The 22 senses of technical communicators

The Five Known Senses

Humans have five senses, right? Well, not exactly. It’s a common belief that the only senses are sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. But scientists now know that we have so many more senses including:

  • equilibrioception – the sense of balance, which keeps you from falling down
  • thermoception – the sense of hot and cold
  • proprioception – the sense of where your body parts relative to other body parts; this sense enables to touch your toes with your eyes closed
  • nociception – the sense of pain
  • chronoception – the sense of the time

Note that these are just senses that have names. There’s practically an infinite number of unnamed senses, including a sense of:

  • hunger
  • thirst
  • exhaustion
  • suffocation
  • pressure
  • danger
  • morality
  • intuition

Technical communicators have even more senses, 22 to be exact:

Senses related to basic informational elements:

  1. fontioception – the sense of the correct font to use
  2. titulioception – the sense of the correct heading to use
  3. blancioception – the sense of the correct use of white space
  4. graficioception – the sense of when to include an image in a document, and the formatting of that image
  5. referencioception – the sense of when and how to use a cross-reference

Senses related to major informational elements and sections:

  1. definitiocepetion – the sense of how to describe a concept, term, or idea
  2. laboriocepetion – the sense of how to document a task
  3. diagramioception – the sense of how to create a meaningful diagram
  4. glossariocepetion – the sense of the terms to include in a glossary

Senses related to the structure of a document:

  1. indicioception – the sense of what terms to index and how to correctly structure an index
  2. partitioception – the sense of how to break up a large block of text into separate sections, or a large document into sub-sections
  3. lexioception – the sense of what text to conditionalize
  4. recylioception – the sense of what text to reuse or single-source
  5. darwinioception – the sense of how to structure information using DITA, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture XML language
Senses related to the reader:
  1. humanioception – the sense of the typical reader of the document
  2. intellengencioception – the sense of the reader’s intelligence
  3. curiosoception – the sense of how the reader will search for information

Senses related to general communication:

  1. practicaliocepetion – the sense of what is practical and meaningful information, and what is not
  2. presentioception – the sense of what information is current and up to date
  3. imperfectioception – the sense of information that is incomplete or inaccurate
  4. obfusicatiocepetion – the sense of a lack of clarity or meaning
  5. simplicitocepetion – the sense of simplicity in communication
The most important sense of all: clairitariocepetion – the sense of clear, effective communication
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The Documentation of a Lifetime

The recent passing of my father resulted in many things. A funeral, speeches that tried to summarize his life (as if one can summarize a life within a few minutes), burial, grief and mourning. It also resulted in one of the largest, most complex and challenging documentation projects I have ever encountered.

My father was a brilliant man, university educated, successful, intelligent, a great speaker, and also extremely organized. He left behind various papers contained in two 2-drawer filing cabinets, two small lockboxes, and a couple of cardboard boxes. The paperwork included various legal, insurance, tax and financial information, bills and statements, and other assorted papers. I estimated there was about 3,000 pieces of paper in total; a literal tsunami of documentation.

Now, to be fair, it was somewhat organized. Items were placed in drawers marked for the lawyer and the accountant. However, when I began actually reviewing the papers, I discovered that the collection was sheer chaos.

The main problem was that there were many papers which did not need to be retained. These included bills and statements that were many years old and therefore had no value. In addition, there were many of the informational inserts and brochures that come with statements which are generally quite useless. You can find the information within these either online or through a phone call. I estimated that I discarded almost 95% of all the papers, filling several garbage bags.

The remaining papers had to be meticulously examined and properly filed. I purchased several cardboard banker’s boxes and a box of 100 legal-size file folders and began organizing the papers into individual folders, such as: Banking, Insurance, Investments, Utility Bills, Legal, Tax, and so on. The entire process took about three full days. I had to reverse-engineer what my father was thinking, and then organize the papers accordingly.

However, that was not the end of the project. For the purpose of organizing all these papers was so that that my mother could bring them to her various professionals (her lawyer, financial advisor and accountant) and be able to easily supply them the required documents. Organizing the documentation was not enough. I also had to create an entire set of electronic documents that described these paper documents, how to manage them, questions to ask her professionals, important things to do and so on. I also created documents of a more personal nature, including links to the various obituaries and speeches, and inspirational information, a sort of “Widow’s Toolkit”. It sounds strange, but my mother found it helpful.

However, this is not not the end of this documentation project. My mother and I will continue to work together so that when the time comes, all of her paperwork and information will be in order. Never again do I want to go through the pain of organizing a mountain of information after a parent has died. It is an unbearably tedious and painful task.

Therefore, everyone, no matter what age, should organize all the information that is important in their life. This includes:

  1. A to do list describing everything that needs to be done upon your death.
  2. A list with phone numbers of all your important contacts including your lawyer, accountant, financial advisor, spiritual leader (priest, rabbi, imam, and so on) and your primary doctor.
  3. Information about all your bank accounts, credit cards and financial investments.
  4. Documents for your lawyer – your will, marriage, birth certificate, passport, health card, and power of attorney in this folder
  5. Life insurance information, policies and amounts
  6. Tax documents for your accountant – these include old tax returns and related documents, which you must keep for 7 years
  7. A living will describing how you want to be treated if you are terminally ill, instructions for your funeral, and any parting words for your loved ones
  8. Your home and auto and insurance policies
  9. Logins and passwords – these should be stored in a password protected document and should include not only your online passwords, but passwords for your phone, tablet, computers and any of your other devices that require a password
  10. Info about your Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, or any other pensions you have
  11. Health plan information
  12. A list of all calling cards, rewards cards, memberships and subscriptions
  13. Documents related to your property: the house sale, deed, mortgage, assessment, letters of sale, and land survey
  14. If you have pre-planned your funeral (which is advisable to do to spare your family a financial and emotional burden), information about the funeral home and the package you have selected
  15. TV, phone, realty tax, hydro, gas and other utility bills
  16. Miscellaneous documents
  17. Warranties and any other important bills

Any financial, banking, insurance, legal, tax and other important information should include:

  • the name of the institution
  • the account number(s)
  • the balance of the account (if applicable)
  • the name and phone number of the primary contact

Organize the printed documents in a clear, easy to follow file folder system, with the folders in alphabetical order. At the start of every year, discard any documents you don’t need.

Maintain as much information as you can in a single password-protected Word document, then give your loved ones that password! Review this document every year (perhaps on your birthday) to ensure it’s up to date.

By documenting your life, you’ll ensure that your relatives will not have to go through the pain, frustration and anguish of having to sort through, decipher and decode this mountain of information.

In doing so, you’ll finally solve life’s ultimate documentation problem. And don’t you want to enter heaven with all your docs organized?

Sugar, Salt, Fat

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is remarkable exposé on the food industry written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss. The processed food industry is a monster, with over a trillion dollars a year in sales. Sugar, salt and fat are together more addictive than any one of these ingredients alone. Moss describes in great detail how the food industry systematically manipulates these three ingredients to get consumers hooked on their products. As a result, many North Americans are obese and have multiple health problems, including an increase in the occurrence of diabetes in children.

Food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of their products. This is the precise ratio of sugar, salt and fat that the body is programmed to seek out and is combined in such a way as to make the food very tasty.

Documentation does not contain any food ingredients, but can be sweet, salty, or fat. Sweet documents are ones with much style, but little substance. They are dripping with exotic and unreadable fonts. They have dreadful colour schemes, such as a bright red font on a deep purple background. They may have endless animations or even sound, further distracting the reader from obtaining the pure information they require. They are a sugary and sticky mess, dripping with confusion and disorder.

We all know that salty food makes us thirsty. Salty documents are ones that make the reader thirst for more information. They do not answer the questions that the reader was asking, or only partially answer them. They may answer the question but in an unclear way. They may have the information the reader seeks but are structured in such a way that the reader cannot find it. Salty documents leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

Fat documents are bloated. They contain too much information and too many words. They are over-documented, over-engineered and over-worked. They are a 200 page user guide when a 6 page quick-start guide would have sufficed. They are often written by engineers and marketers who have no concept of minimalism. Instead, they practice “maximalism”, the deranged belief that more words are better than fewer. The only cure for this disease is systematic and ruthless editing, along with a healthy dose of self-control.

Sugar. Salt. Fat. What type are your documents?

Join my army

See the source imageI have an endless fascination with the military. The idea of a select group of strong, well-trained, disciplined individuals united together for common purpose is deeply engrossing. It is the ultimate example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, for no man (or woman) is an army.

The military is so vast that in most countries it is broken up into separate parts or divisions, typically:

  • regular army
  • navy
  • air force
  • marines
  • special forces, and
  • coast guard

However, even all these enormous parts (and all their many respective divisions and subgroups) must work together as a single unit. A country would be in chaos if its army was in conflict with its air force, for example. They all must work as one.

Now, most of use do not have the mental strength, courage and physical endurance to serve in the military. But we can all appreciate its discipline and fortitude. Even business uses military metaphors, when they talk about “going to war”, “taking no prisoners”, and “destroying the enemy”.

A technical communicator is a soldier, of sorts. We battle against misinformation, obfuscation, and incomprehensible or missing information. We fight for clarity, truth, accuracy, relevancy, brevity, practicality, efficiency and logic. Ultimately, we fight for our end users when they have no-one else to defend them.

I am currently building an army of technical communicators. If you live in the Greater Toronto Area, email me your resume. Once I’ve confirmed you have the required experience, I’ll add you to my email list. I regularly receive job updates from a number of recruiters and distribute these to the list.

Dare to join the army of informational warriors. Enlist in the technical communication army today!

Unlocking Your Career Combination

Combination locks come in all shapes and sizes, from padlocks to electronic security alarm keypads. But the one thing they have in common is that you must select or enter a series of numbers or letters to unlock them. It is this specific combination of alpha-numeric characters which makes each lock unique.

Technical communication can also be viewed as a unique combination; specifically, a combination of:

  • business writer
  • interviewer
  • editor
  • business analyst
  • information architect
  • technical illustrator
  • product tester
  • instructor and
  • indexer

just to name a few. As with a lock, it is this specific combination of skills and duties that distinguish technical communication from any other profession. No other job is like it.

However, we can further add to this combination by combining technical communication with yet another field, for example:

  • technical communication + medicine = medical writing
  • technical communication + business proposals = proposal writing
  • technical communication + the auto industry = car manual writing
  • technical communication + the legal profession = plain language legal writing

In fact, there’s no profession that could not be combined with technical communication and thereby benefit from the unique skills we offer. By doing so, we supply a very special combination of skills for the industry we work in.

One of my interests is to combine technical communication with a subject that has always fascinated me: personal financial management. I can think of no other area where receiving clear and accurate information is more important than one’s personal finances. The end user quite literally stands to lose or gain thousands of hard-earned dollars.

As part of my research, I recently attended a financial management workshop. The presenter, while friendly and knowledgeable, was not a technical communicator. Both the handouts and PowerPoint slides were overloaded with information. The presentation itself did not cover many essential topics (such as the importance of paying your credit card bills on time), but did cover many non-essential topics (such as the fact that Canola oil is Canadian oil).

You need to find the unique combination of industries that appeals to you, and make that your specialty. Doing so will enhance your value in the marketplace and make you stand out from all the other generic communicators.

The Doc Particle

Never has something so small attracted so much attention. In July of this year, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, claimed to have discovered the oddly named Higgs-boson particle. (And it only cost them $10 billion to find it.)
This tiny particle is also known as the God Particle because it could explain why things exist.  Discovery of the Higgs-boson particle helps prove the existence of something even more bizarre: the Higgs field. This is an invisible force field which covers the entire universe, allowing subatomic particles to have mass. Without mass, electrons, protons and neutrons wouldn’t be able to form atoms, and therefore nothing would exist.
This discovery could lead to some amazing things. If scientists could actually control the Higgs-boson particle, we could travel at the speed of light and change matter. Science fiction would become science fact.
The idea that there’s a force holding everything together is fascinating. We think that things just are – that they exist in a simple, natural state. The fact that things may not be so simple, that it actually requires a force to hold everything together and give a structure to all matter, is mind-blowing.
But the question for technical communicators is this: what is the force that holds all content together? By content, I mean any organized collection of information that forms a document, help system, website,  or any other form of visual communication.
Whatever this force is, it must be as powerful as the Higgs field, for without this force, content would descend into a universe of chaos, with thousands, if not millions, of elemental pieces of information flying off in every direction.
Specifically:
  • Topics would have no context or structure.
  • Concepts would have no meaning.
  • Indices would include non-existent entries.
  • Tables of content would cease to exist.
  • Tasks, the backbone of many user guides, would describe inaccurate or irrelevant steps, and would omit key steps.
One shudders to think how it would all look, but having an engineer write a user guide gives a fair approximation.
So just what is the force that holds all this content altogether? The answer is so obvious that you would not even suspect it – it is technical communicators. We are the force that holds content together. We create it, shape it, fine-tune it, and then re-shape it again until it forms a living system of information that is practical and meaningful to the end user.
We have seen the God Particle of content, and it is us.

Brand me a surrogate

Surrogate advertising is a fascinating form of marketing. It conveys a specific brand or product but appears to be for an entirely different brand or product. In other words, it’s a form of “guerrilla” or “Trojan horse” communication, because it very carefully hides the intended message within a larger message designed to distract the viewer.

Corporations often engage in surrogate advertising because it’s illegal for them to advertise their product directly.

One example of surrogate advertising is Russian Standard, makers of a popular vodka in that country. They branched out into a completely different industry, banking, to form Russian Standard Bank. The bank was a success because the brand was so well-liked. When they advertise their bank, they’re really advertising their drink.

Here in Canada, President’s Choice supermarkets have branched out into banking, credit cards, cell-phones and even pet insurance. If people like the brand, they will consume it in all its forms.

Technical Writers, The Brand
Here is the perceived “brand” most people have of technical writers:

Technical writers are highly technical, social awkward, introverted, geeky bookworms who write documents all day long.

We must use the principles of surrogate advertising to completely redefine and expand our brand to include everything that we do for our clients. This is especially true if we are contract workers, who are expected to be complete business communication service bureaus.

What’s in a name?
The first challenge is with the name we give ourselves. Most people are familiar with the term technical writer. We must educate people on the more expansive and inclusive term: technical communicator.

After changing our name, we can then completely rebrand it:

Technical communicators are highly observant, objective, practical, and dynamic professionals who create, manage, and enhance all forms of visible communication, both internal and external, including information, documents, and the products themselves.

The bottom line
Although we do not sell products, we increase profits by helping people understand how to use a product or service, thereby lowering calls to technical support.

We also boost profits by giving clear, practical, and objective advice on the design and usability of a product. This not only lowers support costs, but can increase sales by instilling goodwill in customers, and increasing the chances they’ll recommend a product or service to others.

In other words, technical communicators help companies make money.

Our products and services
The types of communication we work with include:

  • any type of guide or document: user guides, installation guides, technical guides, online help, tutorials, training guides, policies and procedures, functional specifications, technical references, legal and medical documents, and so on
  • marketing communications, including Release Notes and press releases
  • websites, wikis, intranets, blogs or any other online document

We also offer the following value-added services for businesses:

  • simplifying and clarifying complex documentation
  • reviewing software, websites, and documents from a usability perspective
  • analyzing a company’s current documentation processes
  • developing corporate style guides
  • content strategy and planning for various media including print, online, and mobile
  • single-sourcing: merging duplicate content into one source
  • rewriting error messages
  • writing practical on-screen instructions
  • creating effective online surveys
  • developing clear names for programming objects, classes, rules, fields, and so on 
  • managing a company’s online social media presence

We may also offer the following services for individuals:

  • creating and editing résumés and cover letters that will ensure you get an interview
  • completely reviewing your online profile, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, to ensure your image is professional and consistent
  • helping you develop an effective blog or personal website

From brand to surrogate brands
Therefore, while our main product brand names might be one of:

  • technical writer
  • technical communicator
  • information developer

 our surrogate brand names include:

  • training developer
  • product evaluator
  • usability expert
  • software tester
  • policies and procedures writer
  • content developer or manager
  • marketing communicator
  • content strategist
  • survey developer
  • information simplifier
  • style guide developer
  • UI and error message text developer
  • programming elements ‘namer’
  • documentation project manager
  • website enhancer
  • career documentation specialist
  • social media manager

As with any good brand, we need an effective tagline or slogan.

I suggest:

Technical Communicators: We make things clear, concise, and complete.

Trinity, One Two Three

People are innately drawn to things in threes; to objects in triplicate. There’s the classic Christian trinity, where God is divided up neatly into three parts: the father, the son, and the holy spirit. But there are many other trinities:

  • mind, body and soul
  • thinking, feeling and acting
  • work/life/play balance
  • the division of pregnancy into three trimesters
  • animal, vegetable and mineral
  • Christians, Muslims and Jews
  • protons, neutrons and electrons
  • the First, Second and Third Worlds
  • sex, politics and religion
  • family, friends and co-workers

In addition, Starbucks Coffee developed the idea of “the third place” outside of home and work, where one could simply relax while drinking $6 lattes. Clearly, people are attracted to threesomes, but why?

It could be that three represents a careful, comforting and symbiotic balance. While it’s true that just two things can “balance” each other (picture two equal riders on a see-saw), extending the number to three seems to add that extra element of desired symmetry. Each of three balances out each other in a psychologically pleasing way.

DITA, an XML markup language that is revolutionizing how content is stored, created and managed, also uses a trinity. In DITA, all content is stored as individual, modular topics. There are three basic DITA topic types in which all content can be classified: concepts, tasks, and references.

  1. A concept topic describes what something is or why you would perform a task. It gives the idea behind something; the background information that the reader needs to know.
  2. A task topic gives detailed, step-by-step procedures for a specific action. It can include pre-requisites and expected results. It is one of the most common topic types.
  3. A reference topic contains technical material, specifications, lookups and other detailed information, often in a table form. Examples include command references, allowed values, lists and catalogues.

Now, what’s very important to remember is that you should never mix the content of each of the parts in this holy trinity together, for you will surely burn in content management hell.

For example:

  1. In a task, do not include a detailed explanation of why you would perform this task. Maintain this background information in a concept, then, if necessary, link it to the task topic.
  2. In a concept, do not include procedural steps. Keep these steps in a task topic.
  3. If there are many possible values to choose from in a task, do not include them in the task, but in a reference topic instead.

You can see, therefore, that this trinity of topic types covers all your information needs.

And it’s as easy as 1-2-3….

Tech Writer Confidential

Image result for top secretWhat do a doctor, lawyer, and priest have in common? A very special arrangement with their users which ensures total confidentially. It goes by different names, depending on the profession.

For doctors, it’s doctor-patient confidentiality; for lawyers, attorney-client privilege; for priests, priest-penitent privilege or clergy privilege.

Whatever its name, the principle is the same: that all communication between the professional and the client is strictly confidential. It’s an important principle because it helps ensure full, open, and honest communication.

A similar principle applies to our profession: communicator-reviewer privilege. When we review a document with someone, there’s an implicit understanding that everything the reviewer says is private. However, we also need to make reviewers aware that if they make a comment on a draft, it could be shared with others. Also, if they raise issues that require us to do further research with others, we need to make the reviewer aware of this.

If reviewers can’t trust that what we discuss with them will remain private, they won’t make very good reviewers. An informational wall will be built up, and it’s a very hard wall to tear down.

An even more important principle of confidentially we follow is communicator-client privilege, where the client is the customer or company you work for. It’s an important and legally-binding rule that we don’t divulge inside information to public end users. Clients must know and trust that we will keep internal information private, otherwise they won’t us with their documentation.

Now, this can lead to awkward situations and moral dilemmas. What if you discover that one of the features you’re documenting does not function as it described? It would not be advisable to start tweeting this fact or posting the problem on Facebook. Your obligation is make the owners of the product (the product manager, the development manager, or both) aware of the problem in writing, via email. If a higher-level manager ever inquires about it, you can show them the email you sent. Now it is no longer your problem – it is their problem.

Confidentiality, therefore, is one of the cornerstones of our profession (along with other c-words such as clarity and conciseness.) Without it, the technical communication process simply won’t work. Confidentiality can only occur if there is trust from the person or entity giving the information to the one receiving it. The person giving us this information is “lending” it to us, with the understanding that we won’t share it unless given permission to. The information lender must be confident that we will keep what they say private.

And that is why the first word in confidentiality is confident.

Paying some interest to your docs

With the release of the Ontario and the federal Canadian budgets, debts and interest rates are again in the news. Both budgets continue to run deficits; this is especially frustrating in Ontario, whose government recently commissioned a document (the Drummond report) that recommended major spending cuts; yet another effective user guide that has been promptly ignored.

Interest rates are the lowest they’ve even been in years. This keeps borrowing costs low, but creates another problem: if rates rise even a small amount (as they inevitably will), borrowing costs increase tremendously.

Canada’s debt is currently about $566 billion. Even a tiny .1% rise in interest rates (that’s one-tenth of one percent) would increase borrowing costs a staggering $566 million a year, or over a one and half million dollars per day.

Interest rates are also important on a personal level. For example, if you have a $375,000 mortgage, a 1% rise in rates adds about another $3,750 a year in interest, or over $300 per month. If you’re already treading water and living paycheque to paycheque, this could be enough to push you into bankruptcy, and out of your house – exactly what’s been happening in the United States.

We see then, that the following formula is life-altering:

debt X interest rate = interest payment

Even a small change in rates can greatly increase the interest payment, if the debt is large.

All this got me wondering: What is the interest payment of a document?

To find this out, we need to determine:

  • the debt of a document
  • the interest rate of a document

The debt of a document, like financial debt, represents the total value of the document. This is comprised of the size of the document, including the total number of words, graphics, index entries, cross-references and other information elements.

The interest rate of a document includes:

  • the volatility of the document – the degree to which the document needs to be updated because of changes in the product or thing being document; in other words, how much and how frequently the document must be maintained
  • the importance of the document – a document that is not used or is considered irrelevant or unimportant has little value; the users or the organization that owns the document literally has little interest in it

A document’s interest payment is the amount of effort a technical communicator must exert to ensure that the document is properly maintained. It is the size of the document multiplied by its interest rate.

Larger documents generally have higher interest payments than smaller ones, because greater effort is required to maintain them. However, a large document may have a lower interest payment if its interest rate is sufficiently low, for example:

Large document: 5,000 x 1% = 50
Small document: 3,000 x 2% = 60

The first figure in each equation (the debt or size of the document) is arbitrary and is simply there to indicate relative sizes.

Now, what happens if you fail to make the interest payments? The debt of the document increases as it becomes more outdated and chaotic. It may even reach a point where the owner must declare bankruptcy and create an entirely new document.

Who knew documentation could be so…interesting?