Usability Testing Reveals Two Audiences and an Approach to Both

On Saturday, February 2, participants from the September 2012 card-sorting activity reconvened at Lawrence Tech with Pam Finger, MS-TPC candidate at Lawrence Tech, to learn about her analysis, to verify or correct her interpretations, and to discuss how to implement some of these changes.

Consensus

Everyone agreed we need good navigation and easy-to-scan pages. Everyone wanted information about STC/SM and our activities and programs, a members’ area, contact information, and resources.

Differences

Students are looking outward for resources including social networking, professional development opportunities, and program calendars, but had no interest in archives. They are interested in multimedia.

Council members on the other hand, are looking inward for a repository of archived newsletters and program information in the process of developing new programs and other activities.

Constraints

These groups represent two different audiences. Everyone concurred that a major purpose of the website was to attract new members, so the information that our students gave us was very valuable, and may be representative of what potential new members are looking for. On the other hand, Council needs to be able to find the information they need.

In the course of her research, Finger met with Dave Mitropoulus-Rundus, who had analyzed the previous website and reviewed the current interim website. One thing stuck out as a shortcoming on both: we need a tagline at the top of the page to the right of the logo.

When Pat Martz took over as STC/SM webmaster last June, she felt that the volunteers who work with the website, including blog editors and writers and the webmaster, need a standards-based, easy-to-maintain site.

Recommendations and Next Steps

Finger took all this into account when she prepared wireframes, which we discussed. We realized that we can move archived files into Resources, as that is what they are for Council members. One person pointed out that archives would also serve as resources for students, if they were to write articles or give presentations that they would later like to refer to in a portfolio.

The Council will discuss the mission statement and a better tagline at the next Council meeting.

A new information architecture will be worked up and implemented over the next few months; the resulting website will evolve from the current one, rather than being another complete change.

Ann Arbor to Host a WIAD 2013 Conference

What is WIAD? It’s World Information Architecture Day, February 9. The Student Organization for Computer-Human Interaction (SOCHI) at the UM School of Information is coordinating this free Information Architecture Institute conference, one of 15 conferences worldwide.

The focus will be on clarifying what we mean when we say “architecture” and when we say “design” in research and practice; the differences implied by these terms are frequently lost in translation. Peter Morville, Malcolm McCullough, Daniel Eizans, and Andrew Hinton are scheduled to speak.

More information, including the agenda and a registration link, is available at Ann Arbor WIAD 2013 Conference. You may also register in person from 8:30–9:30 a.m.

Where: University of Michigan, Modern Languages Building, Auditorium 3, 812 E Washington Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan (one block east of State Street)

When: February 9, 9:30 a.m.–5:10 p.m., with a reception following from 5:10–7 p.m.

Cost: Free

November Program Meeting: “Agile Technical Writing”

Jack DeLand explains Agile

Written by Susan Fisher

Agile is not your father’s (or mother’s) tech writing. It’s all about working with small chunks of content, being continually iterative, and understanding that it’s never really “done.”

STC-SM member Jack DeLand, a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner, led the audience on a tour of the Agile development process and explained how technical writing fits into it. Most commonly used in computer software and systems development, Agile can be used with other types of development as well.

Traditional Development vs. Agile Development

In the traditional development process, comprehensive requirements and design specifications are created at the front end of a project. The entire product is then built and finally tested — followed by product-wide bug diagnosis and repair.

The Agile methodology is essentially about iterative, incremental development. Small functional chunks of the product are defined, designed, developed, tested, revised, and tested again until they are working properly. Then, these small chunks are combined into larger functional pieces using the same approach, until the product is complete. Development is a collaborative effort by cross-functional teams.

Flexible design, rapid prototyping, and quick adaptation to changing needs are hallmarks of the methodology. User input and usability testing are woven throughout the process.

What Does It Mean for the Tech Writer?

Instead of joining the project near the end, as is typical with traditional development, the tech writer on an Agile project is a member of the cross-functional team from the beginning. As such, the writer can play a key role in user needs analysis, design, usability testing, and the continual improvement of the product.

On the other side of the coin, the writer has to be comfortable with ambiguity, writing in fragments, innumerable versions of the documentation, and the reality that the product will continue to change until the end of the project.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are worth the effort — and best practices have been, and continue to be, identified.

More Information

To learn more, Jack recommended starting with “Agile Technical Documentation” by Jean-Luc Mazet (http://writersua.com/articles/Agile_doc/index.html).

He also suggested visiting these LinkedIn groups:

  • ŸAgile Technical Writers
  • ŸTechnical Writers in an Agile Environment

Letter from the President

Written by Jill Money

Jill Money, STC-SM Chapter President

This is an exciting year for our chapter! Several members are offering their time and expertise with the chapter and their efforts are already adding value and energy to the chapter.

Pat Martz, Webmaster: Pat has been busy redesigning the STC-SM chapter website. The redesign simplifies and streamlines the site, both improving the user experience and reducing the complexity of updating and maintaining information. This helps us get information out to our members faster. Pat is a principal in Inkberry Solutions, an Ann Arbor-based company that focuses on technical communication for small firms. She has a background in the sciences and completed an M.S. degree in Technical and Professional Communication at Lawrence Technological University. As STC-SM Webmaster, Pat was assisted in evaluating the website by Lawrence Technological University graduate student Pam Finger. We are very grateful for the work Pat and Pam have already done and look forward to continued improvements to the site.

Pam Finger is a candidate in the Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication program at Lawrence Tech. Pam’s practicum includes gathering information from users for the redesign. Pam and Pat Martz held an interactive program event in September in which they solicited feedback from attendees on the usability, flow, look, feel and prioritization of content. Pam’s upbeat style and energy in addition to her openness to ideas and feedback are sure to make her practicum as well as the STC-SM website redesign end product a great success!

Jack DeLand, Professional Liaison: Jack is already busy finding synergies with other groups such as local area businesses and professional associations to cross-promote and support events and information to members across the field. Jack is a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner with 30 years in the software and engineering documentation games. Jack has lectured on help systems at STC events and at the WritersUA conference, and is widely known for creating the interactive multimedia version of the Microsoft® Windows® Resource Kits documentation set. Jack’s degrees are in English and German, but he is most proud of his internship in Organizational Development with Dr. Larry Lippitt of the National Training Laboratories.

Susan Fisher, Secretary: In 1980, with a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Art & Design behind her, Sue started a career as a technical communicator, writing user instructions for a computer company. Soon thereafter, she joined STC-SM and then moved into the company’s new training function. Thirty years later, she’s lead instructional designer and performance consultant at Innovative Learning Group (www.innovativeLG.com) in Royal Oak — but she’s still a tech writer at heart! Sue’s current big interest is mobile learning and performance support. In 2012, she presented sessions on designing learning solutions for mobile delivery at the mLearnCon Mobile Learning Conference & Expo in San Jose and the Chicago eLearning & Technology Showcase. She’s also slated to present at the American Society for Training & Development’s 2013 International Conference in Dallas.

Sharon McDonnell, Newsletter / Blog Manager: Sharon is a senior analyst in Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s Provider Relations department and has been an active volunteer with our chapter since 1998. Sharon began volunteering with us as assistant to the Webmaster, followed by program registration and assistance and then Treasurer. This year she is working closely with Pat and Pam on implementing a blog on the STC-SM website. Have something you’d like to add to our blog? Send to Sharon at newsletter(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)stc-sm.org.

Returning Volunteers / Council members are Maryann Bowen (Immediate Past President), Tom Glennan (Vice President and Educational Liaison), Barry Matthews (Treasurer), Deb Stacy (Job Board / Listserv), Mary Jo David (Membership Chairperson) and me as your 2013 President and Publicity Manager.

Thank you to all STC-SM members and chapter volunteers. We’re always looking for suggestions for blog articles and program event speakers from our members and volunteers. Feel free to send any ideas along to Sharon at newsletter(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)stc-sm.org or to me at president(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)stc-sm.org">president(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)stc-sm.org.

Agile Technical Writing Program on November 14

This presentation by Jack DeLand, a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner, will take you through the roots of Agile technical writing, describe some of its common problems and pitfalls (such as scheduling and working to extremely small time boxes), and end with some real-life practice of the Scrum experience. By the end of the evening, you’ll be a practitioner, too!

Where: LTU, 21000 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan, room C406, which is also known as the Welcome Center, in the Alfred A. Taubman Student Services Center in the middle of campus.

When: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 from 6:45 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Cost: Members: $5
Non-members: $10
Students: Free

Please register for this event.

September 22 2012 Program Meeting

Written by Thomas Glennan

Photo of sorted cards bundled to turn in
Sorted cards ready to be turned in

Most STC/SM program meetings provide the opportunity to learn about new technologies, skills, or applications in the field of technical and professional communication. At the most recent meeting, however, held September 22 at Lawrence Technological University (LTU), attendees not only learned about some of the principles and concepts behind effective web design; they also participated in a workshop that would contribute to the actual redesign and improvement of the chapter’s own web site. And the chapter gained additional insight and feedback into what information and features potential web site users might want and need from the chapter. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning for all involved.

The presentation/workshop was presented by Ms. Pamela Finger, a graduate student in LTU’s Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication (MSTPC) program, and Ms. Pat Gomez Martz, STC/SM chapter webmaster and Pamela’s practicum advisor at LTU. The meeting/workshop began with a brief review of the design and content of the previous web site. The elements of the web site needing attention or improvement were reviewed, including the lack of a central, focused format; its cluttered appearance and layout; and the use of tables in its construction. Pat then discussed the cosmetic and structural changes that have been made to date, many of which were enabled by the CSS stylesheet in the new web site. Not only have these changes improved the usability and navigability of the web site, but they have reduced its size by 87% as well, reducing its cost and complexity.

Before moving on to a discussion of additional changes and revisions to improve the web site further, the meeting attendees participated in a couple of small group activities. These included a questionnaire on the usability and features of the previous web site, and an exercise for grouping or organizing potential website topics or categories in a format that would be logical and user friendly. This data will be compiled and analyzed by Pamela and Pat as they continue their research and investigation into additional chapter web site enhancements, in conjunction with Pamela’s practicum on this topic.

The meeting then transitioned into a group review and evaluation of the web site changes that have been made to date, and their effectiveness and appeal to the meeting participants. Discussion focused on a variety of the considerations and challenges that must be considered when developing a web site and blog, including the desirability of search windows, how to design for mobile applications, how to manage responses to material posted on the blog, and the metrics for measuring blog traffic. Time was also spent with a live, online review of the web sites and blogs maintained by other STC chapters.

These survey and exercise results, along with the discussion and suggestions from the workshop, will now be used by Pamela and Pat to make recommendations to the Southeast Michigan chapter for further improvements to the web site and blog. Will the feedback and suggestions from this workshop and everyone’s hard work pay off? Keep an eye on this web site, and the changes to come, to decide for yourself.

Member Spotlight: Barry Matthews

Barry Matthews, Treasurer

1. What is your educational background? How long have you been a member of STC? In what STC positions have you served? I have a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo (Ontario) and I’ve been a member of STC for about 12 years. I served as the membership manager a few years ago.

2. Why did you decide to join STC? I had heard about STC from others at my workplace who, at the time, were on the council. I thought that joining STC would be a good way to meet other writers and gain some insight into the profession of technical communications.

3. Why did you decide to pursue technical communication as a career?  In my last job, I was responsible for creating internal procedure manuals for a large computer department, which I found challenging and rewarding. A full-time opportunity arose in 1999 that provided an excellent opportunity to hone those skills and move directly into the profession as a technical writer.

4. Where are you currently employed? I am currently employed as a Senior Technical Writer at Thomson Reuters in Dexter, Michigan.

5. What are your job activities? What do you find most interesting and/or satisfying about your job? I enjoy the collaborative aspect of my job, working with other writers on my team and with subject matter experts to update and create user assistance for our customers. I also enjoy the technical aspect of my job, which involves troubleshooting and evaluating tools that we use on a day-to-day basis.

6. What are some examples of projects you are particularly proud of? I most enjoy the creative aspect of developing user assistance from scratch. I played a major role in the development of online user assistance for an audit engagement product that has won some awards for excellence in the accounting software industry. Our team is currently developing user assistance for the next generation of a similar accounting product.

7. How has being an STC member helped you with your career? Being a member of STC has provided me with an opportunity to broaden my understanding of this multifaceted profession by exchanging ideas and experiences with others in the field.

8. What advice do you have for students as they are entering the field oftechnical communication? I would say that if you keep an open mind, and abandon any preconceived notions about what the profession is all about, you will be surprised at how diverse the field is and the opportunities that it offers.

9. What else would you like our readers to know about you? I have great conversations with my dogs, because as Dave Barry says: “You can say any fool thing to a dog, and the dog will give you this look that says, `My God, you’re RIGHT! I NEVER would’ve thought of that!'”

Usability Research Program on September 22 to Improve STC/SM Website

Pam Finger, Master of Science candidate in Technical and Professional Communication at Lawrence Technological University, is researching some issues of information architecture in an effort to make this website more useful and the information more findable. Pam is working on her practicum with STC/SM’s new webmaster and LTU adjunct faculty member, Pat Martz.

There are three competing, and possibly conflicting, needs:

  • the users’ needs for findable information on a usable site
  • the volunteer STCS/SM webmaster’s need for a shallow learning curve and an easy-to-maintain site
  • STC/SM’s need for clearly identifiable branding

To that end, Pam will be leading a program on usability with a series of qualitative research exercises to determine what users want and need.

We need guinea pigs. Be one of those users! Join us in this opportunity to see what this type of research is like from the participants’ side of the table and to help us produce a website more responsive to your needs.

Particulars

  • Date: Saturday, September 22, 2012
  • Time: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Place: LTU, 21000 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan, the Taubman Student Center’s Welcome Center, room C406
  • Price: FREE! We will ply you with liquid refreshments and edible goodies in gratitude for your participation

Please register to ensure enough coffee and edible goodies.