The costs of poor communication, and how to tackle it.

There’s a old joke about doctor’s handwriting being illegible. These days that’s less of an issue, as patient notes and prescriptions are typed, but this has highlighted a different issue.

The BBC reported today on an initiative to get doctors to communicate with their patients in plain English (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45394620). The problem is manifesting itself in patients making appointments with their GPs, just to ask them to explain what a form of treatment they’re expecting means. The problem seems to be that patients referred to hospitals are receiving appointment letters full of medical jargon they don’t understand.

Take the following excerpt from a hospital discharge report I recently saw for someone I know:

"CTPA showed bilateral segmental and subsegmental PEs. Initial Troponin 
raised (46) repeat 11."

This was supposed to inform the patient and their GP what had happened to the patient whilst in hospital, and the delivered prognosis.

The problem here is the two audience addressed by the same deliverable. The patient’s GP will understand, but the patient likely won’t.

In instances like this, it is often easier to resort to resort to jargon. It’s the doctor’s own language after all. In just the same as two Network Engineers talking about DHCP or MAC Addresses, That’s fine so long as the audience is the same as them. Try involving an outsider though, and you’re asking for trouble.

You need two separate deliverables, based on the same content. That’s something most Technical Communicators understand and deal with on a daily basis, particularly in a software environment. Whether it is end users or administrators, English or Spanish speakers, you need to have the content for each audience generated from the same source.

Mark Baker asked the question on twitter recently why Technical Communicators find it so hard to explain our profession’s importance. It solicited a fair few responses, yet none really answered the question.

It’s an interesting question. We’re good at explaining things within our own specific spheres. We can even turn our hands at different spheres, but try to explain why we’re so important to others and we seem to struggle.

Case studies like the UK doctors help us, in that a direct effect of poor communication has resulting is wasted GP appointments and frustrated patients and doctors. By correlating the time and money spent having these appointments, we can monatise the problem. Armed with that information, we can argue how us working to resolve the issue can save the organisation money.

Maybe there’s a lesson for us there.

Just a “normal” day in my life as a Technical Writer

The only usual thing about my days as a Technical Writer, is that it’s rarely usual. Today was no exception.

I manage the technical writing function, including another member of staff. Unfortunately for me, they started a week’s holiday today and I’ve just returned from two weeks away. The timing of our holidays isn’t ideal, but I’d monitored what was going on during my absence. I didn’t actually do much, but it ensured there weren’t any unpleasant surprises on my return.

My journey to work involves a 15 minute walk to the station, a train into central London, and a further 20-25 minute walk. I could get a bus or tube, but I figure that by the time I walked to the bus / tube, waited for said bus / tube to arrive, decide not to force myself onto an already crammed bus / tube, get on the next bus / tube, and walk to the office, I may as well just walk. Besides I enjoy walking.

Today I set off wearing a fleece, and soon regretted doing so. After the walk to the local station, it came off and never came close to being worn again. It was announced today that the UK had just experienced its joint hottest summer on record. The last week or two had seen a slight drop in temperatures and plenty of rain, but today demonstrated that whilst we are now in the meteorological autumn, it’s still warm enough for a short sleeved shirt commute.

Taking of surprises, whilst I was away, a desk move was announced. I knew this was happening, but unsure when. Whilst I was away it was announced it would be taking place on the Friday before my return. I’d asked my team member to ensure everything necessary was moved. This happened, but of course on arriving this morning I spent an hour ensuring everything was setup to my desired configuration.

A colleague last week had sent me a meeting request for 11am to discuss a forthcoming release. We’d completed all the updates some months ago, but the release was delayed. With the release imminent, she wanted to discuss some finer detail of what we’d provided. I went in search of her, not easy as she’d moved desks also, and managed to get the meeting moved to the afternoon. Enough time to organise myself and start trawling through my emails.

Within 30 minutes, I’d been approached by three separate Product Managers to inform me of projects in the pipeline. Only one of them is in any way urgent, likely to be released later this month. It doesn’t contain too much additional functionality, but annoyingly does contain new icons. I made a note to inform our Education Team who produce our certified video training programmes. They just love having to update all their videos every time an icon changes! We’ve got another large project completing about the same time that we’d both been working on. I may have to look at reallocating resources to ensure both project deadlines are met, once I’ve evaluated the effort involved. That’s not for today, so an item is added to my to do list.

Up to lunch was spent on admin. As a manager, admin is an essential part of what I do. It may sound boring, but having processes and ensuring they’re followed is pivotal to ensure a smooth running team. Running reports, trawling through my Inbox to prioritise any work items, or updating our project spreadsheets with details of changes / timescales, these tasks have to be done.

Around 12:30 I down tools for a trip to the gym in the basement of our office. I’m a keen runner, but have been recovering from a serious injury since late March. Today was my first day back on the treadmill, so I planned a gentle 30 minute jog. I want to get back to doing my local Parkrun ASAP. Being a Parkrun volunteer is fun, but just doesn’t give you to same buzz. I’m not looking to get back to anything like my PB just yet, but I’ve a goal in mind.

Back in the office, and I’ve time to eat a sandwich and apple before my Rescheduled meeting. The Product Manager and I discussed some minor changes to our best practice guides. A perfect chance to do some actual technical writing. As we discussed each setting, I changed the pages on the fly.

Afterwards I finished going through my Inbox. That only left the automated emails, comments generated by users, and those sent to our team’s distribution list, each of which is sent to a separate folder. The comments were easy, as not all are related to our Knowledge Base.

By mid afternoon, my earlier plea to my colleagues to come and eat a biscuit or two I’d brought back from my holiday, seemed to having some affect. The biscuit mountain was reducing, but not enough to avoid me taking the easy route to solving the issue of having the afternoon munchies.

Late in the day and another work request came my way. Four new projects in a day. That’s a record! Once again I update our project spreadsheet with the details. It’s a useful shared resource that the team and my boss can use to see what is coming up.

As folk began to leave for home, I pondered whether to stay late and finish off those unread automated emails. I consider logging on from home this evening rather than staying in the office. As a global company, and with my manager not being based in the Uk, I’m used to occasionally working irregular hours. However as today was a US holiday, I decided I’d have some time tomorrow morning to sort those email folders out before the USA woke up.

So it was a walk to the station, sans fleece. An unusually busy train meant a less comfortable journey than normal. My wife texted me to say she’d bought some milk and bananas, so I didn’t need to visit the supermarket on my way home. Bless her, as I hate that supermarket with a passion. It’s very handy for commuters as it’s only a minute from the station, but it’s layout and poor customer service makes a visit a soul destroying experience.

Home by 7:30, I change into shorts and sandals, take the bins out for the bin men who arrive early tomorrow, and sit down to eat. Nothing fancy tonight, but that’s OK. Plain food can still be tasty.

After catching up with my wife on her day at work, I spend time catching up on what’s been going on online. I normally try to do this during my train journeys, but today I didn’t. I predominately use Twitter for professional information, and Facebook for personal stuff. After a few minutes trawling, I had the idea for this post, but before I started, I prepared my lunch for tomorrow.

As my bed beckoned, my mind turned to what I can expect tomorrow. I know what I’ve left from today, but you can bet there’ll be the odd curve ball thrown in to make life interesting. Working for a software company in a dynamic environment is never boring.

Technical Communicators: There’s hope for us yet!

“I found that exercise rather depressing”, I said having participated in an exercise at a recent training session. Unsurprisingly my slightly tongue-in-cheek comment solicited a question from the trainer. “Why’s that?” To answer that, I need to explain the exercise.

We were given a scenario. We’re in a large city with a transport problem. There isn’t enough of it for those who want to travel. The answer is possibly hot air balloons! As the Head of Transportation, we’d one hour to research whether they really are the answer to all your problems. In order to do this, we had four options:

  1. Read the blueprints and instruction booklet?
  2. Watch other hot air balloonists and devise a plan?
  3. Meet with a subject matter expert and ask them questions?
  4. Just buy a balloon and try it out our self?

In our group only I went for option 1. Five went for option 2, with one other going for options 3 and 4.

Now do you see why I said what I said? As a Technical Communicator, I design how best to present the blueprint, and I write the instruction booklet. If no one but me would choose to even look at them if they’re in a hurry, what is the point in my profession?

OK so we’ve managed to buy another hour’s research time. What other research method of the three remaining choices would you choose? Six went for option 3, with one each for options 1 and 2.learning_styles

With eight people, it’s hardly a scientific sample, but it did raise some interesting insights into the different learning styles people have. According to Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, these are:

  • Option 1 = Theorist
  • Option 2 = Reflector
  • Option 3 = Pragmatist
  • Option 4 = Activist

As a follow up exercise, our group completed a questionnaire that aimed to demonstrate which of the four learning styles we best fitted. Guess what? The person who’d said they’d immediately just buy a balloon and learn from their mistakes, found they’d actually a high theorist score.

Ha! You can deny it as much as you like, but well designed and written technical documentation will always be needed. Especially for those who say they don’t read it.

Choosing the “right” CMS

I’ve spent a couple of hours looking through the wish list items added by users of a well known CMS. What stands out, is how users want more from their CMS. Whereby in days gone by they were happy with a simple editor that allowed them to capture content, now they want (to name just a few trends):

  • A richer editing experience (e.g. indented list items, image / video, and table formatting).
  • The ability to import / export from / to more file formats.
  • Reusable content (e.g. variables and text snippets).
  • Smoother workflows for editing, reviewing, and publishing content.

What strikes me about this list, is how all of these could be achieved with one of the specialist technical writing applications. This begs the question why more content curators aren’t using them.

There’s no simple answer to this. It depends on the requirements and culture of the organisation. Maybe it’s a need to keep all the content in one place, or maybe it is ignorance of what a specialist technical writing application offers.

Whatever the reasons are for mot using one tool or another, there is one question everyone looking at CMS providers needs to ask. And it isn’t, “Can tool a do x, y, and z?”

The classic mistake many make, is to focus on the technology before considering the requirements. To use a slightly crude analogy, there’s little point in buying a family friendly Hyundai saloon car, and then wondering if it is the right car for a trip across the Sahara desert. Instead you should consider what you’d need by way of four wheel drive, storage for water / fuel, and the ability to pull yourself out of a sand dune. Once you’ve done that, then (and only then) you can look around at the vehicles best suited to your needs.

There are a variety of methods to ascertain if a CMS meets your needs. For example:

  • Search the product’s user forums.
  • Look for online user groups, particularly those not controlled by the vendor.
  • Look for wish list items to see what users are wanting that isn’t currently delivered.
  • Attend user group meetings or conferences.
  • Ask your peers.

If after all this you find yourself in a situation where you must host the content in a particular CMS, don’t be fooled into thinking you must author it there too. Look into the CMS’s import / export functionality. Even if this isn’t there out of the box, perhaps there’s an API that can help. Admittedly this normally requires additional resource from elsewhere in your organisation, but if the major stakeholders have the organization’s interest at heart, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Choosing a solution for your content curation needs isn’t easy, but an quick easy decision could prove disastrous and lead to a repeat of the exercise further down the line.

Adobe’s Technical Writing Trends 2017 Survey Results

Each year Adobe run a survey for Technical Writers. It asks questions about the tools, methodologies, and strategies used by those in the technical documentation industry, and tries to predict what will change in the future. They have a vested interest in the survey’s results, as they produce a number of applications used by Technical Writers. That said the results aren’t focused on their products, inside aiming to provide an honest picture of the industry. Having listened to the survey results in their recent webinar, here are my key takeaways.

Structured Authoring

It isn’t a surprise to see companies increasingly using structured authoring. It has many benefits, particularly for those with large content silos, multi-faceted output requirements, or translation needs. As such, the mean requirements for moving to a structured authoring environment were the ability to reuse content, apply consistency, and make it easy to update.

What is a surprise is the growth rate. According to this and past surveys, companies that have either adopted or were thinking or adopting structured authoring, has grown from 20% in 2012, to 50% in 2017. Predictably it is the companies with a 1000+ workforce that use structured authoring most, with over 50% of them adopting the methodology.

Benefits of structured authoring

DITA XML remains the stand out standard used to deliver structured content, with nearly 75% of structured authoring respondents either using it or likely to use it. Custom XML solutions come second with 47%. Again no real surprise, apart from the percentage of those focused on DITA XML. It has been around since 2001, but in recent years has been widely developed and adopted since IBM handed over the management to OASIS.

Output Types

PDFs are dead. Long live PDFs! Folk have been predicted the demise of PDFs to deliver content for years, but they’re still widely used. The survey shows a 90% dominance over all other output types. Responsive HTML5 comes a distant second at around 50%, although this is up significantly on recent years. That said, it looks like PDFs will be around for awhile yet. Not surprising really when you consider their advantages, and the lack of anything that even remotely matches their functionality.

Output Types

One interesting side discussion around PDFs was their lack of responsiveness. As we deliver content on a variety of devices, the need to make content usable on each and every device without having to create and maintain separate source files, is of paramount importance. The rise in usage of responsive HTML5 is testimony to this. Adobe more or less dodged the discussion on whether PDFs would be made more responsive. To be fair to Adobe, there wasn’t a great rallying cry from us users to make them responsive.

Personally I think most of us don’t even try to use PDFs where there’s a responsive requirement. We prefer to use a different output type that best fits our requirements. If we want responsive output that works on a tablet or mobile, are PDFs really the best output format? They can take up considerable storage space, and aren’t as user friendly as other delivery methods.

Other Usages

The later part of the webinar focused on a couple of areas that raised an eyebrow:

Chatbots

There are a small number of survey respondents using a chatbot to deliver technical content to users. It is fair to say that such delivery methods are still in their infancy, with many differing styles being used. It is also unclear how the tools we use to deliver content fit in with this delivery methodology. If this delivery model becomes more of a requirement, perhaps our tools will have to change accordingly.

I’m less sure of the need for our tools to provide chatbot functionality. There are already a number of applications that provide this. What is needed is a way to leverage our technical content inside these applications.

Alignment of Marketing and Technical Content

With the rise of structure content usage, I can see why the synergy between marketing and technical content has increased. If you can reuse content for multiple needs from a single set of source files, that’s a big vote winner. However it requires a real sea change in a company. Most companies I’ve worked for have an ongoing battle between the Marketing and Technical Communication departments. We both see the need for content reuse, style, and consistency, but have very different ways of achieving it. Part of the reason for this has been the tools we use to create the content. However if you move to structured content, the tools become less of an issue.

Adobe have a vested interest in getting more folk in an organisation to use their software. The trouble is their user base has historically been the Technical Writer community. With the growth of content marketing, it is natural that they see this as an opportunity to expand their user base. So far, I’d say this has only had limited success, but this is a long term strategy.

Summary

The results of the 2017 survey may not have provided any real surprises, but had enough of interest to make me sit up and take notice. The few thousand respondents provided a representative sample of our community, and covered a large number of job functions and levels of seniority.

Is your communication technique effective?

If you work in an office, you’ve multiple communication methods available to you. Whether it is a telephone, email, an Instant Messaging (IM) application, or face to face. Whatever you have available, knowing when to use each one is a skill worth learning.

The trouble is, that’s easier said than done. A lot depends on your office environment and traditions. I find it helps to answer a few simple questions before taking the leap.

Location! Location! Location!

If the person you want to communicate with is located two desks from you, it can be more effective to just speak to them. If it is urgent, you should say so, and give them some background information in order for them to make an informed decision about whether it is OK to interrupt them. Just because you have interrupted them, doesn’t make it the best time for them. Perhaps start with, “Can you spare me some time to discuss …..”. If they can help, they should be willing to accommodate. If they can’t, you can agree a time when they can.

If they’re not located nearby but in the same office location, you can still adopt this approach. It’s good to get out of your seat and walk around occasionally too. Of course a lot depends on time management. If every time you needed something you walked to the lift and took it to the 10th floor to speak to someone, you’ve questions to ask yourself about your time management.

Things get more complicated still with larger firms. For example I lead a team based in London, but with a manager based in the USA. I deal with individuals on a daily basis spread across different time zones. Getting information from someone who’s still asleep or out for the evening is near impossible. This is where the next question arises.

Everything is urgent, right?

In today’s modern competitive world, corporate environments often see results as the major success factor. This is true in some roles, but mostly it isn’t. Knowing the urgency of the communication, and what you expect someone to do something for you, is key here.

If it really is urgent and the person you want to communicate isn’t free, what then? Could you wait until they are free? Could someone else help who is available? Only if the answer to both these questions is a definitive “No” should you continue.

Even if you think it is urgent, a second opinion can prove invaluable. You may absolutely need some information to make your target of getting a task complete by this Friday, but if you don’t complete it until Monday would the overall project fail? It is rare for deadlines to be definitively set in stone that there isn’t some flexibility. Go and talk to someone.

What’s the objective?

Finally understanding why you need to communicate with them in the first place is important. Ask yourself all the following questions, not just one:

  • Is it to get information, or provide it?
  • Do you need to communicating with one or multiple people?
  • Do you need to share some information live with them (e.g. presentations, demos)?
  • Where are they located?

Having the answers to these will help you understand the best communication method.

My Pet Hates

Before I sign off, here are a few of my communication pet hates:

  • Don’t email me and a minute later come over and ask me why I haven’t responded. If you need an urgent response, email isn’t the way to go.
  • Don’t assume that just because you need to respond to a communication, that everyone else who received it needs to receive your response. If I receive a message sent to 20 people informing me of someone’s promotion (i.e. useful information) I don’t want to receive 19 responses offering personal congratulations to that individual (i.e. not at all useful).
  • Don’t substitute an IM application for email. This is perhaps more of a generational issue, but younger folk are used to getting instant responses. It’s the social media effect, but in an office environment it doesn’t always work. IM applications can be useful, but they aren’t an email alternative.
  • Companies with more than one IM application. If that is you, don’t spam them all. Think about which one the recipient is likely to use. If you don’t know, use face to face and ask them for next time.
  • Don’t use email or instant messaging to have a discussion. Sometimes what starts off as a simple question sent to multiple recipients snowballs into a discussion with an ever increasing recipient list. Stop right there. Organize a meeting or conference call with the key recipients, and agree a way forward.

Summary

This post deliberately doesn’t try to tell you to use a specific communication tool. There is no hard and fast rule. It gets you to step back and calculate the most effective tool to meet your objective. Oh and remember, what met your requirements this morning, may not be suitable this afternoon.