step in knowing what you need to know, you know?

At the same time, our documents must be Concise. We should use as many words as required, but no more. We can achieve this balance through the Chunking of information. For example, we can create a simple overview page that contains links to various topics, rather than listing the entire contents of all these topics on one page.

Organizing and chunking the information involves Curating, the active management of all our informational objects. A museum curator decides what pieces should be displayed, where and how; we must do the same.

As we curate our information sets, we must be Cost-Conscious. This involves effective time and project management as we juggle all our guides. It also involves Content reuse at the topic, paragraph, sentence and even word level. Common copyright information, procedures and tasks, and templates are just some of the things that should only exist in one place. This will lead to greater Consistency in all our documents.

Consistency is extremely important. You should not call the same thing by different names, nor describing different things using the same name.

Our documents must be Credible (or believable). If there is an error in a document, its credibility is destroyed. Also, we must be credible. Others must believe what we say when we give our advice on content and design and trust that what we say is true – this relates to Confidence.

As you grow in your career, your confidence grows. A junior writer asks others: What should I do? A senior writer is asked by others: What should I do? The difference between the two is confidence, which comes with experience.

Confidence enables you to deal with Conflict, of which there is no shortage of in the business world. When two SMEs disagree on the contents of your document, it is a conflict that you will have to work to resolve with them.

Confidence also enables you to deal with Change. Change happens on so many levels – in people, in companies, and of course, in our documents and the way they get created. Accepting and managing this change is a critical skill to have, and requires Courage. I remember a tumultuous time when, as a result of various mergers, the company I worked for changed about every year. It was a stressful time, but also exciting, as everyone worked to manage the change.

Of all the C-skills to have, Creativity is the most important, because it encompasses all these other ideas. People who win at job interviews do so because they show how they have creatively solved documentation problems. Both your resume and in your interview should overflow with samples of your creative genius. It’s great that you know FrameMaker, but so do hundreds of other people. Instead, focus on how you improved the documentation and the documentation process in a creative way.

Creativity also involves working Colloboratively with others. We tech writers are an introverted lot, a habit we need to break. No person is a cubicle. The more we interact with other writers and non-writers, the better. Have you ever stopped and asked a code developer what they do? What they like? What they think of your documents?

Practicing all these skills enhances your Career. Career management is a whole other discussion. Managing your career and network of Contacts is like tending a garden. It takes time and care, but the end results are worth it. I owe my current job to the contacts I had carefully maintained.

Now, there is one C-word that is not a skill, but a shape: Circle. The letter C is like a circle with a gap:


The gap is symbolic of the gap that is present in all documentation: the gap between what the reader needs to know and what is actually in the document.

Salespeople have a saying: A.B.C.: Always Be Closing. Whenever they interact with clients, their entire manner and tone assumes the sale has been made – they just need to “Close” it.

Technical communicators need to practice A.B.C. We must come full circle and close the gap. Because when it comes to us and our readers…

…we are all Connected.


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reCAPTCHA is an excellent example of not only solving an informational processing problem in a creative way, but in solving the original problem, also solving a much larger one.

Before you can understand reCAPTCHA, you must first understand its predecessor: CAPTCHA. CAPTCHA was created to solve the problem of automated programs (or “bots”) from logging into websites and thereby generating spam in the form of emails and mass postings.

A CAPTCHA screen displays a distorted image of letters or words. A person can read the letters, but a bot cannot. The user must enter the letters correctly to gain access to the system, for example, to sign up for an email account.

This technology alone is a great example of a creative solution to a complex problem. But reCAPTCHA takes it a step further by solving an even bigger problem.

This larger problem involves an ancient form of communication – the printed page. There are tens of thousands of books and newspapers that Google is trying to convert to digital text. Scanning the publications, then using OCR (optical character recognition) to convert the scanned image to text has its limits. If the text is distorted (as it is in many of the older publications), it cannot convert the text.

How does this relate to CAPTCHA? Well, about 200 million CAPTCHAs are done by people every day. If each CAPTCHA takes ten seconds, this effort represents about 63 person years of work every day.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a way to put all this time to good use? That is exactly what reCAPTCHA does.

Here’s how it reCAPTCHA works:

  1. When a document is scanned, it detects a word that it cannot convert. Let’s call this the “unknown word”.
  2. The reCAPTCHA process sends this unknown word as a CAPTCHA for people to deciphere.
  3. The CAPTCHA contains not only the “unknown word”, but another word which the system already knows. We’ll call this the “known word”.
  4. In the CATPCHA that is created, the user is asked to read both words and enter them.
  5. If the user solves the known word, the system assumes that their answer will be correct for the unknown word.
  6. The system also gives the unknown word to a few other people to verify that the original answer was correct.
  7. If enough people agree on what the unknown word is, the information is set back to the original system and the converted word is added to the document that is being digitized.
  8. This process is repeated until all the words in the document are converted.

recaptchaCan you even begin to imagine the flash of genius that occurred in the mind of the Luis von Ahn, the creator of the reCAPTCHA process?

The problem is that these type of “eureka” moments are very difficult to create. They often just happen, much like the weather. You can no more force yourself to be creative that you can force yourself to love, hate, forget something, fall asleep or go back in time.

However, you can sometimes find creative solutions if you just stop what you’re doing, and ask yourself some questions, such as:

  1. Is there a better way to present this information to the end user?
  2. What else would a user need to know about this concept, task, or thing?
  3. How does the user use our documents?
  4. What changes could be made to enhance the documentation development process?

I’ll give some examples of real-life creative solutions that I’ve encountered:

Example 1: Our help files have to be checked into a version control system. Each help project can contain hundreds of individual files, and these files are often created, deleted, moved and renamed. It would have been very cumbersome to keep track of each file that was checked in and out. The solution (from a colleague of mine) was this: instead of checking in and out the various files, a zip file of the entire help system was created and checked in instead. The installation program then decompresses this zip file. Only one file now needs to be sent and tracked in the build.

Example 2: I was working with a developer on a complex database administration application. One of the functions the user could do was rerun a query by clicking a button labeled, appropriately enough, Rerun query. The developer said the problem was that there were many different queries that the user could run, and that they needed a quick way to know which one they had run before re-running it. I asked if was possible to embed the name of the query that had just run into the button name, so that, for example, if the user had run the Last Name query, the button label would be Rerun Last Name query? I still remember the developer’s eyes widening and his face lighting up as recognized the elegant beauty of this solution. “Yes,” he said, “it can be done!” 

Example 3: Many of our help projects share content, templates, and other settings. I wanted to develop a simple content management system that would allow all the writers to share these things across many locations. I created a master help project that contained all the common content and settings. I then linked my other help projects to this master project, so that if any of the common material changed, it would automatically be updated in the other help projects. Finally, I stored all the documentation on a version control system that could be accessed by any writer. As long as each writer has the current version of the master help project and links their other help projects to it, this will ensure the templates and content remained standard.

So don’t just think “outside the box”.

Ask yourself if you even need the box in the first place.

The Dynamic Blogger

Image result for Blogger logoThere is a new Blogger feature called dynamic views.

You can now choose how this blog is displayed simply by clicking a link near the top: Classic, Flipcard, Magazine, and so on.

The results are quite spectacular – the listings are display in an animated fashion. No more boring, static text.

This new feature reflects the epitome of effective design in two ways:

  • to enable this feature, the author simply has to change one setting – an extremely simple act
  • it allows the reader to have control over the display of information

This last point cannot be emphasized enough. We laugh about the days when Henry Ford said that customers could have any colour car they wanted, as long as it was black. We then proceed to create single versions of our documents in which the user is just as unable to change the appearance as they were with the black Model T Ford.

Information can be viewed in so many places: paper, websites, PDAs, tablets, and so on. If that weren’t enough, everyone has their own personal preference on how that information is displayed. The ability to give the user some control over that appearance is paramount.

Blogger’s dynamic views currently has seven options. Expect to see that number rise to…infinity.

The Art of the White Night

I recently experienced my first Nuit Blanche, an annual all-night outdoor contemporary art event held throughout downtown Toronto. The event featured a wide of variety of strange and exotic exhibits.

The Heart Machine consisted of four giant steel “arteries” each connected to sensors that when touched the correct way caused giant flames to shoot up, warming the frozen crowd. Flightpath Toronto, held at City Hall, showcased a spectacular outdoor laser show, while people flew overhead on a cable line.

My favourite exhibit was Soon. Held in a large, open outdoor office courtyard, it was the most spectacular work of art I had ever experienced. Searchlights mounted atop office buildings continually scanned the crowds while smoke spewed everywhere. Sounds of helicopters, along with a strange, other-wordly noise, blasted from speakers. The effect was surreal – you were trapped in a bizarre, futuristic totalitarian state.

Almost all the exhibits relied on modern technology: computers, large screen projectors, lasers, and cutting-edge sound and light systems. Without this technology, these exhibits would not be possible. Therefore, technology directly influences and is used by modern artists.

Art (non-technical) communication is therefore influenced by current technologies. Technical (non-artistic) communication is no different. User guides are written in the language of the technology of the day. We have progressed from writing on walls, to writing on paper, to printing on paper, to computers, PDAs, smart phones and beyond. However, the goal remains the same: clear and concise communication.

For both artistic and technical communication, the medium is more than the message – the message and the medium are inextricably linked and blurred beyond recognition.

This blurring occurs in other ways. One of the non-official exhibits was The Red Dot. The theme was inspired by the practice in art shows of placing a small red dot on the descriptive tags next to paintings that have sold. Various sculptures made of red dots were on display, but in addition, large red dots were affixed to various items throughout the area: buildings, trees, doors, cars, and even people. The idea was that “art is everywhere”. The intent was to blur the line between art and the so-called “real world”.

The effect was rather exhilarating. As my friend and I walked the streets, I began wondering what was real and what was art. At one point in the evening, I saw paramedics help out an ill person. Later, I witnessed a skirmish where several policemen forcibly held down someone resisting arrest. But were these real events, or were they staged? For a split-second, it was difficult to know. When anything can become art, art becomes anything.

Although there is an “art” to documentation, documentation is not art. However, documentation, like art, can exist anywhere. With the liberation of information through the Internet, any one can become a technical writer through blogs, feedback on corporate websites, forums and any other online area where information likes to gather.

This blog attempts to be a hybrid of both art and technical communication. My hope is that it teaches you how to be a better technical communicator, but I consider it creative (non-technical) writing. Which means it blurs the line between art and reality. Which means that any at time, I could

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