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The Engineering Student….and Tech Comm

What is the number one killer of fantastic research and amazing projects? The answer is quite simple – poor communication skills. As an engineering student, I fully understand the daunting task of completing an engineering program. All of our classes are cognitively draining and require constant attention and retention.   The perk of mental “cache emptying and defragging’ is not available to us. However, when I have spoken to working engineers, one thing they mention, time and again, is that they wish they had taken a technical writing class while they were in their undergrad programs.

So, why would I suggest adding ONE MORE CLASS to an already intense load? It doesn’t matter how talented engineers are or what amazing work they may do. If they cannot communicate effectively and clearly, their work or projects are then classified as “okay…not, great, mind you….but ok… MAYBE we will look at it.” However, if engineers are able to utilize strong technical writing and communication tools, their work will be understood, appreciated, and utilized (which is the whole purpose….right???)

The need for strong communication skills does not simply apply to the future. How many classes require technical writing skills students do not have? How many labs, reports, and projects would have seriously benefitted from an engineering technical writing course taken during the sophomore year? The fight to keep an engineering program within a four-year time frame and still meet ABET standards means that classes that would create EXCEPTIONAL engineers are overlooked and under-utilized.   Engineers in the field often have a list of classes that they wish they had taken in school because their work NOW would seriously benefit from them. However, the rigid schedule did not allow for it – Technical Writing, Business, and Tensor Analysis (to name a few).

Engineering students need to understand that their beginning, mid, and end product communication must be understood on many different levels. Reports are not ONLY going to be read and analyzed by other engineers. In most cases, money and needed support is determined by a team within management that is made of “support career fields” that may have engineering training…but do not live within the engineering “life sphere.” “Lay people” are often put in a position of examining work created by engineers. If engineers are not able to thoroughly convey their work in a way that can be understood by non-engineers within their fields, mistakes and misunderstandings produce costly outcomes that could have been avoided.

Why not strive to create exceptional engineers who can communicate across the board of disciplines? Universities across the US are grappling with this very issue. As undergrads, there are classes that are required for creating “well rounded” students. Let’s have one of those classes be something we will ACTUALLY use in both our more advanced classes and our professional lives.   What is the purpose of producing just engineers when we have the option of training engineers who can effectively communicate as well?

Inspired by Melissa Marshall’s so witty plea on a recent Ted Talk, please teach us to talk nerdy!

Typography and You

Typography and You

Today we will be discussing a fundamental building block in the basic pragmatic and aesthetic functions of document design and technical communications: font choice. Although to some, choices in font may seem arbitrary, a matter of taste or preference—choices in font are vital to a document’s ability both to be pleasing to the eye and to be easily legible. Particularly when dealing with longer documents, maintaining both of these aspects of presentation will result in a document that is easier and less tiresome to read, which is ideal for your user. While certain technical documents will be dictated by a style guide that pre-selects the appropriate font and sizing, many times a choice in font will be left open to interpretation, and in those moments it is useful to have a few design principles in your back pocket to understand typography better.

First, let’s discuss three of the basic types of font categories, their characteristics, and their uses.

Serifs

Serif fonts are globally some of the most popular typefaces, and are recognizable by the linear flourish or flares emanating out from the letters, emulating brushstrokes. These marks are the serifs themselves. Examples of popular serif typefacing are fonts such as Times New Roman, Palatino, or Garamond. Serif fonts endure in popularity in part because they are so easy to read as large bodies of text. While they may not have the contemporary style and clean lines of a san-serif font, your general serif font such as Times New Roman will look best in a long body paragraph like an essay or long email. Serif fonts are especially useful when employed in ink-and-paper, non-electronic print media.

Sans-Serif

Sans-serif fonts, are—as the name implies, fonts that have been stripped of their brushstroke emulations in favor of a cleaner typeface style that is more congruous with bold statement pieces of texts such as headings and logos. Examples of common sans-serif fonts are Verdana, Arial, and Helvetica. Helvetica has been favored in use in both advertising, and infrastructural signage in part because of its clear and legible style that can be rendered in many languages. Sans serif font allow the designer or communicator more creative control with the size, weight (how thick or thin the typeface seems), and kerning (letter spacing). However, it should be noted that since sans-serif fonts do not guide the eye along in a horizontal fashion like serif fonts do, sans-serif fonts are best employed for emphasis and for short-form pieces of text.

Script

Script typefaces are the most formal and elaborate forms of typeface, meant to mimic calligraphy or handwriting. Script fonts are essentially cursive, and have the most flourishes of any font type. Because of this, they are perhaps the most aesthetically distinctive and expressive of the typefaces, but they are also the least legible and least suitable for bodies of text. Due to all of their flourishes, script fonts also tend to take up the most space on the page. It is important when using script fonts to pay attention to the size and kerning of your font choice, since all of those flourish-heavy letters will often compete for space and attention with one another. The most appropriate uses for script fonts are for cards, invitations, letter head, and other formal and announcement-based contexts for typeface.

For more information on typography, check out: http://bestfontforward.wordpress.com/

-Hannah Ross

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!


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