Monday Mar 07, 2011

Community Conversation

Applications User Experience members (Erika Webb, Laurie Pattison, and I) attended the User Assistance Europe Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. We were impressed with the thought leadership and practical application of ideas in Anne Gentle's keynote address "Social Web Strategies for Documentation". After the conference, we spoke with Anne to explore the ideas further.

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Applications User Experience Senior Director Laurie Pattison (left) with Anne Gentle at the User Assistance Europe Conference

In Anne's book called Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, she explains how user assistance is undergoing a seismic shift. The direction is away from the old print manuals and online help concept towards a web-based, user community-driven solution using social media tools.

User experience professionals now have a vast range of such tools to start and nurture this "conversation": blogs, wikis, forums, social networking sites, microblogging systems, image and video sharing sites, virtual worlds, podcasts, instant messaging, mashups, and so on.

That user communities are a rich source of user assistance is not a surprise, but the extent of available assistance is. For example, we know from the Consortium for Service Innovation that there has been an 'explosion' of user-generated content on the web. User-initiated community conversations provide as much as 30 times the number of official help desk solutions for consortium members!

The growing reliance on user community solutions is clearly a user experience issue. Anne says that user assistance as conversation "means getting closer to users and helping them perform well. User-centered design has been touted as one of the most important ideas developed in the last 20 years of workplace writing. Now writers can take the idea of user-centered design a step further by starting conversations with users and enabling user assistance in interactions."

Some of Anne's favorite examples of this paradigm shift from the world of traditional documentation to community conversation include:

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Adobe Writer Bob Bringhurst's Blog

Oracle is not without a user community conversation too. Besides the "community discussions and blogs around documentation offerings, we have the My Oracle Support Community forums, Oracle Technology Network  (OTN) communities, wiki, blogs, and so on. We have the great work done by our user groups and customer councils. Employees like David Haimes are reaching out, and enthusiastic non-employee gurus like Chet Justice (OracleNerd), Floyd Teter and Eddie Awad provide great "how-to" information too.

But what does this paradigm shift mean for existing technical writers as users turn away from the traditional printable PDF manual deliverables? We asked Anne after the conference. The writer role becomes one of conversation initiator or enabler. The role evolves, along with the process, as the users define their concept of user assistance and terms of engagement with the product instead of having it pre-determined. It is largely a case now of "inventing the job while you're doing it, instead of being hired for it" Anne said. There is less emphasis on formal titles. Anne mentions that her own title "Content Stacker" at OpenStack; others use titles such as "Content Curator" or "Community Lead". However, the role remains one essentially about communications, "but of a new type--interacting with users, moderating, curating content, instead of sitting down to write a manual from start to finish."

Clearly then, this role is open to more than professional technical writers. Product managers who write blogs, developers who moderate forums, support professionals who update wikis, rock star programmers with a penchant for YouTube are ideal. Anyone with the product knowledge, empathy for the user, and flair for relationships on the social web can join in. Some even perform these roles already but do not realize it. Anne feels the technical communicator space will move from hiring new community conversation professionals (who are already active in the space through blogging, tweets, wikis, and so on) to retraining some existing writers over time. Our own research reveals that the established proponents of community user assistance even set employee performance objectives for internal content curators about the amount of community content delivered by people outside the organization!

To take advantage of the conversations on the web as user assistance, enterprises must first establish where on the spectrum their community lies. "What is the line between community willingness to contribute and the enterprise objectives?" Anne asked. "The relationship with users must be managed and also measured." Anne believes that the process can start with a "just do it" approach. Begin by reaching out to existing user groups, individual bloggers and tweeters, forum posters, early adopter program participants, conference attendees, customer advisory board members, and so on. Use analytical tools to measure the level of conversation about your products and services to show a return on investment (ROI), winning management support.

Anne emphasized that success with the community model is dependent on lowering the technical and motivational barriers so that users can readily contribute to the conversation. Simple tools must be provided, and guidelines, if any, must be straightforward but not mandatory. The conversational approach is one where traditional style and branding guides do not necessarily apply. Tools and infrastructure help users to create content easily, to search and find the information online, read it, rate it, translate it, and participate further in the content's evolution. Recognizing contributors by using ratings on forums, giving out Twitter kudos, conference invitations, visits to headquarters, free products, preview releases, and so on, also encourages the adoption of the conversation model.

The move to conversation as user assistance is not free, but there is a business ROI. The conversational model means that customer service is enhanced, as user experience moves from a functional to a valued, emotional level. Studies show a positive correlation between loyalty and financial performance (Consortium for Service Innovation, 2010), and as customer experience and loyalty become key differentiators, user experience professionals cannot explore the model's possibilities.

The digital universe (measured at 1.2 million petabytes in 2010) is doubling every 12 to 18 months, and 70 percent of that universe consists of user-generated content (IDC, 2010). Conversation as user assistance cannot be ignored but must be embraced. It is a time to manage for abundance, not scarcity. Besides, the conversation approach certainly sounds more interesting, rewarding, and fun than the traditional model!

I would like to thank Anne for her time and thoughts, and recommend that all user assistance professionals read her book. You can follow Anne on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/annegentle.

Tuesday Feb 15, 2011

Great Example of Community How-To Doc

Always on the lookout for examples of community doc, and here's a great one: Chet Justice (@oraclenerd) just launched an eBook version (PDF actually) of John Piwowar's (@jpiwowar) very popular multi-part E-Business Suite Installation Guide. You can obtain it using the PayPal buttons here.

All in a good cause too. Creation of how-to information like this for functional or technical tasks, along with working examples about post-install steps, configurations and customizations, is what an applications community value-add is all about. Each community is different of course, an Adobe PhotoShop community might be more interested in templates. Great to see the needs of the community being met like this.

If you have other community how-to examples you'd like to share, then find the comments.

Thursday Dec 30, 2010

Book Reviews: Art of Community and Eyetracking Web Usability

Holidays time offers a chance to catch up on some user experience and user assistance-related reading material. So, two short book reviews (for which I considered using my new Tumblr blog for. More about that another time) coming up.

The Art of Community by Jono Bacon

Excellent starting point for anyone wanting to get going in the community software (FLOSS, for example) space or understand how to set up, manage, and leverage the collective intelligence of communities for whatever ends. The book is a little too long in my opinion, and of course, applicability of what Jono is saying needs to be nuanced and adapted for the enterprise applications space (hardly surprising that, given there's a lot of insight about Ubuntu, Lug Radio, and so on from Jono's community interests). Shame there wasn't more information on international, non-English community considerations though. Still, some great ideas and insight into setting up and managing communities that I can adapt and leverage (watch out for the results on this blog, later in 2011).

One section, on collaborative writing, really jumped out at me. It reinforced the whole idea that successful community initiatives are based on instigators knowing what makes the community tick in the first place. How about this for insight into user profiles for people who write community user assistance (OK then, "doc") and what tools they might use (in this case, we're talking about Jokosher):

"Most people who write documentation for open source software projects would fall into the category of power user. They are technology enthusiasts who are not interested in the super-technical avenues of programming, but want to help out. Many of these people have good writing skills and a good knowledge of using the software, so the documentation fit is natural. With Jokosher we wanted to acknowledge this profile of user. As such, instead of focussing on complex text processing tools, we encouraged our documentation contributors to use a wiki."

The book is available for free here, and well as being available from usual sources.

Eyetracking Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen and Kara Prentice

Another fine book by established experts. I have field experience of eyetracking studies myself --in the user assistance for enterprise applications space--though Jakob and Kara concentrate on websites for their research here. I would caution how much of this website usability research transfers easily to the applications space, especially enterprise applications, as claimed in the book. However, Jakob and Kara do make the case very well that understanding design goals (for example, productivity improvement in the case of applications) and the context of the software use is critical.

Executing a study using eyetracking technology requires that you know what you want to test, can set up realistic tasks for testing by representative testers, and then analyze the results. Be precise, as lots of data will be generated (I think the authors underplay the effort in analyzing data too). What I found disappointing was the lack of emphasis on eyetracking as only part of the usability solution. It's really for fine-tuning designs in my opinion, and should be used after other design reviews. I also wasn't that crazy about the level of disengagement between the qualitative and quantitative side of this kind of testing that the book indicated. I think it is useful to have testers verbalize their thoughts and for test engineers to prompt, intervene, or guide testers, as necessary. More on cultural or international aspects to usability testing might have also have been included (websites are available to everyone).

To conclude, I enjoyed the book, took on board some key takeaways about methodologies and found the recommendations sensible and easy to follow (for example about Forms layouts). Applying enterprise applications requirements such as those relating to user profiles, design goals, and overall context of use in conjunction with what's in this book would be the way to go here. It also made me think of how interesting it would be to compare eyetracking findings between website and enterprise applications usage.

Saturday Nov 20, 2010

Conversation with Chris Warticki about Communities

I chatted recently with Chris Warticki, Senior Principal Regional Customer Advocate from Oracle Software Support--he's our best-known "spokesmodel" for community support in Oracle.

Chris, being the guy in touch with customers all the time knows exactly what's going on in the community support space, and gets to hear it all from customers. He helped me navigate through the different Oracle support communities out there. And he told me succinctly what the essence of the community approach is. It's about connecting people to people, not people to a portal. Wow, what a great line (I'll use that elsewhere)!

We first looked at My Oracle Support communities. These are moderated by Oracle and are for supported, licensed customers (so if you're not one of those, there's no point in me providing a link). Some super communities there, and collaborative approaches such as forums and patch download ratings and reviews too. Next, we explored the hugely popular and massive Oracle Technology Network (OTN) forums. The OTN communities are self-moderating, for all products, with downloads of products, documentation and other materials available. You can check it out yourself--a very rich resource indeed!

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Oracle Technology Network

After that, we checked out the Oracle Wiki (I have signed up to be a writer). Again, essentially a self-regulating community with some ground rules, members can contribute and edit content. I was especially delighted to see non-English language content there too (see this Consortium for Service Innovation presentation if you think translation of community-provided or official support content can be ignored).

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Oracle Wiki

Continuing the theme of individual contributors I mentioned in a previous post about Oracle's rich community conversations, we stopped by Tom Kyte's Ask Tom site. I was amazed to see how questions asked years ago are still being updated!

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Ask Tom

Then we went to Oracle Mix, a community where "blending" is the order of the day: members create blended groups of product, technology, industry, interests, you name it! I've created a few groups myself on Oracle Mix--for Arbortext, arcolinx IQ, and user assistance.

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Oracle Mix

Finally, we had a great exchange about the role of Twitter. Oracle, too, cannot ignore the power of microblogging, with its huge uptake and real-time nature, and we have a strong presence on Twitter. Twitter clearly offers tremendous potential for support, but also customer relations generally. And of course, we didn't miss out the key role that our communities of user groups play too.

There is no greater change agent than the collective voice of our users, Chris tells me. I agree. In terms of community generally, we've moved past the notion that the official corporate web site and marketing efforts will completely form the reputation of Oracle. Loyalty and user experience generally is all about listening to the community conversation and responding to it the right way. Personally, I think we need to really look a lot more closely at what wikis, self-regulating communities, and microblogging offer in the user assistance and customer support space, as user-generated content explodes (70% of the digital universe, say IDC) and the age profile of customers changes. But, as for Facebook in that space? Forget it.

These are exciting times, and it's great to have people with initiative and vision, people like Chris, driving the model forward, and harnessing its power. I want to be part of that too!

Thanks Chris for talking the time to talk with me.

Sunday Nov 14, 2010

Oracle's Rich Community Conversations

Been doing a lot of research into the community help and support area lately. Of course, we should remember Oracle already has powerful community resources to hand, contributing a very rich and lively conversation with valuable how-to information and examples to try.

For example, there are the My Oracle Support Community and Oracle Technology Network (OTN) forums, the Sun communities,  official wiki, and internal and external blogs from employees like David Haimes, as well as enthusiastic non-employee gurus like Chet Justice (OracleNerd), and friends, Floyd Teter, Eddie Awad (check out Eddie's news aggregator for more names), and so on.

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David Haimes's Financials Blog

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OracleNerd Blog  

There are lots of other Oracle voices other there too: the user groups, Oracle Mix,and so on. The best place to get started, in my opinion, is the AppsLab. I usually track all this stuff through Twitter. I'll come up a list of the best tweeters soon!

A Conversational Style

I've been reading a superb paper called "Engaging Diverse Audiences With Screencasts, Wikis, and Blogs", written by Gail Chappell and Cindy Church of Oracle. While they were with Sun Microsystems, Gail and Cindy presented the paper at the 2008 STC Summit:.

The paper is rich in ideas for anyone interested in the community user assistance model--I'll return to that subject later--but their thoughts on adopting a conversational style really struck home:  

For the blog and the wiki, however, the writing was less formal and more folksy--we used our own writing style and own voices. We did not strictly follow the editorial style guidelines, nor did we pass the wiki or blog content to an editor. However, we did adhere to our company's branding requirements and blog guidelines.  

The blog was a good place for us to use a conversational style, as we frequently engaged in conversations with our readers. In fact, we were on a first-name basis with many who regularly read the blog. We also used the more conversational style when responding to customers who used the feedback mechanism in our tutorials and screencasts.

JavaFX Blog article on animations

Complete common sense. A conversational writing style that talks with users rather than at them or to them. We'd do well to follow this user-centred design approach to language in all of our blog and wiki efforts. And, what better way to change the antideluvian "say Web site, not website" mentality than harnessing the voice of the community too.

If you can get your hands on Cindy and Gail's paper and presentation through your local STC chapter (and internal Oracle employees should be able to get a later update too), I think you'll find it's well worth reading.

Friday Oct 15, 2010

The Community Support Explosion

Not convinced of the power of community support, eh? Then I urge you to check out this presentation from Greg Oxton of the Consortium for Service Innovation (CSI). Incredible. A very important statement about why enterprises need to be aware of--and harness--the power of their user communities.

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(Image copyright CSI 2010) Oracle is a member of the CSI.
About

Oracle applications user experience (UX) assistance. UX and development outreach of all sorts to the apps community, helping to design and deliver usable apps.

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Ultan Ó Broin. Director, Global Applications User Experience, Oracle Corporation. On Twitter: @ultan

See my other Oracle blog about product globalization too: Not Lost in Translation

Interests: User experience (UX), user centered design, design patterns, tailoring, BYOD, dev relations, language quality, mobile apps, Oracle FMW and ADF, and a lot more.

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