Archive for Information Architecture

Singing The Single-Sourcing Blues

Photo credit: Creative Commons
The following somewhat (but not entirely) fictionalised story commemorates a failed attempt to impart upon a decision-maker the benefits of single-sourcing technical content. 


Installation High

A 30-day free software trial of Madcap’s Flare software seemed like the way to go to get us out of the tired rut of our end-user technical documentation. This product’s offerings of single-sourcing capabilities included content tagging for advanced cross-referencing, sophisticated importing and exporting, team collaboration (with multiple levels of access for reviewers), and most of all, topic-based structuring.

Photo credit: MadCap Software, Inc.

When I met with the decision-making manager, his first question was why I needed 30 days. “Well”, I said as diplomatically as I could, “I don’t expect to be assessing the software 40 hours per week for 30 days. That’s just Madcap’s trial period.”

But that was just his warm-up because he seemed to have other plans in mind. “Before we start looking at new software”, he said, “perhaps we need to step back and assess what our users need.” Normally this would seem like a reasonable suggestion, but to date no interest had yet been shown about user needs, so why now? I suspected a delaying tactic.

Big Data for Small Minds

The manager offered to run some analytics on traffic for our Webhelp and maybe even send out a survey to all users so as to solicit their feedback on the documentation. The manager seemed confident that something would come of engaging our users, although I already knew that we had very little data on usage and that it would be very easy to draw whatever conclusions we wished from analytics. If this is the requirement needed to install a 30-day free trial of software, I thought, why bother?

“Have you thought of using WordPress”, the manager queried. I made a point of not letting my emotions show, but some part of the cheery recommendations I was planning died in that moment. “No”, I said but added quickly, “How would you implement a single-sourcing solution with WordPress?” The manager waned in his enthusiasm a little, so I took the opportunity to explain the problem/solution further.

“We have a large array of documents (user guides, training handouts, change management documents, release notes, and on and on) all of which are maintained in a way that creates great inaccuracies and much wasted time keeping track of revisions and duplicates.”

Magic Bullet Point

By mentioning the problem with duplicates, I thought I’d laid down a trump card of sorts, but the manager took it to mean that I was prey to some form of technical writer magical thinking.

“There is no software that’s going to prevent duplicates”, he said, “People, no matter how great the software, can still create duplicates.”

I had to pause at this. I wasn’t proposing a magic bullet. I knew full well that software has limitations. I needed an example to put him squarely in the seat of what the present system is like and why it isn’t working.

“When you drive down the road, there’s nothing preventing you from swerving your car into oncoming traffic”, I went on, “You can do it, but what’s preventing you is your agreement (coupled with myriad laws and cultural taboos) to play within the rules.”

“Of course, people can still create duplicates, but what we need is a set of tools that point us toward good practices rather than the current system (Word documents stored on people’s C drives) that get copied, and copied, and pasted, and then re-copied across the system in a way that’s prone to error. Then, if there’s a change to be made, who can find all the documents affected and change them?”

Enter Steve Jobs

The manager conceded my point, but then he went off in another direction to question the need for documentation—AT ALL!

“Do you have an iPhone”, he asked.

“Yes”, I replied.

“Did it come with a manual?”

“Well, yes it did”, I confirmed suspecting now where his questions were leading.

“Have you read it?” This was his turn to sound triumphal.

“No, I haven’t”, I said.

“You see!”, he erupted, “You have an iPhone and it has a user manual, but you’ve never read it!” He seemed almost delirious at this portrayal of software so intuitive it didn’t even need a user manual. Clearly, Apple in its magnanimity was providing user guides only as a form of self-effacing humility.

I thought it wise to choose my words carefully, so I paused. And then I said, “It’s true. Since I came to your software company, I have worked on the assumption that we all agree that there is a need for software documentation.”

Then I launched my final salvo.

“When your software is designed to Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s standards—that is, it’s so intuitive no user guide is needed­—I’d welcome the idea of dropping documentation. But I’m working with the system as it is now.”

On the First Day: The Importance of Planning

God knew nothing

I’m taking an IT course at BCIT loftily entitled, “Business Analysis and Systems Design”. It’s about project management for large enterprise systems, and with data coming in that such projects have a terrible track record—about 75 per cent fail or go way over budget—there’s a need to refine the planning process and train people better.

Some have postulated that the universe is really just a vast software system, but that idea always infers that it’s a successful system. What if God knew nothing of project management? What if He just jumped in and started making the cosmos with no clear plan of where he was going?

Here’s one scenario:

God Goofs OffOn the first day, God rested. He figured He had a whole week to create the cosmos so “hey, like what’s the rush?”

On the second day, God got up, made a cup of coffee, and checked His email. He had over 7 million messages.

Most were spam.

On the third day, God logged into Facebook and updated His status—28,000 times.

Then He tweeted about it.

On the fourth day, God realized that He had better start to seriously do something about creating the cosmos, so after lunch He created the night and the day. But then He realized that it might be too dark at night (even with the moon, which he hadn’t created yet), and people would get lost or fall down in the dark and would probably curse His name, so He revised His decision about creating the day and the night deciding that it might be a bit rash without considering all the repercussions of this cosmos building stuff before jumping in.

He resolved to sleep on it and start fresh the next day.

On the fifth day, God got an idea. He decided that He’d create the waters and the firmament. “Oh my God”, said God, “That would be so cool”.

But then He thought, “What’s the point of water and firmament (does anybody even know what the heck “firmament” is anyway?) with nothing to swim in it or fly through it? Instead, He thought it would be super fantastic to create all the birds, bats, insects and other flying things as well as all the fishes that swim in the sea.

He stayed up really late creating all that cool stuff.

The sixth day wasn’t a good day for God. On the sixth day, God woke to find that, without the water and the firmament, all the birds of the air and fishes of the sea had died horrible deaths. It was pretty depressing (and it smelt bad too).

God wasted most of the sixth day cleaning up from the fifth.

On the seventh day, God woke up in a cold sweat well before His alarm clock rang. It was dark and cold and He realized He’d done nothing useful to create the cosmos. He told Himself that He’d certainly tried—”but life can be so unfair, you know”—and now He didn’t have a prayer of getting the cosmos ready in time. What He needed was a miracle.

And just as he was about to curse His fate for the third time, God noticed a handbill from Wal-Mart and it was offering a ready-made cosmos for sale. At these double discounted prices, God knew this would cover His Ass perfectly. Sure it was cheap and made mostly of plastic and particleboard (probably in some country with dubious labour practices and no environmental regulations), but with all the plug n’ play features, it would do just fine as a last-minute solution.

God thought, “Hell, why not?”

wal-mart-smileyOn the eighth day as God checked out of Wal-Mart, He then noticed that, where His original idea for the cosmos stressed cooperation, this pre-fab version was built on the Darwin model of competition­–survival of the fittest. “Oh well”, thought God, “It didn’t matter really.” He was out of time and short on good excuses.

“Besides”, God said to Himself as He left the parking lot,
“No one would even know the difference.”

Death by Powerpoint – My Writing: September 18 to 24

This week, I attended the TMW Transforum to find out all I could about fleet management in North America. The scale of this event is staggering as are the numbers in trucking—2 million long haul trucks in the US. While here, I attended a talk on agile software development and found myself staring down that old barrel—death by PowerPoint.

Microsoft needs to include in its software something that prevents slides with long bulleted lists to fade from view while the presenter is speaking. It’s impossible to follow both at once. To make matters worse, the presenter had trouble pronouncing some words in the presentation leading me to suspect that the presentation wasn’t his own.

Going Down the Road with Terry Fox actually tells the back story of the Trans Canada Highway (the highway Terry Fox ran), that transportation route so vital to Canada’s economy. Incidentally, Webtech Wireless—the company that produces GPS/AVL solutions for transportation—had several runners in the 32nd annual Terry Fox Run.

Is Your Doctor Putting Your Disability Claim at Risk? asks if procrastination on the part of doctors can affect the speed and success of a disability claim. Your disability claim.

5 Autumn Driving Tips to Keep You Safe provides some tips to remind you to drive safely as fall brings a different set of driving risks. Watch for Bridges, Shadows, and Intersections, or a pile of wet leaves near a neighbourhood intersection.

 

 

Usability Fun and Games

I convinced myself that applying for a job through the IBM web site was a good use of my time, but I didn’t factor in how much fun it would be.

Like many mega corps, the IBM site asks us to upload our résumés and then goes on to ask us to enter all the same information again manually, field by field. By the end, we’re likely to conclude that any job we should ever get at IBM will net us similar mindless work. But who knows, filling out online applications is my form of Vegas—’cause ya’ never know…

Here’s the kicker. In the section for language competency, I was given a list of languages and a ranking system from which to choose: fluent, intermediate, basic knowledge, and no knowledge. I don’t know what the value is in adding information about a skill in which one has no knowledge. I mean, I could go on and on.

I couldn’t help myself, so I obliged!

No Knowledge required

Barry Cogswell, Artist & Sculptor

I also want to thank you for helping to make the process so easy and pleasant. It was great working with you. From the beginning you had a very clear idea of how the site might be designed, but you were also more than willing to listen to my own ideas and suggestions. Throughout I found the complete process, from starting with my initial request to taking delivery of your excellent final design a very positive and enjoyable experience. I assure you I will not hesitate to recommend you to acquaintances and friends who may need the help of a web-site designer.

Thank you again.

Roman Antics

This is such a clever way of visualizing data creatively that I had to share it.