Tuesday Mar 29, 2011

Applications User Experience User Assistance at CHI 2011

Delighted to say team members Erika Webb, Ray Matsil, and Jeff Sauro have a case study on The Benefit Analysis of User Assistance Improvements  in CHI 2011. You can check out more details of this and the other Oracle contributions to CHI 2011 on the usableapps website.

Great job everyone!

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.

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 Jan 30, 2011

Warnings When Undo Isn't Possible

Enjoyed this post Never Use a Warning When you Mean Undo  by Aza Raskin. It makes sense never to warn users if an undo option is possible. The examples given are from the web space. Here's the conclusion:

Warnings cause us to lose our work, to mistrust our computers, and to blame ourselves. A simple but foolproof design methodology solves the problem: "Never use a warning when you mean undo." And when a user is deleting their work, you always mean undo.

However, in enterprise apps you may find that an undo option isn't technically possible or desirable. Objects may be shared with other users or part of a flow elsewhere, for example. Undoing an action on an object committed to the database (a rollback I guess), as opposed to just being cached or saved, or on an object that has become locked by another process isn't feasible. Plus, what might happen to a modified object when it moves downstream in the process isn't always obvious. So, the implications of delete (and other) actions need to be clearly communicated to users in advance. So, warnings are important in the enterprise space. Data has a very high value, and users can perform a wide variety of actions that may risk that data, not always within the application itself (at browser level, for example). That said, throwing warnings all over the place when an undo option is possible is annoying. Instead, treat warnings with respect. When there is no undo option possible, use warning messages to communicate potentially dangerous or irrecoverable actions or the downstream consequences of user actions on the process or task flow. Force the user to respond to a warning message by using a modal dialog with clearly labeled action buttons. Here's a couple of examples:

warning_records.png
warning_navigate2.png

But what about mobile apps? I don't recall seeing undo options in apps, which can be frustrating as objects can be easily deleted by an accidental finger gesture (as anyone who has accidentally removed an account from an app--or indeed at entire app--on an iPhone will tell you). Warnings are very important there too for irrecoverable actions.

android_mobile_warning.png

A great article that got me thinking. Let's see more articles like that. And let's not forget there's more types of messages than just error messages. User assistance and user experience professionals need to understand when best to use confirmation, information, and warning types too.

Sunday Nov 14, 2010

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.

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

Thursday Sep 30, 2010

No More Fart Apps. Would We Ever?

I loved Lucy Kellaway's (she of the Financial Times) article "Words to describe the glory of Apple" comparing the language style used by Apple and Microsoft and wondering if language style impacts the bottom line. If you don't want to register for the article, then the podcast version is here.

iFart Screen

Ms Kellaway tells us that Apple's language makes for content that is "fun to read", "elegant", and "makes you laugh". It has a tone that is "direct', 'comic", and "elegantly threatening". She contrasts this with the Microsoft language used for the new version of Internet Explorer, "architected to run HTML5, the beta enables developers to utililize standardized markup language across multiple browsers" and the rest. This is "standard stuff" from Microsoft, and Luce is "irritated", "bored", "alienated", and "restless" with it.

Actually, I think the article is unfair to Microsoft, who do care about language and the example used is not representative of language used in other Microsoft products - games, for example. Plus, the audience for their words is different to Apple's; basically it's a marketing pitch to Microsoft's partners, encouraging uptake of a beta release.

The Apple language that Ms Kellaway admires is taken from the App Store Review Guidelines (full PDF version); a set of guidelines more likely to be read by geek and hobbyist developers working from home than the corporate equivalents. Such language is not used in other Apple products themselves. In fact, language quality is not an acceptance criterion for App Store submissions at all. That of course, is telling in itself. Why not let the market, the users, decide on the language? In line with this, the Human Interface Guidelines from Apple for the iPhone has a common sense approach to language style. For example:

In all your text-based communication with users, be sure to use user-centric terminology; in particular, avoid technical jargon in the user interface. Use what you know about your users to determine whether the words and phrases you plan to use are appropriate.

For example, the Wi-Fi Networks preferences screen uses clear, nontechnical language to describe how the device connects to networks. Very reasonable from a user experience perspective. But, then Lucy says: "You might think there was a clear commercial advantage to be had in writing clearly and stylishly. But you would be wrong."

Not quite. There is a relationship, though it may not be all that visible to key decision-makers. That's because the commercial advantage does not come from writing clearly or stylishly per se, but its application. It comes from writing content that users actually want, in a way that they can understand, using terms and language that suits them; and that facilitates easy search and retrieval. The result is a quicker transfer and comprehension of information leading to better productivity for users and less training and support costs. And that's a competitive advantage.

In the enterprise applications space the opportunities for a product language tone that is "fun", "comic", or "elegantly threatening" doesn't exist in the same way it does for the iPhone app development community (and let's face it - for all the BS about the iPhone - most apps are little better than free low-tech toys designed by rank amateurs).

But that's not the point. The point is the language should suit the audience for the information. We need to spend less time worrying about our internal language style and all its nuances and rules and concentrate more on how users - our customers - themselves want it to be, and actually use it. Bringing terminology in line with user expectations and concentrating on a few basic writing principles grounded in research on information search, retrieval, consumption, and problem-solving would yield far better bottom line results than fretting about a rigorous adherence to every single aspect of a style guide for no other reason than it's there.

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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