Branch Report: Real Users and What To Do About Them

Meredith presenting at the branch event to a crowded roomThe first TechCommNZ Christchurch branch event of 2018 was held on Wednesday 14th March. The speaker was Synlait Applications Support Analyst, and current TechCommNZ president, Meredith Evans, who returned to the topic of her Collaborate 2017 presentation, “Real users, and what to do about them.” Anna Millow reports that the presentation was, as good technical communication should be, educational, instructive, and entertaining.

Meredith began the talk by setting the scene, describing Synlait and her work there. Unlike some technical communication roles, which involve little or no direct contact with users, Meredith interacts with her users on a daily basis, providing training and support as well as creating and testing documentation for the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) System.

ERP systems in general are not known for their usability, as a survey of the audience confirmed. Meredith used the example of fictional Synlait worker Murray to illustrate why it is important to consider one’s audience when creating technical documentation.

Users in general:

  • occupy a range of different roles.
  • have varying levels of experience and technical competency.
  • only use a few of the system’s functions each.
  • are under time pressure.
  • are untrained in using ERP systems.

Based on her experience at Synlait, Meredith presented a summary of 6 Habits of Real Users (and what you can about them):

1. They print things.

This can be problematic because:

  • documentation goes out of date.
  • users come to rely on print material and are unaware of additional resources available online.
  • the context of the documentation is lost.

Meredith’s advice:

  • Focus on documentation in training.
  • Don’t provide printed guides.
  • Improve print stylesheet.
  • Assume online content will be printed.

2. They create their own documentation (“shadow documentation”).

And, more problematically, they then share it. This leads to inconsistencies and errors in the system, and, like print material, shadow documentation goes out of date.

Meredith’s advice:

  • Be proactive and talk to users.
  • Be responsive and efficient so that the need for individual documentation won’t arise – accuracy is important, perfection may not be.
  • If you can, reinforce hard limits, or acquire advocates to do this for you.
  • Develop your own specific style so that you’ll be able to tell if the documentation is yours.

3. They focus on graphics over text.

Although images, e.g. screenshots, can be very useful, they can also cause problems if they distract users from the text and cause them to miss something.

Meredith’s advice:

  • Pay as much attention to graphics as you do to text.
  • Ensure that screenshots look like what the user will see.
  • Size graphics to print properly.
  • Use callouts (text connected to a graphic, or enlarged in order to draw attention).
  • Prefer graphics that are easy to maintain.
  • Be aware that text around graphics will be ignored.

4. They get lost.

Meredith’s advice:

  • Just because the navigation system makes sense to you, don’t assume that it will make sense to all users.
  • Include multiple methods of navigation, e.g. menu, search, links.
  • Develop the help section, and provide training on how to use it.
  • Include context on every page.
  • Conduct testing or use analytics to see how users behave.

5. They want to know the big picture – where they fit into the overall process.

This knowledge:

  • helps them understand the system.
  • improves their understanding of detailed content.
  • motivates them to follow the correct process.
  • adds interest for users.
  • adds value to your work as technical communicator.

6. They will find your mistakes… and this is a good thing.

It is important to be responsive to user feedback. Fix the problem, quickly, and tell the user that you’ve done so.

So, what were the take-home messages?

  • Avoid assumptions.
  • Get to know your users if you can.
  • Training is a great opportunity.
  • Find ways to collaborate with other groups within the company (e.g. IT support).
  • Find the right mix of getting it right and getting it done, for your project, role, or company.
  • Be:
    • flexible
    • adaptive
    • responsive
    • and learn from your users.

Dave Gash: CSS Novice to Ninja Workshop Report

In early November, San Diego-based software professional Dave Gash made his 21st trip down under, to present a series of workshops throughout the country. Dave is pretty legendary in the technical communication space. He’s a technical communicator for Google, a trainer, ex-developer, conference presenter, and all round web technology expert. Apparently he’s also written a […] Continue reading →

Christchurch branch report: Ara Information Design in 2018 – all systems go!

Faces of real users On Wednesday 18 October we of the Christchurch branch were excited to welcome representatives of Ara Institute of Canterbury, and of the University of Canterbury, to discuss three new post-graduate qualifications on offer from February 2018. Bruce Russell and Shanthini Govindasamy of Ara confirmed the resurrection of the Graduate Diploma in Information Design (GDID). We […] Continue reading →

Workshop Review: UX Methods for Technical Writers

Faces of real users Rebecca Cox’s UX Methods for Technical Writers workshop (Monday 24th July, Quality Hotel, Parnell, Auckland) promised to take you deeper into the area of User-Centred Design (UCD) where you’d learn methods to help you align your documentation to your users’ needs. Did it deliver? About the presenter Rebecca’s skills lie in user research and usability testing […] Continue reading →

Online Accessibility – Making the web accessible to everyone

Peter Nock reports on the July branch event in Christchurch. Having been to the workshop on accessibility at the last TechCommNZ conference, I was keen to hear more on the topic of accessible documentation. Kevin outlined some of the obvious (plain language, use of styles) and less obvious (text for form boxes, how machine readers […] Continue reading →

So we had a conference…

April seems like yesterday but in fact, it’s been more than two months since our wildly successful Collaborate 2017.   Meredith Evans challenged us in her blog post here immediately after the conference to do things differently, to use what we’d learned and make some changes – like she was going to. So have you? Did […] Continue reading →

Christchurch Branch Report: Bringing augmented and virtual reality to learning

Sakthi Ranganathan showing how AR and a mobile phone can help clinicians diagnose eye disease On Tuesday 16 May, Sakthi Ranganathan spoke to TechCommNZ’s Canterbury branch about his work with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). He welcomed the audience in English and Māori, an impressive achievement for someone who arrived in NZ 6 years ago with minimal English. During the talk, Sakthi showed several examples of both AR […] Continue reading →

Industry needs the humanities – yes, REALLY

Picture of Arts student in graduation gown looking back over her shoulder smiling The University of Waikato is in the middle of a 20% teaching staff reduction in the following humanities courses: Anthropology, Geography, History, Political Science, Linguistics, Music, and Screen and Media. Is demand for these subjects drying up, or is there a widespread perception that humanities graduates won’t get jobs? If the liberal arts degrees truly didn’t […] Continue reading →

My Post-Conference Challenge

Image of people working together at round tables during Shelly Davies' presentation Collaborate 2017 was a fantastic, inspiring, and educational conference. This was the best conference I’ve ever attended. And I’ve been to a few. From the amazing and vibrant keynote speakers to the enthusiastic and entertaining local gurus, it was all great. This conference had quite the impact on me. I left Shelly’s talk wanting to hug everyone, […] Continue reading →

Webinar Review: CSS Colors Demystified

Presented by Dave Gash Dave Gash’s recent webinar, CSS Colors Demystified, provides a clear and entertaining explanation of how the hexadecimal color coding system works. For those of you who like to know what lies behind the letters and numbers, Dave explains how the physics of colour relates to the base 16 hexadecimal coding […] Continue reading →