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?


Our unpredictable users

Image result for peopleIf you’re reading this, you are probably a human being, and if so, you are member of a most strange and unpredictable species.

Trying to predict human behaviour in order to change it is big business. Governments impose laws trying to get their citizens to conform. Companies create products and services trying to get people to buy them. The problem is that people often behave in a way that is completely opposite to what you would expect.

Let’s start with the government. Our dear leaders want us to drive safely so that we don’t kill or maim ourselves or each other. To encourage this, they enact various driving safety laws, including speeding limits, mandatory seat belts, and in some jurisdictions, mandatory winter tires. The idea is that these safety measures will result in safer driving. But often, it actually reduces safety. How is this possible?

Studies have shown that drivers who perceive their car to be safer will drive more recklessly, because they believe that the car’s safety features will protect them. In other words, safer cars can actually make drivers less safe.

While it is true that the number of winter accidents in Quebec’s have declined since snow tires were made mandatory, this is probably due to the province’s high unemployment rate. Fewer people working mean fewer drivers, and fewer accidents.

There are a few solutions to this conundrum. To encourage safer driving, governments could offer lower vehicle license renewal rates to accident-free drivers. A stranger “solution” would be to make cars more dangerous. If a sharp spike pointing towards the driver was placed into the steering wheel, you can be sure the driver would drive very carefully.

Predicting people’s behaviour is big business in business, too – it’s called “marketing”. Marketing involves understanding a person’s core beliefs in order to determine their actions so that ultimately they will be convinced to purchase a specific product. This often means developing products with characteristics that are counter-intuitive. There are many examples:

Those “inefficient” Japanese
A Japanese manufacturer can assemble a custom-made bicycle in a few hours. However, they do not deliver the bicycle to the end user as soon as it is ready. Instead, they store the finished bike for several days, then contact the customer for a pick up. The reason for this delay is that customers are hungry for the anticipation of the product – it is part of the joy of the purchasing process. Picking up the bike only a few hours after ordering it would diminish this joy.

No pain, no gain, no sale
A medical supply company created an antiseptic that did not sting. Sales were terrible, forcing the company to add alcohol to the product in order to make it sting. People associate pain with sterilization. Because the antiseptic did not hurt, people thought it did not work. Similarly, Buckley’s, a vile-tasting cough medicine, promotes itself with the tag line: “It tastes awful. And it works.”

The package is the product
Steve Jobs not only designed Apple products, he also designed the packaging. When Macs were first introduced in the 1980s, people were not familiar with the computer mouse. Jobs designed the packaging of the mouse to deliberately slow down the unpacking process, in order to force people to become acquainted with this strange new accessory. Even in the packaging, Jobs was creating a full user experience.

Increased price; increased sales – what the…?!
When China increased the import taxes on Porches, sales actually increased. The luxury car became even more a status symbol, because everyone knew how much more valuable they were. It is one of the few examples where raising the price of a product actually had a positive effect on sales.

Unpredictable docs

Knowing that people are unpredictable has a direct impact on documentation and product design in the business world. Again, there are many examples:

Does she or doesn’t she?
Years ago, Clairol introduced products allowing women to colour their hair at home. The product only had to set in one’s hair for two minutes, compared to the thirty minutes it would take at a salon. However, the instructions that came with the product stated that the user should keep the colouring material in place not for two minutes, but thirty minutes. Why?

Women were used to the fact that colouring their hair took 30 minutes. They simply would not have believed that a two minute set time would be effective, so Clairol actually stated to keep the product in their hair fifteen times longer than required. Behaviour trumps practicality every time. 

Rock that doc
When the rock group Van Halen arranged tours, they relied on a most interesting 53-page document: their contract. In addition to various technical specifications regarding the stage setup, the contract had an obscure clause stipulating that a bowl of M&Ms was to be provided backstage with the brown ones removed. Failure to comply with this demand would result in the show being cancelled. Was Van Halen really so picky about candy?

The reason for this exotic request was to ensure safety. Van Halen’s onstage equipment was massive and had to be assembled to strict specifications. Failure to do so could result in injury or death. The “no brown M&Ms” clause was there to ensure that the intended readers of this document complied with the stage setup instructions. If a brown M&M was detected, it probably meant the backstage staff had not followed the other (and much more important) instructions.

May I take your order?
A online enterprise developed a simplified product ordering process, reducing the number of screens required to place an order from five to one. It failed completely – users wouldn’t use it. They wanted the safety and security of being able to easily back out of an order at any time. Giving the user only one screen to complete a purchase, while more efficient, scared away potential buyers.

Let’s be charitable
Often when you receive requests from charities asking for a donation, they will include a form with several suggested amounts. There is usually a small amount, a medium-sized amount, and a large amount, for example, $5, $50 and $500. The target amount that the charity really wants is the middle amount. $500 is too much for most people, so they will ignore it. $5 is too cheap. $50 is “just right”. The design of the document (the donation form) influences the behaviour of the donor.

When designing documents, we must understand how thoroughly unpredictable our readers will be. They will do things like:

  • not open the help even when there is a clear link to it
  • not search the help or use the index, even if these functions are clearly visible
  • be unable to find a button or other user interface element unless you tell them where it is
  • completely skip over a critical introduction to a procedure, in which case you may need to restate the information within the procedure
  • ignore headings at the top of a topic or within a topic
  • look up an item in an index using a term or phrase that you could not possibly imagine

There will always be two things which will remain difficult to predict: the future, and our users. The more we can predict the irrational behaviour of our users, the greater the quality of our documents will be.

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.


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 Medium is The Messenger

Related imageKudos to Kik Messenger, a new messaging app for smartphones, with a twist. It tells the user when a message has been sent, delivered, read, and even when the other user is responding. In doing so, it converts regular text messaging into real-time conversations.

It runs on all types of smartphones: Blackberry, iPhone, iPad and Android.

And it’s free.

(No – I have not been paid by Kik to say this – I own a dumbphone, not a smartphone.)

The technology behind this app is not new: it’s similar to Blackberry’s messaging software. However, not everyone owns a Blackberry – something Kik’s creators realized and took advantage of.

These new messaging apps are excellent examples of what I call meta-info apps. Meta-info is information about information. Sending a piece of information (such as a text) is one thing; getting information about that information’s delivery, reception, content and response is quite another. It adds a whole new layer of complexity and value to the original information.

In this case, the original information we are dealing with is quite simple: a text message. But what would happen if you applied meta-info technology to a user guide?

The result could be an online user guide with meta-info that could be visible to the author or the public such as:

  • the number of people who have read (or are currently reading) a particular topic
  • the search terms the user entered to find a topic
  • how much time the user spends reading a topic
  • a ranking of the quality of a topic; that is, whether the topic was useful
  • notes or comments from readers about a topic
  • an overall rating of the entire guide and its ranking compared to other guides

Can you even begin to imagine how valuable this information would be in helping to improve the contents of the guide?

Some of this feedback technology exists today, but most guides are still in the old flat, one-way format. A document is delivered to the user, and it’s the last we see or hear of it. Documents using meta-info, or meta-documentation take information to the next level.

Meta-info is here to stay. Kik Messenger has been downloaded over two million times in the past three weeks.

How many users have “downloaded” your documents? The fact that most of us cannot answer this question raises many more questions.

Must you be so….human?

Related imageThe winner of the technological quote of the year (so far) is:
Just don’t hold it that way.

This was Steve Jobs‘ initial statement when confronted with reception problems of the iPhone 4. He was responding to the now infamous complaint that the signal strength dropped when the phone was held in a typical fashion.

For someone who has built an empire based on outstanding usability, it was an astonishingly stupid thing to say. Jobs was telling his users: we don’t need to conform our products to you; instead, you need to confirm to our products. In other words: don’t be human.

Jobs’ arrogance is not surprising. His string of recent product successes went straight to his already super-sized head. The greatest danger of success is thinking you can do no wrong. After immense pressure, though, he finally relented, offering a free bumper case to fix the problem, and full refunds to users who wanted them.

The simple lesson is this: usability, that is, designing a product with the end user in mind, isn’t just one thing – it’s every thing. I continually see examples of poor documentation design where the user’s needs were an afterthought, if they were a thought at all.

Here are some recent cases:

  • An investment company sent me some forms to sign. I dutifully signed and returned them all. Later, I received one of the forms back. It turns out that even though it had areas highlighted in yellow for me to sign, date and initial, it was my copy. The only thing indicating this were the tiny words in the bottom right corner stating: Copy 1, Client. Typically, when I receive client copies, they are visibly marked with a stamp or a post-it note, stating: CLIENT COPY – PLEASE RETAIN.
  • My credit card statement is a spectacular example of wasted space. Each 8 1/2 x 11 page lists only about 20 transactions, which take up about 20% of the page. The information on the remaining 80% (the payment portion, any special news or announcements, the total purchases and balance, and the interest) is unnecessarily duplicated on every page. And the legal information is duplicated on the back of each page! It’s not uncommon for my statements to be five or more pages. This isn’t just a waste of paper: it makes it harder for me to locate and review all the transactions, because I have so many pages to waft through. The information that only needs to appear once should only appear once. With the space gained, a five-page statement could be reduced to one or two pages. There should also be a line space separating each set of transactions by date, again to make it easier to read through them.
  • Our garbage pick-up schedule indicated that July 1, the Canada Day holiday, was a pick-up day. Chaos and confusion ruled on our streets. Some people thought this must be a misprint, and did not leave their garbage out. Others took a chance and did take out their garbage. It turns out it was a pickup day, to allow the workmen to enjoy a long weekend. A simple asterisked note on the calender would have avoided all this confusion, for example: Note: This is a collection day despite the official holiday.

Usability must permeate every of your work. It means doing things like:

  • creating TOCs that can quickly be glanced through to give an aerial view of the product
  • writing conceptual overviews that leave no doubt about what the object or item in question is, and which include real-world examples and analogies where possible
  • including overviews in tasks and then explaining the task in simple, easy-to-digest steps
  • avoiding long sentences and paragraphs
  • using fonts and page layouts that are clean, simple and readable
  • breaking up large blocks of text with headings
  • creating indices that anticipate all the different ways a user could look up a topic

Not doing these things results in unusable documentation. Our response cannot be:
Just don’t read it that way.

Our response must be:
Just what is the way you read it?

Taxing my docs

Image result for Intuit logoI recently attended an STC conference where one of the topics discussed was user-centred design. I met with usability experts and interaction designers whose sole job is ensuring that a product is intuitive and easy to use from a user’s perspective, and not from the business’s.

At the conference, I met someone who visited Intuit’s usability lab in California. It’s a multi-million dollar facility where they exhaustively test usability, bringing in many different typical users of their products. You can see the results in their software: TurboTax in the U.S. and QuickTax in Canada. I have QuickTax and I can say it is one of the most well-designed, user friendly and intuitive products I have ever seen.

So, if you want to create well-designed, user-centric documents, then study, use, and analyze well-designed, user-centric products. For in the end, the document is as much a product as the product itself.

Recalling all recalls

Image result for Toyota logo“Oh, what a feeling to drive Toyota!”

This catchy jingle from a few years ago rings ironically in my ears. With all the current recalls from Toyota, this jingle needs a rewrite:

“Oh, what a feeling – to drive Toyota – into a brick wall…”

Last year, I came dangerously close to owning a dangerous Toyota. The dealer and I had agreed on a price for a new Camry. However, he was unable to actually obtain the car – apparently they had sold out, and only next year’s model was available.

I never quite understood how next year’s model could be available in the spring of the previous year. It’s as though they’ve sent a car from the future back in time eight months to our present. Back to the future, baby.

In any case, they say “be careful what you wish for”, and am I glad my wish for a new Camry never materialized. I bought a used Accord instead for about half the price. It also has the added feature of an accelerator pedal that actually springs back up when you take your foot off it.

Usability – A Sticky Situation

To be fair to Toyota, this is also a usability issue. Don’t drivers know that if the accelerator pedal sticks, they can:

1. Press the brake pedal
2. Turn off the engine?

This may not stop the car immediately, but it sure beats the status quo. Toyota should include these handy tips in their car manuals.

Total Doc Recall

You don’t often hear about companies issuing a “documentation recall”. It’s a mathematical fact that many documents have errors or omissions, and could be improved. Even though documents are, unlike cars, quite easy to update, most companies don’t bother.

The problem is that documentation is traditionally packaged with the product and never (or rarely) updated. This is especially true of PDF files included with a product. They’re written once and may only be updated when a new version of the product is released. All of the changes and improvements that were made in later PDFs, changes that could apply to earlier versions, are rarely made to these earlier versions, because it’s simply too much work to retroactively update all the documentation.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The solution is to recognize that documentation exists in a very different way than a physical thing like a car. Its ethereal, non-physical state liberates it and exempts it from the pitfalls of tedious physical recalls.

All information can and should be stored as reusable elements, and then regularly and automatically published as online documents. Any part of a document that applies to more than one version of a guide is stored as a single documentation element. When this element is changed, all the versions of the relevant guides are also changed, and the users will see these changes when they view the manuals online.

The concept of a “recall”, therefore, simply doesn’t exist in this documentation scenario, because the product is never finished.

The president of Toyota recently apologized for all his company’s troubles. Maintaining an online content management system means never having to say you’re sorry.

Information Architecture

At the office of the TTC (Toronto’s public transportation utility), I patiently wait in line to pay a fee. Finally arriving at an open kiosk, the clerk behind the glass prepares a document for me to sign.

The opening in the clerk’s window had a small arc-shaped hole.To pass the document through, the clerk substantially crumples it. I sign the form, mash it up again, and stuff it back through the arc.

This collateral documentation damage could have easily been avoided if the designer for this office had factored in the design of the paperwork used in the office. They might have developed a window opening with a wide slot at the bottom, like this:

Form really does follow function. Too bad more interior designers don’t do windows.