After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Daunted by a TV Manual that Shouldn’t Exist

Posted on April 29, 2013
Filed Under Communication, Technology | Leave a Comment

8526776From New Zealand comes word that our ordeal with the manual for our Toshiba DVD Video Player/Video Cassette Recorder isn’t unique. Lots of manuals aren’t written clearly or well. Don’t they know that qualified technical writers are available for those assignments? Writing about Digital Living, Abbie Napier introduces us to Emma Harding (pictured), a technical writer who is hired “to reduce, simplify and streamline.”

Hasn’t Toshiba heard that such blessed folks exist, all around the world?

“You have two choices:,” Abbie  writes, “Throw the remote on the floor in disgust and leave the programme guide in German, or perservere with a manual which may as well be written in latin (actually, that should be a capital “L”). A useless manual, help function, website or document is both infuriating and stressful.”

Indeed it is. The question, however, is how do such botched jobs of consumer relations technical writing ever get out the door?  Doesn’t the manufacturer responsible for such travesties care? Do obscure manuals represent a crisis of public relations before one of technical writing? These are questions of our age, and it’s a shame to have to ask them.

More attention should be given, actually, to documents going to consumers than those being prepared for workers in the technical settings from which they originated. But are those relatively esoteric precincts the only places where technical writers are deemed necessary? Do they even have them all the time there? We’re talking about truly professional technical writers, technicians with the blessed ability and accompanying conscience to care deeply that their instructions will be readily understood and who know how to bring that about?

Emma Harding, it turns out, has a degree in linguistics. That’s great, but it may actually be overkill. What matters most in the craft of writing to be understood is the conscience to put yourself in the a relatively innocent reader’s shoes, to be insistent to yourself and to your employer that you’ll be understood by such a reader. That’s a compulsion in empathy, actually, not so much a test of linguistic skill.

Toshiba apparently thought they’d wow us with pictures and diagrams. All they accomplished, though, was to bring a minefield alive. It’s the text, folks, simpe, orderly, start-to-finish, text that counts most. Toshiba didn’t understand where a new user would be starting, and we don’t fathom where they ended up. Somehow, we got a picture after putting the manual aside. But the ire remains. What company, of whatever nationality, would want its customers to feel that way?

“Unfortunately,” Amy writes, “not everything gets the technical writer once-over before it hits the public.” Maybe that’s what happened at Toshiba. But how could a company of its standing, indeed, any company, let that happen? Good technical writers ought to be seen as heroes and heroines of our times. Indeed, that identity should have been established at the start of the Industrial Revolution itself. Technology is worth very little if it’s not readily useable by the people it’s supposed to be serving.

Does that come as a revelation? It really shouldn’t. But check your own modern video recorder’s manual for readability. Do you wish you had a technical writer, or at this downstream point, a technical interpreter, in your family? You shouldn’t need one. Clear, readily readable instructions should be part of every 21st century sales package wherever you live. – Doug Bedell  

There’s Another ‘Bullet’ Being Built at Ohio State

Posted on April 15, 2013
Filed Under Education, Technology | Leave a Comment

Now, thanks to the Internet and blogging, you can be alongside practically anyone trying to do almost anything – like exceeding 400 miles-per-hour in a streamlined electric car. And you learn that the ones trying to set that mark are students at Ohio State University, which created TRC Inc. (the Transportation Research Center). That’s where development of the vehicle, the Buckeye Bullet, has been underway. The current version is the Bullet 3. Ohio State students have been developing electric racing cars since the 1990s. What’s an “early age” for enterprise anymore?

Screen shot 2010-12-04 at 10.02.47We happened upon news of this pending exploit on the web, of course. But these are automotive students, however. Their website doesn’t clearly explain where they currently are, which makes it a bit frustrating to cheer them on.

Roger Schroer, a TRC technician and apparently a speed car driver, we’re advised on an undated TRC page, will be heading to France late this month (we presume) to link up with the Federation International de la Automobile FIA, “the predominant international sporting body which regulates motorsports.” We haven’t heard anything yet about this automotive exploit in the news media, but if it’s yet to be held, we hope we will. The “kids” deserve the attention.

(Roger, incidentally, expects to be driving ((or drove)) a replica of the first vehicle to exceed 100 KMH ((62 MPH)) – the “La Jamais Contente,” or “The Never Satisfied,” while he’s in France. That event occurred in 1899. Never satisfied, indeed.)

While the Buckeye Bullet blog exists, the latest streamlined car itself hasn’t been completed yet; it’s in progress. This February’s Scientific American had an article on it – “The Battery-Powered Bullet.” It looks like a one-finned firecracker being readied to set off at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. (The Bullet 2 topped 300 mph there. You can watch it on YouTube.) You can follow this high velocity effort on Twitter, where the Bullet is being chronicled by “the fastest Tweets on earth.” One from a while back reads, “countdown to spring break: 10 days finally a chance for a solid bullet work week!” (Geez, and all we did during spring break was…)

Whatever the exact status of the latest Bullet may be, you can’t expect engineering students to have press agents, too. Tuition only goes so far. These kids have been doing great work, and we cheer them on! (Here, from Wikipedia, is as much of the history of the program as we can put together.) – Doug Bedell

Technical Writing in Shorter ‘Page Bursts’

Posted on April 5, 2013
Filed Under Communication, Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

With the Web being such a factor in communication now, it’s bound to be affecting where people turn for information, even technical information. “Web consults” are likely to be increasingly one’s first choice on where to look for information, of whatever degree of complexity. While this doesn’t apply as much to site-specific information, it’s likely to be influencing the formatting of technical writing, wherever it may be aimed.

headshot-231x300In this context, we’ve come across a blog, “Home of the Ryan,” a new blog whose writer, Ryan Pollack, has been in technical writing for nine years or so. He refers us to the blog “Every Page is Page One,” and that’s been an especially welcome discovery. This site’s proprietor, Mark Baker (shown here), has had 25 years in technical communication, including on the Web.

Baker seems to be saying that technical information is increasingly being formatted in short bursts, or page views. One doesn’t reach for an entire manual any longer so much as turn to the Web to find the topic or situation he or she needs help with. This depends partly on where you’re working, of course, but web-formatted materials are coming increasingly into use.

Information can be obtained more efficiently this way and thinking in terms of web pages rather than entire manuals has pertinent advantages. We’ll have to peruse further the implications of “every page being page one.” They have a lot to do with whether or not your technical writing is actually being posted on the Web. Increasingly, that’s likely to be so. Or maybe not. You wouldn’t want Google ushering people through sensitive areas of your plant.

Either way, the reality is that web formatting will increasingly be influencing formatting of all sorts. This means it’s likely to be shorter and crisper than before. And that’s a gain, if also something of a hazard when complexity arises.

Whatever your situation, here are two more places to hang around – “Home of the Ryan,” and “Every Page is Page One” – to get the feel of these new settings for technical communication. – Doug Bedell

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