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.

Wednesday Feb 09, 2011

User Experience Guidance for Developers: Anti-Patterns

Picked this up from a recent Dublin Google Technology User Group meeting: Android App Mistakes: Avoiding the Anti-Patterns by Mark Murphy of CommonsWare. Interesting approach of "anti-patterns" aimed at mobile developers (in this case Android), looking at the best way to use code and what's in the SDK while combining it with UX guidance (the premise being the developer does the lot).

anti-patterns message about forcing wrong UI

Interestingly, the idea came through that developers need to stop trying to make one O/S behave like another--on UX grounds. Also, pretty clear that a web-based paradigm is being promoting for Android (translators tell me that translating an Android app reminded them of translating web pages, too). Haven't see the "anti"-approach before, developer cookbooks, and design patterns, sure. Check out the slideshare presentation.

Sunday Nov 21, 2010

Keeping It Simple, Yet Effective: Facebook's I18n Best Practices

I picked up a request on Twitter, asking for help in explaining the concept of "string concatenation" to a nontechnical audience. I struggled for a bit, and then remembered the excellent Facebook internationalization (I18n) materials. I sent them on, and was thanked. Job done. Here's how Facebook dealt with the issue:


(Image copyright Facebook, 2010)

Notice how the word "concatenation" never appears at all? That's smart. The audience for the materials is not made up of seasoned developers or professional linguists. Why bring such a technical term into the conversation when it can be explained in simple terms--with examples too?

I've long maintained one of the problems with internationalization is that developers and linguists don't actually know how to communicate with each other--even when they think they speak the same natural language. Facebook has done a great job in solving that problem with simply worded I18n guidelines with real-world examples that everyone can understand. We should learn that lesson and apply it.

Sunday Nov 14, 2010

Irish Innovation and User Experience: The CNGL. Beyond Translation

I attended an "innovation showcase": of the work being done by Ireland's Centre for Next Generation Localisation.  

The Centre for Next Generation Localisation (CNGL) is a dynamic Academia-Industry partnership with over 100 researchers developing novel technologies addressing the key localisation challenges of volume, access and personalisation.

Localisation, or localization, is generally conflated with good, culturally-sensitive translation for a target domain (quite reasonably) and the code support for date, time, currency and other regional settings in your software. However in the enterprise software space the term is used to refer to functionality that meets the needs of businesses to comply with different statutory requirements for financial reporting, employment law, and so on. Essential for global operations. Oracle applications localization support is either built in or added on to the base product (example).  

Oracle E-Business Suite provides localized payroll so that you can manage local inputs such as earnings, statutory deductions, time and labor, flexible work rules, and taxes. With regular jurisdictional-tax-rate updates from Oracle, your organization is always in compliance with local regulations.

The showcase was extremely impressive. Besides the compelling case made for the use of machine translation in the customer support arena by Chris Wendt of Microsoft, I was really impressed by how the CNGL have taken on board the importance of personalization. But, what really got me was the richness of the demos of technologies in the customer support area so that users can create, find and relate themselves and others to the information they really need, regardless of language.


There are, of course, enterprise-level constraints to generalized research. For enterprises in the ERP and CRM applications space, the issue of personalization on mobile devices is one thing, but there are others relating to extensibility that must be accommodated, such as data security, user roles, and so on. So too in the area of customer support; there are differences in how different enterprise communities react with the enterprise, far beyond loyalty - for example, there are issues of authenticity, reputation, complexity, revenue generation, and others.

It's important that enterprises work with bodies like the CNGL so all that research finally comes to fruition as a product or service that a range of enterprises can actually use. One thing is clear: localization, oops translation, needs to move far beyond the simple source-target translation paradigm if it wants to survive as a business and add real value to users. Localization is a user experience issue. If the CNGL comes to a site near you soon, please visit. In the meantime, check out the CNGL website.

Friday Oct 29, 2010

Messages and Context: Casual Observation on Work of Edward T Hall

If you are familar with the work of Edward T Hall, then you may have considered how to write user assistance in a way that best works with the overall context in which the users work. We (Apps-UX) recently conducted some international usability testing on messages. Interestingly, it turned out that the less explicit messages appeared to be more popular in a low context culture (figure 1), and more explicit messages more popular in a higher context country (figure 2). Not terribly scientific, I know, but definitely something we should explore more.


Figure 1: Low Context Message


Figure 2: High Context Message

The question remains, of course, about how additional context in messages - and other forms of user assistance - might be created and then rendered to the user based on some geolocation personalization setting. I can think of several ways that XML and GPS and locale-detection features can help with that already.Giving users what they want depending on their context is what user experience is all about. We need to test this out with more cases, in more countries, and with translated user assistance.

There is a related article in UXMatters about "Writing for a High-Context Culture" if you want to read more about this area.


Oracle Apps Cloud UX assistance. UX and development outreach of all sorts to the apps dev community, helping them to design and deliver usable apps using PaaS4SaaS.


Ultan Ó Broin. Senior Director, Oracle Applications User Experience, Oracle EMEA. Twitter: @ultan

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

Interests: User experience (UX), PaaS, SaaS, design patterns, tailoring, Cloud, dev productivity, language quality, mobile apps, Oracle FMW, and a lot more.


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