Tag Archives: Documenter

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.

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Help Review – Mozilla Firefox

I stumbled across Mozilla Firefox’s help system last week and was interested to find most of the articles were largely written by volunteers. I hadn’t come across this kind of model for documentation before so it raised some interesting questions. For starters, can a group of volunteer technical writers collaborate to produce an effective help system?

2016-05-20 11_32_36-Mozilla Support

Mozilla released Firefox as an open-source web browser back in 2002 and as such the source code is open to anyone. As a non-profit organisation, Mozilla also relied heavily on the code, along with the support and documentation being largely maintained by volunteers. Although the company now has a large workforce of paid employees, an army of volunteers also still contribute to roughly 40% of its work, which includes not only the documentation but also coding tweaks (around 24% of all source code changes) and even the Firefox logo design. The help system was created through the SUMO technical writing program, which invited participants (a mixture of college students and technical writing professionals) to take part in each release cycle in order to produce the documentation. Although the program is not currently active, the participants and other volunteers still seem to be actively involved in maintaining the existing help articles.

Firefox-3

First Impressions

Visually, I think the design and layout of the Mozilla Support homepage is really appealing, with all of the individual products and their logos mapped out in different sections. It just looks cool. The simple grey background, contrasting with the colourful designs of the Mozilla product icons and clearly marked out sections make it very easy to navigate. It was interesting to discover that some of the legacy of Mozilla’s design is down to an interface designer called Steven Garrity wrote an article listing everything that was wrong with Mozilla’s visual identity back in 2003 and was subsequently invited to their head office and asked to head up their new visual identity team which led a re-brand in 2004 when the now well-known Firefox logo, designed by Jon Hicks, was introduced.

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The help is broken down into nine help topics, with multiple articles under each topic. The documentation itself is clearly laid out, although the screenshots are sometimes different sizes and formats (some fade into background, some do not etc.) and it is easy to spot where different technical writers have worked on the same article and used different styles to highlight sections of a screenshot. In the example below, you can see three different contributors’ work, with one opting for a crimson red rectangle to highlight ‘Desktop’, another using a orange-red circle and the third person using a brighter scarlet red oval:

Inconsistent

Each page does actually list the authors of each article so it is possible to see how many people have contributed to each article. This particular article had eight contributors but other have even more, and unfortunately it shows:

2016-05-31 12_31_59-How do I tell if my connection to a website is secure_ _ Firefox Help

In this article, which had 22 contributors, there were little issues like the screenshots being slightly different sizes. While it’s not the end of the world, the different styles of writing and formatting are pretty noticeable, even for someone without mild OCD, and it can look a bit messy and unprofessional. I guess it’s the kind of thing that’s forgivable when you’re using a free open-source browser but it could be easily remedied if Mozilla implemented a style guide for all contributing technical authors to ensure there is more uniformity with terminology, screenshots and how things are highlighted. Alternatively an editor could go through and make edits to clean things up where necessary.

Features

One thing I was really pleased to see in the help was the occasional gif clip and a good number of tutorial videos which ensure the content is dynamic and semi-interactive for its readers. The videos, which have been produced by Mozilla senior UX designer Michael Verdi, are short and well edited so they are very watchable. He has a personal, informal style and friendly tone which is more engaging than a robotic Siri/Cortana-style  narration.

At the top of each article, there is also a drop-down menu on the left-hand side which has some pretty useful features such as a link to any discussion items on the article’s topic, multiple language translations of the article, showing what other articles are linked to the article you are reading and seeing the history of who contributed and edited the article.

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In terms of help and support, it has three main branches: Twitter, a support forum and help articles. Again, this is a great way for Mozilla to keep all of their bases covered. The other great thing people volunteer to assist with all three of those branches as well, with volunteer contributors on Twitter, volunteers answering questions on the support form and volunteers writing the help articles themselves. These volunteers are prompted to help by various Volunteer for Mozilla Support buttons, as shown in the screenshot  below:

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There is constant encouragement to get involved in things like the “Army of Awesome” (their Twitter helpers) and statistics about how help matters. For example, “1 Tweet can save 1 day” and “1 article can be viewed by 400 million users”. It just has a really positive, pro-active community feel about it.

Another common theme is the carton Firefox character, who is like a superhero-type figure, which appeals to everyone’s inner geek. It’s another simple but effective way to make  the support pages fun and engaging.

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Conclusion

I am really impressed with the content and support that is being produced by Mozilla, especially given the high percentage of work being done voluntarily. On top of the written content, they are also managing to offer video tutorial content and a Twitter help account which are further supported by a support forum. It would be useful to have a style guide or some kind of lead technical author/editor to iron out any issues with uniformity but overall I think Firefox’s support pages prove that open source projects can be reasonably well-documented through crowd-sourcing volunteer technical writers. I’m not sure this model of documentation would work for everyone but I think Mozilla have proved that volunteers can collaborate to produce an extensive help system, this clearly isn’t just a big work experience project.

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.

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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.

Help Review – Twitter

My stepmum recently asked for help publicising something online and my first suggestion was Twitter but explaining how to use it was a challenge in itself. Although it’s been around for a decade, I still don’t think it is that intuitive for someone who is unfamiliar with the basic concepts and terminology. As a result, the help is vital in explaining how to use it, what Tweets and Retweets are and the importance of followers.

Twitter’s Help link can be found by left-clicking your profile picture and scrolling down to the word Help or by clicking Help in the bottom dashboard.

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First Impressions

The help homepage is pretty stylish, with a prominent white search panel where users can search for what they’re looking for. Underneath there are six key headings for commonly asked questions and even further down there are further sub-headings, a video tutorial and trending topics. Right at the bottom of the page there is an footer with some Quentin Blake-style cartoon people, presumably a hapless user and some friendly Twitter support staff in their Twitter-Blue uniforms. All very quaint but slightly disjointed if you compare the style of the trendy header with the children’s book illustrations in the footer.

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Just testing it out as a “new” user to get to grips with the basics, there is the ‘Using Twitter’ section which introduces to the general concepts and there is a useful ‘Getting started with Twitter’ page, along with a glossary which even experienced users might find useful.

Features

The Twitter Support account is a great little feature. By creating a support account in their own social networking service, it not only encourages user engagement but the process turning to help becomes a seamless part of the Twitter user experience. It’s very neat.

2016-05-10 21_38_51-Twitter Support (@Support) _ Twitter

Commonly asked questions were mostly account-related, either being locked out or wanting to deactivate an account. For more complex issues that require assistance or intervention, the Twitter staff ask users to log a support case, referring them to this page here.

2016-05-11 11_20_04-Request help signing in to your account. _ Twitter Help Center

There is a nice and simple video tutorial about how to mute or block users featuring the same Quentin Blake cartoons. It is nicely put together but I think it’s a shame there aren’t more of these, like a bank of different tutorial videos. The only example I could find on the help site was how to mute a person on Twitter (I’m guessing this was the most commonly asked question the support team were asked):

I checked Twitter’s YouTube channel and there is a slightly longer version of this video, detailing how to block and report users but that was all. I think they’ve missed a trick here but I guess any answered questions can be Tweeted to their support account.

Hidden Features

It’s not so much a hidden feature but something I didn’t know about are the Twitter keyboard shortcuts. This list can be accessed by clicking on your profile picture and clicking Keyboard Shortcuts on the menu.

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Another neat trick is the ability to embed Tweets. This can be done by either clicking the   ••• More (ellipsis) icon and selecting Copy Link to Tweet or Embed Tweet.

It’s quite a nice way to enhance content on a webpage. News sites in particular use this feature as a way to embed quotes from people, normally famous people or politicians, who have written something newsworthy on Twitter.

Conclusion

While it has some cool features, I would have thought Twitter could have added some more innovative aspects to their help, videos or maybe Vines in particular. I think the Twitter Support account is a good idea and it’s clearly being used quite actively. However, this could also be an indication that not enough people are using the help. Additional videos on recovering passwords, unblocking an account and deactivating accounts and sharing them on their Support account would probably halve the number of Tweets they receive. Despite this, I did like the style of the documentation itself, the familiar cartoon illustrations make it approachable and the content itself is a happy medium between informal and informative.

 

Help Review – Skype

The first help system I decided to look at was Skype, which I thought would be interesting from a technical writing and personal perspective because it’s an application I use every day to contact developers and other colleagues based in different offices across Sweden and Europe. Launched by Scandinavian entrepreneurs Niklas Zennström and Danish Janus Friis in 2003 and bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion (£6 billion) in 2011, the communication tool is now used by more than 300 million users worldwide. Although it is fairly intuitive and easy to use, I was curious to take an in-depth look at the documentation behind such a globally popular application, especially considering the diversity of its users.

First Impressions

To access the help system while using Skype you need to click Help and then Go To Support. This will launch the Skype Help homepage, an external site, shown below:

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My first impressions were it is very clean and user friendly (there’s even a blurry friendly-looking customer service bloke in the background) with a prominent white search box and six main help topics clearly marked out with the same blue icon buttons used in Skype. While hosting the help on an external site does result in a break in user experience, the help pages retain Skype’s bold and colourful branding, with bright blues and loud yellows, so they don’t feel too far removed from the software itself.

Features

By clicking the Windows Desktop ∨ drop-down menu, the user is able to select what kind of application (Android, iPad, Mac, Skype for TV etc) they are using to access Skype and the help adjusts itself accordingly. I thought that was pretty neat.

2016-04-20 18_56_27-Help for Skype – user guides, FAQs, customer support ‎- Microsoft Edge

Another cool feature is if Skype users are having connection issues etc., by clicking Skype service status, they are taken to page with live status updates, which Skype have named Heartbeat. This is where Skype web engineers post updates, highlighting the time and dates, so users know if there is an issue which they are working on.

The stand-out feature for me though is Skype’s tutorial videos because they’re so good. Simple and to the point, between 30 and 45 seconds, they’re very watch-able, well narrated and easy to follow for people who learn by watching something being done rather than by reading. The videos can be found about halfway down the page by clicking See all guides:

skype

The clip below is the introductory 36-second video, hosted on Youtube, which informs users how to get started by adding contacts:

This is something I’ve earmarked to add to my own documentation when I can get the software and find the time. The technology users of my generation don’t want to read through pages and pages of boring text, they want to either Google the answer or watch the video to quickly learn how something is done. Bish-bash-bosh. If done well, as shown here, I think videos are one of the best tools for explaining basic or even complex concepts quickly and efficiently.

Hidden Features

There are several features in Skype that are slightly hidden and not particularly prominent in the help. One of these is commands that can be typed to allow the user to change settings or learn more about the participants of a chat conversation. The most helpful of these is:

/help – typing this in the chat will produce a list of available commands that can be used.

availablecommands

These can be used for things like finding a specific text in the chat, leaving a conversation, finding out the number of people in the chat group and the maximum number of people who can join, or even finding out user profile information about a person in your chat group. They’re slightly buried but these can be found here in the Skype help.

The other popular hidden feature are emoticons, which are a fun way to brighten up a conversation and let people know how your feeling. Interestingly, the help does document the main emoticons and their shortcuts as well as the “Hidden emoticons”, shown below, which include (drunk) and (smoking) emoticons among others:

Emoticons

However, the real hidden emoticons, which appeal to the immature inner child in myself and fellow colleagues, aren’t documented at all. To quote Skype, “Shhh, don’t tell anyone!”, but these include such delights as a mooning emoticon (mooning), an emoticon face mouthing “What the f**k?” (wtf) and the finger (finger), a good one for when someone in Skype chat deserves a good slap.

Hidden

I guess by not documenting them they just become more fun for immature techy geeks like myself and my colleagues to find and use to entertain ourselves.

Quality Control

A feedback option at the bottom of most of Skype’s help pages is a great form of quality control and measuring the quality of the documentation. It also gives the user a way to interact with the technical authors who wrote the content.

If you click Yes it thanks you for your feedback, if you click No then you are able to leave feedback but selecting a predefined answer or by clicking Other, entering your own opinions on why the help failed you. It’s a pretty simple but effective way to get feedback from your readers:

2016-04-21 14_49_46-How can I update Skype for Windows desktop_

As well as the feedback option, there is also another fallback for readers in the form of the “Still need help?” and “Haven’t found what you were looking for?” links at the bottom of each page which takes the user to the Skype customer service contact details. It also provides a link to the Skype Community, a forum where Skype users can both post questions and answer them to receive “kudos” and rankings, in a similar reward scheme to Tripadvisor. Skype moderators also answer questions but it’s a good way to crowd source user experience and knowledge to find the answer to certain questions.

Conclusion

While there are certain drawbacks in hosting help externally, rather than embedding it, I think Skype have done an excellent job. It’s stylish, innovative and fits with their product relatively seamlessly, the only negative is the break in user experience. The help itself isn’t 100% comprehensive but when I tested out the search feature, it returned answers to my questions most of the time, with only one or two failures to find an answer. However, those are both minor negatives in what is largely a positive experience. As user-facing documentation goes, this help system is hard to fault and deserves a lot of credit for its fun and innovative features.