Augmented Recognition

At tonight’s TriUXPA meeting, Mona Singh did a great job of giving us some perspective on the emerging technologies that are called “Augmented Reality”. She showed us some apps on her smart phone and let us all see some small examples of what is out there already in terms of information that augments the display looking through the camera of her smart phone. The picture below shows her with her container of ketchup at which she pointed her phone in a demonstration of how companies are using “AR” to provide more information to consumers about their products. The other part of the picture shows the group gathered for her presentation. Thanks to TEKSystems for hosting the event.

Photo of TriUXPA Meeting with Mona Singh

But really what we’re talking about here is an augmented display, where additional information is displayed on the screen of a device (or a windshield of a car, or glasses worn by the user). So we’re not augmenting reality, but augmenting the view of reality. For me, an example of something that could more accurately be called augmented reality is my cup that changes color when you put a cold drink in it – the cup itself is changing color, not just my view of it through a device or a special pair of glasses. Or the road signs along the highway that say what is at this next exit – the road is real, the signs are real and augment the real road. But it’s probably too late to change the use of that phrase. You see, what I would call it would be “augmented display” but that sounds too wimpy. So how about “Augmented Recognition” so we can still use the acronym “AR”. What Mona taught us is that half the challenge of this technology is to recognize the buildings on the street or where the road is or whose face is in the view. So the technology is really augmenting what it recognizes with more digital information about what it recognizes.

But that being said, she shared some apps that are readily available:

There are also others:

Mona clarified for us that Google Glass, at least at this point in their development, is really not an augmented reality, just a more intimate display, by placing information in a small rectangle in the upper right corner of your field of view. It can be voice activated to take a picture or video, or gesture-activated (tapping a finger) to take some action, but it does not display information about the items in your view per se.

Another challenge besides handling the recognition of things in your view, and then displaying information on or around those items, is converging the information with the items in your view. While head up display (HUD) technology has been around for decades, the trend seems to be to make it more accessible to a range of devices in a range of different contexts.

I can think of a few further challenges for this technology. One is what I’d call “shared augmentation”. So while I’m driving, I’d like the augmented information to display not on my view of the windshield but on my passenger’s view, since she has volunteered to be my navigator. While I pilot the craft working in reality, she can help interpret the mass of data about which exit to take based on which stores or mountain vistas or fueling stations are there. Certainly one of the challenges will be to filter the information to show only what I’m most interested in. Just as Netflix is beginning to learn what movies I like and Pandora knows what music I like, my AR device should learn what information I’m most interested in seeing in a given context. Perhaps there is even a high-level (or meta) challenge here – to augment the augmentation. So if I’ve got information augmenting my view and I want to know where the information is coming from (commercial or governmental or non-profit, for example) can I flick a switch and see the information about the information?

There is more to write, but I’ll post this for now and add to it later. It was a great presentation and great group that enjoyed the discussion. One of the members recommended watching Sight on YouTube for a taste of what lies ahead.

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The Universality of Lines

It is a puzzling aspect of our civilization that I can sit in the most sophisticated high-tech multi-media space in our concentrated downtown and watch a presentation about an ancient civilization that moved rocks on a desert floor to accomplish what might have been the theatrical equivalent of their day.

If you haven’t been to the Daily Planet in downtown Raleigh, you have to check it out. It’s a great multi-media space that offers a superb visual and audio experience. Thanks to the State Employees Credit Union (SECU) for helping to fund that.


Virginia and I went to see Dr. Charles Stanish present about the iconic geoglyphs in the plains along the western side of Peru. Billed by the museum as a talk on the Nazca lines, Dr. Stanish went further and talked about his research into the earlier Paracas culture and lines they drew near burial mounds and structures that he is in the process of unearthing with his research students. He ended his talk with some answers to questions, one of which got him telling us that there are large lines or geoglyphs in every continent where there are people. There is something universal about it. The phrase he used was “theatrical landscape”. Having been to the Nazca lines myself (and having heard Maria Reiche) I was familiar with the geoglyphs but I had not realized how much more research there was to do in other parts of Peru. There is still so much mystery to solve.

Dr. David J. Kroll (Director of Science Communications, NC Museum of Natural Science) introduced the speaker and was a gracious host handling questions at the end of the talk and making us all feel welcome there.

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Easing – An Essential Skill

The most recent Refresh the Triangle Meetup was insightful, fun, and, well, refreshing. Once Upon a Timeline: HTML5/CSS3 tools for cross-platform interactive animations was an informative presentation with a happy ending.
Adam Winsor (illustrator, animator, and visual storyteller) introduced us to some of the tools and techniques of making animation with HTML5 using his own animation project. He demonstrated how he adeptly uses Adobe Edge Animate CC to make compelling storybook animation. He kept the audience of 40 professionals interested for over an hour showing us how to make the pieces (assets) that are assembled and put in motion to produce a finished story. But he was a humble presenter and did not freeze when he stumbled for the right word; he simply admitted, “My imagination is broken” and carried on. He motivated the use of HTML5/CSS3 as simply a substitute made necessary by the death of Flash. (I wonder if there is more justification than that – if HTML5/CSS3 becomes the accepted standard for web pages as everyone assumes.)


Adam, like many of us in the communication profession, is between disciplines. He is an animator, an artist creatively capturing ideas in moving images, but he is also a technical person not afraid to share with us his use of the latest computerized animation development tool set, a geek who likes to draw pictures and make them move. One of the important terms that Adam taught me in his presentation was the term “easing”. It is the smoothing of otherwise jagged mechanical movement so that it becomes more realistic in the finished animation. This seems a perfect term for what is needed in so many aspects of communication. If I can stretch the term and apply it to user interface design and human interaction in generation, it could be used to describe the necessary smoothing of how people speak and act, how they present themselves and their ideas, and how they connect with their audience to be more understandable, easier to relate to, more acceptable. At a few spots in his own presentation, Adam showed the need for this type of “easing” to smooth out some of the jagged edges of his presentation but all of us know what it’s like to present to such a big group and Adam was fine. Whether when he was deep into the details of the tool or when he switched topics in mid-discussion, he could have used some easing. But overall he did a great job and people really enjoyed his presentation.

Engaged in work that spans disciplines that are traditionally separate, I know the challenges of harmonizing distinct worldviews. I work with technical guys but I like to talk and write – I like to communicate with others which means I’m not a total geek. But I like technical details and learning about the latest technical advances, which puts me apart from my writing friends. I think Adam and I have a lot in common and I look forward to hearing more about his success.

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Lots of Color

Yes, I went ahead with it anyway. Last month, inspired by the visual excitement of Richmond, Virginia, and hearing tales from my colleague Wendy, at work, about the Color My Run, I bought two tickets to the event here in Raleigh, confident that Virginia and I would get some exercise in a new way and that she would enjoy the surprise. As often happens in life, plans change, and this weekend, Virginia is up visiting her Mom and brothers. But I went and did the Run anyway.

My Number for Color My Run

There must have been a thousand people there at the Walnut Creek Amphitheater by the start of the run. I arrived early so I could register with my Groupon but then I had to wait around – which gave me a chance to see all the types of people. Every age and height was represented.

It’s funny that ‘Color’ is both a noun and a verb. The DJ who was priming the crowd kept shouting Who wants color? and then he’d whip a bag of color powder into the crowd. Yes, that’s why we came – to get brightly colored. I won’t give away how it all works, how we come to get color dumped on us; I’ll leave that for those of you who have yet to try this event. But let’s just say it’s not a race, and I’m not even sure it’s an official 5K run – I crossed the finish line in a half an hour which is too short a time for me since I walked a good portion of it. The funny thing is that I almost had to walk parts of it; it was so crowded people couldn’t run, even though they broke the crowd into two waves to try to space us out a bit. Everyone got color and everyone had fun. With all those people, with all the silliness of color (and beach balls) and music, it was more of a party than a run. A very active party. The weather could not have been better – cool morning warming up quickly in the North Carolina June sun.

Crowd at Color My Run

Two shots of color

The Color My Run certainly had more color than run. And it had plenty of fun. Or at least silliness. Too bad ‘fun’ isn’t both a noun and a verb. If you want fun, I highly recommend this colorful event.

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Not Your Ordinary User Group Meeting

Last night the Raleigh Salesforce User Group outdid themselves and had a user group meeting like no other. We met at Tyler’s Taproom in downtown Durham, in the back room, for a presentation by TerraSky‘s Tony Nelson about Sky Visual Editor. He showed how it can be used to transform your Salesforce user interface easily. The crowd got loud but somehow Tony got through it; there was interest by more than a few of us. But it wasn’t the best setting for a presentation by a vendor. There was a very big crowd of us – I counted over fifty of us.

User Group at Tyler's Taproom

I’ve heard we have one of the more active chapters. Well, I’d have to say that we’re one of the more innovative, too. Experimenting with a setting like this and then inviting everyone to a baseball game afterward with tickets paid and coupons for concessions along with that, well, this was just a great idea. It might not work for everyone, but you have to admit it was worth a try. Hats off to the Raleigh Salesforce User Group for pulling this off. And the award for enduring the loudest, most raucous meeting goes to the folks at TerraSky. Good job!

The baseball game, the Durham Bulls versus the Buffalo Bison, was a good game, too. The fifth inning was high scoring and fun. I have to admit I didn’t stay for all nine innings but it was relaxing to kick back and enjoy the relaxing tempo of an American past time that belongs in the slower summer days if not in an earlier, slower era.
Durham Bulls Scoreboard

The ball park was fun to see – I had not seen it for years. There are now buildings all around and a tighter feeling. We are in an urban center; business in Durham is picking up and the downtown, with DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) and all, offering more. I took the picture below of a small boy throwing the ball with the players as they were warming up before the game. You have to start small. You have to start somewhere. This user group is starting small and growing. Those of us using Salesforce are starting small and learning how to work with cloud solutions and how to handle our data.

players are getting younger everyday

I’m looking forward to a full year of good user group meetings, a year of learning how to use Salesforce more effectively, and a year of seeing more of Durham and the Raleigh-Durham area.

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War Memorial as Text

For this Memorial Day, I visited a new war memorial that was recently dedicated here in Garner, North Carolina. Walking in the Garner Veterans Memorial is a beautiful and educational moment. It is set near the entrance in the lovely and spacious Lake Benson Park.

Garner Veterans Memorial entrance

The vertical pieces look like slabs of North Carolina clay that have been stood up, as if suggesting something from the earth coming up to face you. Each slab has a different decade and mentions the war or wars that were fought. There is a lot of text at this memorial and yet it works. There is enough space, and enough time if you can take it, to walk among these tributes to the fallen in arms.

Garner Veterans Memorial

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Micro-Momentum and Designing Interaction

At a recent TriUXPA meeting, we listened to a recorded webinar by Stephen Anderson (thanks UIE) about Designing for Micro-moments.

One of his themes was that interactions (as in user interaction with a web site or web application) is a conversation and so should be treated as such when we design interfaces. What does the user need? Consider how they want it and not just what they want. Consider when they need information for continuing the conversation. Conversations are a good way of treating these micromoments as he calls them – little steps in the course of interaction. Of course these atomic actions add up to a task or a larger interaction. And these are done by humans, which is what his design emphasis is about. He somewhat sidestepped the question about localization/translation – once you make it a conversation, then you have to worry about framing and all that sociolinguistic stuff that we take for granted when we are having a conversation with someone, all that context stuff so no one is offended or confused, as happens in ordinary conversations.

But it was a good, thought-provoking webinar, and a bunch of us stayed after to talk about it. There were not many of us at this meeting, which surprised me because I thought the topic was very relevant to our work and the time of the event was not unreasonable. But those of us who did attend enjoyed the chance to share with each other. By the way, thanks, Capstrat for hosting – the food was delicious and the meeting room was very accommodating.

I have a few criticisms of Stephen’s approach but mainly he’s trying to figure out Web design as we all are; it’s still a young discipline. So I’m only mentioning these in as much as he’s setting himself up as a role model with a successful methodological approach to design. When he says ‘No Lorem Ipsum’ I think what he’s saying is you can’t predict the layout because you need to put in the actual words – but I also think he’s saying don’t use any long paragraphs of text. That seems to go along with the instant response expected by the latest generation of users – no wasted time, no long conversations. He says he doesn’t do requirements up front; he likes the agile or lean approach, but then he tells us he asks a list of questions first, which sounds like a list of requirements to me. When he says that he likes the lean and agile or bottom-up approach (attacking one small part of the user interface and working out from there) the reason he can be so successful is that the unit of task or amount of design is so small and atomic. Of course that works at the small scale. And of course he can do it by himself, so he has complete control. The challenge of course is for the larger conversation – the entire web site or web application that requires a collaborative (and cooperative) effort. For big projects, things get messy and you have to employ some aspects that are not so lean or agile as when one person has control. You need more than just a little micromomentum to get the user through it all. But he’s doing a great job and has a great level or professionalism and design sense, so I applaud his work and am glad he shares what he’s doing on webinars such as this. I wish all of the professionals at the meeting were given time to present their ideas – I think we all have a lot to learn and can learn a lot from each other.

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Richmond: A City Rich in Visual Expression

I recently went to Richmond, Virginia, for the weekend to see my niece’s graduation and to be a part of the celebration. I went a day early and toured the city a bit. My hotel was downtown, amidst one way streets and road construction, but close to the convention center where the graduation ceremony was. The old and new buildings mix and match in interesting juxtaposition. My niece’s apartment (and several thrift stores I wanted to visit) were further west in the Fan district. My plan was to have supper at the cafe in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). I underestimated the size of that facility – it’s an entire campus. There is so much visual art there – inside and out.
VFMA grounds

There is so much visual art in the entire city. Painted buildings, monuments everywhere, art in and on buildings. Even under the interstate overpass there are artworks hanging for public view. Art is part of the personality of Richmond.
Art under overpass

Getting along is also part of the personality of Richmond. From its confederate-centric past, it is a city of the twenty first century. I visited the Confederate War Memorial Chapel (or Pelham Chapel) – it was a home for wounded soldiers in the Civil War and after the war was a place where reunions were held for soldiers on both sides. While the confederacy is a part of the legacy of Richmond, it certainly isn’t front and center. I didn’t see a single confederate flag while I was there. All I saw were students graduating and parents and siblings flowing around like ants.

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Interactivity in Instruction

There are some key features to instructional design that are not in, say, documentation or support, and that’s what makes it interesting. I’m not a full-time instructional designer, but I have this idea that there is something fundamental that separates instructional design from other interfaces with the customer. A crucial aspect of instructional design is the development of interactivity. That is what is missing from traditional documentation or support. Training material must allow an instructor and student working together during a process. It is easy to see this with in-person training; often we take for granted these interactions. But with online instruction, the interactivity between student and teacher, between student and material, and between students, is no less important. With any instruction, whether in person or online, there is always a need for engagement of the student and feedback from the student (as in Formative Feedback). The interaction helps inform the instructor that the student is learning or at least using the material or product or service. Just as the student must be given opportunities to interact with the instructor, the interaction with other students and with the material can be just as important.

This adds a level of complexity to online instruction because that interaction must be designed in. Designers must provide a way to measure that interaction, too. Instructional design must include feedback and instructor-student interaction; it must facilitate this interactivity and make it seem effortless and natural. It requires seeing instruction more as a process than as a product. This interaction (or feedback) must happen in multiple directions:

  • Between student and material
  • Between student and instructor
  • Between instructor and student
  • Between students (where possible)

I’m not alone. Others think we should structure the learning activities to foster student-instructor, student-student, and student-content interactions.

In a way it is almost as if you are documenting a process (of learning how to use something or how to achieve results using the product or service being trained on) as opposed to documenting a static product (like a piece of hardware). Whether you provide that interaction at the end of a module or during it will depend on your situation and what model of learning you espouse. But promoting that interaction and providing ways to measure its effectiveness is the ultimate goal. The actual content of the material may only be one third of the job. The interaction, in all these dimensions, is the key.

The following article has two Best Practices that touch on interactivity but don’t focus on it. This the ‘Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online (Quick Guide for New Online Faculty)’ by Dr. Judith V. Boettcher. This list has these two:

  • Best Practice 6: Early in the term…, ask for informal feedback on “How is the course going?” and “Do you have any suggestions?”
  • Best Practice 7: Prepare Discussion Posts that Invite Questions, Discussions, Reflections and Responses

And the ‘Best Practices in Designing Online Courses from Las Positas College’ has one about interaction. See number 6 in their list for ‘interactivity’. Finally, the ‘Online Course Design Guidelines from the University of Vermont’ has number 4, which calls it Social Presence and Interaction. This is just a smattering of what’s out there. I’m sure you can find more – feel free to leave a comment with more links.

Instructional design is certainly a dynamic profession – as technology changes, as corporations expand and contract, as more content and learning is outsourced and socialized, this interface with the customer is going through some drastic changes. But there is one key element that does not change – the interactivity that must be part of instruction. This element of interactivity is always essential, despite the changes, despite the numerous models and theories, and despite the extreme need to train professionals more quickly and more cheaply. Professionals doing instructional design can share what is successful, what works in the trenches, not just what looks like a coherent model or theoretical construct. I hope my ranting about the importance of interactivity has touched a nerve. Be aware of interactivity while designing instructional material and online courses; it is the key element that makes instructional design unique and valuable.

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Mobile Feast

In keeping with what he has written in Mobile First, Luke Wroblewski, alias @LukeW, presented some great ideas about web interface design. He is a proponent of considering mobile devices and considering them first when designing web sites. At the TriUXPA meeting in Raleigh, NC, a bunch of (16 in all) watched his webinar over a catered supper. Good food and food for thought. (Thanks Capstrat for hosting the event.)

By working within the constraints of the size of mobile devices (of whatever shape and size), you can improve the design of a web site (and maybe a web app?) for all types of devices. Going mobile is the right way to go; Luke gave a whole new meaning to “movable type”. People are accessing more information on smaller devices at more locations and at more times. Where to put navigation on smaller screens, how to consider content first (since that’s the value that users seek), and putting mobile thinking above desktop thinking are all ideas flowing from Luke’s brain. His great use of examples made it easy to understand his points. Quoting from Rachel Hinman’s The Mobile Frontier and showing the value of Responsive Web Design (along with responsive multi-level navigation), his presentation covered a range of ideas.

Here are two ideas that Luke did not cover: voice control and multi-layered web design.

Voice Control
As screens shrink and navigation becomes a challenge, the lack of screen space might not be a problem as more voice activation comes into general use. If I can simply say a command or request an action by voice, it doesn’t matter whether there is a navigation menu with that command on it and space is no longer an issue. Whether you are searching on a site or taking action, a verbal command might be all you need to accomplish your goal.

I find it interesting that I am not alone in thinking about this:
Are voice controlled interfaces a new form of interaction design or a replacement for interaction design?.

Multi-Layer Interface
I am using my crystal ball here and foreseeing a time when, just as desktop interfaces went from command line to graphical to multiple windows, the mobile device will offer multiple layers of screens, similar to tabs in a browser, so the user does not have to sacrifice context for content or navigation. Just as layers in graphical design programs let you work on multiple levels, so the designers of mobile devices will create a way for users to layer their screens, whether menus on top of content or multiple layers of content. It’s coming; I’m telling you.

Stay tuned for other ideas on web design. Thanks, Luke for getting the creative juices going.

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UA Tools Survey Review

Joe Welinski has done it again: produced a great tools survey and published the results. Here it is:

While the cynical among us might think this is self serving, drawing viewers to his site to drum up more business for his conferences, I think he’s doing a great job and a offering a great service to the professional community. I applaud his effort and want him to know that it’s a great thing that he offers his results for free. He offers caveats, but I grant him those. I think the sampling is representative and I think it does represent the interests of technical writers involved in software user assistance. No problem there. But…

But, I still don’t know if it’s relevant when all the numbers are tallied. Or at least not as relevant as it used to be. Here is some food for thought.

  • There is a much bigger field and wider spread of user assistance people than those from a tech writing background and from who call themselves UA professionals.
  • User assistance and technical support and online training – the boundaries of these previously separate and silo-ed disciplines are blurring.
  • Technology is changing so rapidly, the tool might be obsolete in one generation of technology (which may be less than a year). (Maybe he needs an ongoing survey and results.)
  • Tools are proliferating; look at the list of tools that are used by only one or two – that’s a long tail if I ever saw it.

I’m just saying.

Another thought I had is that it might help to distinguish between utilities (screen capture tools or PDF viewers) and full-blown authoring environments – they’re not both “tools”, are they? Utilities are like hand tools; authorizing environments are the entire workshop. There are add-ons to my browser that offer more productivity than some of the tools listed. Now that I think about it, I forgot to list those in my “Other” option. Maybe many of you did, too.

I really appreciated that he listed all the comments. It’s not necessarily easy to read, the way they are all strung together, but at least he included all of them, and I applaud him for it.

The problem with a tools survey is that it assumes that tools are desktop applications, or at least there is a bias in that direction. But are we really only using desktop applications? This survey didn’t even mention social media – does that count as a tool? Certainly we all use search engines and YouTube now when we need info on how to do something new; aren’t some of us using social media for distributing content? I think it’s time to widen the survey to match the diversity of tools and diversity of platforms.

Good job and thanks for sharing your results, Joe! Keep up the good work.

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Extreme Judging

For a day of intense technical communication, comes the event of the year – STC Carolina Chapter Competition Judging. Last year, the chapter did a great job of taking a long drawn-out process of providing feedback on competition entries – both hard copy publications and electronic media of every kind – and compressing it into a single one-day event. Yesterday’s judging event followed that pattern successfully. More than 35 professionals met at the training center on the SAS Campus in Cary, North Carolina for a rousing day of reviewing and evaluating over 70 entries submitted by chapter members from around the Triangle area.
Collage of STC Competition Judging Event

This was as close to real-time as the chapter has accomplished thus far. Short of WebEx-ing with the contributors, this form of judging – with training in the morning and award nominations in the afternoon, and all the evaluations done in between – there is nothing faster, more intense, more extreme than this. The training was led by Jennifer Raisig, the organization by Betsy Kent, and the recruiting by Sheila Loring. Other notables were Larry Kunz, Andrea Wenger, Terry Smith, and Ann-Marie Grissino. In some ways this was a very retro event – bringing together the old timers and looking at good old user manuals – and in other ways it was very up-to-date with new faces and excitement reviewing online videos and multimedia presentations. The organizers did a great job of dividing up the work into small teams; the teams were great at finding a consensus about which works deserved real praise. The little gifts given out during the day kept the event from taking itself too seriously – the split playing cards was a good way to handle a raffle.

Thanks to all the technical communicators who did a great job and gave up a good portion of a Saturday to do this. Thanks to the folks at SAS for making the wonderful facility available. Thanks to the STC Carolina Chapter for having such a cool and innovative and productive event.

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Protoblocking: Using HTML Blocks for Modular Prototyping

A bunch of us met at Capstrat in Raleigh to see the latest webinar sponsored locally by TriUXPA. The webinar speaker, Nathan Curtis, from EightShapes, talked about building HTML prototypes. His talk was titled “Start Full Screen: Organize, Communicate, & Annotate HTML Prototypes”. It was pretty long (an hour and a half) but informative. Many of us agreed that this type of approach and its related framework, would be useful for larger groups devoted to prototyping in HTML, but many of us in the room are working for smaller companies, so we are weighing the usefulness of using EightShape’s product.

Photo of TriUXPA Webinar at Capstrat

The ten of us sat around a conference table and stopped the webinar during the Question-and-Answer time and asked our own questions of each other. Thanks to Evan Carroll from Capstrat for hosting (and for showing me the cool office space he works in) and to Adam Rogers for running the show. Thanks to Bruce Mehrenbloom for kicking off some great discussion and for Michael and others for joining right in.

You can’t argue with Nathan’s approach to modularizing, organizing, and annotating prototypes. With his purist approach to using only HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, he is afforded some freedom from the constraints of other technologies and allowing his prototypes to run on any machine (practically). If you buy his approach to doing HTML/CSS/JavaScript-only prototyping, then the framework that EightShapes offers seems like an intelligent way to work collaboratively and simply. He gets the “truthiness” award for making “doneness” a word. His mentioning of the Transform element in CSS3 and of the IPEVO document camera for collaborative sketching got some additional tangential discussion going. All in all, it was another great TriUXPA meeting and I’m glad I went.

P.S. Some additional podcast discussion is at UIE Brainsparks.

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Affordances are not Afterthoughts

When we have a great event, such as the TriUXPA meeting tonight, we realize what great things collaboration can accomplish! Richard Phelps, the president of the chapter; the speakers, Rex Hartson from Virginia Tech and Pardha Pyla from Bloomberg; Lulu for hosting the event; and the 20 plus members who came out. Thanks to all!

This was fun and informative. “Affordances and their Importance to UX Practitioners” was the title of the presentation. Rex and Pardha, joint authors of The UX Book: Process and Guidelines for Ensuring a Quality User Experience, gave a great introduction to “affordances”, those aspects of the user experience that help, aid, or guide the user. This is such an important part of the user experience; it’s amazing that it is not covered sooner is their book. (It’s in chapter 20.) A few lucky members won free copies of the book – I know who I’m borrowing a copy from. Here’s an invitation to anyone who reads the book (or has read the book) – if you want to post your opinion of it or comments about it, I’ll post a blog entry here on my site – just submit it to me.

Lulu has a great facility on Hillsborough near the campus of NC State University. With the Irregardless Cafe providing the food, you couldn’t have a better hosted event!

During the question and answer period, there was talk about “Save” being a dying metaphor – why should the user have to click a button to perform a Save action, when the application should just take care of that? (as Google Docs handles edits of a page.) There was mention of Metro but this is new to me, so I’ll have to read up on this before I talk more about it. Since most of their examples of ‘affordances’ in the user interface were about buttons and levers and things to start an action or a task, I asked about affordances that indicate whether a task is complete or the status of the progress if something is loading or the user has to wait. Rex answered that this is covered in the book. He also mentioned that affordances can indicate what the next step should be for a user, if tasks are dependent or must be performed sequentially. This is definitely something I’m going to work on with the designers/developers at Paragon, where I work.

Bloomberg is also now hiring for multiple UX positions. See open positions here: If anyone is looking to hire a talented new grad, contact Mercedes Gosby and tell her Bill Albing sent you.

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The Currentness of the Collaborative Cloud

Offline to All-line
Once upon a time we talked about working “offline” as a way of saying that we were working on paper or in person, away from and apart from a computer. As more of our work moved to the computer (and we weren’t doing work if it wasn’t on the computer), “offline” began to mean working on your computer specifically, but disconnected from the rest of the Internet. We worked for years using the computer as an appliance that allowed us to work disconnected from everyone else and disconnected in silos of information.
I honestly can’t remember the last time anyone used the word “offline”. I don’t think people use that word much anymore. Not long ago you couldn’t work off your computer; now you can’t work without being connected.

Together We Work
Everyone’s work is collaborative these days; it all requires a connection to the Internet. More of my time is spent Web conferencing with others, Skyping with colleagues, doing Google searches, and doing other cloud activities. It seems only a short while ago we were talking about the day when we would be doing this at work. Now I don’t have time to catch my breath between online activities, work flowing from one collaborative engagement after another. I don’t know if we are in teams or knots. Sometimes it is one-on-one, sometimes it the entire team, sometimes it is open-ended and different people come and go.

Service or Infrastructure?
It was not that long ago that if you needed to upload a picture or have some service, you needed an account at that web site. You used to do most of your work in desktop applications and occasionally went to the Web for some information. Now I can upload pictures or get a Web address (URL) shortened without even logging in. No questions asked. I can get map information, I can find content at the most granular level, all without paying anyone or registering. I’m spending more of my time at Web sites and Web apps – and I don’t even know if there is a difference. Is it site (a place) or an application (a tool)? It’s both.
And it’s not just computers that are connected and allowing us to collaborate. We have phones and other mobile devices that allow us to stay connected in more places and more ways than we thought possible only a few years ago.

Distance is Gone
My brother gave me access to a document on Google; my colleagues at work used a spreadsheet in the cloud. Whether family or work, we are all moving into the cloud. No one asks ‘Should we work in the cloud?’; we are just in it. We are all working collaboratively. We are all working in the cloud.
Add to that the reach of collaboration – the fact that I’m Web conferencing with people all over the world and not even thinking about it; that we sometimes don’t even say where we are; that a gal from down the hall may be visiting a remote office and connecting in as if she’s at her desk; that half our company is not only remote but distributed geographically. I am connecting with more people in other countries using LinkedIn and Twitter and not even giving it a second thought.

Work or Play
I have an account with to sell books as a hobby. But Amazon has the online tools available for me to run it like a business. In fact, I do make money when I sell books that I have bought for cheap, either at thrift stores or yard sales. This is just one example of how the line is blurring of what is work and what is play. I connect with people around the world who buy my books; the tools are available in the cloud for me keep track of sales that are as sophisticated as any business would have – inventory tracking, order management, customer communication- it’s all there. And often when working in the cloud, the distinctions between work and play may only be whether you’re making enough money or not.

One Big Happy Cloud
Are we lost in a fog or immersed in a cloud? Eventually, I will get used to being so connected. But I’ll always be of the generation that made the transition, that started offline and began to see cracks in the silos until we were all mobile and all present with each other and collaborating in ways and on projects that we hadn’t even thought possible only a short time ago. I was born when there was time and distance, when people worked with things and computers handled information or metadata. Now we are all connecting and it’s not so clear where one project ends and another begins, if content has boundaries and if any limitations apply to what is possible.

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Content Stratification

Ever-Broadening Content Horizons
In her recent blog post ‘Content strategy – a revolution?’, Betty Tew is just touching the tip of the iceberg (or, whatever the equivalent in a cloud metaphor would be). I like how she refers to “the ever-broadening field of business and technical communications” because as I see it, tech writing (or technical communication) is becoming subsumed under larger circles in the Venn diagram of professional activities. It is still there and still important, but not the overarching discipline that it used to be. Silos that previously separated the specialties are going away. It’s time for us all to play together in the same space. Tech comm is playing a smaller part because more people want more types of information in more channels quicker. And no one has time to read it all, so we are working to automate part of the process and filter a lot of the content and design the interface so users don’t need so much explanation. So I think content strategy is part of the process of dealing with the disruption and change in our industry.

Challenge of Content Strategy
Last weekend I listened to Sarah O’Keefe’s webcast ‘Content strategy in technical communication’. When she got to the part where she asked the audience “What are YOUR challenges?”, I knew immediately – but I don’t think it is on her list of frequent responses. My biggest strategy challenge is not what amount or type of content to post or what format to deliver content, but how to build community, how to foster collaboration?
Content isn’t just something I create and send out to a willing audience. My strategy is to engage in conversation so content needs to flow both ways. Where in content strategy is any of that handled? Content strategy seems to focus on the content and the business value of content. But my customers do not need content (at least not content alone).
They need conversation. And how do you manage content once it is out there in social media, where others send it out, mix it up, create their own? When the conversation is happening and others join in, how does “content strategy” help?

How Separate?
I appreciate that Sarah wants so separate tech comm as a separate body of content with a different purpose from marketing communications and other more persuasive communications. It all might be blurring together and it might not be as useful as it was in the past to consider it as a separate type of content. Is segmenting persuasive comm. from tech. transfer useful? Let’s just say I’m not convinced yet. And talking about separate (but equal), can you really create a strategy for content that is separate from the rest of the company’s strategy? Is it really a separate process, a separate strategy? I’m wondering why we have content strategy as separate from sales strategy, service strategy, market strategy, product strategy, customer management strategy, etc.? Can anyone answer these questions for me?

Posted in Content Development, content lifecycle, content management, Process, Profession, Social Networking | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments