Content Strategy: Building Context & Relationships thru Product Documentation

My last post about motivating readers in technical communication made me recall an informal meeting with Valeria Maltoni (otherwise known as Conversation Agent), at the Inbound Marketing Summit last fall, in Boston, MA.

At the time, I had just read Maltoni’s post, Service: Product Experience and Content Strategy.

In her series on content strategy, Maltoni had explained how “every communication a company organizes is an opportunity to build context through content — and relationships as an outcome.”

During our brief but engaging exchange, I told Maltoni how much this excerpt from her post resonated with me, in my role as a technical communicator:

This is the phase where marketing tends to walk away, because somehow embracing customers is customer service’s job. Product manuals, service agreements, contracts — these are all marketing, whether you see it that way or not.

While chatting, I mentioned to Maltoni how my graduate program in Technical and Professional Writing had provided a good introduction to principles from classic rhetoric. I also expressed how surprised I was, when I first started working as a technical writer in industry (now years ago), to find how little alignment there often is in practice, between our respective disciplines.

Maltoni readily understood the connection between product documentation and marketing. So too, does Aaron Fulkerson, CEO of MindTouch, who in
the Forbes article, The Evolution of User Manuals, describes how product and services documentation is now a core business asset.

And you? For the marketers out there, do you view product documentation as a way to build relationships, with potential new customers? For technical communicators, what do you think about Ellis Pratt’s recent Intercom article, calling for more emotion in technical communication, as a way to help nurture loyal customers?

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Heroic Narrative: Motivating Readers in Technical Communication

In the blogosphere this week, “Persuasion Ruled,” especially during the recent edition of “Kitchen Table Talks.”

There, Chris Brogan and Joe Sorge, of Kitchen Table Companies, kicked off the theme, by interviewing Sally Hogshead. Author of Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation, Hogshead described seven ways to help small businesses grow, by identifying and honing their best persuasive triggers.

The next day, in a livestream interview at his blog, Brogan hosted Nancy Duarte—author of several books on making powerful presentations.

Presenters as Mentors

Touching on themes from her book (Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences), Duarte referred to the Hero/Mentor Archetype. Instead of the presenter as hero—dispensing information—Duarte explained how today’s best presenters act as mentors, helping the hero (the audience) overcome obstacles and accomplish goals.

Technical Writers as Facilitators

As applies to technical writing, Brogan’s webcasts made me recall Anne Gentle’s Conversation and Community, which predicts two roles for technical communicators, on the Social Web:

  • Sage on the Stage – instigator of conversation
  • Stagehand– enabler of conversation

In either role, the technical communicator isn’t leading the conversation, so much as helping to facilitate customer conversations.

Audience-Centered Learning Models

In his review of Gentle’s book, Stewart Mader ties in the related audience-centered focus from instructional design, where the metaphor for instructors is now “guide on the side,” as opposed to traditional information authority.

In this kind of mentor role, technical writers can support community managers or move into community manager roles themselves, Gentle’s book suggests.

“Emplotting” the Reader

In “Motivation and Technical Documentation,” David Goodwin observes how the age-old “heroic narrative” (Goodwin 99), “emplots the reader.” “What better way of motivating readers or users though a site than by providing them with a [heroic] journey, one rich with agreements, opposition, and problems,” Goodwin asks.

According to Goodwin, “not only does this “action-oriented role” apply to manuals, but it also can be built into content and navigation.”

Who’s Your Hero?

What ways do you know, of emplotting the reader, in the product documentation? How does your documentation place the customer, at the center of your product’s story? Is the customer the hero of your story?

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On the #RedSoxTweetup: A Day for Champions, in Boston, MA

Yesterday, my husband and I braved the cold and damp to take the kids in to Fenway Park, for the very first @RedSox TweetUp. The pre-game event was originally scheduled to take place in the area on the right field Bud Deck. The location was moved to The Bleacher Bar, on Lansdowne Street, because of the rainy forecast. Despite the weather, the event was very well-attended and lots of fun.

 First-Ever Red Sox TweetUp

We were really pleased that both The Bleacher Bar and the Boston Red Sox were so accommodating about kids…The “Bleacher Fries,” topped with salsa, cheese, & jalapenos, were a big hit with the entire family (pun unintended), 🙂 and the service was great.

There was also a guest appearance, by Wally the Green Monster–the official mascot for the Boston Red Sox. Autographed giveaways and ticket upgrades kept things interesting. So, too, did appearances by Red Sox reporter Heidi Watney, from the New England Sports Network (NESN).

Despite the overcast weather, spirits at Fenway Park remained high throughout the match-up, between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers.

Though our TweetUp tickets (for just $30.00 each) were for Standing Room Only, I was happy to discover we had a great view of the game, behind first base, as well as an overhang above us, which protected us from any occasional drizzle.

Former MA Governor Paul Celluci: A Real Champion

For me, probably the most poignant part of the evening came pre-game, when former Governor Paul Cellucci, took to the field to raise money for ALS research. He was accompanied by past political colleagues, as well as UMass neurologist, Dr. Robert H. Brown Jr., and the medical school’s Chancellor, Dr. Michael F. Collins.

Celluci, who has been diagnosed with ALS (often called  Lou Gehrig’s disease), announced the UMass ALS Champion Fund, which aims to raise millions in support of ALS research, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. (For more information, you can also join the fight on Facebook or Twitter.)

Earlier, MA Gov. Deval Patrick had honored Celluci’s initiative, declaring Thursday as “Paul Cellucci/ALS Champion Day” in Massachusetts, while Boston Mayor Thomas Menino had declared the day, as “Champion Day” in Boston.

The Newest Fenway Tweep

At one point before the game, the usher saw us struggling to photograph the entire family. She thoughtfully offered to take the picture. Almost amazingly, the kids all cooperated and no one blinked their eyes—leaving us with a snapshot souvenir of our young family together at Fenway Park—a moment preserved in time, which we’ll always remember.

Another snapshot souvenoir involves my son, who btw, was the life of the post-TweetUp party, among a group of friendly Fenway Tweeps. We’re still grateful to them, for making so much of our chatty little boy, during what for him was a very exciting time.

My son will never forget his first Red Sox game (we don’t count the one from when he was too young to remember). It was a fitting close for him and for us, when the Red Sox walked it off again, in a 4-3 victory.

This post is part of my ongoing Social Media for Good series.

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Trends in Technical Communication: Web Content Accessibility (Part II)

Through the mobile web, overlapping best practices for web content accessibility are about to go prime time. (See Web Content Accessibility and Mobile Web: Making a Web Site Accessible Both for People with Disabilities and for Mobile Devices).

To prepare, I’ve been reacquainting myself with my treasured copy of Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, by Janice (Ginny) Redish. There, you’ll find in my opinion, what’s probably one of, if not the best books available, on writing online.

Tips for Writing Accessible Web Content

Throughout her book, Redish sprinkles generous tips on web content accessibility. Here are just a few:

Let people choose their own text size (p. 148). Provide buttons on the web page to remind site visitors that they can adjust the size.

Make illustrations accessible, with meaningful alt text (p. 305). To develop helpful alt text, Redish suggests following the World Wide Web Consortium’s advice, imagining that you are reading the web page aloud, over the telephone. Ask yourself: “What would you say about the image to make your listener understand it? (From

Mark headings with the proper HTML tags (p. 237). Those using screen-readers want to scan web pages, just as sighted visitors do, Redish explains. If the headings are properly tagged, your blind web users can “scan with their ears,” (p. 320), by jumping from heading to heading.

Start headings with a key word (p. 247). Those who are listening to screen-readers scan only the first few words, in each heading. Make sure to include your keywords, at the beginning.

Write meaningful links (p. 318.) Click here and More links are useless to web visitors who are listening via screen-readers. Instead, Redish suggests rewriting these links to specify what visitors will get “more” of” and to use more informative words, as the link.

Tips for Formatting Accessible Web Content

Meanwhile, the January issue of Intercom–the Magazine of the Society for Technical Communication–provides detailed tips on making your web content’s formatting more accessible.

Properly tagging web content helps blind visitors using screen-readers and other forms of assistive technology to skim your site. It also helps make your document more accessible because anyone who cannot read your document can reformat it, by importing a new template, or editing the styles in your document, until each has a format they find readable (pp. 13-14).

According to STC’s Cliff Tyllick (@clifftyll) on Twitter, here are ways to take control of your text:

  • Use heading styles.
  • Use styles—or at least automated formats—to create lists.
  • Use styles to control paragraph formatting.
  • Use styles to control special character formatting.
  • Insert tables—do not draw them.
  • Use tables to display data, never simply to position content.
  • When you use informative illustrations, position them in line with text.
  • Associate alternative text with each informative illustration.

Additional Resources

For more information on writing for the web, check out Ginny Redish’s excellent slide presentation (PDF link follows): Letting Go of the Words- Content as Conversation.

For a clearinghouse of information on web content accessibility, I also highly recommend STC’s AccessAbility SIG (@stcaccess on Twitter), by STC SIG manager Karen Mardahl (@kmdk on Twitter). In Jan.’s Intercom issue about accessibility, Karen wrote a great article on “Captioning Videos on YouTube.”

If you know of other resources, please feel free to add them to the growing list of Web Content Accessibility resources, which appeared in my last post. Thanks to folks for suggestions so far, including these resources: WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind, WebAxe: Podcast and Blog on Practical Web Design Accessibility Tips, and the IBM Developer Accessibility Guidelines.

I’ll make sure to add these and any other suggested resources to the final list.

Please also feel free to add your best accessibility tips, in the comments. I’m still very much learning and am grateful for your help and recommendations.

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5 Resources on Web Content Accessibility

While coming up to speed on recent trends on web content accessibility, I came across a number of great resources, which I’d like to share. These resources are especially helpful for developing accessible web content for those with disabilities.

Many of the same principles apply to the overall usability of your site and are considered best practices for any site visitor, including mobile users.

1. World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides guidelines/standards on making accessible Web content, as well as related best practices for making content mobile-friendly.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a guide for making Web sites accessible to people with disabilities.

The Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) is a guide for making Web sites usable from a mobile device.

Web Content Accessibility and Mobile Web: Making a Web Site Accessible Both for People with Disabilities and for Mobile Devices describes the considerable overlap between the WCAG and MWBP standards, providing additional links about the similarities.

Techniques for WCAG 2.0  describes specific authoring practices, which can help you implement WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

21 new PDF Techniques for WCAG 2.0 provides tips for Producing Accessible PDF Files, with examples from Adobe Acrobat Pro, Adobe Reader 9, Microsoft Word 2007, and other applicable tools. (These tips are from Techniques for WCAG 2.0.)

2. STC AccessAbility SIG

An Accessibility and Technical Communication Blog The AccessAbility SIG is a Special Interest Group, supported by the Society for Technical Communication, which serves as a clearinghouse to match people with products, services, and/or relevant literature, relating to a variety of accessibility needs. The blog for the AccessAbility provides additional links to other Accessibility Blogs.

Accessibility and Usability Topics at #STC11 provides a great list of current topics of interest, relating to accessibility and usability, as to be presented at the STC Summit 2011. (Stay tuned for information about the recorded presentations, available at SUMMIT@aClick.)

3. Boston Internet-Accessibility

The Boston-IA site provides education on the accessibility of electronic information, including these resources:

 4.      Vendors

Microsoft’s Accessibility Overview lists resources on the latest developments in accessibility, and includes a link to Microsoft’s Web Accessibility Handbook.

Adobe Accessibility provides information and news about accessibility in Adobe products, for people with disabilities.

5.      Blog Accessibility

At Blog Accessibility, Glenda Watson Hyatt blogs about how to create a more accessible blogosphere. She also provides a free e-book, with related tips.

So, that’s my round-up of links, on web content accessibility. Do you have any other good resources to share?

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Stories to Grow By

I intended to have my regular post ready for today, but I’m in between contracts again, and catching up on about three months’ unattended laundry and other spring cleaning.

So, I’ll break tradition a bit, in a mostly formal blog, and tell you instead about a dream I had last night.

It was about a favorite aunt—elderly at the time, and a great former pal of mine—who passed away, four Mays ago.

I dreamed of her sitting at her kitchen table, as she used to with my kids. All week-long, she would save children’s stories from our local newspaper and read them to the kids, whenever they visited.

At the end of each visit, she would open the door to her kitchen pantry. There, you could see the pencil and different-colored pen marks, showing the kids’ names and heights, spanning a few years. And she would add another entry, to this living narrative.

When I woke up this morning, I could almost hear her asking…

What stories are you readingtellingmaking? Are they stories to grow by?

So, how are you measuring progress?

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Trends in Technical Communication: Web Content Accessibility (Part I)

In January, Intercom–the magazine for the Society for Technical Communication—provided an excellent issue on all things web content accessibility, including articles on “Accessibility 101 for Technical Writers,” “Captioning Videos on YouTube,”and an “Alternative to Universal Design in Mainstream Video Games.”

Minor Accommodations, Major Impact

The article made me recall a few contracts back, when I was working as a technical writer, in a government setting. For the first time in my fifteen-year career, due to government mandates, an accessibility check was a required part of the documentation’s production process.

At the time, I remember being surprised at how relatively painless most of the accessibility guidelines were to implement—simple changes at the markup level, including alt tags, page titles, headings, and lists, which were only time-consuming if they had to be revised globally, as opposed to correctly implementing them the first time.

For print documents, I implemented these additional accessibility guidelines: providing alt text for embedded images, making sure to include an alternative format (.txt, .doc, or .xsl) for PDFs, keeping file sizes down to less than 5 megabytes, and adding electronic titles to Microsoft Office documents.

Whether for print or online documentation, I learned the cardinal rule of accessibility: Content needs structure.

Optimizing our Process

Some of the accessibility principles were not so straightforward, especially structuring content. However, information design is part of many technical writers’ standard practice. Others were not difficult to incorporate into my writing routine, once they had been pointed out to me.

Given how much of an impact these relatively minor accommodations can make for a more accessible Web–and how a simple style sheet could remind writers to more seamlessly incorporate many accessibility best practices across their content–it seems almost impossible to me, that this government contract was one of the few times I have formally encountered best practices for web content accessibility.

Convergence: Web Content Accessibility and the Mobile Web

With the rise of the mobile web, we may finally see more mainstream settings start addressing accessibility. As it turns out, what’s good for designing for people with disabilities is also good for designing mobile content. (For more on these best practices and for resources on web content accessibility, stay on the lookout next week, for Part II of this post.)

Questions and a Call to Action

In the meantime, for technical writers especially, how much has web content accessibility been a part of your job? How does accessibility apply to user assistance and structured authoring?

And I’d like to conclude here, with a call to action mainly to myself, to do a better job incorporating alt tags for the images, in my blog posts, especially the retroactive ones, where I wasn’t following the practice. In the end, accessibility is about taking the time to do the little things–many times also the right things (both for our disabled users, and in the case of mobile content, our bottom lines)–consistently.

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Patriots’ Day 2011: Caring for the American Legacy

Patriots’ Day 2011 is behind us now. This annual celebration is a Spring rite of passage in New England, especially for my family, who has been observing this holiday together, since the Bicentennial celebrations in 1975 and 1976.

That’s because my father (now retired) was the Park Ranger Historian at Minuteman National Historical Park, for many years.

A Legacy of Caring

I’m always proud to look up my father’s name, in the generous citations at the back of Paul Revere’s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer, who cites my father, as the living expert on the opening day of the American Revolution.

To be known as the living expert in your chosen expertise, doesn’t happen without passion, extraordinary commitment, and yes sacrifice–all of which I can vouch describe my father. (It’s still with a bit of pride that I recall hearing the surprise yesterday in the Park Ranger’s voice, when he learned who my long-retired father was, while talking to him, at the Old North Bridge, in Concord. And yes, that was a tear in my eye, when I saw that Park Ranger, so respectfully shake my father’s hand.)

It’s the legacy my father continues to provide my family, and many new Park Rangers in training at Minuteman NHS today, who still benefit from my father’s life’s work–a historiography on the Battle of April 19th.

The Next Chapter of Service

The National Park Service continues to be a strong part of my family’s personal history.

After volunteering for the National Park Service in my teens, I worked seasonally for Salem Maritime National Historical Site, all through college.

Soon after, I met my husband-to-be, who works today as a Law Enforcement Park Ranger, at Boston National Historical Park.

After Septemeber 11th, he started working as an Explosive Detection Specialist, with then partner Bila (now retired) and current partner Kelly–a black lab, who during her off-time is a member of the family, with our other two labs. My husband and Kelly work hard at keeping the USS Constitution and related Boston sites safe–all of which are such a rich part of our collective heritage.

The kids and I are as proud of my husband, as we are of my Dad. His service and quiet courage are a gift. In addition to the National Park Service, both these important men in my life share another common bond, through their veteran status, from the armed services.

 A Story Worth Sharing

I had lots of things in mind for this post, but ultimately, the mission of the National Park Service–caring for the American legacy–is why I remember Patriots’ Day each year, with my own young family.

It’s a story reportedly not so often told these days, which given my family’s personal connection to the celebration and other parts of New England history, makes me a bit sad, and quite frankly, worried.

I know it’s far from a perfect story, and our narrations should not sugarcoat any of that, or lessen our passion to improve, with an insistence to include all voices.

But for me and others, it’s still a story about progress, worth caring for and sharing. Still an American story–worth protecting–and as relevant to our choices today  (digital or otherwise), as ever.


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Boston Linchpin Meetups: An Innovation System, in Motion

In my last post, I mentioned how Steven Johnson (in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation) explores the recurring patterns in environments that are most likely to stimulate creativity and innovation.

He describes these environments as open innovation systems–that is, fluid networks, where we meet with others from various backgrounds, share hunches, and ultimately combine our respective ideas, in new ways.

I can’t think of a better example of this kind of dynamic environment, than the Boston Linchpin Meetups, which gather monthly, at the Burlington Public Library, followed by a post-meeting beer and wine drinking tradition.

Inspired by the book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, by Seth Godin, the Meetups offer a mastermind roundtable, where participants can discuss a project and contribute to the success of others, through the direct exchange of ideas.

Everything discussed is confidential, in a supportive atmosphere.

On May 3rd, the Eagle Tribune newspaper will take a look at the future of the publishing industry, in a brainstorming session.

Special thanks to the event’s organizers.


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Creative Spaces: Where Process & Serendipity Meet

This past winter, when I was preparing for my presentation on the New England tavern’s similarities to social media (see Social Media 18th Century and Today), I found Steven Johnson’s excellent TED talk, on open innovation systems.

The author of Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the recurring patterns that make environments more creative and innovative.

Fluid Networks and Creativity

Just as an idea represents a series of new connections between neurons in our respective brains, so too, Johnson suggests, are some environments more likely to stimulate these new configurations.

He describes the architecture of the creative space as a fluid network, where people from different backgrounds and interests can get together, allowing their ideas to mingle. He goes on to say that good ideas have long incubation periods, known as the slow hunch, which may take years to evolve. A good example, Johnson elsewhere cites, is the Worldwide Web, which reportedly Tim Berners-Lee worked on at the back of his mind, for at least ten years.

According to Johnson, innovation and deep thinking take place in environments, similar to the seventeenth or eighteenth-century coffeehouse or tavern. With the increased connectivity, we’re more likely to borrow from others’ hunches, combine them with our own, and over time, form something new.

Intentional Serendipity

Johnson’s talk made me recall one job setting, where as part of my interview, the product manager proudly gave me a tour of the company’s newly designed office. The office provided a large open space and every detail of the physical layout was designed to reinforce the Agile methodology.

In that open space, the various members on the product development team, with reps from each discipline (including technical writers) met daily, for their SCRUM status.

The thing that struck me the most about that setting was the intentionality of the office design…The entire environment was architected from the start to invite the kinds of unpredictable collisions that lead to innovation.

It represents to me process and serendipity working together, and is probably what Johnson meant when he concluded: “Chance favors the connected mind.”

Fostering Open Innovation Systems

So, what environments have most inspired your own creativity? Do you agree with Johnson that innovation is rarely a single moment of inspiration, but rather the collision of smaller hunches over time, within fluid networks? How can we foster open spaces and other hunch-cultivating mechanisms, within our own organizations?

Finally, is it possible to connect and protect ideas at the same time? What are, (if any), the acceptable tradeoffs? (In the O’Reilley Webcast on Information Security and Social Networks, Ben Rothke provides excellent tips on finding this balance.)

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