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New Course for Technical Writing Minors

The UAH Business and Technical Writing Program is proud to introduce a brand new course for technical writing minors – EH 303: Research and Practice in Technical Communication! The course introduces students to the profession of technical communication and prepares them with the skills and knowledge they need for professional success. The course meets Fall 2014 on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:55-5:15. This required course replaces the Directed Elective for Technical Writing Minors.

Please contact Dr. Ryan Weber for more information about the course!303

 

Cute Error Messages: How Cute is Too Cute?

Every internet user has experienced the frustration of not connecting to the internet page they want. And by now, most internet users have encountered cute or clever error messages, often “page not found”  (“error 404“) messages. These cute attempts by search engines and content providers try to lessen the user’s annoyance when something goes wrong. Clever “page not found” errors have become so prevalent that the design magazine SpeckyBoy cataloged 50 of the best. Certainly, these clever approaches are better than other options, such as 1) no explanation at all, 2) a dry, technical message about the problem, or 3) a message making the problem seem like the user’s fault. But some of the messages I’ve encountered lately may be too cute for their own good. Cute is a great supplement to a helpful message, but a poor substitute for one.

With that in mind, I’ve been compiling error messages that achieve, or at least attempt, “cute,” in order to find that fine line where cute can still be helpful. Prepare for an onslaught on mildly amusing error screens!

Cute but Helpful

The best cutesy error messages manage to get a laugh (or at least a chuckle), calm the user, place the blame elsewhere, and give the user some options for moving forward. By that criteria, this “page not found” screen from Zenplanner.com is the best error message I’ve seen in the past few months.

ZenError

The “Oh My, How Undignified..” is just funny enough to lighten the situation (especially since users probably imagine the webpage speaking in a British accent. At least I did). Plus, the humor also focuses the blame on the website instead of the user. And the page presents plenty of options for moving forward.

Firefox uses a similar approach with their error screen, which I consider one of the classics of the genre:

FirefoxError

Again, the humor is light and focuses blame on Firefox instead of the user. Plus, users get some suggestions for moving forward (but not links, as in the Zenplanner example above).

And I’m probably biased, but the error screen for my home institution, UAH, balances cutesy and helpful nicely:

UAHError

I think it’s the “UH OH” sign that does it for me. Well, that plus the helpful search box that offers a way forward. The page also puts the technical details at the bottom in light gray font – they are there if you need them, but not in your face where you don’t want them.

Just Cute Enough

Unlike the examples above, some pages just manage to justify their cutesyness by either being pretty funny or marginally helpful (but rarely both). This Google error, with the broken robot, is just endearing enough to momentarily take a user’s mind off the lost page. But the “that’s an error” message doesn’t prove helpful or funny, and the poor robot can’t offer much advice beyond just trying again in 30 seconds, which is what most users would likely try anyways.

GoogleError

On the other hand, some error screens are useless but so funny that they can get away with providing no help. For instance, one of my colleagues recently found this error while searching a library site. It pretty much speaks for itself:

nessieerror

This screen is so cute you might actually be happy that you encountered an error.

Not Cute

Then, there are the error screens that just don’t work. They’re either not helpful, not funny, or both. The retro feel of this Panopto error screen does little to alleviate a user’s irritation, and it provides nothing but a dead end.

PanoptoError

But the worst “cute” error message I’ve seen recently is more confusing than funny.

MonkeysError

The highly trained monkeys line shows promise, but then the joke goes too far. Can I really contact someone, monkey or not? Should I really share this text? Does the text actually mean something, or is it part of the joke? Plus, the giant block of text isn’t helping anything.

The Bottom Line

Cute error messages show that technical communication can be fun, personable, and engaging. At their best, they improve an unpleasant experience. At their worst, they intensify it. If you’re aiming for a cute error message, make sure that the tone of the joke fits in with the overall message, places the blame off the user, and provides users a way forward.

Information Design Lecture at UAH!

The UAH Humanities Center and the Business and Technical Writing Program proudly present a public lecture featuring Dr. Nicole Amare from University of Southern Alabama. Dr. Amare will speak about her new co-authored book A Unified Theory of Information Design: Visuals, Text, and Ethics.

The event will be held on Wednesday, February 19 at 6:00 in Shelby Center 301 on the UAH campus. The event is free and open to the public.

The lecture takes a holistic look at information design by providing a “periodic table” of visuals, including decoratives, images, diagrams, and text. Using this holistic approach, Dr. Amare will offer strategies for improving visual communication and avoiding ethical breaches when using visuals to communicate.

Talking the Talk: Being Articulate at Your Job Interview

If you have expertise in Word and Excel, create InDesign documents just for giggles, and hold an academic resume that deserves an award, then I owe you a hearty congratulation. You are officially a technical communication geek! [Audience wildly applauds and chants your name.] You probably have spent a substantial amount of time and effort on learning how to manipulate various editing and publishing software and you are ready to move up in the world, as a professional technical writer. Presenting yourself in a resume, as a skillful and competent candidate, is just half the battle when persuading an employer that you’re the right one for the job. In Pete Geissler’s, The Power of Being Articulate, he interviews company CEOs who hire their management team not only for what they know, but their ability to effectively communicate what they know. The ability to communicate effectively, with Standard English, has taken a back seat in the Technological Age, while brief electronic messages have dominated interoffice communication.  It is one thing to be an SME, but lacking the ability to communicate your genius ideas it is another which brings me to my point.

Tip 1– Don’t be an ummm person. You know the language that is filled with excessive unintelligible murmuring.  We are all guilty of brain farts every now and then, but lacing your sentences with too many ummms can disrupt your audience from clearly hearing your message. Writing your thoughts before you present an idea will improve your speech delivery. You will be able to recall your main points quicker than if you had not prepared at all. You will be praised for your ability to deliver details without meandering and never getting to the point.

Tip 2 – Know your stuff, and tell it. For instance, if you are interviewing with a company that does contracts with the government, then you should look up some basic conventions for MIL-STDs (military standards). Be somewhat familiar with the writing style that you will use on the job and articulate your knowledge about it. If your interviewer is not impressed, then at least they have an idea of how well you take initiative to be prepared. You will be showing on-the-job skills before being hired! If your interviewer does not notice your initiative, then they are just a bad person. Hmph!

Tip 3 – Don’t be a chatterbox. In his book, Geissler mentions several habits that articulate people avoid, and one of them is being verbose.  He says, Articulates never interrupt or finish the sentence of those who are speaking to them, and they avoid people who do. While on your interview, remember that communication is a tool for conveying your ideas, answering interview questions, and articulating your awesome abilities. Make your responses concise and to the point. You may want to refrain from regurgitating the tech comm encyclopedia during your interview. Don’t fret! You can impress your friends with your new found jargon later. 

-Jennifer F.

STC Huntsville/NA Sponsors a Single-Sourcing Presentation!

STC Huntsville/NA is sponsoring a remote presentation on single-sourcing this Tuesday, October 15. Join STC as we hear from Liz Fraley of Single-Sourcing Solutions, who will present “What’s In It for Me?”, a discussion of the benefits of single-sourcing and content management for technical communicators. The event includes free dinner at 5:30 and the presentation at 6:00! Come to Shelby Center 301 on the UAH campus to participate in the event!

Prezi and You: A Gen Y Tool For The Masses

            As a part of Generation Y, I will admit that I have great expectations from the workplace. My first choice of major ended up being English. The creation process, especially in writing, is where I flourish. While I have not necessarily given up dreams of creative careers, I did add a second major to my load to balance dreams and reality. Technical communications has taught me not only more about just the writing and editing process, but also how to appeal to different kinds of people and audiences. One of the aspects in doing this lies in the utilization of new technology.

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            Prezi is a great example of Gen Y technology, because, from personal experience at least, it is mostly just this audience that has even heard of the site. This should not scare away older users, though! Another reason why I am going to refer to Prezi as a Gen Y tool is because of all the creative and innovative aspects that users can utilize to reach out to their audiences. Also, the average attention span is now a whopping less than ten seconds (I’m talking mainly about us, millennials) and the widely-recognized “zooming” feature of Prezi can help audiences stay engaged. Better yet, now that usability is becoming more and more established in technology design, Prezi can be just as easy to use as Microsoft PowerPoint for older users.

            PowerPoint is still a great tool to use for lectures in a college classroom if the only objective is to get info across (i.e., the lineal format). With Prezi, presentations can keep audiences engaged so that information can actually be remembered and not just written down; Prezi uses a multi-spacial workplace that can go from one area to the next, horizontally or vertically. One of the great functions of Prezi is the ability to import Power Point slides with no hassle. After that, users can either customize a template or choose from an array of designed templates (professional, motivational, and photographic). The creation tools are then used to design a vast presentation template, complete with brackets, icons and symbols, colors, fonts, etc. It may be a little overwhelming to older users at first, but the usability is top notch here and the help system is not “hiding.” If you have used MS Word or PowerPoint, you can definitely use Prezi.

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            Millenials are rapidly entering the workforce and so is the same brand of technology. I believe it is important for more Gen Xers and Baby Boomers to be educated on the kinds of technology that their younger cohorts are familiar with; it could be very beneficial to the employee and the company. With Prezi, users are granted a brand new platform for building and designing presentations that can appeal to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. I have so much fun creating mine that it doesn’t even feel like work to me. With that being said, log onto Prezi’s website and get started! An account is free and you can even log in with Facebook. – CK

UAH Partners with MadCap!

The Business and Technical Writing Program at the UAH is pleased to announce an upcoming partnership with MadCap. MadCap invited UAH to participate in the company’s Scholar Program, which provides software for educational use. Students will begin using MadCap Flare in Fall 2014 in both graduate and undergraduate courses.

Press releases about the partnership are available from UAH and MadCap. Once again, our program wants to thank MadCap for this exciting opportunity!

Learning the Language of the Web

Entering the world of technical writing can be an extremely intimidating task. People whose primary skills include a sharp eye for grammar and intuition for style are often startled at how many seemingly unrelated skills they may have to know to land a job. The emphasis on “may” is important—since there are a diverse number of ways that documents can be authored and published now, the task of deciding what you should learn to make your resume stand out becomes daunting. There is plenty of advice out there on what technical skills you should learn as a beginning tech writer, with suggestions ranging from XML to programming and database languages. While these are great things to know, the shift toward using wikis and other forms of web-based documentation leads me to think that, for a technical writer who is totally uncertain what kind of job they’re going to end up in, knowing the basics of coding websites is a safe bet. Even if you end up having to author on a different platform, you can impress potential employers by demonstrating your willingness to acquire technical skills.

Luckily, there are an abundance of resources available for learning how to build and maintain websites. Below, I’ve listed what I have found to be the most useful to learn and where I have had success learning these skills.

The Fundamental Web Languages

This is not a comprehensive list of the coding skills you might have to acquire as a technical communicator. However, given the increasing focus on web-based documentation, it’s good to at least have a passing familiarity of these essential web languages. Keep in mind that unless you advertise yourself as a tech writer AND web developer, you’re not reasonably going to be expected to be able to build a website from the ground up.

HTML

Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) can be thought of as the skeleton of a website. It provides the basic structure of a site’s content and is capable of determining to a large degree how it will look. If you choose a single language to add to your toolkit, this is the one to go with. Even if you’re not working with web-based documentation, you will probably encounter HTML if you author any sort of browser-based help system. It may also ease the process if you find yourself having to learn another popular markup language: XML.

CSS

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are used to dictate the formatting of pages written in markup languages like HTML. This is the preferred way to apply a consistent style to websites, as one page of CSS can be linked to all HTML documents on a site. Changes to style and formatting can then be applied by changing one document instead of hundreds. If you think you might be working with web-based documentation, learning this language will probably save you from hours of mind-numbing labor.

JavaScript

JavaScript is a scripting language that is often used when a website needs to interact with a user for information or when it needs the browser to perform a specific function. You probably won’t need this too much as a technical communicator, and the few scripts you might need (like one to open all links on a page in a new window, for instance) are easy to find after a quick Google search. However, it’s useful to know the basics to get a good idea whether the code you’ve found online is likely to work for your purpose or not. Also, JavaScript is a good starting point if you decide that you really like coding things and want to learn other programming languages.

Where to Learn Them

All of the sites recommended below have lessons covering all of the above languages (and more!). Each site is going to have its strengths and weaknesses and will cater to a different learning style, so it’s good to check them all out and see which ones have lessons that you might be able to get the most out of.

W3Schools

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The first important thing to note about W3Schools is that it is not actually affiliated with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3Schools has been criticized for misleading people into thinking otherwise, but many still cite W3Schools as a great source for beginners and a good reference to have around if you forget which tags you need to use in your document. Just don’t give them money for their useless certificates.

Codecademy

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For people like me who already have to motivate themselves to do things by thinking of their self-improvement in terms of game mechanics (+5 JavaScript skill, Erin levels up!), the recent trend of gamification has produced a number of invaluable learning resources. Codecademy is a great site for anybody who wants to feel like they are being rewarded at each step of the process of learning to code. Users are awarded badges for completing interactive lessons in HTML/CSS, JavaScript, and a small collection of other languages. While the information is not as comprehensive as it is on other sites, having the opportunity to practice exercises within the browser in a well-designed environment and being rewarded with colorful badges may motivate you to accomplish more than if you were staring at a wall of instructions.

Lynda.com

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Lynda.com is amazing for a tech writer who needs to quickly build their software and web skills. Not only can you access video tutorials on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, you can learn about Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, social media marketing, enhancing usability…there are thousands of courses, so the list goes on. Unfortunately, full access to the site requires a membership fee (although it’s totally worth it if you can manage it). Some of the videos are available for free on the site and on YouTube. Here’s a basic video about why HTML is like a sandwich.

If the prospect of learning all of these things is still somewhat intimidating, remember that for all of the diverse situations you might find yourself in as a technical communicator, you’re still more than likely going to be working at a computer that has access to the internet. You absolutely do not have to memorize every HTML tag that exists. As long as you familiarize yourself with the principles of each language, you should be able to do some research and find some code that will accomplish what you want it to.

I hope this guide helps some beginning technical writers know where to start. Feel free to post in the comments if you have any additional resources that you have found helpful—or if you want to brag about all of the badges you’ve racked up on Codecademy.

—Erin Gowdy

Welcome to the Jungle: Difficulties Facing Stay-at-Home Moms Returning to the Workforce

I work 24/7.  I don’t get a lunch break.  I can recall nursery rhymes and children’s’ songs at the drop of a hat.  I am a stay-at-home mom.

3on9i6

I’m also a graduate student looking towards the future when my children are in school, and I want a paying job again.  I recently read “Moms ‘opting-in’ to work find doors shut”, an article written by CNN.com’s Kelly Wallace in which she describes the problems women face returning to work after staying at home with their children.  Wallace bases her article on an infamous piece in the “New York Times Magazine” entitled “The Opt-Out Revolution”, describing a trend of high-powered women leaving their jobs to stay at home with their children. Wallace, like me at one time, could not believe that women in high-paying, high-profile jobs were choosing to leave work in order to stay at home and raise children.  Of course, like Wallace discovered after having her own children, my entire perception of stay-at-home mothers radically changed when I had my son in 2011. Luckily, I am able to stay at home with him and my 6-month old daughter, and it’s a choice I don’t regret.  I do, however, wonder what I will find once I return to work in a few years.  Wallace’s article is compelling to me because I plan on returning to work once my children are in school, and I wondered how difficult it would be to re-enter the workforce.  She cites the problems of employers not realizing the potential of a mother’s experience as well as a difficult battle in a troubled job market full of applicants with more recent job experience than a stay-at-home mother.  Honestly, Wallace did little to alleviate my fears of finding a job, but her article made me pause and consider what I can do to place myself on equal footing with those job applicants with more recent experience.

You might be asking, “What does this have to do with technical communication?”  The tech comm field is full of changing opportunities.  Gone are the days of simply writing alone at a desk all day, editing an SME’s work.  Many tech writers are heavily involved in work groups that insist upon collaboration and focus on new fields like social media and coding.   With employers looking for new skills, this is a perfect field for women interested in writing and collaboration to become involved in.  There are many resources available to anyone interested in the field, including stay-at-home mothers.  I look at it as my responsibility to teach myself any necessary skills that an employer may be looking for.  W3schools.com is a great site offering tutorials in coding languages such as HTML and XML.  Gcflearnfree.org is another good site with Microsoft Office tutorials.  I also found a blog that is a great resource for tech comm issues and aimed at women: techcommgeekmom.com.

The moral of the story is that with initiative and research into useful skills employers are seeking, mothers returning to work have a fighting chance in finding a great job that uses both newly attained and previous skills.  Technical communication lends itself to a changing and emerging market and is full of opportunities for those willing to put in the effort to acquire new skills.

Ashley M.

UAH Technical Communication Announces Partnership with Adobe Software!

The UAH Business and Technical Writing Program will enter into a partnership with Adobe Software for the Fall 2013 semester. The partnership grants students access to Adobe Technical Communication Suite 4 during their enrollment in the Theory and Practice of Technical Communication and Document Design courses. Read more about this exciting partnership on the UAH news page!


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