Wednesday Jun 22, 2011

Brighton Rocks: UA Europe 2011

User Assistance Europe 2011 was held in Brighton, UK. Having seen Quadrophenia a dozen times, I just had to go along (OK, I wanted to talk about messages in enterprise applications). Sadly, it rained a lot, though that was still eminently more tolerable than being stuck home in Dublin during Bloomsday. So, here are my somewhat selective highlights and observations from the conference, massively skewed towards my own interests, as usual.

Enjoyed Leah Guren's (Cow TC) great start ‘keynote’ on the Cultural Dimensions of Software Help Usage. Starting out by revisiting Hofstede's and Hall's work on culture (how many times I have done this for Multilingual magazine?) and then Neilsen’s findings on age as an indicator of performance, Leah showed how it is the expertise of the user that user assistance (UA) needs to be designed for (especially for high-end users), with some considerations made for age, while the gender and culture of users are not major factors. Help also needs to be contextual and concise, embedded close to the action. That users are saying things like “If I want help on Office, I go to Google ” isn't all that profound at this stage, but it is always worth reiterating how search can be optimized to return better results for users. Interestingly, regardless of user education level, the issue of information quality--hinging on the lynchpin of terminology reflecting that of the user--is critical. Major takeaway for me there.

Matthew Ellison’s sessions on embedded help and demos were also impressive. Embedded help that is concise and contextual is definitely a powerful UX enabler, and I’m pleased to say that in Oracle Fusion Applications we have embraced the concept fully.

Help note on editable field, activated by user focus.

Matthew also mentioned in his session about successful software demos that the principle of modality with demos is a must. Look no further than Oracle User Productivity Kit demos See It!, Try It!, Know It, and Do It! modes, for example.

Oracle UPK Player Try It! Mode.

I also found some key takeaways in the presentation by Marie-Louise Flacke on notes and warnings. Here, legal considerations seemed to take precedence over providing any real information to users. I was delighted when Marie-Louise called out the Oracle JDeveloper documentation as an exemplar of how to use notes and instructions instead of trying to scare the bejaysus out of people and not providing them with any real information they’d find useful instead.

My own session on designing messages for enterprise applications was well attended. Knowing your user profiles (remember user expertise is the king maker for UA so write for each audience involved), how users really work, the required application business and UI rules, what the application technology exception handling framework does, and how messages integrate with the enterprise help desk and support policies will take you much further than relying solely on the guideline of "writing messages in plain language".

Leverage your message structure for all audiences, remembering tokens and context too.

Messages are customer support, so integrate them into the work environment and help desk policy.

And, remember the value in warnings and confirmation messages too, and how you can use them smartly. Messages are not just about errors.

Warnings and confirmation messages offer powerful user assistance, too.

I hope y’all got something from my presentation and from my answers to questions afterwards.

Ellis Pratt (Cherryleaf, a technical authoring company in the UK) stole the show with his presentation on applying game theory to software UA, using plenty of colorful, relevant examples (check out the Atlassian and DropBox approaches, for example), and striking just the right balance between theory and practice. Completely agree that the approach to take here is not to make UA itself a game, but to invoke UA as part of a bigger game dynamic (time-to-task completion, personal and communal goals, personal achievement and status, and so on). Sure there are gotchas and limitations to gamification, and we need to do more research. However, we'll hear a lot more about this subject in coming years, particularly in the enterprise space. I hope.

I also heard good things about the different sessions about DITA usage (including one by Sonja Fuga that clearly opens the door for major innovation in the community content space using WordPress), the progressive disclosure of information (Cerys Willoughby), an overview of controlled language (or "information quality", as I like to position it) solutions and rationale by Dave Gash, and others.

I also spent time chatting with Mike Hamilton of MadCap Software, who showed me a cool demo of their Flare product, and the Lingo translation solution. I liked the idea of their licensing model for workers-on-the-go; that’s smart UX-awareness in itself. Also chatted with Julian Murfitt of Mekon about uptake of DITA in the enterprise space.

In all, it's worth attending UA Europe. I was surprised, however, not to see conference topics about mobile UA, community conversation and content, and search in its own right. These are unstoppable forces now, and the latter is pretty central to providing assistance now to all but the most irredentist of hard-copy fetishists or advanced technical or functional users working away on the back end of applications and systems. Only saw one iPad too (says the guy who carries three laptops). Tweeting during the conference was pretty much nonexistent during the event, so no community energy there. Perhaps all this can be addressed next year. I would love to see the next UA Europe event come to Dublin (despite Bloomsday, it's not a bad place place, really) now that hotels are so cheap and all.

So, what is my overall impression of the state of user assistance in Europe? Clearly, there are still many people in the industry who feel there is something broken with the traditional forms of user assistance (particularly printed doc) and something needs to be done about it. I would suggest they move on and try and embrace change, instead.

Many others see new possibilities, offered by UX and technology, as well as the reality of online user behavior in an increasingly connected world and that is encouraging. Such thought leaders need to be listened to. As Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf says in his great book, Trends in Technical Communication - Rethinking Help: “To stay relevant means taking a new perspective on the role (of technical writer), and delivering “products” over and above the traditional manual and online Help file... there are a number of new trends in this field - some complementary, some conflicting. Whatever trends emerge as the norm, it’s likely the status quo will change.” It already has, IMO.

I hear similar debates in the professional translation world about the onset of translation crowd sourcing (the Facebook model) and machine translation (trust me, that battle is over). Neither of these initiatives has put anyone out of a job and probably won't, though the nature of the work might change. If anything, such innovations have increased the overall need for professional translators as user expectations rise, new audiences emerge, and organizations need to collate and curate user-generated content, combining it with their own. Perhaps user assistance professionals can learn from other professions and grow accordingly.

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.

annegentle4.jpg

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:

bob_bringhurst.png

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.

Sunday Sep 19, 2010

What Do Users Want Most From User Assistance? Affirmation and Confirmation

Matthew Ellison, at the UA Europe 2010 conference, presented some fascinating results from a user assistance research project undertaken with the University of Portsmouth (full details will be in the December 2010 issue of Communicator magazine).

What users wanted most (47%) was affirmation and confirmation types of user assistance. This is almost twice what they wanted of the "How do I...?" stuff. Naturally, there are always some caveats that come into play when interpreting these kinds of findings for your own business. However, based on my own observations and Applications User Experience team research, the need to inform users in advance as to consequences of their actions, how data is used, and so on, and then confirm their actions or application responses, is broadly in line with enterprise user assistance requirements too.

In Oracle Fusion Applications user assistance, we already have writing patterns that allow us to easily write DITA-based online help topics informing users in advance about consequences of decisions. However, we also provide this information contextually within the task flow using embedded help on editable fields, warning messages, and then confirming results and actions using confirmation messages. Using embedded help and messages together like this enhances productivity as the user can immediately be informed of the consequences of their actions and then see a confirmation when done, enhancing productivity.

The Application Developer Framework (ADF) Faces component demos (available for download here) show what field-level embedded help is possible (for example, see the shortDesc property on the inputText component as shown in figure 1), as well as how warning (figure 2) and confirmation (figure 3) types of messages work (see the Messages component).

shortdesc_note_inputText.png

Figure 1: Embedded Help in Note Window on Editable Field

warning.png

Figure 2: Warning Message

confirmation.png

Figure 3: Confirmation Message

Check out the demos and just see what a rich user experience is possible!

Oracle Apps-UX at UA Europe 2010

The Applications User Experience User Assistance team (well, myself, Laurie Pattison, and Erika Webb anyway!) attended the "UA Europe 2010":http://www.uaconference.eu/ conference in Stockholm.

In addition to sessions on DITA-based writing patterns  and enterprise mobile apps UA research and design, we held a lunchtime discussion on the iPad and user assistance, and took time to talk at length with author Anne Gentle and exchange views with other lots of other UA and information strategy professionals.

I am really happy with the thought leadership that Apps-UX displayed in the UA space. It's such a great group to work in! Watch out for a forthcoming interview with Anne Gentle on the usableapps website. Here's to the next conference!

Wednesday Jul 07, 2010

The User Assistance Conversation

Been reading Anne Gentle's book Conversation and the Community and picking up some great ideas about the shift from the traditional print paradigm user documentation towards user-generated content, collaborative communication, and the power of communities.

I'm also really looking forward to hearing Anne speak at the UA Europe 2010 conference, being held in Sweden this September. I will be speaking there, too, about "DITA and Writing Patterns for User Assistance". I will be joined by other Oracle colleagues, so I will not be alone. Watch out for Erika's Webb's session on "The Design of User Assistance on Mobile Enterprise Applications" too, for a start!

Reading Anne's book, the following jumped out at me:

"...even if your documentation can't 'talk back' to your users, it can help users talk to each other and make connections that help them do their jobs well, play with technology at home, or learn something new in a classroom setting.... think about documentation and user assistance as a multiple-channel communication device, perhaps with the help of some social technology applications."

Of course, whatever you might read in Globish, bear in mind this conversation is not all in English, regardless of the subject matter! By the way, you can read my own review of Globish in a forthcoming issue of Multilingual magazine (shameless plug, as I don't see any conflict of interest!). You see, I have an existence outside of Oracle too!

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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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