Joe Welinske has been a technical writer since 1984, and one of his first documents was a comic book. In four colors. For plumbers. To put in a hip pocket. Why make plumbers carry around a standard size tech doc to tell them how fit pipe when something much smaller would do? The manual was a hit, and an great illustration of the practicality tech doc writers often overlook when tasked with user assistance, or UA. (His website is www.writersua.com.)
Joe currently crafts user interfaces for iPhone apps and scripts YouTube videos to support other mobile apps, but he wisely counsels us to remember there is more to our trade than tools and technology. Having been recently in a hurricane in the Caribbean, he showed examples of old-school journalistic style (on CNN’s website) that presented just the weather information he was curious about and in the correct order and proportion. Keep your key ideas up front, save the details for later, and do not overwrite so that you bury a good message in clutter — just simple, classic journalistic principles.
He cites Jakob Nielsen on good web design (see www.useit.com), and how readers do not approach web pages linearly. Here again, use the inverted pyramid approach from journalism school (you did take some journalism, right?), and lead with the conclusion if you want to be efficient and make your readers happy. Use bullets, meaningful subheads, one basic idea per paragraph, and toss unnecessary words. Some of us, like Dickens, may get paid by the word, but odds are that every unnecessary word is just a burden in your organization, from first draft through ongoing maintenance and costly localization.
Says Joe, “UA will become most effective when we spend twice as much time writing half as many words.”
Anyone wishing to polish up UA skills would do well to consider the Conference for Software User Assistance, to be held March 13 through 16, 2011, in Long Beach, Calif. The conference focuses on “developing the best possible user experience for all types of software applications through well-designed interfaces and helpful and accessible support information.” In short, “Better UX through Better UA.” For details, see www.writersua.com/conference.