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.

Sunday Sep 19, 2010

Observations from UA Europe 2010

As mentioned, the Applications User Experience (Apps-UX) User Assistance team made an impact at UA Europe 2010. This is one conference I will definitely be attending again. Stockholm was such a great setting too. Highlights of the conference follow:

Anne Gentle's keynote address on Social Web Strategies for Documentation was an instructive, engaging, no BS approach to the subject, along with examples we could all look up. Anne's comments about doing what was right for your business made complete sense.

User assistance must be designed and deployed according to business requirements. If social web engagement doesn't make sense for your business, then don't do it. Watch out for our forthcoming interview with Anne (update, March 2011: it's here) when we will talk about the enterprise user assistance implications of being part of the user conversation, and more.

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I was intrigued when Anne pointed out the need to identify your role in the conversation with the user through the social web: Reporter/Observer, Enabler/Sharer, or Collaborator/Instigator. User profiles and roles are a central part of how Apps-UX goes about its research and design work. Could we see such roles appearing officially with the list maintained by our business process engineering team? I think so, and we will design user assistance accordingly. Exciting times! Follow Anne on Twitter for updates.

Enjoyed the session by Roger Hart about content strategy at Red Gate Software. This was a forthright delivery that got straight to the point about managing your web content to reflect what users want, so adding value to the business. Basically, a strategy ensures that your content doesn't suck, or continue to suck, according to Roger. You can also follow Roger on Twitter and read his blog here.

Matthew Ellison's session on what kind of user assistance users really need made me think hard about our own design of user assistance in the enterprise space, how embedded help, warning messages, and online help can work together, and what is offered by the Application Developer Framework to easily make embedded help and messages happen for internal developers and our customers.

Most interesting of all, though, was the discussion on user assistance trends and technologies. This discussion was led by vendors, but was thrown open to all attendees at the end. For me, what was not said, rather than what was, that was most revealing. It seems to me that there are many who still couch user assistance in narrow documentation and help terms (although some clearly get it as far as the social web is concerned), and don't consider user assistance as a key part of the overall user experience. The notion expressed that Microsoft Word documents and single sourcing were a content management strategy left me cold (they aren't). Furthermore, the positioning of a content management system as an administrative back end function just removes users further from user assistance. Why not make the back end the front end? Stop talking about content management systems. Start talking about information strategies and how users search for, retrieve, and consume that information, please.

Clearly, there is some way to go in bringing user assistance into the user experience fold. I am so proud to work for a user experience group providing some thought leadership in the area.

To conclude: UA Europe is a super high-value conference. As well as an opportunity to share your views and experiences, in return you will learn much, be exposed to new ideas and processes, and also get to network with some very insightful and helpful people. I will definitely be back. Oh, (update 2011), I'm already there...

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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