WritersUA 2014 Day 4: A community, not a crowd

Sun, fun, and community in Palm Springs

This tweet best summarizes WritersUA this year:

I believe that it’s not because we have the same type of job or suffer the same pain points. I think it’s because we have a clearer idea of what we’re doing and why it matters.

Our field has changed dramatically in the 17 years since I attended my first WritersUA. Back then, the conference was called WinWriters, which shows how much the field has changed. Our primary concern was designing help systems with Windows products. We came to learn how to use tools for generating help and determine what type of content to put in it.

Today, mobile dominates the tech field. Our biggest concern is how to meet the demands of a new type of device. We can no longer assume that our help will appear on a specific device running a specific operating system in a specific size and form factor. We have to develop user assistance that can support a wide variety of devices in different languages.

One way is through adaptive design. Tony Self showed how Web pages can identify the browser version and screen size using an HTTP User Agent String and use that information to change formats to fit within that screen. Media queries can identify what type of features a device can support (such as video) and display those items where applicable.

Self said that we should design using progressive enhancement — to start with the lowest common denominator and add features that the devices can support. We need to avoid the mistake many developers make by adding all the bells and whistles first and then strip them out for devices that don’t support them. This frustrates mobile users when they don’t have the basic capabilities on their phone that they have on their desktop.

To aid in adaptive design, we can use the new features of HTML that Dave Gash showed in his presentation. HTML5 provides semantic markup that identifies sections of a page. We can then use styles in a CSS3 style sheet to place those sections where appropriate for different types of screens.

The demands of new technology also require us to put more thought into how we use language. Rhonda Bracey said that nearly 60% of users won’t buy from companies that use bad grammar and obvious spelling mistakes. Since the user experience begins with the product listing in an online store, using language unprofessionally can drive away customers. Language has to be clear, concise, and consistent. Writers need to remove “empty calorie” and vague words, and use punctuation to improve clarity.

The changes in technology offer us new ways to provide user assistance. We are no longer locked into producing the same type of help and user guides we’ve been creating for the past 20 years.

As Joe Welinske demonstrated, we can provide visual overlays that describe controls on the screen. In the mobile world, help cannot take users away from the app because they don’t have a screen wide enough to switch back and forth. We may also have to demonstrate gestures like swiping and pinch-to-zoom because they are new to our audience (the same way the mouse was 30 years ago). We also have to be careful about the length of topics. A topic that seems a reasonable length on a desktop screen would require an unacceptable amount of scrolling on a phone.

Mobile and other new technologies force us to rethink how we provide help to our users. Tools can’t drive the decisions on what assistance we provide. We have to think about the user assistance first, and then pick the tools that enable us to generate it. Instead of sitting in Tech Pubs land churning out help on whatever tool we use, we should be working closely with developers to design user interfaces, craft the text that appears, and perform usability testing to see if the designs work. Because we are more involved, we can contribute more to product quality and customer satisfaction.

We are facing disruptive changes, but those changes offer us new opportunities and ways to show the value of our profession. This awareness is making us more of a community, not just a crowd. Just as we have to get out of the silos and interact with the rest of product development to create successful products, we have to interact more with each other to face our common challenges and to improve our field. These are exciting times for technical communicators.