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When words come unstrung: The Catastrophic Failure of the Martin Archery Jaguar Take-Down OWNER’S MANUAL

The minimum requirement of any good technical document is that it communicates what is required of the user in a clear, concise, manner. Yet, far too often, technical manuals bear a striking similarity to experimental poetry, where the meaning is known only to the author. Peter Vogel once argued that users typically refer to the manual only when they are already frustrated. While this is certainly the case, I would further posit that on occasion, the source of the user’s frustration can be the technical manual itself. Case in point: The Martin Archery Take-Down Bow OWNER’S MANUAL.

The Diagram:

Featured image                           Featured image

To be fair, the exploded view of the bow on the front page of the four page manual does offer clear instructions for assembly. The diagram accurately represents the parts and assembly. The clear directions listed here allowed me to quickly assemble the body of the bow without incident. However, that is only half the task. A bow without a string is little more than a piece of furniture, which leads me to part two.

Stringing the Bow: Where it all went wrong

Page two of the manual features a paragraph entitled “Stringing your Bow.” Martin Archery included a (rarely included) tool called a bowstringer to assist with this task, promising that its use would prevent the limbs of the bow from distorting. The manual offers a lengthy paragraph extolling the virtues of the bowstringer. What was conspicuously absent was any text informing a first time user as to how to effectively use the bowstringer. Instead, there is a drawing that a stringer being used, devoid of any further instruction:

Featured image
Attempt one: I placed the stringer on the limbs of the bow, and then slipped the loops of the bowstring itself over the limbs after the bowstringer. I followed the procedure outlined in the diagram, and it worked—for all of three seconds. The stringer caused the bow string to slip from its grooves. Once the tension was released, the limb of the bow de-flexed, colliding with my ribs. After no small amount of profanity, I moved on to

Attempt two: A few of the more crucial portions of the legal action of Wile E. Coyote vs. Acme Corporation echoed in my mind, as I attempted once again to string the bow. This time, I wound up with the string dangling loose inside of the now taut bowstring. This was problematic because an arrow could potentially tangle in the stringer.

Attempt 3: I placed both the bow and the stringer on the limbs of the bow; then I placed my foot on the stringer. I tugged upward, just as the diagram suggested; this time I wound up with the stringer dangling loosely from the top of the bow with the other end secured to the top limb. At this point I gave up and consulted this YouTube video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERWnqmOMURo.

Resolution:

In the space of less than a minute (the video shows how to string and un-string the bow, I paused after the first part), the YouTube video successfully demonstrated, how to quickly string my bow. While the manual was lacking in terminology and proper instructions, the video named each part of the stringer and where to properly place the stringer in relation the bow, demonstrating that the stringer does not “tow” the string into place, but rather bends the limbs of the bow allowing the user to move the loose end of the string to the notches while keeping tension on the body of the bow rather than the bowstring.

Conclusion:

The Martin Archery Take-Down Bow OWNER’S MANUAL stands as a cautionary tale of how technical writing, when done poorly, can be hazardous. A lack of clear verbiage accompanying the diagram, which would inform the reader on where to place the parts of the stringer and how to use it properly, resulted in frustration and lost time. This could have easily been avoided, had the writers applied the same care and attention to detail in crafting the instructions for stringing the bow as they did for its assembly. At the cost of perhaps another page of text, the writers could have added more diagrams, or at the very least, step by step instructions for where to place the stringer in relation to the bow. Additionally, it would have given the user the all important detail that the body of the bow is to be bent, releasing tension on the bowstring, rather than trying to, by physical strength, pull the string into the notches. Had such measures been taken, Martin’s client would have experienced far less frustration, and it goes without saying fewer bruised ribs!

-Allen Berry

Framing Your Resume

So you’re looking for a job and you’ve just completed your resume, and it’s looking good: the formatting is right, it’s concise, and you’re pretty satisfied until you get rejected for job after job. What’s the matter? Well, you have not framed your resume, and I don’t mean mounting it on your wall in a picture frame.

Framing is a technique that is most often used in media, marketing, and politics. It is how newscasters get you to view a certain story in a certain way, how companies convince you to buy their products even though you don’t need it, and how politicians get you to vote for them even though you don’t agree with them at all. Sounds a lot like manipulation, yes, but it is useful. Framing, in technical and more positive terms, is the rearranging of content so that the writer emphasizes what he or she wants the reader to focus on. This is one of the most crucial parts of resume writing, and by this I mean arranging and rearranging the content of your resume so that you look like the best candidate.
When framing your resume the most important thing you can do is research the job and the company.

Do Your Research:

Know the Job
You need to know something about not only the job but the employer. Not all technical writing jobs, for example, are the same at every company. The first place to check, of course, is the requirements section on the job listing and cater your resume to that company’s requirements. You should also pick and choose which of your other qualifications or past jobs could boost your resume a bit. But, do not include that one summer when you worked as a counselor at a day camp because if it is not relevant to the job you want it will not help you, and it will clutter your resume.

Know the Company
While you should check the requirements on the job listing, you should also get to know things about the company that are not on the job listing, for example, do they use the agile method, or are their technical writers expected to sit alone in an office in the back near the bathroom. Your resume could play up to this. You could emphasize the jobs you had where teamwork was encouraged or emphasize those jobs where you were expected to be productive without much overhead. Or add them both to show that you can work in any environment because you’re flexible.
Once you’ve done your research and you know the job and the company you are ready to frame your resume and essentially sell yourself which is what any good resume attempts to do. The thing to be sure of is that you do this for every job because the most important aspect as I have explained is knowing the audience. Even if you are applying within the same company your audience can still change so be sure to frame your resume specifically for your audience each time. Happy job hunting!

For more information visit:
http://rockportinstitute.com/resumes/

http://masscommtheory.com/theory-overviews/framing-theory/

http://ruby.fgcu.edu/courses/twimberley/EnviroPhilo/IPCCFraming.pdf

Ashley Sylvester

Manners and Etiquette in Agile Environments

There’s a high probability that entry-level technical writers will work in an agile environment on a scrum team. Many companies, especially software companies, are adopting the agile model. Agile is a way to involve more people from different areas of expertise into a single setting when developing a product. The basic idea is that team members will have more efficient communication and input through various stages of project development than they had before being placed into agile teams. Scrum groups are usually comprised of the product owner, the development team (3-9 individuals of cross-functional skills), and the scrum master. The overall objective of an agile environment is to create a better product and increase revenue for the company.

funny agile

New situations can be intimidating. If you’ve never been a part of a scrum team or worked in an agile environment, you don’t really know what to expect. Sure, you can do some research and be somewhat aware of what a scrum team is and what it does, but you don’t have experience until you’ve been a part of a scrum team. Besides researching, what else can you do to prepare yourself? You can start by practicing good manners and etiquette.

funny manners

Before stepping foot into your first agile or scrum meeting, even if you’re not sure what to expect, you can still prepare yourself to make a good impression. The following are five tips to help you do this. There are several other ways in which you can display good manners and proper etiquette in the workplace, but this is a good place to start.

1. Electronic Devices
If you bring an electronic device into a scrum meeting, use it in an appropriate way and at appropriate times. Make sure your phone is on silent. If you get a call, don’t disrupt the meeting. I’m not referring to emergencies here. There are times (sick child, accident, etc.) when you must take a call. Don’t text. Save that for after the meeting and after work is over for the day, if possible. If someone is speaking to you, don’t have your nose stuck in your device. Look them in the eye and pay attention. There aren’t many things more rude or annoying than trying to have a conversation with someone while they’re lost in a cell phone or iPad.
2. Attire
It should go without saying that in professional environments one should dress professionally. Most companies usually have a dress code or standard for employees. If the dress code is outlined in an employee manual, the guidelines for work attire will be clearly defined. Sometimes, however, the dress code can be less formal. If the latter is the case, pay attention to how everyone else is dressed and follow their example. Avoid clothing that is too revealing. You want to present yourself by the way you dress as someone who is ready to work, not someone who’s ready for a night at the club.
3. Listen
You’re the new guy. This is your first scrum meeting. Don’t try to impress everyone with the world-changing idea you have for the company. There’ll be time to share that later. Listen. Pay attention. Take notes. Learn.
4. Unnecessary Noise
Because this is your first meeting, chances are you’re going to be nervous. Anxiety affects people in different ways and at different levels. Some people seem to never get nervous in any situation. For others, anxiety can be crippling. Be careful to not make any extra noise that might distract others. Tapping a pen on the table, making audible noises with your mouth, tapping your foot on something, etc., all of these can be very distracting to some people. Be aware if you do these things when you’re nervous and make a conscious effort to avoid such habits.
5. Punctuality
Be at least five minutes early to the meeting if you can. If the meeting starts at 9:00, don’t be walking in the door at 9:00. That would make you late. The meeting might already be in progress at that point. You could be a distraction if you’re jostling around for a seat while everyone else is already settled in. Arriving early will give you a chance to get acclimated to your surroundings and will help you relax.

How not to conduct yourself in a scrum meeting

Remember when your high school teacher assigned a group project? You didn’t mind as long you got to pick the members of your group. If your teacher picked the members, then you knew it was a recipe for disaster. You hoped that at least one member of the group would be the quintessential over-achiever, that person who always had to make the perfect grade and never settled for less than perfection. That would’ve been a bonus. On the other hand, you could virtually be assured that at least one person in the group would be the lazy guy who never did anything in class. You could always count on that guy to do absolutely nothing. But the one person, above all, you did not want in your group was the guy nobody got along with. He never listened to anything anyone else tried to say. He bullied his ideas into being accepted by the group. He showed up late for assignments. He made the whole project unbearable and unproductive. Don’t be that guy.

funny-picture-every-group-project

Links provided if you want to learn more about proper etiquette and manners in business meeting environments. A general business meeting isn’t the same thing as a scrum meeting, but the settings are similar.

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/10-rules-proper-business-meeting-etiquette-2857.html

http://www.metroatlantachamber.com/news/mac-membership/2013/10/15/mind-your-manners-tips-for-business-meeting-etiquette

http://www.advancedetiquette.com/blog/tag/meeting-manners/

Matt Williams

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.


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