Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Text is Not an Ugly Step-Sister! What Web Writers Can Learn From Technical Communicators

Note: This article was inspired by, and has borrowed liberally from, Duncan Kent's Writing Revisable Manuals: A Handbook for Business & Government. I've frequently referred to this excellent resource over the yearsever since Duncan assigned it as required reading for one of my first tech-writing classes. It's fantastic to know that, in this era of ever-changing technology, basic principals continue to remain true. Thanks, Duncan!

It's no secret that there's more than one way to present information online. In fact, there's a dizzying array of ways. But this article isn't going to address videos, podcasts, presentations, infographics, or any of the other sexy communication methods that are important to engage and entertain your audience. Because text-based web pages still makes up a large part of the communications online, and will for many years to come. And most text-based web pages still really suck.

One reason why web content continues to suck is because most of the discussion about presentation methods take us away from text. Text is treated like an ugly step-sister we have to deal with, while we give all of our attention to the prince charming of social media and creative communications. But, text is not an ugly step-sister! It's the foundation of most online communication strategies, and it's way past time that we integrated better presentation methods within our text-based web pages.

After all, technical communicators have been all over this for years. There's a few tricks we could borrow from them. Here's a few "Tech-Writing 101" presentation tips that every web writer should master.

Narrative text
Narrative text is best for telling a story. It's also useful as introductory text before other presentation methods. When you use narrative text by itself on a web page, for a story or article, break it up with multiple sub-headings and consider adding sidebar text to highlight certain elements. Try to avoid using only narrative text on product or service pages.

Bullet Lists
Bullet lists are not the silver bullet of web writing that they're often made out to be. I can't tell you how many web-writing guidelines I've read that tell people to break narrative text into bullet lists without any more guidance than that. In my opinion, that's a crime. But bullet points are very useful if you follow some basic rules:
  • Use bullet lists for three or more related items.
  • Structure all items within a list similarly (for example, if one item begins with a verb, they all should).
  • End complete sentences with a period. If any item on a list is punctuated, punctuate every item.
  • Do not use numbers unless the sequence of the items is important. Bullets imply random order.
Checklists are simply lists that have tick boxes in front of each item. Use them when you want to help readers ensure they have all of the proper materials or have completed all required tasks. If you use a checklist, provide and easy and obvious way for readers to print the page so they can actually use the checklist.

Sidebar text
Sidebar text is used to call out information that is related to the text on the page. If you use sidebar text, make sure that its design immediately differentiates it from the body text on the page. Some examples of when you may want to consider using sidebar text include:
  • To provide commentary on the text.
  • To emphasize key concepts.
  • To provide definitions of technical terms.
  • To highlight quotations.
  • To provide tips.
  • To provide supporting information.
  • To show a short example of the key concept at work.
If you have to convey a large amount of data, using a table is often the best way to do it. Tables are also useful to compare different products in terms of characteristics such as size, weight, price, or performance. "If... Then" tables are excellent when you want to show different conditions. Here's some tips for writing tables:
  • Introduce the table in the text preceding it. Don't expect readers to figure it out entirely for themselves.
  • Simplify the table data down to just that amount of data that illustrates your point (without distorting the data!).
  • Don't put the unit of measurement in every cell of a column. For example, in a column of measurements all in millimeters, don't put "mm" after every number. Put the abbreviation in parentheses in the column or row heading.
  • When there is a special point you need to make about one or more of the items in the table, use a footnote instead of clogging up the table with the information.

Charts and graphs
Charts and graphs are actually just another way of presenting the same data that is presented in tables — but a more dramatic and interesting one. However, they provide less detail than tables. Imagine the difference between a table of sales figures for a ten-year period and a graph for that same data. You get a better sense of the overall trend in the graph but not the precise dollar amount.

Step-by-step procedures
Use step-by-step procedures to describe tasks that the reader must carry out in a specific order. Don't bury procedures in narrative form. Use step-by-step when there is a consistent linear pattern without a lot of decisions to make. If there are a lot of decisions required, consider using a decision tree instead. Here are some guidelines for writing step-by-step procedures:
  • Use the imperative style, beginning each step with an action verb (for example, “Calculate the amount of tax payable….”).
  • If the step is conditional upon something else, state the condition first (for example, “If you have expenses, complete the Expense Form and attach your receipts.”).
  • Order steps in the sequence in which they must be carried out.
  • Number each step. Don’t include more than one activity in a step.

Playscript procedures
Playscript is a simple variation of step-by-step procedures used where several people are involved. It specifies which person is responsible for each step by including the name or role in front of a numbered when the person responsible for that step changes.

Flow diagrams
Use a flow diagram to provide a graphic overview of the relationship between things, how processes work, or how documents move. Don’t try to illustrate every step in a complex procedure—this is better left to step-by-step procedures. Flow diagrams are also good for showing feedback loops and branches within procedures. Here are some tips on creating flow diagrams:
  • Keep the number of shapes to a minimum. Stick with the standard shapes, and always include a legend explaining the meaning of each shape.
  • Indicate the start point.
  • Don’t cram a lot of text into the shapes—the purpose is to provide a graphic overview, not to give readers all the details
Decision trees
Decision trees are a form of flow diagram in which readers are routed according to their responses to questions. Use decision trees to provide a visual representation of conditional steps in a procedure, or to help readers decide which procedure to use. Each box of the decision tree can indicate a different procedure.
Here are some tips on creating decision trees:
  • Use diamonds for questions and boxes for actions.
  • Always indicate where the reader should start.
  • Try to keep the text in the shapes to four or five words.
  • Keep the shapes the same size.
  • Don’t include more than one action in a box. If necessary, refer the reader to a step-by-step procedure.
Still not sure which presentation method you should choose? Check out Duncan's table of content presentation methods.

Did I forget any major content presentation methods for text-based web pages? If so, let me know in the comments!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Integrating Usability & Content Strategy: Series Kickoff

Editor's note: I'm excited to present the first in a 12-part series by Theresa Putkey. Once a month, Theresa will share her perspectives on usability and information architecture to help us see why they're so important to content strategy. I hope this will start some conversations about how to integrate these disciplines to create even better solutions for businesses and end-users. Please add your thoughts as comments below. ___________________________________________________________________

In the last 10 years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about usability and user-centred design. Given that the idea has been around for a while now, you’d think that people would have a good idea of what usability is. Not true! As a usability expert and user-centred designer, a lot of my work involves educating clients on the value and purpose of user-centred design and the tasks that go into making a usable technology product, such as a website, intranet,or mobile phone interface.

What is “usability” anyways?
User-centred design is a way of designing a product so that it meets the needs of those using it. Usability refers to how easy it is to actually use that product. 

When a company designs a product, it does so because it sees a business need for that product. However, there are many many details that go into making a product that are not answered by the business need that drives it. One way to answer these questions is to talk to the people who will be using it. This is where the “user” in “user-centred design” comes into play. We find the target product users and ask them what their current problems are, what would make their lives easier, observe them at work or play, and then create a design that integrates more seamlessly into their lives.  

If the product fulfills the business need and is easy-to-use, then the user will likely find this product more valuable. This person will use it more, recommend it to friends, and help contribute to the success of the product. But using a product isn’t always by choice. Sometimes employees in a company are required to use certain products, such as an intranet, to do their work. The faster they can access the information they need on the intranet, the more efficient and effective the employee will be. Usability improvements add to the company’s overall success. 
What does usability have to do with content strategy?
If people can’t find information or understand what they’ve found, then that content isn’t usable. User-centred design and usability testing helps you discover the information that your end user is looking for and how they want it delivered. It also helps you validate that your messages are being perceived in the way you want them to be, and highlights opportunities to improve.

This series
In this 12-part series, I hope to shine some light on usability and user-centred design. My approach is to educate those who don’t know a lot about the practice. In this series, I’ll go over:

  • User-centred design and its process
  • Information architecture
  • Deliverables
  • Kickoff, Collaboration & Reviews
  • User interviews and personas
  • Site maps
  • Wireframes
  • Taxonomy and metadata
  • Usability testing
  • Wrap up
Resources to get you started
Usability.gov has a great overview of the user-centred design process. Although I’m an expert in usability, I still refer to this site for information! You can also look at this article, “The Five Competencies of User Experience Design,” to give you a good understanding of the various roles in the usability arena. 


About the Author

Theresa Putkey is an information architect consultant living in Vancouver, BC. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, she focuses on integrating user needs into website and software design projects. She's currently doing her online Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. You can find out more about Theresa at www.keypointe.ca, or follow her on twitter @tputkey.

Friday, January 14, 2011

28 Content Marketing Tips from the Content Marketing Masters

I went to a fantastic content marketing retreat today, put on by Langley New Media. The speakers were amazing -- knowledgeable, entertaining, and very human. There were so many great ideas and discussions, not just between speakers and participants, but also online in real-time.

I swear I'm the only person left of the planet who doesn't take technology to a conference. Just my pen and paper. And, for the most part, I'm so distracted by what the presenters are actually saying that I forget to take notes. But I did feel a bit left out of the Twitter party, so I thought I'd share my tidbit take-aways with you here. There were tons of great nuggets and this is only a small handful of them...

  1. Determine your content goals, and then choose ONE.
  2. Focus on a niche, and then get super niched.
  3. Don't talk about yourself.
  4. The sweet spot is the blend of informative and entertaining.
  5. Know what people are thinking about today.
  6. Know what people are thinking about when they're not getting paid.
  7. Know what your competitors are doing in content marketing.
  8. People don't care what you sell. They react to what you stand for.
  9. Make sure the audience you're targeting is the market that's buying.
  10. "Hide the pill" of important information inside the entertaining stuff.
  11. Solve people's problems.
  12. Your content should relate a quest or challenge. 
  13. Tell stories about people, not products or services.
  14. Talking heads are boring.
  15. A story needs a beginning, a middle, a conflict, and then an end.
  16. Content is a renewable asset. Ads are non-renewable assets. 
  17. Connect with people through content.
  18. Use a content calendar and identify daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual content.
  19. People trust other people like themselves. They don't easily trust corporations or the media.
  20. A good information architecture supports business strategy.
  21. Taxonomy and content programming can help content to flow efficiently.
  22. Niche print magazines are here to stay and have a place near and dear to people's hearts.
  23. Do more listening than talking online.
  24. Connect with the key online influencers in your market.
  25. Distribute content through multiple channels, in multiple formats, in many conversations.
  26. Lorem ipsum is shit.
  27. You can't manage what you don't measure.
  28. Make sure that what you measure is relevant to your key stakeholders.
My apologies to the presenters for not capturing all of their key ideas. But I've listed their names below, and Twitter handles where I could, so please check them out to learn more about their particular focus in content marketing... they're a crazy-smart bunch of people!
Joe Pulizzie  @JuntaJoe
Russell Sparkman @fusionspark
Terri Nopp
Jack Penland
Hanson Hosein @hrhmedia
Eleanor Fye @eleanorfye
Kevin Lund
T.A. McCann @tamccann
Bill Flitter @bflitter
Drew Davis @TPLDrew
Matt Heinz @heinzmarketing

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What's better: Fewer clicks, or greater simplicity?

For a project I'm currently working on, part of my content strategy involves coming up with a simple information architecture (IA) for a large product & service section of a website. These aren't products or services that people buy frequently, and visitors are only expected to come to this section of the site occasionally. In the IA that I proposed, the user needs to make a few more clicks then they do on the current site but the pages are clean and simple and the path to the products is clear and straight-forward. This was getting some push-back from members of the project team who felt that there were too many clicks. So, what did I do?

First, I asked (yet again) to do user testing. There were all sorts of vague excuses that may make for another interesting blog post, but the bottom line was "no".

Then, I engaged our Vancouver User Experience Group in a lively discussion about which is better: fewer clicks, or greater simplicity.They provided really valuable feedback, and I thought I'd share the gist of it here with you:

  • There is no acceptable excuse for not testing with users in a project of this size. Be creative, be sneaky, but get the design options in front of real people!
  • Overwhelmingly, for infrequent site visitors, people supported 5 or 6 easy clicks and clear signposts over 2 or 3 clicks that require users to slow down to find the right link. (But for frequent users this isn't true.)
  • Use personas and do scenario walkthroughs to make sure that you've considered how users will go through the site to find what they need.
  • Be aware that these types of discussions are sometimes more about ego and being right than what's best for the user.
To see the full conversation, check out the VanUE mailing list archive.

But this is design and usability, so what does it have to do with content strategy? Well, design needs to support content, and usability makes sure that content is easy to get to. But everything on the page -- words, buttons, links, navigation --, and the pages themselves, are all content. How the user experiences this content is all part of a content strategy.

So now all I have to do is put on a mask and cape like Zorro, and find some unsuspecting people to walk through our designs... Don't give me away if you see me on the streets of Vancouver!

Please use the comments below to provide your 2 cents worth about what you think is better, fewer clicks or greater simplicity.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New content for the new year

What better way to start the new year than with the resolution to improve your web content? With E3 Content Strategy entering its second year in business, I'm making the resolution to heed my own advice. And I'm really excited about the content I have lined up!

First of all, I have 2 great new blogging partnerships. Ahava Leibtag and I are teaming up to bring you a series of videos that use real-world examples to demonstrate key content strategy concepts and practices. Ahava (@ahaval) is a content strategy superstar from Washington, DC, and founder of AHA Media Group. She's also one of the presenters at the upcoming Confab content strategy conference, and is a whirlwind of creativity and ideas. Then, I'm swapping guest blogs with Vancouver-based information architect and founder of Key Pointe Usability Consulting, Theresa Putkey (@tputkey). With more than a decade of content and usability experience behind her, Theresa is completing her Masters degree in Librarian and Information systems. She's an incredibly smart cookie, and I'm thrilled that she's agreed to contribute one post per month to E3 Content Strategy showing how information architecture and usability are essential to content strategy. In turn, I'll be writing guest blogs once a month for Key Pointe that show how content strategy integrates into the user-centred design process.

In addition to these partnerships, I'm going to focus on a couple of themes over the next few months. You'll see a lot of new stuff on content strategy solutions, best practices, and quality writing. We've all been talking a lot about the process and discipline of content strategy, so now I want to talk more about the actual solutions. What they are, what problems they solve, how to implement them, and when they're useful.

Throughout 2010, I've read so many great articles, and run across so many good books, that I've decided to share them with you this year. Each month I'll publish a list of the best content strategy content that I find -- articles, videos, presentations, infographics, books... anything that's interesting and relevant. I'll even be sharing new content Strategy people that I've discovered. Let's face it, they're cropping up everywhere!

And I'm going to implement a couple of improvements to make it easier to find and share my content. Towards the end of 2011, I'll launch a client e-newsletter and update my website to make it easier to find articles of interest.

The biggest challenge will be for me to stick to my editorial calendar and regular blogging schedule. I like to set things up, come up with topics, make charts and put dates beside everything. Sitting down and getting it done is not always so much fun. But that's what resolutions are for. One blog per week, minimum, no exceptions. Bonus points if I publish two. There, I said it. Now you can hold me accountable.

So, between that and my client work, contributing to Firehead's Bitesized Content Strategy initiatives, and attending some great industry conferences (the Content Marketing Retreat and Confab are currently booked, yay!), I'm really excited about 2011. It's shaping up to be very busy, but very fun.

What would you like to see more of in the new year? Are there any topics you're particularly interested in? Or, what do you plan to contribute to the content strategy arena? Please leave a comment and let us know!

I wish you all an incredibly happy and successful new year, and thank you most sincerely for being part of my success in 2010.