STC International Summit Awards 2015 Call for Judges

by Paula Robertson on 19 November 2014

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Where can you get a professional development opportunity that is unlike any other and free of charge? From STC, of course! Volunteering your time and expertise to judge in the International Summit Awards gives you valuable experience that you just can’t get anywhere else. Past judges often comment on how rewarding the judging experience was for them, even as it stretched their abilities and introduced them to new ways of thinking about technical communication. But it’s not for everybody. If you think you have what it takes and are ready to take what it gives, I’m pleased to invite you to apply to be a judge.

As the Judge Manager for the 2015 STC International Summit Awards (ISA), I again anticipate what I consider a professional privilege—to work with STC colleagues around the globe, who volunteer their expertise as ISA judges and without whom the ISA competition would not be possible.

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Letter from the UK: Locali(s/z)ing for English

by Ellis Pratt on 17 November 2014

There was a lively discussion recently in LinkedIn’s Documentation and Technical Writing Management group over whether to use English, American English, or a hybrid that would satisfy everyone.

In making such a decision, it’s important to be aware of the differences between English and American English that:

  • Could affect the user’s performance
  • Might annoy a non-American audience
  • Aren’t worth worrying about

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World Usability DayWhen we are determined to do something (such as learn to swing dance, play the guitar, or earn a degree), we will overcome obstacles and challenges to achieve our goal. Persistent setbacks might discourage us, maybe slow us down, but we won’t give up because we are determined to succeed. We rely on instructors and mentors to teach us these skills, and our motivation helps us to press on. We know that the reward for our efforts is the ability to swing dance, play the guitar, or earn a degree, and we are proud of our accomplishment.

When we use a website (for example, to register for a car loan, book travel reservations, or purchase an item) that has confusing navigation and complex design, we do not exert the same determination to overcome obstacles and challenges because it is easier to bail out and try our luck with another website.  Although the vendor offers what we want, there are plenty of competitors that offer the same product at a better price. Suddenly, usability is critical to user satisfaction and profitability. [click to continue…]


Technical Communication JournalSTC’s Technical Communication Journal is looking for a new Editor-in-Chief. Read the Request for Proposals below, and be sure to submit by 15 January 2015.

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On the 24th October, The Queen opened a new gallery at The Science Museum, called “The Information Age”. The Information Age gallery takes visitors on a journey through the history of modern communications, from the telegraph to the smartphone. Exhibits on show include the broadcast equipment behind the BBC’s first radio programme in 1922, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT computer, which hosted the first website.

We were in South Kensington the following day and decided to have a look around the exhibition. You can see the photos here:

I spotted a number of user guides in the display windows. The earliest one was from 1673, describing Samuel Morland’s Adding Machine. [click to continue…]


October Intercom: Letter From the Editor

by Liz Pohland on 29 October 2014

The October Issue of Intercom is now available online. Check out this Note From the Editor, then head to to read the latest issue!

October Intercom 2014Have you ever worked on a technical communication project that needed help? The October issue of Intercom focuses on solving communications problems in the workplace and in “rescuing” troubled projects and teams. Heather Meeker Green and Rachel DiGiammarino from Accordence Inc., a consulting firm specializing in negotiation, communication, and personal effectiveness skills, have provided an article with their recommendations for driving a successful project—“‘Project Rescue:’ A Mindset for Collaboration.” They suggest three essential practices for creating collaborative environments in the workplace—leveraging interests, broadening perspectives, and de-escalating tensions. They claim this strategic approach ignites collaboration and results in effective rescues.

Tom Mochal of TenStep Inc. is an instructor and consultant on people and project management. His article for Intercom, “Minimize the Risk Associated with Project Rescue,” explains that project rescue is not an attempt to repair a sinking ship, but an attempt to raise a project up from underwater, and therefore is a radical and difficult task. He outlines several methods for minimizing the risk of troubled projects: 1) isolation (isolate the work into a separate recovery project with  agreement from the project sponsor or manager); 2) assessment (assess the troubled project to determine what went wrong and why); 3) alternatives (develop  alternatives, which may include canceling the project); and 4) implementation (activate, measure, and monitor the recovery plan). [click to continue…]


Plainly Speaking: A Task Is a Task Is a….Procedure?

by Karen Field Carroll on 27 October 2014

The other day, I got to thinking about tasks and procedures. We had just remodeled our kitchen, and I was flipping through the user manual for our new dishwasher, looking for a section that walked me through the process of washing dishes from start to finish. But the user manual in my hands offered no such trajectory.

Instead, I found the procedures I needed sprinkled under headings that used a mixture of imperative statements (“Start the dishwasher”) and feature names (“Child Lock”). I found the procedure for adjusting the top rack under the heading “Rack Accessories,” the procedure for unloading the dishwasher under the heading “Loading the Dishwasher,” and the procedure for loading the silverware basket in its own self-titled section.

In short, the manual dumped a bunch of procedures at my feet and expected me to organize them into chronological order.

That’s when I started thinking about tasks and procedures—specifically, the differences between them. When I use a product, I have a task in mind: making a phone call, tracking my expenses, and in this case, washing dishes. Many user guides, however, treat procedures like my dishwasher’s manual does: Not as different phases of one task, but as tasks unto themselves.

But is there a difference between a task and a procedure, I wondered? And if there is, does that difference matter to users? [click to continue…]


Eye for Editing: The Editor as Teacher

by Paula Robertson on 27 October 2014

How do you think of yourself in your editing role? Is each document, article, topic, or book by the same author or team of writers an isolated editing task? Does each task seem to start from scratch as if you’d not edited that author’s work before? Or is each subsequent edit you deliver informed by your previous suggestions and comments? Do subsequent documents indicate that the writer “got it the first (or last) time”?

In other words, do you think of yourself as a teacher? This mindset doesn’t lend itself as well to one-time edits for an author you never work with again. But if you edit content for the same writers on an ongoing basis, you are in a teaching role by default. Your textbook is the company or department style guide, as well as whatever published style guide you’ve adopted for grammar and usage.

Both the editor and writer are working from the same textbook, but it often falls to the editor to gently, even repetitively remind the writer what’s in the textbook and how to apply it in practice. So is it the editor/teacher’s fault when the students still don’t seem to “get” the lesson? Obviously, the writer/student has to want to learn from each edit of her content. Let’s face it – writers are typically not as dedicated to the style guide as the editor is. Often, the editor is the maintainer of the department style guide and therefore, has a particular familiarity with it and fondness for its sage guidance.

For the editor’s part, I suggest that your edit comments always point to chapter and verse in the style guide to support the change you’re requesting. That way, the suggestion is not so much coming from you, as from the textbook that you’ve all agreed to follow. If particular items in the style guide seem to be a constant challenge for one or more of your writers, consider offering a brief lunch-n-learn session to um, raise awareness on several points in the style guide. Another idea is to publish a style guide tip-of-the-week through email. Anything to reinforce your edits in a setting that is less personal.

That leads me to the other party in any edit, the author. As I said, the student has to be willing to learn from each edit. Perhaps the problem is not so much in whether the editor considers himself to be a teacher, but whether the writer considers each edit as an opportunity to learn and improve. We are all “set in our ways,” especially those of us who can boast a 20- or 30-year career in writing. But I’m baffled by scenarios like the following: 

  • I make a correction—say, about the difference in usage of “if” and “whether”—and provide the very clear explanation from Chicago Manual of Style. (I couldn’t offer an explanation myself; I just “know” when to use one or the other.)
  • Though the writer challenged my edit at first, the writer then acknowledges the correctness of my edit based on Chicago.
  • But the writer continues to make the same mistake in text and in speech.

The lesson wasn’t really learned. The behavior didn’t change. Sigh.

Did I mention that writers are not as dedicated to the style guide as the editor is? So this goes back to the part about the editor providing “repetitive reminders” in her teaching role. I guess that’s what you might call job security.


Lessons from Linda: STC and Me—How I Got Here

by Linda Oestreich on 21 October 2014


I recently saw a post on LinkedIn from someone who wondered about the value of being an STC member. I know that most people who read this post are already STC members, but sometimes even members need reminders on why we’re here. This month and next, I have decided to share my personal STC story. I hope that my own relative success in this delightful profession will interest you and help you stick it out if you’re thinking of moving on.

My story is a long one, so I’ll break it into two parts: (1) How I Found and Embraced STC and (2) How STC Supported and Embraced Me.

How I Found and Embraced STC

I grew up in a working-class family, the eldest of four kids.  I was book smart and had the advantage of a good public school education, but as a rebellious teen, I found myself alone with no family support immediately after high school graduation. So, rather than join my high school friends who were headed to college, I found myself a single mom working as a typist in a minimum wage job. Two things saved me: initiative to get ahead and colleagues who believed in me. [click to continue…]


Talking Usability: Usability for Left-Handed People

by David Dick on 15 October 2014

At the Communities reception at the Summit somebody spoke about the difficulties of left-handed people using household appliances, technologies, and software. If you are left-handed then you probably have problems using everyday things because they are designed for right-handed use.

Take a look at the placement of buttons on many of every day devices:

  • Power buttons are on the right side of most mobile phones.
  • Numeric keypads are always on the right side of the keyboard.
  • The buttons of pointing devices (e.g., the mouse) favor right-handed users.
  • The buttons on the car dashboard are on the right side of the steering wheel.
  • The main controls of a digital camera are on the right side.

Knives, can openers, scissors, cars, smartphones, computers, pointing devices, cameras, and power tools, to name a few, are ideally suited for right-handed use. To prove it, a friend (who is left-handed) gave me a demonstration of how cumbersome these items are to use with her left hand.  Yes, I was convinced—the design of these items was better suited for right-handed people.

The reason that so few things are designed for left-handed people is because 85% to 90% of all people are born right-handed. There’s your answer—there’s no profit to be made selling left-handed products. I am reminded, however, of Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” which suggests that even if less than 10% of the population is left-handed, they still represent millions of people. Most memorable of his explanation is that a product designed to improve accessibility for a few often results in greater use for everyone. Consider also the number of right-handed people who lose the use of their right hand and have to learn to do everything with their left hand; now the situation becomes an accessibility issue.

Dr. Stefan Gutwinski published a study about left-handedness in Understanding Left-Handedness. He writes that left-handers often have a tendency for ambidexterity because they are already used to doing things with their right hands from childhood. Nevertheless, the older the user, the more difficulty left-handers have to become accustomed to new devices ideally suited for the right hand. Despite the ambidexterity, left-handed people struggle using items designed for right-handed use.

However, there’s something we can do to accommodate left-handed people. We can design products with the left-handed user in mind. For example, we can design software systems that are customizable making it possible to place control buttons and keyboard functions on the left-handed operations. We can also include left-handed users in usability studies to evaluate suitability of design.

In the case of smartphones, you would think that it should not matter which hand is used on a touchscreen. But because many devices have the on-off or volume buttons on the right side, operating the device with just your left hand is not easy. Maybe a solution is to design the smartphone that is compatible for right and left handed use.

We can create awareness such as Left Handers Day; a day devoted to being left-handed.  Another solution is for left-handers to try things in their hand before buying them and really give them a good test. Last, but not least, we can include left-handed users in usability testing to evaluate true ‘ease of use’.

If you are still unconvinced that left-handed people have problems using things designed for right-handed people, read Confessions of a Left-Handed Technology User by Harry McCracken.

The next time you attend the Communities get together at the Summit, you might find a few left-handed members discussing the importance of accessibility and usability for left-handed people.

I’m David Dick and I’m Talking Usability