Don’t Redesign

Yeah, you read it right.

How many times have you seen me make changes to my site’s template? The last time I made those changes was about a year back. I made the design simpler and more readable. Or so I thought. My mom found it difficult to locate her favorite articles on the blog. For long, she would navigate to them from the dropdowns that I have now done away with.

I know exactly what you are thinking. Unfortunately, revamping the look ‘n’ feel hasn’t improved the inbound traffic. The new template has only improved the presentability. So, it is now easier to categorize and tag the released posts by month and year. But, it makes it horrible for repeat readers—like you, there—who wish to select, search for, or read content they liked. Does that mean people hate change?

Yes, people hate change; no, they don’t.

Those of you who are new to my site MIGHT find the new design easier to navigate. But those who have spent time with the content might reject the outright changes. Familiarity is the word in context. It is just that the design had become a part of your physical and mental memory. For repeat users, they knew what they wanted from the content, they knew what I delivered, and they knew how to get to it.

For you, too, slamming on a new UI might ruin this flow for your readers, who are then more likely to take more time to locate something.

So, what’s the way around?

Here is the trick: familiarity trumps functionality. I have stated this in my book, too. If you wish to redesign, consider first reconfiguring the core design. Your design is purposeful. All you need is reconfigure it.

In most cases, all you need to do is progressively improve the things under the skin, rather than get a new skin. I find it to be a Win-Win. Bring a new change under the hood. This means the consumers get a familiar UI, with performance tweaks as perks. And. you get a chance to rollback if (and when) required. It takes time to take effect. But, it is a better approach.

Happy writing.

What Writing Means to Me

At first, I wanted to compose this post as a poem. But, that would mean another poem on my blog. And, I have had a little too many poems on my blog within the last one year. This, in one way, diverges from the original contemplation on writing. But, wait. I don’t wish to begin this post with a negative thought. That’s is how much writing means to me.

My writing is my ambassador to you. It means so much to me because it is how I express what I feel. Usually, I don’t speak much. Yes, for a lot of my friends, I am an out-and-out extrovert. But, deep within, I am an ambivert who leans, in fact, toward introversion. My words convey what I can feel but can’t express, can see but can’t report, and can write but can’t speak.

Writing is my textual meditation. It is the way I introspect. Just like one must close their eyes to see within themselves, one must pen their thoughts to sieve through to the core. The clearer they think, the clearer they write. And, the other way around. My writing is my soul disguised as words.

Writing for me is like composing verses in prose. It is a melody. A song. There are sentences of all compositions and lengths. Some are long. Some, longer. A few, like this one, shorter. True! The long and short sentences convey the long and short of it—and everything that lies within—to the readers. Mentally listen to yourself when you read varying lengths of sentences. It sounds good. Good, because it is rhythmic. Good, also because it means that the melody is as important as the messages conveyed through the melody. My writing is a lyrical composition that I can hum, listen to, sway along with, or fall asleep to.

Writing is like a mirror. It is that sense of contemplation that adds a dimension of meaning to reflections. It isn’t only the reflection of oneself, but also a cause to reflect onto oneself. Writing is that catalyst without which the inner and the outer selves don’t equate. No reaction, whether it is chemical, is ever complete without a word of thought. It is that skillful, scientific art; it is that masterful, artistic science.

Writing is that folklore that records, refers, and rekindles life. It is that act of play where you are both the actor and the audience. Writing is both the pen and the ink that scribes your acts, with or against your will. It is both the cause and the outcome of your performance. It is also the background score that amplifies emotions without your knowing.

To me, writing is the means, the medium, and the end. It is as nameless, formless, and transparent as water. It originates with a spurt, from within. When it begins to flow like a stream of thoughts, it seeps and snakes through people’s minds, one after another, finding its way to you, who after traveling for miles has got down on their knees to enjoy their glittering reflections. When it flows from my heart to yours, it becomes a burbling river. When it becomes an ocean of emotions, you can watch it hug the limitless skies at the horizon and experience it wash-off the rare conch shells of revelations to the shore.

The most rewarding writing, however, often trickles down your cheeks as pearls of love. What does writing mean to you?

Between Varnas and Insights Discovery

Between Varnas and Insights Discovery

My contemplation on a day-long training I attended—it was an Insights Discovery workshop—inspired me to write this post.

To tell you the truth, I can reveal the learning from the course in one line: introspecting the self, while respecting the others’ behavior. But, applying is learning is the real challenge. That’s because our thoughts preoccupy our mind. So, we cannot respect other’s perspective and have a fruitful conversation. Anyway, our today’s discussion is hardly about that challenge. So, I will keep off it.

Amongst the many things that I now register on spiritual grounds, there’s one thing has had its profound effect on me. It is that when I take insights from my past and apply them to my future, the life’s pattern becomes visible. This is like a jigsaw puzzle. The trick is not in solving it part by part. But, in setting the boundaries first so that the big picture becomes clear.

The Insights Discovery is a behavioral tool from Carl Jung, who through the tool, tried to define our nature. His analysis is that each one of us is a combination of the following four behavioral styles:

  • Red: The one who prefers brief information
  • Blue: The one who prefers details
  • Green: The one who is full of compassion
  • Yellow: The one who seeks involvement

Today, we are busy running a rat race of earning more than others, spending more than others, and possessing more than others. It is this thought of defining every one using four colors that sounded familiar to me.

The ancient Indian wisdom of dividing people into the following four Varnas is similar:

  • Brahmana: The one who prefers details; structured result-driven content.
  • Kshatriya: The one who wishes to be at the forefront; the leader.
  • Vaishya: The thinker; the strategist; the money-minded; the observer.
  • Kshudra: The one who is a great worker; the action lover.

Mind the word, please. Varna, according to the Vedas, is comparable to the English word classification. Back then, classification of Varnas would depend on an individual’s deeds, willingness, and capabilities. Today, the word inaccurately translates to mean caste.

What I do not want you to do is map those four Varnas 1:1 with those four colors. That would be incorrect. As a conclusion to the workshop, the instructor told us to be considerate of others. She told us to stay away from making fun of people based on their color preferences.

The fact is, we all have those four colors in us. Yes, one color is dominant within us all. Likewise, we all are a mix of those four Varnas. And, we all have a different Varna dominant. Whilst we are all different, we continue to be a combination of the same values. How true.

Be Content with Content

Be Content with Content

I would be amiss if I were to begin without defining the word content. That’s because it gives both a purpose and a premise to the topic: being content is feeling satisfied with your possessions or situations. But why this play of words in the title, you may ask. Here is why I rant…

Let us go back in time. Not far back into the world of typewriters and hand-written manuals. A couple of decades ago: when the concept of single-sourcing originated. I hadn’t joined the technical writing workforce then. Back then, the requirements were simple: get a single-sourcing tool to create everything from within one source. Then, use that source to generate the content for all formats. A lot has changed since. Yet the idea is to have a single repository generate the content. Just that we have complicated the process of creating and managing that content.

When I first single-sourced my product’s contents, I felt the need of creating a central repository for storing and generating the content—the likes of PDFs and CHMs. With that was born my organization’s server where resided the content. But, my requirements didn’t stop at that. I continued to remodel (or so I thought) my work processes to redefine the way I maintained that content. Then came XML, which helped me to tool-proof the product’s documentation.

Who knows, someday I may even put my head into Application Programming Interface (API), Internet of Things (IoT), and others. Did you notice how the story is becoming more about the tools of the trade than about the traded content? Sooner or later it will be about some other “hot” technology. As I continue to choose a (better) combination of tools and methodologies, I continue to steer farther away from the focus on the content. This could be your story, too.

Progressive and Cyclical User Requirements

User Requirements are Progressive and Cyclical

A side note: a seamless user experience is easier to put on to paper than to put into practice. Agreed. Also, agreed that these days we have tools that we can use to instantly connect with our users. So, we can know which sections of our documentation get the most views. Or, which ones are the most or the least helpful.

From where I look, tools and methodologies originated to save our time and effort. But now, it looks like we have lost ourselves in managing them rather than the content. Let us not focus only on creating a content-management ecosystem. Instead, let us create a problem-solving ecosystem. Let us not forget that the users’ requirements are progressive and cyclical: the target for usability changes frequently.

It all starts with answering “why” and ends with exploring the answers for “what’s next”. Such content that continues to bridge this gap of “why” and “what’s next” is truly satisfying. A tool will only enable us to create quality content. It isn’t an end, but surely a means to an end. Let us solve users’ problems and be content with (the focus on) content.

Lessons on Branding and Growth

Day 9 and 10 Lessons Combined


I’ve begun to earn what I longed, yearned for: my share of the sky in this world. It is just that I spell it as S-U-C-C-E-S-S. For me, success is subject to only a few things, two of which form the core learning from the day 9 and 10 lessons, respectively: engagement and persistence.

It does require a handsome share of mind to come up with new topics to write about and share with all of you. Like I mentioned, I know that your time is priceless, and if I were to wish you to spend it on my posts, I better make the posts worthy of it. But before I talk about the two key elements, I must share with you what I changed on this site.

The idea behind taking this ten-day free course on WordPress was to see which squares did I miss while tiling this site. The efforts were good so far, but now that the site has grown vertically and horizontally, I must make it possible for you to swim effortlessly through the content and sieve out what’s not required.

The site pages are now less intrusive to traverse, searchable, annotated – a few posts that were tucked under pages and menus are now available on the site’s timeline – and easier to read. I’ve experimented with the fonts, colors, and page layout. I’ve also tried to make the posts look more manmade. And, I’ve got the creative juices flowing: a lot of poems and other creative stuff.

With that background, let me bring you back to the two key lessons: engagement and persistence.

There are two things that, for me, colocate with engagement. The first one is purpose. And the second one is commitment. My posts are there for a purpose: one common thought, which through the course of the post, you will share with me. And I am committed to bringing to you only the choicest, original content. Even when I publish a commentary on other’s posts, the thoughts are as original as the ink.

Similar to engagement, there are two things that colocate with persistence, too. The first is flow. And the second one is regularity. Those of you who’ve journeyed with me through this course of posts will agree that there exists a uniform flow of thoughts. And that the thoughts have continued to flow through to you quite frequently in the last five years.

There still are a few things that I will like to experiment with. For example, guest posts and SEO. For now, I am happy with the little share of the sky I’ve got.

Lessons on Branding and Growth

Day 6, 7, and 8 Lessons Combined


If there was one word that defined the online and offline social communities, it would be Connect. That true at least for the lessons I received through the last three days.

Social connection and interaction, in context of the learnings I have received, is both the origin and the destination of the content on this site. If I were to assign a term to it, it would be a progressive loop of interaction.

This is something I have said in my book, The Write Stride: A Conversation with Your Writing Self. Although a major part of the book is aimed at benefitting technical communicators, the theme (of communicating correct messages correctly) truly underpins the importance of the message in the lessons 6, 7, and 8, and remain relevant for all of us.

As I write this, here’s something noteworthy:

  • In the course of time, I’ve given enough time and scope to this site. I’ve helped it mature into something worth sharing on my online social space.
  • I keep reading the work of fellow bloggers.

I’ve even brought back some of them to WordPress.

  • I keep sharing good content with good people. It works for me in two ways: I bring people to my content and I bring good content (both mine and otherwise) to the people around me.

But, of course, it is a continuous process, and not a one-day, one-time effort.

It takes time to build masterpieces. And, I am taking my own time with this site. You know what I mean!

Happy writing.

Lessons on Branding and Growth

Day 3, 4, and 5 Lessons Combined


The customer is the king. No. The customer is your friend. Well, almost. The customer is where it all begins AND ends. Now that’s correct. The technical communicator in me is smiling.

The learnings in the lessons 3, 4, and 5 are straightforward: listen to the customer. The simple question is how do I do that. This post helps me find the answers I am looking for.

I’ve been writing for quite some time. I know that some of my posts in the past were more like a commentary on what I had read. But aren’t opinions just that? Though mostly unknowingly, I was also listening to the customer (reader, in this case) – most of us do. And, the figures justify that. I have increased the site views by as much as 15 times in the last four years.

So, what am I doing correct to make this site a nice place for you to visit?

Most of my top-read posts are either related to technical communication or poetry. I do get feedback on the fiction/nonfiction I write, but we will talk about it in a moment.

I’ve observed that my readers prefer something that is either too short (for a quick read) or that’s truly explained at length. Those who like to read poetry have interest in the interpretative style of writing. The rule is simple for me: answer some of their questions and raise a few of your own. Walking this thin line of suspense and certainty is definitely not easy, but well rewarding.

Those who wish to read the lengthier prose, wish it to be broken into subheadings and highlighted text. This brings me back to my technical-communication principles of creating content that’s comprehensive AND comprehensible.

The creative prose has been in the recent past received quite an accolade. But, I believe that’s because my writing is connected to the root. Readers look for originality and simplicity.

I’ve also written on well-searched (on the Internet) and well-researched topics, such as photography. Such topical writing is not simple. At least not for me because I am not an expert photographer. But, as long as I can make sense for the readers, they continue to stay with me.

In a nutshell, I am writing more of what sells the most from my site. I am giving the readers something that they wish to read about. The layout of the site is simple to navigate through. That, on my part, is a clean combination of responsive content and design.

A lot of that writing is born from experience; the experience of, for example, staying behind the camera to bring out something that’s ready and reference worthy. The idea is simple: my readers’ time is limited; I better not waste it. You might have read some worthy archives I shared recently, now haven’t you? Let me know which ones.

I am curious to listen to you – the reader – for everything begins and ends with you.

Lessons on Branding and Growth

Day 2, Lesson 2


I know it is technically day three, but the tasks of day two took time. And, I must say that though on paper I might not have moved a mile, I have covered a long distance to see the blog from the visitor’s eyes.

I’m told that I must look into the finer elements, such as the theme, fonts, and widgets. As a technical communicator, I do look into these things even in my daily work chores. So, I am beginning to see and hold the common threads.

Last week, I tweaked a few things on my site. I can see from the response so far that the changes have paid well — no, not in monetary terms. I can see a positive response, already, because people are beginning to scroll through pages and read even those posts that previously remained untouched. The site is now more searchable, navigable, and simple. But, not all bells and whistles, so to say, are gone.

Like they mentioned, I cannot cover everything in one day. I agree. No one can become a master in one day. Not even masters became who they are, overnight. So, I am determined to refine the content and appearance of the site. And, I look forward to a welcoming response from all of you.

Happy writing.

The Question of Approach: One vs Many

The Question of Approach: One vs Many

Last week, for our internal communicator’s club meeting, I presented some Tips for Effective Writing. Those who attended the session were mostly developers. And, that’s why it was even more useful for them. To help understand the core need for communication, we used a picture quiz, which you and I will discuss through this post.

Look at the following pictures (courtesy: Internet). The first picture is of Lotus Temple, New Delhi, and not of Sydney’s Opera House. The other picture is a multi-utility tool, also called Swiss knife. Here’s a question for you:

How do you think the two pictures contrast?

Before you begin answering the question, here’s a little built up for it:

As a seeker of information, I am like every other “user” or “audience” – I am like YOU, dear reader. I prefer to take the shortest or quickest path to the resolution. Much like you, I get petrified when I can’t find the shortest route. Much like you, I get petrified when I see unorganized or insufficient information. It’s as simple as that. This puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of technical communicators and user experience (UX) designers. Sadly, there is still no guarantee that we, the information seekers, would access the right information tidbit at the right time; or even if we do, we get to use it correctly. This means, despite all efforts by technical communicators and UX designers, the communication remains incomplete if the seekers can’t get to – or comprehend – the right information or the right tool at the right time.

Given that background, look at the first picture.

 

Lotus-Temple-Aerial-View

The Lotus Temple, New Delhi

 

Here is the message from the technical communicator within me to the information seeker within me: those who seek answers to oneness and peace, go to Lotus Temple. Don’t drift: the name is indicative. So you can take any temple, mosque, church, or even faith. Seekers like you might have a lot of questions, but each of those questions will lead to only one answer: of realizing the seeker’s true self. So, there may be numerous problems that might lead to just one solution. This resembles the Sanskrit hymn, Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti, which largely translates to “That which exists is One. Brahmin (Sages) call it by various names.” Rather than seeking the solution, seek for what you wish to solve – the need. That’s how even I have organized the content for you.

Look at the second picture.

 

victorinox_mountaineer_lg

Multi-utility tool

 

Here is the message from the technical communicator within me to the information seeker within me: those who wish to complete a task or resolve their issues will seek such a tool. A tool, which has one unique solution for every problem. A tool, which can do a lot, but only dedicatedly. Seek, if you must, the need. The tool is still only a medium to accomplish; it’s a means to achieve, not the end.

But before talking about contrast, let us take a minute to discuss a little about what’s common for both the pictures. The only common thing is the need. The need to discover, resolve, and accomplish; the need to get things done; and the need to get questions answered.

So, here’s the contrast: the contrast is in having one universal solution versus a unique solution for every problem. The contrast is also in stressing the presence of the right information tidbit and of the right tool both at the same time. For the seeker’s shortest route to the resolution is the one that contains a quick and unique solution to their problems; the one that addresses the need.

What’s the lesson for the seekers and technical communicators?

The rules of grammar stand true and remain unchanged. However, there still are different ways in which we can compose, express the same information. Similarly, even though there are style guides and standards, there are hundreds of scenarios that we can count as exceptions. Probably, that’s why we see the Microsoft’s Manual of Style, fourth edition, mention “Microsoft” and “Not Microsoft” ways of creating content, unlike the “correct” and “incorrect” ways in their third edition of the book.

We should choose based on what’s needed, required from the content. There lies harmony where both technical communicators’ and information seekers’ needs meet.

Are Technical Writing and Instructional Designing the Same?

Are Technical Writing and Instructional Designing the Same?

This post originates from a couple of related question that I answered on Quora, which you can find here and here. For those who are rushing, here is the gist of the post: Although I don’t regard technical writing and instructional designing different, I do acknowledge that the tools and methodologies both use are quite different.

For the elaborate explanation, I resort to breaking the big question in parts:

How are technical writing and instructional designing different?

Howsoever thin, there is a line that separates technical writing and instructional designing. Yes, I agree that though the end-result is still similar, the routes taken are different. And, here is the first difference. Technical writers focus more on collecting, collating, and presenting information, while instructional designers focus on streamlining the correlated tasks into stepped instructions and courses. Another difference I see is in the approach. I always say that technical writers are backstage players. No one knows they are there, but they are. And, unlike instructional designers, technical writers can never become the front-stage players.

As a technical writer, I deal with creating and maintaining user guides, help files, and release notes, but if the time and scope permits I also get to write white papers, knowledge base articles, full-scope or abridged customer-driven metadata, and blogs. The goal, however, across all cases of documentation and complexities is empowerment. Instructional designing deals with information that’s both specific and generic. It does include offline or online learning, self-paced or instructor-led learning, and activity-based learning from simulation or gamification. The goal, however, across all cases and complexities is still on learning. But then my exploration limits my knowledge.

The thin line that differentiates technical writing and instructional designing becomes thinner at the object level. For example, when you create a knowledge base write-up, you focus both on empowerment and learning. You wish that when a user reads through your document, they will know what next to do and why. I can also see some rules that apply to both technical writing and instructional designing.

In today’s mobility-friendly world, people want everything on the go, including information. And, depending on what you seek or what you have (a smartphone, tablet, watch, or eyewear), the information complexity, language, and medium changes. This means that both information and instructions must be easy to understand and easy to use. In one way, this means fewer words and more visual content. But, we’ll discuss this some other time. Let us look at the second part of the big question.

Do technical writing and instructional designing require different skills and tools?

Quite rightly, the thin line of difference in the professions extends into the skill set and tool set as well. While it is true that both the skills and tools mostly are common, the percentage of a skill’s or tool’s relevance certainly changes based on the profession. I feel that technical writing involves more researching than instructional design. But, like I said, my exploration limits my knowledge. Instructional design involves more of storyboarding. So, it is good to assume that it will also involve more of action-driven, task-based sentences.

Both involve writing instructions, but technical writing restricts such instructions to stepped procedures in user guides and troubleshooting guides, while the entire storyboarding in instructional designing is task-based and action driven. Instructional designing is more of learning management. Consequently, you should have a better understanding of what users do with your products.

Let us take a small example. Consider that you have a job at a place where even a small error might result in huge losses for the company. Now, we will agree that the software or hardware products that you will get to use in such places will come with manuals. But, will it still not make sense for you to undergo a formal training before you get involved in your daily duties? I hope you can now see the difference. You limit your information goals based on your work processes and sequences of actions; on how a tool is designed to work and how it may fail; and, one how you wish to keep yourself and your peers safe and the work processes smooth.

In the context of the differences in technical writing and instructional designing, given the information goals you seek, it would be right to consider instructor-led training first followed by a regular check into the user guides wherever required. That should lend you insights into the only possible difference in the professions. Let us now address the last part of the big question.

As a technical writer, can I switch profession into instructional designing?

Either way, switching shouldn’t sound challenging; it wouldn’t be easy, for sure. But decide what you wish to do or help the users in accomplishing.

Conclusion

Before I conclude, let me take a moment to help you look at how I’ve understood this indifference. First I determine what the user wishes to accomplish. Then, I determine how they wish to accomplish their learning objective. Then, I look for the resources I could use to help them accomplish their learning objectives. Then, I break that learning objective into logical, sequential parts. Now, I see if I could create content that ushers them through those logical, sequential parts. The point is that I register the impact of each of those logical, sequential parts. I register the growth of user’s learning as they move from one goal to another and, eventually, one objective to another.

You see that the already thin line of difference between technical writing and instructional design further begins to blur.

Let’s just introduce a new word into our discussion: training. The word adds a lot of clarity in our understanding and helps us define the scope of both technical writing and instructional designing. Based on what we’ve discussed so far, can we say we are talking about technical training instead of instructional designing? If yes, can we say that technical training helps graduate a user’s understanding from one logical sequence to another or from one learning goal to another? And if that’s also true, aren’t we negating the difference between technical writing and instructional designing?

This is exactly why I don’t regard technical writing and instructional designing different. They may be two sides of the same coin, and I am OK if they are that way. But, that still doesn’t change the end-result for the users. Despite what users wish to peruse, they seek insights and accomplishment. And, as someone who enables them to achieve both these, I continue to remain a problem solver for the users. And, I don’t care what you name me as.