First Day of School

After a week of not riding my bike to work, I resumed the regular riding routine. It felt so good to ride to work again. I'm convinced that the only way to ride a bike regularly and for enough time is to fit the ride into a commute to work. I don't commute all the way home, though I bet I could if I wanted. I drive to a nearby grocery story and park there. It cuts out 3.5 miles from the ride, which means I can make it in under 50 minutes rathe...

The Blame Game of RTFM

It may surprise you to find that the wikipedia entry for RTFM is a actually longer than the Wikipedia entry for technical communication. For the uninitiated, RTFM stands for "Read the F____ Manual." Substitute your favorite adjective there for F. Flipping, frickin, fantastic, fine, friendly, etc. The RTFM response captures the disconnect between technical writers and end-users. Presumably, technical writers include the information in the ...

Blending Tech Comm with Support

Defining my role is not an easy task, and I see it continue to evolve as I get more experience as a technical writer. Recently I have added user support and user advocate to the list of roles I play. Although I often don't have time to play a support role, I've found that when I do engage in support activities, it provides me with a wealth of useful information. I recently added a "Submit Feedback" link in my documentation. Through this ...

Messages from Sponsors -- August 2012

Every so often I ask my site sponsors to send me a few paragraphs of a message they want to broadcast to readers. This message from the sponsors post contains a ton of information about a variety of products, programs, new releases, upcoming webinars, conferences, recorded presentations, tools, and other information for the technical communication community. From Southern Polytechnic State University (message from Laura Palmer and Carol B...

Summer Is Over, School Begins Again

It's been way too long since I last wrote an entry on this blog. I hope to get back into a more regular rhythm. The summer has ended and the kids are returning to school. Callie will enter the second grade tomorrow; Avery is going into sixth grade, and Lucy is going into kindergarten. Mollie is about ready to turn two. The summer was a good one, with no major accidents or calamities. Lucy learned to ride a bicycle. Avery participated on swim t...

Guest Post: Core Skills for Technical Writers Often Overlooked

Vinish Garg The following is a guest post by Vinish Garg, Director of Operations in Technical Documentation at vhite systems. When I watched the Master Chef series (Australian version and then Indian version) last year, an important lesson for contestants was to not focus only on extraordinary or most creative dishes. The judges never really looked only for creativity, fancy ingredients, and garnishing. To the judges, adherence to instr...

Using the Proximity Principle to Design Online Help Navigation

One of my favorite books on design is Robin Williams' The Non-Designers Design Book. The book provides advice on graphic design more than anything else, but at least one principle applies to information design as well: Proximity. The Proximity principle says you should group similar content together. Items relating to each other should be grouped close together. When several items are in close proximity to each other, they become one visu...

Why Glossaries Help Users Find Information

One findability technique commonly ignored in help applications is the glossary. A glossary defines key terms in an application. How does it assist with findability? A glossary helps users know the right words so that they can be effective with their searches. After all, how do users find what they're looking for unless they know the right words? In Designing Web Navigation, James Kalbach explains the shortcomings of search: Search is cer...

This Theme Is Now Responsive

Previously, I've used WordPress plugins to style this blog's view on mobile devices, but with all the buzz about multi-device display and publishing, I decided to switch themes to a completely responsive theme. Because I use minimalistic themes, switching from one minimalistic theme to another is almost unnoticeable. But so you can see the difference, resize your browser to a smaller size. As you resize it, you'll see the navigate bar sud...

Applying Progressive Information Disclosure to Online Help Navigation

At the last STC Summit, Andrea Ames gave a presentation on progressive information disclosure. If you follow progressive information disclosure, you avoid giving the reader all the information up front. Instead, you present a little bit of information to the reader and then let reader choose to view more if he or she wants. A classic example is on-screen help text that presents a brief sentence followed by a "Read more" link, which takes ...

Misconceptions about Topic-Based Authoring

So far I've been exploring different ways to organize content to increase findability, but I haven't examined perhaps the most fundamental technique of all that affects how we organize and shape our content: topic-based authoring. What does topic-based authoring mean? Somewhere in learning how to be a technical writer, I was taught or assumed that topic-based authoring meant kind of the following: When you're exploring software documentat...

The Importance of Contextual Navigation, or Cross References in Topics

Contextual Navigation One of the most hotly debated topics in tech comm deals with how writers should cross reference other topics within a help topic. Some writers feel that including contextual or inline links in your help topics distracts low-literacy readers by encouraging them to navigate elsewhere. The low-literacy readers, they argue, end up bouncing from page to page, following one internal link to the next, without ever completi...

Unconscious Meaning Suggested from the Structure and Shape of Help

I'm continuing to make my way through James Kalbach's book, Designing Web Navigation. In chapter 2, he says the structure and format of content helps users anticipate the meaning of the content. He writes, The human visual system naturally seeks structure in information, often very rapidly. Scientists refer to this as "pre-attentive" processing. This occurs in such a way that interpretation of a display is determined by the design itself....

Why Do We Need Navigation At All?

In Designing Web Navigation, James Kalbach starts out by asking why we need navigation at all. Technically, it's possible to put all the content on the same page. You can show and hide the content through Javascript or other techniques. Although he doesn't mention it, technical writers are probably familiar with twisties, or drop-down hotspots. You click the link and a lot of text expands below it. You could essentially do this with your ...

Writing as a Holy Calling

A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement Perhaps because of my blog's title, "I'd Rather Be Writing," many people think this blog deals with creative writing. As a result, I frequently get asked if I want to review books about writing. Sometimes I say yes. Recently someone sent me A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of inspiration and Encouragement, by Barbara Abercrombie. So far I like the book. I'm n...