Documentation Insights: My Derivation of a Design Thinking Technique

While I can never understate the importance of documentation standards, its inspiration or source is often overlooked. Today, organizations have their own sets of guidelines. So, when my manager asked me to create a set of guidelines for my team, I took to it with the utmost consideration. I realized later that the care I bestowed upon creating the standards itself underpins the very core of our everyday tasks. Thus began this little journey of experimentations and revelations.

The Problem(s) at Hand

Creating or having documentation standards isn’t the challenge; ensuring their adherence and relevance is. So, yes, we had a relatively bigger problem at hand. However, the real problems lay much deeper into the layers of our existing processes, legacy documentation, and upcoming challenges. First, we had multiple sources of truth. That is, if it was even the truth — or if it was still relevant. And, second, none of us knew how we could align our tasks with the other teams. Our team was to document the stuff just as it was ready to be pushed out of the door. So, documentation was to be found on the priority list only AFTER the other things were ready.

I am a LUMA Practitioner. It is a design-thinking approach that lends you 36 insightful human-centered design methods. My first introduction to the technique happened briefly during one of our quarterly meetups. As our instructor lead us through his story, I realized how even in this case, the problems weren’t the ones at hand but the ones buried within the layers of their processes, tools, and challenges. Back then, he and his team followed British Design Council’s Double-Diamond — another human-centered design approach. Even though this method wasn’t a part of LUMA, I could immediately see its effectiveness in helping me resolve the problem(s) I had at hand.

The Technique and the Insights

For those who might not know, Double Diamond is primarily a team-driven activity that breaks down the thought process in waves of divergence and convergence. Each of the four stages, viz., Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver, follows a pattern where the team members are required to either diverge or converge their thoughts. The idea is to discover the root of the problems and then brainstorm to derive a solution. Discovering the core issue, therefore, requires your team to diverge. But, Defining, which is the second step, requires your team to converge their thoughts and come up with the definition of just one of those core issues.

Those who want to read more about British Design Council’s Double Diamond, click here:

https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/what-framework-innovation-design-councils-evolved-double-diamond

As I skimmed the Internet and continued to refine my ideas, a few things became clearer:

  • I was already past the Discover stage.
  • I, on my own, could continue to refine my ideas using this technique, even though it is a team-based activity.

I assumed that my understanding was at par — until that mental checkpoint, at least. So, now I had the right approach, intentions, and need.

The Derivation

To further align my thoughts with this approach, I revamped Double Diamond to create a version of my own. The new four stages, for me, were: Define, Design, Develop, Deliver. I categorized the first two and last two in pairs. And for each of the pairs, I came up with role-specific guidelines for both writers and editors. But before I talk about the actual guidelines, I’d want you to remember that the guidelines are specific to my team and might not necessarily apply in your case.

In the ‘Define and Design’ phase, I recommended that writers come up with the following questions for clarity:

  • What is your business proposition? Or, what problem do you solve with this product offering, tool, or solution?
  • Do you have time constraints? Or is this a project with a shifting deadline (an ongoing project), something that you might build on the go?
  • Where will we keep the content?
  • Who will remain the owner of the content?

For the same phase, the editors would ask questions like:

  • How is the product placed in the overall ecosystem? How does it interact with the other tools? Or, typically, how does the data travel from Point A to Point B?
  • How much ownership does the writing team have?
  • Who else is involved in the content finalization process?

In the ‘Development and Delivery’ phase, I recommended that writers lay stress on the relevance of content. To help writers build their understanding of the term ‘relevance,’ I broke it further into four points, each of which adds significantly to the content:

  • Critical relevance: The content should help readers survive through, or triumph over, the uncertainty, lack of information, or misinformation.
  • Contextual relevance: The content should be what the reader was looking for when they chose (yes, looking for information must be their conscious decision) to get to your content.
  • Emotional relevance: The content should help readers make decisions on their own, rather than we deciding on their behalf (unless we are recommending something).
  • Strategic relevance: The content should help them see the previous and the next steps. Or, it should help them see how what they are working on fits within the bigger picture.

For the same phase, the editors had to do relatively smaller yet more critical work. They were required to preserve originality.

The Conclusion

My version of the documentation standards is a five-pager Wiki that highlights time-critical information in a time-efficient way. It may not be perfect. Still, it does what it is supposed to do. Did we become better writers? No. But we most certainly became better readers (of the user’s thoughts, that is). We developed an empathy for the readers. We now understand their pain in a much better way. None of the stages diverge or converge, yet the phases make you think. And that’s enough for a better start. So long as we ask meaningful questions, we can hope to derive equally meaningful answers and insights.

The derived version of the Double Diamond approach aligns better with what I had on my mind. Three months down the line, I see that we can take care of a lot more work than we used to. In addition to ensuring consistency and reducing the efforts in edit iterations — which were some of the primary objectives — improving work efficiency turns out to be a bonus. I’d be curious to know if there is any such approach that you found helpful. Or if you, too, have a derivation for your reference?

My Article in CIDM Matters (October edition)

In the October edition of CIDM Matters, I talk about the top 3 things to consider when writing for internal customers or subject-matter experts. Here’s is the link to my article that recently got published in CIDM Matters, which is the electronic newsletter of the Center for Information Development Management. To know more about CIDM, click here.

My Article in STC India Chapter Indus (September edition)

In the September edition of Indus, I talk about how I broke into the field of technical communication. Here’s is the link to my article that recently got published in Indus, which is the electronic newsletter/magazine of the India Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). To know more about STC India, click here.

My Article in Writing & Beyond (September edition)

In the September edition of the Writing & Beyond, I talk about the top 3 skills for a technical writer. Here’s is the link to my article that recently got published in Writing & Beyond, which is the electronic newsletter of the Tech Writer’s Tribe. To know more, click here.

The Interview and the Strange Feedback

Last month, I attended a formal interaction for a job opportunity within my team. One of my teammates is looking for an instructional designer. Since it is a small team, they included us to review the candidate. That’s how and why the interaction happened last month.


In India — specifically in all the interviews that I have attended either as interviewee or interviewer — there are a few things that have gone unnoticed, unsaid, or but understood:

  • The interviewer asks more questions than the interviewee
  • The interview process has to cover all questions relating to the candidate’s professional life, including if and why was there a gap in their career
  • The interviewer has to have an upper hand or can interrupt


Thankfully, I have never followed any of these rules… and thankfully, organizations are evolving. Come 2021, I have rarely heard anyone facing such questions.


I am of a firm belief that first, it is an interaction and not an “interview,” and two it has to be two-way communication.

But, the recent interaction went from an interaction into an interrogation. And I am speechless.

So, here is how it went.


My first impression was that even though the candidate had over 20 years of experience, she didn’t have the positivity I was expecting her to have. So, I motivated her to talk more or elaborate right from her first answer. It might be true, after all, that the interview is over in the first 50 seconds.


Then, I asked her a few questions, which she answered promptly. And answered a few of her questions. Hopefully, I answered those questions satisfactorily.


Then I happened to ask her about the Oxford comma. I expect that a technical communicator with over 20 years of experience will have, at least, heard about it. She didn’t know what it was. To which I told her that I would have expected someone of her experience to know such things. Nevertheless, she appreciated me for pointing that out, and we moved on.


Then I picked up a few sentences from her resume and asked her to find out if and what was wrong with those. I was prepared to hear her say that the sentences were OK, which they weren’t. To which I would have said nothing.


But when she could not point out the oversight, I pointed out those to her and told her that she could correct those. Even though I realize this is an interview, I thought this helping hand would be acknowledged as a welcome gesture. Besides, I even clarified that the answers to those questions would not impact the interview result.


On a side note, let me tell you a secret. For all the interviews I have attended, I have purposely asked for the interviewers to point out the instances where I could have gone wrong or improved myself. I have always received welcoming replies. In the process, I have made friends with the interviewers… Selection or no selection, we have gone above and beyond those social boundaries to create a collaborative environment. I still talk to a lot of them, more as friends.


So, back to this interaction. I told the candidate how I committed mistakes and overcame those by asking the right questions. I also told her how I liked the interaction to be two-way, and not one-way. Within a week after the interaction, I heard from my boss — during our weekly interaction — that she found me to be aggressively authoritative and egotistic. Although we did clear the confusion between us (my boss and I), and even he felt nothing wrong with my approach, I have since learned a few hard lessons the hard way.


At least I now know one more thing. It is OK for me, as an interviewee, to ask what mistakes I committed. But, as an interviewer, I must not point out the scope for improvement, despite how objective and positive my intentions maybe because not everyone shares my state of mind.


Let me know what you think.

Relevance is the Key

It was a busy week for us. Amidst the lockdown and the pandemic, we managed to see the doctor adn got our medical certificates done. Then, over the weekend, we traveled to our hometown. I did all the planning, packing, and traveling to and from the hospital in the work breaks. This helped me manage the work, meetings, and other priorities. But the writer’s brain continued to work as usual, and thoughts continued to spin their web. So came this post.

While creating the guidelines for writers in my team, I realized how important it was to write crisp instructions. The guidelines were for reference. But most writers would go to the wiki not before, but while preparing the content. They would be more productive and busy in writing their content than digging into my referential one. Relevance was the key.

And, based on the little head pounding that I did on the subject, I zeroed-in on this:

Contextual Relevance

The profession of writing is an interesting one, for it teaches us more re-writing than writing. Staying true to the context is, therefore, second nature to us. You will not find a single sentence that doesn’t serve the purpose, the core, the topic. There could be more than one sentence to stress the importance of the point.

When creating the content, I reckon that we focus on writing about what the readers are searching for. We must write about what leads the readers to look for. We join context and content: the resolution to their problems, the remedy to their pain, the destination to their journey of searching for information.

Emotional Relevance

How empowered was the reader after going through your content? Could they make a decision? Could they press the button? Did they feel as empowered as you wanted them to? Or are they still looking for something they thought after looking at the title of your content? Ask yourself questions like these. Check your content to see the possible impact of it on the lives of the readers. One of the results of your writing the content is empowerment. Ensure that readers feel confident after going through it.

Strategic Relevance

Your content should help them see the whole picture in a logical sequence. The readers have embarked on a journey, remember? So they are entitled to see from where they have come, where they are currently, and to where they may lead. The clarity of steps is the clarity of mind, at least in the context of instructions.

Critical Relevance

Just as important as it is to know whether or not to press the button, it is equally important to see if it would solve the problem or lead to the next step. Instructional content is seldom laid on the same foundation as that of creative writing. That’s because creative writing doesn’t always have to deal with the What’s-in-it-for-me question. So the result of instructions is a definitive outcome measured in tangible or intangible results: it could be pressing that button or reaching the end of the instructions.

Conclusion

Yesterday, while talking to one of my ex-teammates and long-term friends, I shared some ideas on how they could get started with their work. I told him that one of the best ways to learn was to teach.

I just realized that the inverse of it is equally true, too. One of the best ways to teach anything is to learn to do it. And while I will continue to polish the writing and editing guidelines and add more reference-worthy points to it, I will continue to keep things relevant.

There aren’t many ways in which technical writing and creative writing differ, but for want of the outcome of actions. Relevance is critical when it comes to measuring the result. Isn’t it?

My Article in CIDM Matters (December edition)

In the December edition of CIDM Matters, I talk about empowering the seeker. Here’s is the link to my article that recently got published in Matters, which is the electronic newsletter of the Center for Information Development Management. To know more, click here.

Top 3 Tips for Writing Crisp Sentences

My friends often email me seeking help with writing. This post adds to the reply I gave to one of my friends who asked:

What should I look for to construct better sentences?

I assume the question relates more to work-related writing (jotting thoughts down) than speaking. So, I am slightly changing the question to fit it as the topic for the post. 😊

Here are my top 3 suggestions for writing better sentences:

Tip 1: Give Action Points

Whether it is emails, meeting notes, Sprint retrospections, or a web chat with a colleague, clarity in communication is of the utmost importance. Be clear with what you wish to say. Write, then read (and, if required, re-write). Then, send. But, please mind the gap; there is a difference between being straightforward and being offensive.

Tip 2: Use Active Voice

Consider that Ram is preparing meeting minutes. This is what he writes as an action item:

Inputs on project estimation must be given.

See how he skips mentioning the doer in this passive sentence. That’s usually with every passive sentence. Let us rephrase this to introduce active voice (and hence the doer):

Shyam needs to give inputs to the PMO for project estimation.

See how sentences in the active voice clearly define responsibilities? Had Ram circulated an email with a passive sentence, we wouldn’t even know Shyam was supposed to share his inputs.

But, should we always construct sentences in the active voice?

No. In cases when you generalize or do not have any recipient for actions, you may use the passive voice. For example:

The velocity improved for the Sprint.

In this case, because the velocity improved for the entire team, we are sure that each one of the teammates contributed more. You may also use the passive voice for highlighting facts and figures. In the same example:

The velocity improved by over 5% for the Sprint.

Also:

An average of 5% capacity is reserved for holidays.

(Considering reservation of capacity to be a known item for capacity planning.)

Tip 3: Remove Needless Words

There are words that do not add to the meaning or intensity of the words they accompany. For example, “very” and “really”. However, approach this tip with caution.

Consider this example:

This cake takes very good.

We might as well get rid of “very”, and the cake will still taste equally good. But, by no means should you take this as a rule of thumb for deleting all occurrences of “very”. The very purpose of “very” (pun intended) is to intensify something that already exists.

If, however, there is a rule of thumb, it is to seek brevity. Look for opportunities to shorten or, at least, vary the length of your sentences. This means you give the reader more opportunities to flow with the rhythm of the words, take sufficient pauses, and contemplate on what they read.

Bonus Tip: Listen to Your Mental Ears

I really like such sections—another exception to Tip#3. Readers would usually jump over to this section first. If you too did just that, welcome aboard. As I share my top 3 tips for writing better sentences, I see that most of us already know the tips. The problem is they don’t know how to put that knowledge into practice.

How do we identify what and when to change?

I’d say listen to your mental ears. They are never wrong. You can always check for the meanings of words or phrases you are not sure of. Look at your write-ups the next day. Take a print out and read out loud. Project the write-ups on a bigger screen. Let someone else read your write-ups out loud to you. Take a break and re-read your write-ups. There’s a lot that can come in handy. But, nothing beats the joy of rewriting. Before I release my posts, I write and rewrite them in the proportion of 1:4.

Conclusion

Let us revise:

  • Enlist actionable items. I just did that.
  • Use active voice, but don’t be offensive.
  • Remove words that do not affect or contribute to the meaning of your sentences.

Sub-topics like “varying lengths of sentences” demand a post of their own. We can even experiment with including a combination of words that produce lyrical or homophonic composition: “she sells seashells”.

To sum up this post, here’s what I have: it all depends on finding the sweet spot where meet relevance and comprehension.

Happy writing.

Contribution to STC India Annual Conference 2018

Since the last few years, I have been regularly contributing to the STC India Annual Conferences.

This year though, I was loaded with work. After I gave up the co-editorship for Indus, the STC India chapter magazine, I could free up some schedule for the blog. So, I could schedule articles and posts beforehand and be more active on my blog (site).

Late November, about three days before the release of the newsletter, I received a request to write an article for this year’s Annual Conference’s newsletter. Of all the time I was given, this is what I could manage.

I am happy that my article fits well with the others. And, happier, because I could deliver within the given time. Hope you too will like reading it. 🙂

Give Some Space

Sorry for a clickbait title… I wanted one with a play of words.

The article isn’t really aimed at people who are old enough to have learned (learnt for those who speak the English English) typing on typewriters, but also for those who are still taught to use two spaces after every sentence.

The trend has (almost) changed. In the past, people used two spaces for a reason: typewriters had monospace fonts that inserted equal, not proportional, spaces for all letters. So, the “i” consumed as much space as “w” or “m”. The obvious confusion was when sentences ended. So, it was required that the writers insert two spaces after sentences to visibly mark the end of sentences.

Why this post? Now, in 2018? Well, I still come across write-ups from people who use two spaces. I have seen people encourage two spaces, especially in legal documents. I see some people use double spaces in résumés and personal profiles that are not just printed, but shared digitally, as well. In technical publications, we encourage the use of a single space after sentences because we use proportional fonts.

We are increasingly sharing information digitally. Given that context, I’d encourage you to give only space after a period (full stop in the UK English) or any punctuation mark toward the end of a sentence. Not two.