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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.

Technical Writers? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Technical Writers. Oh, Wait…..

Imagine: A quiet day at the office. Working away, on-target and on time, when suddenly the universe hurls a supermassive monkey wrench into your plans. All you can do is scramble to adapt. There’s no one there to help you. No one there to guide you. And it’s life or death because “your office” is… SPACE!

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Sound like the plot of the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Well, it is. We can all relate to this situation from Gravity, the latest movie starring Sandra Bullock. We’re in the middle of an important task, we’re alone, and technical problems arise. What’s a user to do? We consult the manual!

Who writes this stuff, anyway?

User manuals are not generally known for ease of reading. No one I know takes them to the beach or on vacation as a pleasure read. And yet we have them. We have them because we need them. But who actually writes these manuals? In recent years, some in the technical communication industry have noticed a trend toward Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as technical writers. A recent internet search for technical writing jobs reflects this trend. Requirements include “Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science/Engineering or a related technical discipline,” “Bachelor’s degree and five years work related experience or a Master’s degree and one year work related experience in a relevant technical discipline,” and “Bachelor’s degree (in related technical field) or equivalent, and zero to two years of related (technical writing and copy editing) experience.” It would seem the “writing” part of technical writing is taking a back seat to the technical aspect. While knowledge of the topic is certainly important, knowledge of writing, specifically the methods and theories of technical writing, cannot be overlooked.

In space, in the office, or at home (SPOILERS)

In Gravity, Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, who finds herself alone and faced with the need for knowledge of complex equipment. What does she do? All her other resources have been cut off – her communications with NASA have been lost and (SPOILER ALERT!) all the other astronauts are dead. So she gets out the manual, just like any user would do. And, voila! She’s alone no more. It’s as though she has a technical writer with her.

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Dr. Stone’s best chance of getting back to Earth alive is to pilot a Russian Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station back into Earth’s atmosphere. Piece of cake, right? Sure, until that monkey wrench enters orbit. How about a ship that’s out of gas AND has a dashboard written in Russian (which she doesn’t read)? Luckily for Dr. Stone, there’s a manual in English. Assuming that manual is accurate, easy to follow, and well organized, she should be home free! (This is where we hope NASA hires good technical writers, or she’ll never make it home.) The craft of a technical writer – conveying the right information, and only the right information, when, where, and how the user needs it – is what she’s counting on now. Whether at home, at work, or in orbit, all users need accessible information that works for them in their specific situation – even a situation like Dr. Stone’s, that the technical writer probably never dreamed of.

User Needs — in Space and on Earth

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Dr. Stone has a task she must complete; like most users, she dips in to the manual, finds the information she needs, and dips out again. Most do not read the entire manual. (Ron Byrne offers insight into why in the HCi Journal of Information Development.) Even though some users (like Dr. Stone) may have been trained on the product or a version thereof, situations arise where very specialized information is needed. Information that can take a user

from this   Image

to this       Image

or from this Image

to this        Image.

Who can best convey this information? I vote for trained technical writers. Chunking, relevance, consistency, and hierarchy – these are ideas that technical writers have thought about, are experienced with, and know how to execute. (More on these components of information mapping on the TechWriter Wiki and I’d Rather Be Writing.) Others have argued that technical writers are necessary for clarity and to reduce costs, to act as user advocates, and as usability experts. Add to that someone whose documentation can get me home in one piece – or just help me make the printer work – and it’s clear. Technical writers? Yes… we do need them.

– Mandy Hughes

Designing Dynamically

Technical writing is often built around encouraging action on the part of the reader, like instructions for building a piece of furniture. While words alone can be effective, many have chosen to use illustrations as part of that, not only including pictures of objects, but of objects being acted upon by a visible person. In American popular culture this has been seen before and technical communicators can learn from the art of the comic book.

 

Personas

                The most obvious is the figure itself. In comic books you develop personalities that are developed over time and then reinvented for a new audience when the original personality no longer connects with the intended readership. While technical communication rarely develops personalities, it can try to connect to the audience through art as well as words.

In some technical documents, like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the author is very clear about his reference material… he draws himself as a guide. But, in mainstream comics, the figure is often masked or hidden. The first is a way of connecting to the reader on a personal level, but it doesn’t create a persona for the reader in the way that mainstream comics often do. Arms and hands are often visible, and perhaps the most important element of all is the ¾ rule… the figure is not shown straight on or completely from the side, but a mix of both. This creates dimensionality and encourages engagement.

Art

McCloud himself points to the simplicity of comic art as a good thing; it emphasizes what the artist is trying to communicate. This is already an active principle in technical communication, but the awareness of it. Michael Opsteegh’s article for “Techniscribe,” “What Technical Communicators can learn from Comics,” covers much of the elements that can be duplicated in technical communications, such as wavy lines to indicate a bad smell, or straight lines to show speed.

Design

Opsteegh even takes us back in time to Will Eisner’s M16A manual, given in WWII to soldiers in order to efficiently communicate the care and use of the weapon, but Opsteegh misses an important part of  the art of comic books, even in Eisner’s case. Instead of looking at an individual panel, or one piece of art, we can look at the page design. Comics have ranged from magazine size (in the Golden Age of comics) through to pamplets (like Chick Tracts, some Tijuana Bibles, and other experimental efforts). This has required some interesting artistic choices. Eisner, in “Comics and Sequential Art,” talks about the flow of information across panels, unifying the document. Any technical document that wants to motivate the reader needs to do more than just guide the reader with big arrows… it also needs to design the page so that the graphical elements in the instructions themselves naturally flow toward the next instruction.

You can bet that with the rise of graphic journalism, the need to communicate to non-literate audiences, and the ability to create information dense documents, you’ll be seeing more graphic communications in your technical soup.

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.

Writing for Search Engines: Demystifying SEO

SEO may seem like just another confusing acronym, but it is not as complicated as it sounds. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is simply a fancy term for adapting the content of a website so that it will appear higher in search engine results.

SEO SpidersWhenever someone types a term into a search engine, that engine’s web crawlers or “spiders” (cue an image of the robot spiders hunting for Tom Cruise in Minority Report) scan the web looking for sites relevant to that term. Fortunately, we don’t need to crack the complex search algorithms involved in this process (but you can read Google’s enlightening explanation of “How Search Works”). There are some basic guidelines that can be followed to ensure that your content, or the online copy that you’re writing for your boss, will appear higher up in the search results.

Choose, and use, relevant keywords

This may be the simplest and most well-known SEO technique. Is your blog about cooking? Make sure you write with words that people will use when they search for topics related to cooking. You may be tempted to employ cutesy titles such as “A Bowl of Cheesy Goodness,” but a more straightforward title such as “Broccoli Cheese Soup for Cold Winter Days” is more likely to show up when your readers search for “broccoli cheese soup recipe.” Also, be sure to think of possible alternate search terms, such as “chocolate icing” for “chocolate frosting.” If you’re having trouble choosing good keywords, then consider using a site like wordtracker.com

However, there is such a thing as too many keywords. Search engines now employ algorithms to detect “keyword stuffing.” The best away to avoid keyword stuffing is simply to write well. Write in a conversational, natural fashion, instead of trying to repeat the same word as many times as possible. This will enhance the experience for your reader, as well as keep your page from being labeled as spam.

Being connected through links

In a world that thrives on social media and other forms of online connection, it is no surprise that having a popular, well-connected website will increase your search engine visibility.  A moderate amount of relevant links on your site will rank well with search engines. Internally, you can link to your own content. For example, whenever you reference information that you have posted about previously, link back to that page. When giving your reader instructions, such as how to buy your company’s product, provide links to the different parts of the process.

Outbound links are also important. Links to other well-designed webpages about the same topic show that your site is thorough and well-informed. When other pages start linking to your webpage, that is even better, because now you are being identified as a reliable source. The better connected you are, ingoing and outgoing, the more visibility you get and the more the search engines are going to like you.

I know you love my headings… Well, Google search does too.

Good site organization is important for multiple reasons. It arranges your content in a way that is easier for the reader to follow and consequently, that makes it easier for the search engine spiders to find what they’re looking for. Instead of writing your page in essay format, dump those MLA-style transitions and use headings to organize your information. This is also a great, non-spam-y way to boost your keyword count. Breadcrumbs and a sitemap are other ways to make your site easy to navigate, and they also increase the number of internal links on your site.

Search engines: A new kind of user

SEO is really just another type of technical writing. At its core, technical writing seeks to communicate information to users in an understandable way. SEO simply adds a new user to the mix: the search engine. And as you optimize your content for the search engine, you are improving your content for your human readers too. After all, these three basic guidelines encourage you to write well with relevant vocabulary, be well-informed and well-connected to other sites that support your information, and organize your content effectively. What could be more user-friendly than that?

-Marianne Goodlin

Are the Technical Writer’s Job Prospects Good?

As an aspiring technical writer, I haven’t been aloof to how technical writing—in practice—is changing from what it—in theory—is often presented to be in much lay and sometimes academic literature. And this is a serious issue to me and to those who are in the same boat. It is not apparent that the apparent changes confronting the traditional technical writer are positive changes that will work to the benefit of the education and experience of those ready to enter the workforce. The case for pessimism can indeed seem strong.

To be sure, there are reasons why things look dreary for the technical writer. This was on no greater display than when a class of we technical communication students spent a few moments exploring job postings for technical writers on the internet. Our conclusion: the jobs were there if you are skillful with the English language and Microsoft Office—and if you were familiar with a certain software suite other than Microsoft Office (who knew in advance what that would be?), and were familiar with hardware, and Department of Defense standards of publications, and knew how to work with a mark-up or programming language, and so on.

Consider that Diane Martinez and colleagues in their widely-used and referenced book, Technical Writing, spend the bulk of their time discussing topics like “purpose, audience analysis, and context,” the “forms of technical writing” (e.g., e-mail, memos, and business letters), how to approach research, and how to write grants and proposals. Gerald J. Alred and colleagues in the likewise well-known Handbook of Technical Writing emphasize such topics as forms of documents (a la Martinez), considerations for design and visuals in one’s documents, job searching, and organization. Now all these topics are critical to the education of tomorrow’s technical writer, but notice how centered they are on matters of language, style, and context with precious little in the way of guidance about all the other knowledge, skills, and abilities that we noted are now being demanded by today’s employer.

In acknowledging the disparity between what technical writers are taught and what employers actually want, and agreeing this deserves some attention by our educational institutions, it’s worth noting that recognition is growing that employers can be unrealistically demanding of applicants: Back in 2011 Peter Cappelli wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal where he noted, “With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time.” This year, he’s still beating the drum where on the HBR Blog he writes this insightful tidbit, “Some of the cost-cutting took out recruiters. They used to be the people pushing back on hiring managers, asking “do you really need someone with a graduate degree to do this job?” or telling them, “you aren’t going to find someone with 10 years of experience at that salary.”” As post–recession-recovery realism sets in for employers who cannot fill their positions, I suspect the intimidating demands will become more reasonable.

That said, technical writers—aspiring or otherwise—should be on the lookout for continuing education opportunities that are being held in their area. A simple search on the internet can give you information about local opportunities; this especially applies if you live near a college or other institution of higher learning.  Also reassuring is O*NET’s projection that technical writing is expected to grow at an average pace—some 10%–19%. Perhaps we ought not be so pessimistic after all.

 

— Dane Parker

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!


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