Monthly Archive for July, 2008

Touchscreen interfaces

Tom at IRBW has posted some guidelines on creating online help for touchscreen applications.

It’s interesting timing, as that’s a task that I’ve been currently tackling. If human factors standards are being used, it’s an exceptionally difficult challenge to meet.

I’ll be sharing some lessons learned soon, but I’d thought I’d open it up for discussion first. How about you? Any ideas or thoughts to share?

In related news, here’s an interesting piece of research that was done by NASA – touchscreen usability research in space. Groovy.

monkeyPi’s Law

Recently, I’ve come across several blog posts that have brought up the issue of Technical Writing versus Writing.

At its core, writing is just recorded communication that’s transferred without the use of verbal speech. If you communicate to someone else (or yourself) using a pencil and paper, or a laptop running Office 12, or even a sabretooth tiger horn and a cave wall, you’re writing.

Using this definition of recorded communication, we get a better big-picture view of the world of writing, and it’s a broad vista that includes written words, glyphs, graphics, charts, and so on. Alan Porter eloquently makes this argument:

“Examples of effective communication using more graphics than words are all around us. I spent several years in the aerospace industry, and what’s the most effective and widely viewed piece of documentation in that industry? The safety card placed in every seat back pocket.”

But does that broad vista include communicating something other than safety or technical information?

The problem with current viewpoints
There seems to be a pervasive view that there are two types of writing: “Noble” (or “pure”) and “Non-Noble” (or “technical”). The main problem with that myopic view is that status is immediately connoted. Nobody wants to classify themselves as residing on the non-noble side of the writing world.

What’s worse to me is when excellent, talented people who choose that “Non-Noble” path seem to feel they have to caveat what they do, have to rationalize it somehow. Even Alan Porter, in the same article linked above, did this later in his post:

“I’m proud to be a writer. But I leave being a pure writer to the evenings and weekends. When I’m in the office I try to be a Communicator…”

Am I to conclude that the author leaves “pure” writing at home, and then goes to work? No wonder Tom Johnson works so hard to convince students that technical writing is a worthy career.

Is one form of writing more pure than another? Is one type more noble than another?

I propose a new way to consider The World Of Writing, and because I’m a egomaniacal loser, I’m calling it monkeyPi’s Law of WritingTM:

Writing is recorded communication. If we must classify writing into two categories, then they will be titled: Writing that is Meant to be Used, and Writing that is Meant to be Enjoyed — and they will overlap significantly.

As of now, the notion of “Pure” writing is out.

Writing that is Meant to be Enjoyed
Writing that is meant to be enjoyed might include fictional works, poetry, essays, and so forth.

As we remember that all writing is a form of recorded communication, it’s important to note that even the most creative fictional writers are just as dependent on effective communication as technical writers are. Even the most artistic example of fictional writing still has that requirement hanging over its head. That’s why writers developed rhetorical techniques to communicate abstract concepts like feeling and emotion.

For example, where would fictional writing be without imagery? Consider the sweltering temperature outside in 12 Angry Men, as tempers rose inside the jury room; or the thunderstorm raging outside the cave as Aeneas and Dido gave in to their carnal urges to Juno’s lightning flashes in The Aeneid. If you’re using a method or technique to communicate essential information, you’re doing the same thing someone who writes a technical manual does, just in a different fashion.

Writing that is Meant to be Used
Writing that is meant to be used might include manuals, help systems, reports, proposals, and safety labels.

But good forms of useful writing can be made enjoyable, as well. Technical charts that pay attention to aesthetics. Blogs that, *ahem*, inform and entertain. Help and assistance that helps establish a pleasurable experience for the interface user. There are always ways to enrich the human experience using even the most dry material.

Some will argue that this isn’t true. They may say, “How many lives have been enriched because of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Hemingway’s tomes?” Countless. And how many lives have been saved and protected because of “Right Lane Must Turn Right,” or “Warning! High Voltage!”? Also countless. I’ll leave the argument of which is more noble as an academic exercise to the reader.

If you write reports, try injecting some tasteful levity into it. Sure, the rules say you can’t do this, but shove the rules. Technical writers always complain that “nobody ever reads reports.” Well, why not make them more enjoyable? In a recent final report I helped write, where we were reporting on the results of a mock-theft experiment that involved human participants — about as dry of a subject as you can imagine — I included a section called Experimenter Anecdotes. In it we detailed some observed oddities among our participants. Some were frankly hilarious, such as when we listed all of the places (normal and gross) we observed our participants hide things, which went from the obscene (orifices) to the puzzling (bologna sandwiches). The section contained very useful information, but was presented in such a way that it served as an island of comic relief in an ocean of dry scientific prose. The client went out of their way to specifically mention that part of the report as being their favorite.

The beauty is in the overlap
The greatest thing about my new law is the ‘significantly overlap’ clause. Here is where all those things go that didn’t have a home under the previous system.

How about a nonfiction tome? Covered. The best examples of such may communicate technical information and be enjoyable at the same time. Ever read Bill Bryson, perhaps his Short History of Nearly Everything, for example? Tell me you weren’t informed and entertained at the same time.

How about a Hollywood screenplay? Covered. Clearly, the goal of the screenwriter is to produce something that would entertain, be enjoyed. However, the screenplay itself must be designed to be used, or the writer’s goal cannot be met. Included with the entertaining content (the story), the writer must convey all the information and instructions that the actors, directors, producers, etc. need to accomplish the goal of performing the scene as he or she intended. The writer takes on a dual role, both symbiotic with each other — the story useless without the instructions, the instructions homeless without the story.

The same goes for countless other examples. Under my system, no form of writing is more or less noble than another.

So all writers of the world, stop either feeling insecure or conceited and adopt monkeyPi’s Law. The world depends on writing that is meant to be used and enjoyed.

How well do you know your fonts?

Have you a typographer’s eye? Head on over to ILT to test your skills.

I wish I could impress you with a high score, but my first attempt was an embarrassing 22 (average is 23).