Category Archives: Blog

👽 The Emoji Invasion

A critic labelled the ‘text speak’ of the 1990s as “penmanship for the illiterates” but the latest threat to written English is the emoji, said to be the fastest growing language in the UK. While ‘text speak’ saw words shortened and abbreviated, emojis have replaced text altogether, harking back to the dark ages of cavemen and hieroglyphics, when pictures formed the basis of communication.

The rapid spread of emojis into modern communication has seen a translation company hiring the world’s first emoji translator, a restaurant launched in London with an emoji menu and the recent release of the Emoji Movie in our cinemas. So, where did they come from and is there a place for them in modern communication and technical writing?

🎬 Origins of the Emoji

The emoji first appeared on mobile phones in Japan during the late 1990s to support users’ obsession with images. Shigetaka Kurita, who was working for NTT DoCoMo (the largest mobile-phone operator in Japan), felt digital communication robbed people of the ability to communicate emotion. His answer was the emoji – which comes from the Japanese ‘e’ (絵) meaning “picture” and ‘moji’ (文字) “character”.

2000
One of the original set of 176 emojis designed by Shigetaka Kurita

The original emojis were black and white, confined to 12 x 12 pixels without much variation. These were based on marks used in weather forecasts and kanji characters, the logographic Chinese characters used in Japanese written language. The first colour emojis appeared in 1999and other mobile carriers started to design their own versions, introducing the smiling yellow faces that we see today.

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Shigetawa Kurita, the 👨‍👩‍👧 father of emojis, felt digital communication robbed people of emotion.

Speaking to the Guardian, Kurita admitted he was surprised at the popularity of emojis. “I didn’t assume that emoji would spread and become so popular internationally,” he said. “I’m surprised at how widespread they have become. Then again, they are universal, so they are useful communication tools that transcend language.”

“I’m surprised at how widespread they have become. Then again, they are universal, so they are useful communication tools that transcend language” – Shigetaka Kurita.

However, Kurita doesn’t believe emojis will threaten the written word. “I don’t accept that the use of emoji is a sign that people are losing the ability to communicate with words, or that they have a limited vocabulary,” he said. “Some people said the same about anime and manga, but those fears were never realised (…) Emoji have grown because they meet a need among mobile phone users. I accept that it’s difficult to use emoji to express complicated or nuanced feelings, but they are great for getting the general message across.”

💹 Emojis in Marketing

It is this ability to get the message across very simply that has resulted in companies using emojis more and more in marketing, particularly on platforms like Twitter and via email. It has become a way for brands to humanise themselves, have a sense of humour or put across a message that a younger audience can relate to.

One example of emoji marketing is a Tweet sent by Budweiser which was composed entirely of emojis to celebrate the 4th July this year:

Meanwhile, Twentieth Century Fox took emoji-based humour to whole new level with posters and billboards bearing two emojis and a letter (💀💩L) to announce the release of Deadpool in 2016:

Deadpool.png

✍️ Emojis in Technical Writing

A number of tech companies, especially those with a younger (in their 20s-40s) target audience like Slack and Emoji, have also embraced the use of emojis in their technical documentation and the software itself.

Slack3.png

Slack use them sporadically in the product, often as the punchline of a joke or message when you’ve read all unread threads (see screenshot above).

Emojis also appear in their help system, with Emoji flags for the chosen language and to highlight bullet points (see below):

Slack-emoji2

Startup bank Monzo also embraced emojis early on, designing an emoji-rich interface that would a younger client base than typical banks could relate to. Emojis are automatically assigned to transactions and you’ll find them incorporated in the Monzo API documentation and the app’s Help screen:

Monzo-mojis

iPhone6---Front-Black---by-JustD

Speaking to brand consultants Wolf Olins, CEO Tom Blomfield explained how they also use machine learning to pair your transaction’s spending category with relevant emoji. For example, it will display the donut emoji 🍩 when you shop at Dunkin Donuts. He said: “There’s no business case for the emoji donut, but people get ecstatically happy when seeing it and go on social media to share the moment.”

☠️ Risks of using Emojis

While emojis might work for some tech companies and give them a way to humanise their brand and relate to their target audience. I think there are several risks which come with their use as well.

The first risk is alienating users who don’t relate to emojis, or even dislike them. Although most of my office do use them as a way to react to each others’ Slack posts etc, there are a number of people who refuse and as there are a lot of nationalities with different cultural references, sometimes the emojis are used in different ways. For example, in Japan the poop emoji (💩) is used for luck while the English use is a lot more literal. Similarly, the folded hands emoji (🙏) means ‘thank you’ in Japan, while it is more commonly used to convey praying or saying ‘please’ in English usage.

Secondly, if emojis are just a fad like the Kardashians, Pokémon GO and Tamagotchi then you face the unpleasant task of replacing them all when they become unpopular, are considering annoying or are phased out. If you have saturated both your product and documentation with emojis then this task will take you and your team a lot of time and effort.

Thirdly and finally, studies have shown that emojis can get lost in translation as they are incredibly subjective so the meaning and intended emotive message can often be misinterpreted. This has continued to get more and more muddled as different vendors and browsers redesign and create their own versions of the unicode emoji characters. A study by GroupLens research lab found evidence of misinterpretation from emoji-based communication, often stemming from emojis appearing differently on different platforms.

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The grimace emoji (😬) is said to cause the most confusion, with researchers finding that 70% of people believed it to be a negative reaction while 30% thought it conveyed a position emotion.

On the whole I don’t dislike emojis or think they’re a threat to the written word. They definitely have a role to play in social interaction, can humanise communication and even add humour to it. However, I still feel there are too many risks, too many different cultural interpretations which mean they simply won’t work in a multinational business. Technical writing is all about choosing the clearest form of communication, the shortest, most simple words that cannot be misunderstood. I’m just not convinced there’s a place for emojis in documentation yet, at least not while there is still room for things to get lost in translation.

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Debugging the word ‘Bug’

Etymology and the origin of English language have always fascinated me; partly because so many of the words we use every day represent remnants of history; artefacts left behind by the Roman Empire, the Vikings and the Norman conquest. Although words relating to computers and technology are often much younger, some are just as quirky and steeped in history as those from the past.

Like a Moth to a Flame

The origin of the word ‘bug’ in the computing world is often mistakenly credited to computer scientist Grace Hopper. The story goes that while working on the Harvard Mark II computer in 1947 she discovered a dead moth stuck in a relay. It was removed and taped into a logbook where she wrote “First actual case of a bug being found” (see picture below), which suggests that the term was already in use at that time.

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While this might have been the first literal case of ‘debugging’, there is evidence that ‘bug’ had been used in engineering for many years before that.

Scarecrows, Bugs and Bogeys

The most accepted origin of ‘bug’ is the Middle English word ‘bugge’ or ‘bogge’ (n.), which meant a scarecrow or a scary thing. One of the first iterations of the word came in John Wycliffe’s English translation of the bible (circa 1320-1382): “As a bugge either a man of raggis in a place where gourdis wexen kepith no thing, so ben her goddis of tree.” (As a scarecrow or a man of rags in a place where gourds grow guards nothing, so are their gods of wood.)

Bugs-2.png
‘Bugge’ (n) originally meant scarecrow then became an early name for bedbug.

As language evolved, another off-shoot of ‘bugge’, the scarecrow, was ‘bogey’, an evil or mischievous spirit. This gave rise to a family of other ghost and hobgoblin names including ‘bogeyman’, ‘boggart’, ‘bogle’ and ‘bugaboo’. While the archaic form of ‘bugbear’ is also another hobgoblin figure. In general these all have the same negative connotation of things to avoid and that cause fear or irritation. The direct descendant of these words is ‘bogey’ which still survives today in modern English, in aviation where a ‘bogey’ is an enemy aircraft, in golf where a ‘bogey’ is one over par (a bad score) and a ‘bogey’ (UK) or ‘booger’ (US) is a piece of nasal mucus.

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By the middle of the seventeenth century, the word ‘bug’ no longer meant scarecrow and had come to mean ‘insect’, which makes sense as many people consider them to be alien and scary. The earliest references to ‘bugs’ meaning insects often related to ‘bedbugs’, supposedly because when someone woke up covered in bedbug bites, it was as if they had been visited by something scary during the night.

Thomas Edison’s Bugs

By the 1870s, the meaning of bug had changed once more and perhaps made its first appearance in technology when American inventor Thomas Edison referred to what he called a ‘bug’ while developing a quadruplex telegraph system in 1873. He also mentioned ‘bugs’ in a letter to an associate:

“It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is an intuition, and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise — this thing gives out and [it is] then that “bugs” — as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.”

They were mentioned once again in an article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1889:

“Mr. Edison, I was informed, had been up the two previous nights discovering ‘a bug’ in his phonograph – an expression for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble.”

Another early example of ‘bugs’ being used to refer to technology was with the release of the first mechanical pinball machine, Baffle Ball, which was created by David Gottlieb in 1931. It was advertised with the strap-line “No bugs in this game!” (see poster below):

No-Bugs1
So it seems fair to assume that the word ‘bug’ came from ‘bugge’, the Middle English for scarecrow, which led to ‘bogey’ and all the similar words meaning an obstacle, a source of dread or something to be feared. In modern times the word ‘bug’ has become a verb meaning to vex or irritate, while the noun form has become a synonym for disease-causing germs, crazily enthusiastic or obsessive people (e.g. a firebug is a pyromaniac), concealed recording devices used by spies and perhaps, thanks to Edison, an error in technology.

 

 

 

UX Design: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good

One of the nicest pieces of UX design I’ve come across recently is the Monzo banking app. When a friend from university said he was part of team setting up a bank it piqued my interest, partly because it sounded so ambitious and partly because I worked in the payment industry at the time.

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Founded in 2015 as Mondo before a legal dispute forced them to change the name, they are part of the new crop of so-called “challenger banks”, set up to battle the old guard of banking institutions who are losing touch with their customers, the smartphone generation in particular.

Their USP is that Monzo is built with the latest modern technology (developed in Google’s coding language Go) so is “as smart as your phone”, easy to use and is able to offer instant notifications when payments are made.

monzo-screen

spending

It’s difficult to convey how nice the UX is in a still image but the app is incredibly clean and intuitive and makes it a fun way to map your spending. As you make purchases on your Monzo card they appear instantly in your app where you can see the name of the merchant, the amount spent, as well as map location, the category that your purchase fits into (entertainment, transport, groceries etc) and it is possible to attach a receipt and a note, completed with emojis. Overall, it’s just a very pleasing app to use.

The Bad

One my tasks at work is to send out version releases and patches using a piece of software called BizWizard which is made in Sweden. I’m going to be brutally honest, the old version of the product really sucked and I dreaded using it because I had so many issues with it.

bizwizard_retina_660

For starters, it wouldn’t run on Google Chrome and would crash unless running with Edge or Firefox.  I also found that most of my time on Bizwizard seemed to be spent watching the same grey progress bar as it slowly moved from screen to screen:

bizwizard

I thought it might be related to the amount of messages being stored but it is slow to navigate between most screens, even those without much data. It just made the entire experience of using it very dull and frustrating.

I’m not going to be totally negative about Bizwizard because the latest version is a dramatic improvement and for the most part, it’s really easy to use. I just encountered one more issue that I didn’t like in the new version of the content editor, which is that when I finished writing a message, my natural inclination was to click the prominent blue Revert button at the bottom of the screen, assuming that was the Save button (See screenshot below):

bad-ux
The Revert button which tricked me into thinking it was a Save button in BizWizard.

It’s probably a result of using Confluence, where the Save button is in the button right (see below), but as a result of clicking Revert my text was wiped with no way to undo or get it back. Very frustrating as a first time user of the new version.

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The Save button in Atlassian Confluence.

I suppose I can’t be too hard on BizWizard for creating a button in a similar style and position to Confluence but it shouldn’t have so much prominence because it is a more natural place for a Save button. I’ve sent my feedback to them so it’s up to them whether they change it or not.

The Ugly

Linkedin is actually an app I use quite a lot and occasionally use to share my blog posts but unfortunately there are quite a few things I don’t like about it and the overall experience.

linkedin

Apart from the feeling that the “professional network” is striving to turn itself into Facebook and forever tries to force connections on you, there are other things that annoy me and just make it an unpleasant and sometimes annoying user experience.

Take the homepage for example, there is just so much going on. It’s just a bit of an information overload and makes me want to close it down. See screenshot below:

linkedin-2

There are so many things that demand your attention here in my opinion, with the orange warning bar about emails at the top, the yellow button begging to be pressed so I can reconnect with colleagues (not today thanks), blue links encouraging me to improve my profile and grow my network, an advert asking me to try Hired today, and a tab informing me I have one new update (and that’s having already read my notifications). It’s just far too much, like a needy kid screaming for attention, a lot of it just unnecessary and off-putting. It ruins the user experience.

In contrast, the smartphone app version is actually really nice to use and much cleaner than the web version. It’s a much more enjoyable user experience with a nicely designed UI and much less information to deal with. See screen below:

linkedin23

The only negative is the red notifications are often unclear so I don’t always know what I’m getting notifications for and there still seems to be an ongoing issue with messages/emails,  for example receiving and sending duplicates of the same message.

As a technical author I do find myself looking at software and applications through the eyes of a first time user/ tester so I’m maybe I’m being harsh with my criticism but development teams should always consider the user, their experience and how they would expect or like your product to work. If your product doesn’t work how they would expect it to, if they find it difficult to navigate or if they find the overall experience annoying or frustrating then they are unlikely to want to use it again and that’s bad news for business.

Please note: User experience is always going to be subjective so some people may agree or disagree with me about these examples. It goes without saying that all of the opinions above are my own and not those of my employer!

The Basics of JavaScript

For the past month or so I have become somewhat immersed in JavaScript. As I already knew the basics of HTML and CSS through using WordPress and other CMS tools, I took the plunge and started to learn JavaScript, the other core web development language, using Codecademy and w3schools.com.

What is JavaScript?

JavaScript is an object-orientated programming language that is derived from C + +. It is a scripting language normally used to create interactive effects within web browsers. JavaScript’s dynamic capabilities include run-time object construction, variable parameter lists, function variables and event loops, some of which I will discuss below.

JavaScript Syntax & Operators

Variables are containers for storing data values. These are declared by the var keyword:

Var

Functions are used to perform defined tasks. These are declared by the function keyword.

2016-08-25 14_30_35-Introduction to Functions in JS _ Codecademy

A function will only be executed when it is called/invoked. e.g. In this case the function is called “greeting” so the input below will return “Great to see you Dave”.

greeting ("Dave")

Return is a statement used to stop the execution of a function. It will also return the value of a function.

var x = myFunction(2, 4);        

function myFunction(a, b) {
    return a * b;                
}

In the example above, x will be returned as ‘8’.

Console.log commands are used to display data . Console.log() will take whatever is inside the parentheses and log it to the console.

2016-08-25 16_27_53-Getting Started with Programming _ Codecademy

In this case, the information logged to the console will appear as:

2016-08-25 16_29_59-Getting Started with Programming _ Codecademy

If/else statements are used to make decisions in the code. An if/else statement will execute one block of code if a specified condition is true, if the condition is false, another block of code can be executed.

if-else

Loops are used to execute a block of code a number of times. Loops are useful if you want to run the same code repeatedly with different values. It’s all about getting the computer to do the legwork for you, as opposed to typing out numerous lines of code.

Here is an example of a for loop. This will run 5 times, with values of ‘step’ 0 to 4.

var step;
for (step = 0; step < 5; step++) {
  console.log('Walking east one step');
}

Different loop types include:

for – this will loop through a block of code a number of times.
while – this will loop through a block of code while a specified condition is true.
for/in – this will loop through the properties of an object.
do/while – this will also loop through a block of code while a specified condition is true.

Arrays are special types of variable that can used to hold multiple values at one time.

For example, if you wanted to list a number of values from one array you could use a block of code like this:

var beers = ["Heineken", "Amstel", "Carling", "Fosters"];
for (var i = 0; i < beers.length; i++) {
console.log (beers [i]) ;
}

This would return:

Heineken
Amstel
Carling
Fosters

Funny Typos & Spelling Mistakes

We all make mistakes every now and then. Sometimes they are made by the developers, sometimes they are made by the technical authors or content writers. Here are a few examples of unfortunate typos which serve as a funny reminder to always double-check your copy before it is released!

1. The existential crisis. Are you sure you want to exist?
nFqVG4N
Credit to Reddit user /u/psychob

2. Shit happens. A really unfortunate misspelling of shoot by Pentax.

3szEjQe

3. Beyond parody. British Government announces new language test for migrants with an embarrassing misspelling.

u-k-english-requirement-announcement

One of the first people to spot the mistake was Nick Wallis from BBC’s The One Show:

4. Child’s Play: It’s important to know the difference between “they’re” and “their”.

creative_kids_software

5. Regsiter? Nah, I think I’ll register with a company which doesn’t make spelling mistakes.

hubspot-typo

6. Reeding between the lines: I don’t think this Yellow Pages advert was proofread.

Proofreading

As the examples above show, we’re all human and mistakes do happen but they may cost your website, business or documentation their credibility and sometimes money. Always double-check your copy before publishing it.

The Origin of the Hamburger and Other Icons

The emergence of the three-lined “Hamburger” menu icon in modern interface design was so fast I had just assumed it was a relatively new creation. However, after a bit of research I discovered its origins were far more rooted in the history of technology than I first thought. It was software designer Geoff Alday who made the discovery, which he wrote about in this blog post, learning that icon was first used back in the early 1980s on the interface of the Xerox Star work-machine, one of the grandfathers of the modern personal computer. You can see it shown in the middle of the screenshot from 1981 below:

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A bit-mapped screenshot from the Xerox Star workstation released in 1981.

Norman Cox, the designer behind the icon, said its design was meant to be “road sign” simple, functionally memorable, and mimic the look of the resulting displayed menu list. Cox later told the BBC it was jokingly referred to as the “air vent” icon. He said: “At Xerox we used to joke with our initial users that it was an ‘air vent to keep the window cool’. This usually got a chuckle, and made the symbol more memorable and friendly.”

“At Xerox we used to joke with our initial users that it was an ‘air vent to keep the window cool’. This usually got a chuckle, and made the symbol more memorable and friendly” – Norm Cox, former Xerox designer

The icon didn’t really appear for nearly 30 years until it was adopted as a menu icon by social networking site Path, which launched in 2010, and then later Facebook and Apple iOS applications, meeting a growing need for more content to fit onto smaller smartphone screens via the use of menus. It has since become widely-accepted as a menu icon by UI designers and can found everywhere from web browsers Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, to news websites such as the BBC and others.

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2016-07-08 13_51_08-Home - BBC News

2016-07-15 14_53_20-News, sport and opinion from the Guardian's UK edition _ The Guardian

After some more research I soon discovered that there were a number of other prominent icons and symbols still used today that first emerged in the 1980s. Apart from the ‘Hamburger’ icon, Norman Cox is also attributed with creating the document icon, which was another part of the Xerox Star interface. This image here shows the design development. After Cox, one of the most prolific designers of the 1980s was Susan Kare who worked for Apple Macintosh. Descendants of her early designs that still exist today include icons such as the lasso, the grabber, and the paint bucket. You can see some other the examples of her work in the screenshot below:

02_macicons
A selection of designs by Apple Macintosh designer Susan Kare.

She also came up with the command key design (⌘) that still appears today on most Apple keyboards. Kare apparently discovered it while browsing through a symbol dictionary and found it was commonly used on signposts in Scandinavian countries to mark places of interest. When asked by MacFormat magazine about the longevity of her icons she said: “I am very grateful and appreciative that some images I designed almost 30 years ago are still in use. I believe that symbols that are simple – not too many extraneous details – and meaningful can have a long life span.”

Other icons that have survived since the 1980s are shown in the table below:

  Icon  Name  Designer/Creator
menu-alt-512 Hamburger icon Norm Cox for Xerox Star.
ios7-document-icon Document icon Norm Cox for Xerox Star.
command-symbol_318-74882 Command icon Susan Kare for Apple Macintosh.
Susan-Kare-fill-icon-660x660 Fill icon Susan Kare for Apple Macintosh.
mouse-cursor-icon Mouse icon* Douglas Englebart for Xerox PARC
common-search-lookup-glyph-128 Search icon  Keith Ohlfs for NeXT Inc.

*The mouse cursor arrow originally pointed upwards but because resolution was so low it was easier to draw an arrow at a 45 degree angle.

The Role of Text in UX

As software and apps become more user-friendly and commonly-used icons become universally understood, there is a growing tendency to scrap text.

Microsoft experimented with the minimalist icons-over-text approach in their release of Outlook 1997. As you can see from the toolbar, they left out the text descriptions and as a result non-experienced Outlook users apparently stopped using the toolbar altogether:

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Microsoft Outlook 1997
Several designs later, with Outlook 2000, they had a rethink and text was added back in:

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Microsoft Outlook 2000
While more recent designs are less icon-assisted and text has even clearer prominence:

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Microsoft Outlook 2013

Digital designer Thomas Byttebier makes some excellent points about the importance of using text in his blog here, with the concluding statement being “when in doubt, the best icon is a text label.” He lists a number of extremely popular apps and sites where icons are pretty ambiguous. Take Instagram and Spotify for example. Are people aware of what this icon actually does?

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2016-07-06 17_12_09-Spotify

In both cases this in-tray icon is for accessing your inbox and sending direct messages but I think the messaging feature is clearly overlooked in both applications. When I asked friends who have been using the applications for several years whether they were aware of the messaging feature they just looked at me blankly. One said “Oh, that bikini thing”, the other thought it was a basket. So there’s clearly a lack of clarity over the  purpose of the icon but whether that’s due to the ambiguous design or a lack of need, I’m not sure. It’s probably a bit of both.

Twitter have also had some issues with ambiguous and non-universal icons, often presuming that users will just intuitively understand what the icons do and sometimes getting it wrong. As a result Twitter’s user growth has actually slowed as new users that are attracted to the site often have a hard time catching on to how it works.

pict--iphone-screen-template---messages--messages---templatepict--iphone-screen-template---messages--messages---template2

The arrow icon for ‘Reply’, the envelope icon for ‘Message’ and the ellipsis (three dots) ‘More Options’ icon are recognisable but the heart icon for ‘Like’ will only be familiar with people who have used Instagram and other social media. A new user is unlikely to know what the ‘Retweet’ icon does unless they are familiar with Twitter’s basic concepts. It is interesting to note that Twitter have added text labels to the bottom five icons (highlighted in green in the image above) because other than perhaps ‘Messages’ their function is not obvious to the user.

While documentation is sometimes seen as an afterthought in the development process, in my opinion the text and written content is an inherent part of user experience for all software, no matter how intuitive the UI designer thinks his icons are or user-friendly the product is. If you want to avoid ambiguity, text will always be the best way to get the message across to the user.

10 Tips for making Content more Engaging

I’ve always liked to learn new bits of software by trial and error, trying things out for myself first and learning from my mistakes but there’s only so far you can get before you get stuck. This is why documentation and help are so invaluable because a piece of software is worthless unless you know how it works.

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In today’s fast-paced world, people don’t have time to read chunky 900 to 1000 page manuals, they want information to be quick and accessible. As a result, technology companies and their technical writers are having to adapt their techniques and content strategies to make documentation more exciting and engaging for readers.

Here are some of the best ways to keep people interested in your content:

1. Pictures

As you have probably seen from my blogs, I am a real advocate for using good images to break up text and make documentation more approachable and more visually interesting.

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This is just the Firefox help homepage but as I mention in my blog last week, I thought the design and use of imagery was really visually appealing.

2. Videos

Taking this approach one step further, videos are another brilliant and effective way to engage help users as long as they are well put together, short and succinct.

The example above is one of Skype’s excellent video tutorials which are really well produced.

Videos can be made with software such as Camtasia or free tools such as Open Broadcaster Software.

3. Gifs

Like videos, it is possible to add gifs to make your content more dynamic and visually interesting. They are a quick simple way to show an example of how something is done:

Animation

This gif was produced using free open-source software called ScreenToGif.

4. Infographics

I think graphics are a great way to get a lot of information across to your readers in one image if they are designed well.

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The Spotify infographic above has 10 separate facts spread across one image.

5. Examples

Using examples is the best way to show your readers what you are trying to explain.

2016-06-02 14_05_27-Embedding a Tweet on your website or blog _ Twitter Help Center

On the page above, taken from the Twitter, the help describes how to embed a Tweet and then gives examples.

6. Be Human

Use an informal or conversational writing style. Write as if you were describing how the software works to a friend. Readers won’t engage with a robotic tone of voice.

2016-06-02 14_07_29-People You May Know _ LinkedIn Help

Linkedin’s Help addresses users by their first name to make the experience more personal.

7. Keep it Short

Don’t overwrite. If you can explain it in one sentence then write one sentence. It’s better to use 25 words rather than 250. The shorter the better.

2016-06-02 14_10_12-Login Basics _ Facebook Help Centre

Facebook’s Help Centre covers the login basics in just 73 words (and three links).

8. Keep it Simple

Don’t use lengthy words the average person won’t understand or that will get lost in translation. Go with “move in a circle” rather than “circumbilivagination” or “use” instead of “utilise”.

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Sorry Royal Mail but I really dislike the use of “utilise”, it’s just a waste of four letters!

9. Easy Navigation

If your help system is easy to work your way around then people will want to use it.

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Skype’s Help is really easy to navigate from my experience. You can check it out here.

10. Make it fun!

Use humour and unusual text to catch people’s attention. This is discussed by Mozilla’s Michael Verdi in his presentation How To Write Awesome Documentation.

Atlassian Confluence’s help system, shown below, encourages new users to join a fictional space program and complete a mission:

2016-06-01 14_40_40-Get started - Atlassian Documentation

2016-06-01 14_40_57-Tutorial_ Navigate Confluence - Atlassian Documentation

Sure, it’s a bit wacky and off-the-wall but its fun, it catches attention and keeps readers interested and engaged.

How to become a Technical Writer

If you’re an analytical journalist who is looking for a change, a budding writer with an interest in technology or an experienced programmer who is secretly an aspiring wordsmith, then technical writing might just be the answer for you.

What is a Technical Writer?

Technical writers or authors help to communicate technical information and instructions for products, such as software and hardware, in a way that is easy to understand. This can include writing user manuals, online help, release notes, integration guides, fact-sheets, wikis and APIs among others. Other methods of communicating information include producing video tutorials, graphics and illustrations. If you’ve ever read the mini instruction manual that came with your smartphone or clicked the ‘?’ icon or ‘Help’ button while using a piece of software then the content was probably written by a technical writer.

The role is sometimes given other names such as technical communicator, documenter, information designer and content strategist. Occasionally the content is written by developers or business analysts.

Moving from Journalism into Technical Writing

After nearly six years of writing for local newspapers and witnessing more and more job cuts as readership declined, I decided to jump ship and try something new.

Side profile of a journalist typing on a typewriter

My lifesaver came in the form of technical writing, and while it might not be for everybody, I knew straight away that it was the right move for me. Skills I had used for years such as interviewing, writing shorthand and producing accurate copy quickly proved to be very much transferable but instead of interviewing local politicians and press officers to write news stories, I was speaking with developers and testers to produce release notes and user instructions. Similarly, my multimedia skills and experience with Photoshop and video editing came in handy for creating graphics and video tutorials. It certainly helped that I’d always been interested in computers and had worked on blogs (so had some basic knowledge of HTML etc) but I found most aspects of the job just suited my existing skill set.

What Background should a Technical Writer have?

While I have encountered that some companies who would rather hire technical writers with a coding or technical background, I don’t think that should be a stumbling block if you’re interested in pursuing a career in technical writing. I have met technical writers who have previously worked in customer support, higher education and even photography. Although I have personally found my journalistic skills incredibly useful, I think as long as you are a good writer, are able to think analytically and are happy to constantly learn new things then a career in technical writing could be for you.

The sections below will provide tips and advice that will help you if you are considering pursuing a career in technical writing:

1. Qualifications

Some employers will look for a degree in computer science or similar but requirements can depend on the subject matter of what is being documented. Degrees in science, engineering and English are all suitable.

While there aren’t actually too many universities which offer accredited technical writing courses, it certainly wouldn’t hurt your CV to have some kind of formal training in technical communication. The University of Limerick offers a graduate certificate in technical communication (distance learning), while  other universities such Imperial College and Norwich offer more specific or specialists courses such as science communication and communication design.

Introductory and more advanced courses with accreditation by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) are offered by Cherryleaf, Armada and ESTON.

2. Commonly Used Tools

Another key thing that most employers look for is experience with the required publishing tools that their documentation team use or have used. The table below lists many of the products and tools that are commonly used by technical writers, although there are many others:

word_2013  Microsoft Word  Word processing tool.
sharepoint2013  Microsoft SharePoint  Documentation management tool.
default-space-logo-256  Atlassian Confluence  Documentation management/ team collaboration.
icon-flareLargeBgColor  Madcap Flare Help authoring tool.
FM-icon  Adobe FrameMaker  Document processing tool.
2016-05-18 12_27_22-Films & TV  Adobe RoboHelp  Help authoring tool.
Adobe_Acrobat_DC_Icon  Adobe Acrobat  PDF reading and editing tool.
Notepad  Windows Notepad  Plain text editing tool.
notepadplusplus.6.9.1  Notepad + +  Text and source code editor for Windows.
Adobe_Photoshop_CS6_icon.svg  Adobe Photoshop  Image and photo editing software
Visio-icon  Microsoft Visio  Diagram and flow chart creation tool.
visual_studio_2012___windows_startscreen_icon_by_revisionzero-d5qnp17  Microsoft Visual Studio  Integrated development environment.
greenshot_0a  Greenshot  Screenshot capture and editing tool.
img_snagit-icon  Snagit (TechSmith)  Screenshot capture and editing tool.
icon128-2x  Camtasia (TechSmith)  Screen recording and video editing tool.
Adobe_Illustrator_Icon_CS6  Adobe Illustrator  Vector graphics creation tool.

If you haven’t used any of the software listed above, it is possible to download 30-day trials of some of these (Adobe Software especially) and either play around with them or watch some tutorial videos online and read online help to learn how they work. Many open source tools such as Greenshot and ScreenToGif, which can be used to create .gif files from screen recordings, are completely free to download and use.

Another useful tool to use when starting out as a technical writer is to buy a copy of the Microsoft Manual of Style. This is a great everyday generic style guide that can be used as a guideline for your own technical writing or as a template when creating a style guide for an employer.

3. Coding Skills

While it is not essential, as I said before, having some basic coding knowledge would be extremely beneficial if you are serious about becoming a technical writer. Some people recommend learning the basics of HTML, CSS and some XML at the very least.

coding-future

There are some excellent online resources where you can learn different coding languages. These include:

Codecademyhttps://www.codecademy.com/

Khan Academy – https://www.khanacademy.org/computing/computer-programming

Code School – https://www.codeschool.com/

W3Schools – http://www.w3schools.com/

There are more out there and there are also plenty of forums and tutorial videos available which should give you the basics. Starting a blog or creating a website online is also another great way to learn and develop your HTML skills at the very least.

4. Build a Portfolio

It’s difficult to build a portfolio when you are just starting out and do not have work experience but one option is to go to freelancing websites and find some documentation jobs, write submissions and use them for your portfolio, whether they get accepted or not. Another option is to find an open-source collaborative project such as Mozilla Firefox (and Thunderbird) where the documentation is written by volunteers. Click here for more information.

If all else fails then simply produce dummy documentation samples such as user guides or fact-sheets for existing products. It would be good to have half a dozen or so of different document types, preferably both user-facing and back-end, to really showcase your work.

5. Networking

Once you have the qualifications, knowledge of the tools and a small portfolio, it is important to network and develop contacts in the industry. It is a good idea to look up and contact firms which have existing documentation teams who might need a junior technical writer in the future.

networking

Alternatively, write a list of companies you’d like to work for and either check their career sections or email them speculatively offering your services. Other ways to build your reputation and network is to send your CV out to recruitment agencies who specialise in tech jobs, add contacts on Linkedin and attend technology job fairs in your local area to get your name out there.

Finally, good luck with your search!

Was this post helpful? Let me know if the comment section below.

Atlassian Confluence: Hints & Tips

I’ve been using Atlassian Confluence for several years now and I think it’s an incredibly fun and useful tool when it comes to creating a wiki or online help. The list below includes useful hints, tips and time-saving shortcuts when using the software:

1. Watch the Atlassian Tutorials

If you’re a total noob and have never used JIRA or Confluence before then a great place to start and learn the ropes is to watch Atlassian’s tutorial videos on YouTube.

There are introductory videos, some with a slight Australian twang, which explain the general concepts and the basic Confluence hierarchy of child pages, parent pages and spaces. These can be found here.

One of the most useful videos, How to Build a Kick Ass Confluence Page, introduces a number of key features such as using macros, images and columns. This can be found below:

2. Using the Shortcuts

There are multiple shortcuts that can be used to make working with Confluence more efficient. The most useful is the { macro shortcut (called a “brace” in US or “curly bracket” in UK). Macros are tools which offer functionality to your page. These include a page tree, inserting a PDF, creating a panel, etc. Typing a letter will bring up macros names beginning with that letter. Other shortcuts include:

e – opens the edit screen.
// – allows you to select a date from a calendar pop-up.
@ – mention a colleague.
[ – add a link to another Confluence page or an external link.
w – will make you a watcher of the page.
Ctrl + Shift + e – will open the preview of the screen.

To view a summary of the shortcuts click the ? help key while in edit mode. Alternatively the full list can be found here.

3. Working with Tables

Tables are a great way to add images and align them with text. See example below:

Applebanana.jpg

These can be added using the table button and dragging to select the required size. Alternatively you can press Ctrl + Shift + I to create a table.

To remove table borders, open the source editor using the <> button (this will need to be enabled in configuration) and enter the following:

<table>
<tbody>
<tr>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>test </td>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>test </td>
</tr>
<tr>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>test </td>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>test </td>
</tr>
</tbody>
</table>

This example will create a 2 x 2 table of cells with no borders.

applebanana2.jpg

The code for this table is shown below:

<table>
<tbody>
<tr>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>
<ac:image ac:thumbnail=”true” ac:width=”25″>
<ri:attachment ri:filename=”apple.png”/>
</ac:image>
</td>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>Apple</td>
</tr>
<tr>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>
<ac:image ac:thumbnail=”true” ac:width=”25″>
<ri:attachment ri:filename=”banana.jpg”/>
</ac:image>
</td>
<td style=”border: 0.0px;”>Banana</td>
</tr>
</tbody>
</table>

4. Creating a Note, Warning, Tip or Info Box

A great way to highlight an important piece of text or information and break up long pieces of writing is to use the Confluence note, warning, tip and info boxes. These can be created using the following shortcuts:

{note
{tip
{warning
{info

These will appear as shown in the screenshot below. Any important text can be added inside the panels in the edit screen as normal.

Notes2.jpg

5. Exporting Pages in Different Formats

If there are certain pages that a consultant or colleague in sales wants to show to a client or external partner who can’t access Confluence, it is possible to export them as Word or PDF documents.

To do this, go to the top right hand corner of your screen, click the menu icon and select the required action:

2015_Kick_Off__London__-_UK___BENELUX_-_Hoyster

Clicking either ‘Export to PDF’ or ‘Export to Word’ will start a conversion of the page which will be downloaded and saved to your machine. The header and footer of the downloaded PDF can be customised in configuration.

6. Watchers, Shares and Mentions

If you want a certain user or group of users to read a page you have created or edited, this can be done three ways:

  • Watchers – watchers can be added and managed using the menu on the right hand side. Any users set as watchers for a page will receive email notifications when it is published or edited. This can be turned on and off using the “Notify watchers” Boolean flag at the bottom of the screen.
  • Shares – another way to inform Confluence users that a page, such as release notes, has been published is to share the page and manually enter the users names. They will all receive an email in the same way watchers do.
  • Mentions – if a user is mentioned in a page (using the @ macro) they will also receive an email notification. This is a direct but effective way to get users to read the content of a page.

7. Using Space or Page Templates

If you know you’re going to be creating a lot of similar pages where you want the content in the same format and layout then it might be worth creating a template. I only use templates for release notes but they are a great time saver.

To use a template, click the ellipsis button (…) but select the required template:

2015_Kick_Off__London__-_UK___BENELUX_-_Hoyster

8. Reordering Connected Pages

If you’ve created the skeleton of your Confluence space and you want to amend the order of your pages, this can be done by clicking the Reorder Pages button:

Who_is_who__-_UK___BENELUX_-_Hoyster.jpg

This will open a new window. To reorder the pages, click the arrow to expand the full hierarchy of the pages and click and drag the page names to the required positions. Dropping a page onto another will turn it into a child page of that page.

Reorder_Pages_-_UK___BENELUX_-_Hoyster.jpg

9. Creating Anchor Links

It is possible to create an anchor link to a section of content on the same page or on another page. To do this, you can user the anchor macro:

Type {anchor and then enter the name of the anchor. E.g. Banana.

Edit_-_2015_Kick_Off__London__-_UK___BENELUX_-_Hoyster

If you want to link to this anchor from the same page, simply add a link using the link button, selected ‘Advanced’ and enter the anchor name with a hashtag # E.g.#anchorname.

Edit_-_2015_Kick_Off__London__-_UK___BENELUX_-_Hoyster.jpg

Linking to another page is a bit more tricky and will require the full name of the page, followed by the page name and the anchor name. See format below:

Confluencesitename.com/Spacename/Pagename#Pagename-Anchorname

10. Linking with JIRA to create release notes

If you work alongside a development team using Atlassian’s issue tracking tool JIRA, there is a great way to quickly create release notes in Confluence using the JIRA filter macro.

To use this type ‘{‘ and then ‘JIRA‘:

JIRA

Next, using JIRA Query Language (JQL) in the search bar it is possible to filter for cases by JIRA project, release version, issue type etc. The example below shows the JQL for all cases that are new features linked to a project called “APP2” with version number “2.o1”:

project = APP2 AND fixVersion = “2.01” and issuetype = “New Feature” ORDER BY issuetype DESC, due ASC, priority DESC, created ASC

When inserted into a table, the release notes will appear as follows:

2016-05-06 16_27_52-Photos

The columns (issue type, key, summary, reporter, assignee or status etc) can be altered by clicking Edit on the filter. Next click Display Options to view the editing options.

columns.jpg

Begin typing to add more columns or click the ‘x‘ to remove specific columns.

To change the order they appear in open the source editor using the <> button and in search for “columns” and manual rearrange the order of the column names. See highlighted section below:

column-order.jpg

By using tables with filters for each issue type in a template page, it is possible for the release notes to literally populate themselves as the JIRA cases are added to a live project. By using this method for the products I work on, apart from editing the case names if they aren’t clear enough, the only documentation I need to write is for new features and cases where functionality changes or new settings have been added. It’s not only a great way to save time but it also ensures no JIRA cases are ever missed.