Tag Archives: Technical Writing

👽 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”.

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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:

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✍️ 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.

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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):

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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:

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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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Five Reasons I’m Falling Out with Confluence 

After a tumultuous and slightly short-lived affair with Sharepoint, I was introduced to Confluence and I was quickly won over by its simplistic UI and text editor. However, three years later I’m starting to feel disillusioned and frustrated with it. Here are some of the reasons why:

1. Bloat

Confluence has become bloated. I’m not sure if it’s a result of popularity or customers’ demands for new features but the feature set has been bloated while the basic functionality is neglected. It’s like a pet dog that has become fat and lazy from too many treats.

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Confluence now and Confluence before …

2. Bugs

Any frequent user of Confluence will be aware of the numerous bugs that seem to go unfixed for long periods of time. We encountered  a bug last week where images were breaking when copying a page (we later discovered this was caused by the image name having a colon).

Another common bug, which has caused me grief in the past, relates to being unable to export pages as PDFs for various reasons. This case, first reported in 2014, is still affecting customers two years later: https://jira.atlassian.com/browse/CONF-34275

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An example of customer frustration…

3. Plugins

To do anything useful or practical with the vanilla version of Confluence you need to install expensive plugins. Want to use versioning? You need buy a plugin. Want to translate your content? You need to buy a plugin.

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Even “Atlassian Verified” plugins don’t seem very reliable and are often costly.

Apart from the additional costs, my main issue with this is only a handful of plugins are built and maintained by Atlassian so you either have to take the risk of using a free plugin that will break in the future or you have rely on a third party developer to continue supporting it to ensure it works with newer versions of Confluence.

4. Basic Missing Features

The basic text editor in Confluence, the thing at the heart of the software, is still pretty poor and even things like basic formatting are a chore unless you manipulate the CSS.

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It amazes me Confluence still doesn’t offer other fonts or the option to change the font size.

Off the top of my head, the things that annoy me include: you can’t insert certain macros directly after another macro or a table because they will break or it will mess up your formatting, you can’t create a table without borders (unless you have Source Editor), you can’t choose different fonts or font sizes (unless you import them in the CSS), you can’t change the background colour, you can’t justify your text and you can’t remove historical attachments that have been uploaded to a page in the past. These are all things I’ve just accepted as Confluence-isms, things you just have to accept that Atlassian aren’t going to fix any time soon.

5. Cost

Despite all these things, Confluence is not cheap. If you’re a company with 100 or more employees, the Cloud version will set you back 3,000 dollars (£2,419) each year:

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Ouch: Confluence is not cheap!

On reflection, it’s pretty scandalous how much they are charging when so many bugs still exist, basic text editing functions are missing and most companies will need to install and pay for further plugins to get it to meet their requirements. Unfortunately, until someone comes up with a decent alternative I don’t see things changing.

Have you found a decent alternative that can be used for wiki content or software documentation/online help? If so, please let me know!

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.

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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.

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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:

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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):

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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!

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.

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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”.

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

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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.

Snapchat’s UX: A Confusing Mess?

Snapchat might be the image messaging app of choice for today’s teenagers, with 10 billion daily users, but in my opinion the UX and interface design is a confusing mess and others seems to agree (‘Why is Snapchat’s UI so bad?’, ‘The Generation Gap of Snapchat’, and ‘Snapchat Built to Be Bad‘ are just some of the top hits when you search “Snapchat UX” in Google).

It’s frustrating but even as a fairly technical 31-year-old who has mastered the likes of WordPress and Twitter, I don’t think I’ve ever found  an app that is so un-intuitive. It seems the only way to learn how it works are by reading the various on-board prompts or through trial and error.

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Take the home screen for example, my biggest issue for new users is that the majority of the icons are not universal. I’ve circled the icons I believe are fairly universal in green and highlighted uncommon/unknown icons in red:

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So of the seven icons/functions, only three (camera rotation, messages and take a photo) are obvious, the others are all ambiguous. Snapchat actually tells me that the ghost icon is where my contacts and settings ‘live’ through a bit of on-boarding but as for the small circle at the bottom and the dots in the bottom right, I’d have no idea unless I clicked them. Even the ‘flash’ icon in the top right isn’t the standard lightning bolt flash that you would expect to see on most cameras. Why make it ambiguous? It seems totally illogical but is it intentional?

The "stories" screen gave me a headache but that's another story...
The “stories” screen gave me a headache but that’s another story…

There are several theories to why it has been so successful despite having this seemingly un-user friendly design. One theory is the bad UX is intentional. By making it difficult for new or older users, its difficult for parents to look up posts by their children and their teenage friends without knowing their screen name. As a result posts remain personal. This theory was in part confirmed by CEO Evan Spiegel: “We’ve made it very hard for parents to embarrass their children. It’s much more for sharing personal moments than it is about this public display.” Similarly Amin Todai from Canadian creative design agency One Method wrote a blog post likening it to creating a new language that only under 30s could hear: “By virtue of it having an incomprehensible user interface, Snapchat has essentially created a new language that only people under the age of thirty can hear. Like a dog whistle for teens, except with more pictures of dicks and boobs.”

“Snapchat has essentially created a new language that only people under the age of thirty can hear. Like a dog whistle for teens, except with more pictures of dicks and boobs” – Admin Todai

That last comment brings me to the other reason that teenagers and others have flocked to Snapchat despite the poor UX/UI: dicks and boobs – the pornography aspect. It became an instant guarantee of seeing up to 10 seconds of nudity, whether it be horny teenagers wanting to see their love interests naked or glamour models sharing their goods, ultimately sex sells and Snapchat was offering it up , whether intentionally or not, to millions for free. In the same way that pornography is addictive, so is celebrity and there are a huge number of celebrities on the site, all offering instant snippets of their lives for all to see. The Kardashians, the Jenners, Justin Bieber, the Jonas brothers, are just some of the celebrity users who appeal to the teenage  and young adult Snapchat audience.

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Talking of dicks: Here is popular Snapchat user Justin Bieber posing in a topless selfie.

The other theory is that Snapchat is basically more about fun than function and that is what gets people using it. Irrespective of how awful the UX is, youngsters will keep coming back because they find it fun to use, to share moments and stories, and to mess about with the different effects, filters and lenses to make funny photos and videos. Ultimately, I think all three of these theories have had some part to play in Snapchat’s success and there is clearly a generation gap in play here but maybe that’s the point, its popularity is down to it not being popular with my generation because we were never its target audience, it was always intended to be more fun for the younger generation it resonates with.

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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?

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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.

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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.

2016-05-27 11_44_48-Photos

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:

2016-05-26 14_34_31-Start

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.

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.

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.

Twitter2.jpg

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.

Twitter3.jpg

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.

2016-05-10 22_04_21-Cortana

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.