I’ve been reflecting a lot, lately, into what makes me continue to pursue a technical career, especially in technical communications. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been doing in the last year to stay on top of trends and issues in the technical communications field, because the last thing that a prospective employer needs is someone who is stuck in his or her own ways, never learning and never progressing. Technology is constantly changing, and both technical communications at-large as well as the e-learning world are both in the flux of a “revolution”–a revolution that reflects that these fields are in the process of changing and revitalizing in order to keep up with modern thought and technological advances. One of the reason I try to stay as active as possible in social media is to stay on top of those trends and have an understanding of the current issues and advances in these fields so that I can go into a job understanding what the needs of a company are in order to help that company move forward.
And yet, it seems like there are so many companies, from my own observation, that are terrified of change and progress. Is it too much too soon? Perhaps it is. I’ve talked about this topic before at length specifically in regard to how the m-learning revolution is trying to make headway in the e-learning field in my post, “What Are You So Afraid Of?” back in July 2012. But as my most recent experiences personally have been more tech comm related, I’m starting to think that this fear of progress extends to the tech comm world as well.
I remember a big part of what was mentioned at the Adobe Day panel was the idea that as technical communicators, we understand the value of our work better than the higher-ups in managerial positions, and it’s our duty, in many respects to make sure that these higher-ups understand that value and the ROI (return on investment) that using structured content and other tools at a technical communicator’s disposal will benefit the company in the long run. When I’ve gone on interviews or worked at various jobs, I talk about the advances that are going on involving mobile technology and how companies need to keep up with this fast-growing technology. While the interviewers or other people I speak with are impressed with my knowledge and agree the changes need to be made, the argument made is that the higher-ups, who don’t understand this value of technical communications as well as we do, insist on sticking with old ways, and slowing down progress for the sake of comfort levels. It’s a “Don’t fix what ain’t broken”-kind of mentality. I know that sometimes budgets can limit how soon progress is made, because ever-changing technological advances can be expensive, especially if one is always trying to keep up with the latest and greatest. But I also know that spending a lot of money on ancient systems that aren’t keeping up with current technology and even supporting such ancient technology and methods that aren’t even supported today is throwing money away too. Would we even have smartphones or cell phones if we settled for landline phones only? Would microprocessing computers have even been invented if we settled for manual typewriters long ago? Settling for the old doesn’t really benefit anyone, especially global companies that want to stay ahead of the competition.
The photo above is a favorite character on one of my favorite TV series, “Torchwood,” named Captain Jack. Captain Jack is generally a fearless guy, especially since he has some sort of capability where he cannot die. In that sense, when up against some sort of danger personally, he’s got nothing to lose at all. But since he’s lived for so long, he also respects the past and understands the full impact of his actions and how they affect others. Despite having nothing to lose by his actions, he’s actually the conservative one when it comes to making decisions, basing his actions on what he knows and what he researches first. He is cautious, but he’s not against trying something new if it makes sense. If you see him with a facial expression like the one he has above, you KNOW that something REALLY bad is going on, and it has greater repercussions beyond himself.
There are times that I have that same feeling, at least in my own mind. While I respect that certain systems work and work well, and I know I’m not the most experienced technical communicator out there, I’ve done some due diligence, and again, I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world so that I’m ready to keep up with the latest advances and thought in the field. When I hear that companies are hesitant to budge from an old way of thinking, I feel frustrated. How are these companies supposed to keep their standings as world-class, advanced companies when their communications are not cutting edge, or at least up-to-date? Again, I understand that executive managers have to look at the full picture and work within budgets, but with a world that is going mobile faster than anyone can keep up with, why aren’t big companies even attempting to keep up even a little bit? Just as I had mentioned in the last article on this topic relating to m-learning mentioned above, I see it occurring in tech comm itself as well, with companies not keeping up with the latest version of how documentation outputs have to be changed to keep up with mobile technology. There is little risk with proven methods.
As a global economy–not just in the United States–we are trying to emerge from one of the biggest financial crises in economic history. Looking back at history, it’s usually during these times of economic woe that some of the greatest leaps in technology and business have been made, using great intellect and creativity to push things forward when resources were scarce. This is a time of emergence again. There are so many companies that have taken the leap forward to help take us to the next step. Smartphone and tablet manufacturers have brought us the next means of gathering information and providing communication between us. In turn, software manufacturers, like Adobe with TCS 4 and MadCap with Flare, among others, have provided us with tools to help take the content that technical communicators write to a new level of efficiency and flexibility among all the new mobile devices in the world while still keeping up with desktop capabilities. If any companies embrace any of the changes that are going on in the technical communications field, they can deliver bigger and better communications thus benefitting from the changes, not being hindered by them.
So, what are you so afraid of, corporate world? Help technical communicators help you. Even the smallest step forward will be step towards a better future for your company.
Hello all, and excuse my absence of late! If you hadn’t heard (ha!), Hurricane/ Superstorm Sandy hit the eastern coast of the United States, and headed straight for the state of New Jersey in particular. That means it hit where I live.
I initially started to write this while I was sitting in my car, writing on my iPad while my iPhone was getting recharged using the car battery, but I’m finishing it up on my laptop almost a week later. Hurricane Sandy hit my home, and we were without power for almost four days. A tree fell on our house, but fortunately not through the roof. There was a state of emergency in my town for a couple of days whereby no one was allowed in or out of town. Unless you were emergency personnel, you were not allowed to drive the streets. While we were lucky to get power within a few days (especially with very cold weather setting in), there are still thousands without power where I live, and even those who have lost their homes entirely. I was actually one of the lucky ones. So, you can understand why I might have had other things going on this week. 😉
Originally, I really struggled with an idea of what to write about this week, but this hurricane made some things very clear, and they are things that needs to be strengthened as a global necessity, not just as a local necessity. This storm made the following very evident to me: mobile technology and social media are critical in this day and age.
I only knew what was happening in the “outside world” and was able to make connections with my cell phone–a smartphone. Granted, the 4G network was incredibly slow, especially in the beginning, because everyone locally was doing the same thing. Something was better than nothing. Since I didn’t have power for my TV or radios, my phone was everything. It made me wish I had a MySpot mobile wifi connection created from my cell phone so that I could transmit the wifi signal to my other devices, but having at least the 4G did the job.
In the end, everyone who knows us had a way of knowing that we were okay. Between my husband and I, we texted my brother-in-law, my father-in-law in Ecuador was able to call my husband, and I had sent notes on Twitter and Facebook to let people know we were okay. There wasn’t much more that I could do. Until we had full power and Internet capabilities, I could only recharge my phone on a car recharger and send out the occasional note to update our status on social media. Saving battery life was essential to make sure that we could always be able to communicate. So writing up a blog entry was less important than making sure that our loved ones knew what was going on around us.
We were without electrical power for almost four days, and they were four of the longest days and nights I can remember. You have to remember that I live in a first-world country, where having constant supplies of electricity not only for powering things is commonplace, but it also runs things needed for basic survival, such as keeping perishable foods cold, and providing heat on cold nights (and we had some very cold nights). At my house, having had some Scouting training (I was a den leader for my son’s Cub Scout group for almost 5 years), and just even having a fireplace, we had some advantage. We had done some preparation so it wasn’t so terrible–just terribly inconvenient. There are others, such as my sister, who didn’t have power for more than a week. (She stayed with my parents who had power restored quickly.) There are still work crews from all over the Eastern Seaboard and the MidWest who have come in and have worked around the clock, and continue to do so to still get the rest of New Jersey power again. It is still not done. We’ve become a society that is dependent on its electricity, for sure. But we also have become a society that mostly depends on the power of internet connectivity and having means of communication powered by electricity.
Every day that we’ve had with power since it’s been restored, I’ve tried to remind myself about the many people in my state who have lost their homes and/or still don’t have power. I was greatly inconvenienced, but in the end, even with the tree falling on my house, I was still blessed and one of the lucky ones. My town, overall, didn’t sustain the kind of damage that other towns did. The big pond/lake and our town was drained before the storm in order to prevent flooding, and that worked. We didn’t have the water damage or flooding that other places did. Most of the damage we had was due to wind damage, so there were a lot of downed trees that took down power lines. Once trees began to be removed, and crews fixed the wires, then things started to get back in order. As I write this, there is still gas rationing in part of the state, which people need for their cars or even for generators to power their houses until regular service is restored. We’re not quite back to “normal,” but we are fairly close. Schools are starting to open back up for classes tomorrow after a week’s absence, many are returning to work, and shops are opening up again. New Jerseyans may have never been through something like this, but we are a resilient group of people. There is an expression that was often said well before the storm of “Jersey Strong.” That, we are.
But during this storm and its aftermath, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the importance of mobile technology and social media. Through SO much of the storm, my mobile phone was my lifeline to the outside world. Not only could we tell people that we were okay, but if we had been in serious trouble, it was our lifeline out. We would get messages and updates from friends and other resources through our phones. Was the storm over? I could track the storm either through the Hurricane Red Cross app or the Weather Channel app. Was it safe to go out? I’d receive text messages and emails from my town government to let us know what roads were blocked due to downed trees or wires. Where were there shelters if we needed heat, a warm shower and a solid meal? I could find that out as well. What markets had reopened after the storm for food, which gas stations were open with shorter lines, and where could we recharge our devices so we could continue to stay in touch and know what the news was? Different friends who had ventured out told me through social media. Having mobile devices and connectivity made knowing all that information possible. When we needed to have the tree removed from where it was leaning on our house, my husband called up our local tree guy, and his crew was out the very next day. And in a totally 21st century way, having mobile devices kept us entertained at night, as I had loaded up some old episodes of our favorite television programs on my old iPad for my son, and on the new iPad for me. (During the day, we’d be cleaning up our yard and doing other things that would take advantage of the daylight.) Without these modern technological conveniences, it would have been a lot more difficult to get through those days.
But it also got me to thinking about how that technology could have been even better, and where greater improvements could be made. Two things from the technological side were apparent to me. First, connectivity could be improved on a global level, not just at a local level. More communications infrastructure and stronger communications infrastructure are needed to create reliable wireless hotspots. While 4G connectivity was available, it was spotty, and not always reliable during the storm. My husband does not have 4G on his phone, although I have it, so we were solely dependent on my phone for information. A secondary but equally important problem was, however, that using 4G exclusively drained the battery of my phone quickly, especially when the 4G service was very slow. In a stressful and possibly dangerous situation like this storm, that’s a bad thing. I know there are several cities that have wifi service throughout the town, such as Philadelphia. We have many wifi hotspots, but they are not well connected between them, and they don’t reach to households around here. I found, once we had power and connectivity restored, that wifi connectivity on my phone or other mobile devices did not devour battery power on my mobile devices as much as the 4G did.
I started to think of places far, far away from me–and realized this is a global need. How are children in remote places supposed to get electrical power, more specifically battery power for a smart device? And even if there are miraculous power sources for these devices (which there are not at this time, especially in certain regions of the world), how would these children connect to the rest of the world? Both improving battery life/power sources for mobile devices and improving the infrastructure for internet communication are key. It all needs to be set up in such a way that it doesn’t cost a fortune, is readily accessible, and can literally weather anything. It should be similar to using a radio–we can still get AM and FM signals, but we need a wifi version of this. I know that the network services in our area, especially AT & T and Verizon, said they were doing their best to provide and repair the 4G and LTE services damaged from the storm. Okay, I understand that. But in the US, as well as everywhere else globally, we need to start thinking about how to step up the technology so that getting wifi signals are as common as getting an FM signal on a radio. I’m sure that this is technology that is being worked on, but I feel like this storm proved that point very much. Perhaps the internet access providers needed to get ready for the storm by temporarily increasing the network bandwidth and boosting those wifi signals already present. I’m sure that I will be charged an arm and a leg for the amount of data I did use during this time, and the provider companies won’t be giving any storm discounts of any kind under the circumstances.
The other thing that became highly apparent was the importance of social media during this time. It was one thing to receive text messages and emails from my local government (I signed up for emergency messages), loved ones and friends, and to have access to a tiny web browser on my phone, but social media, especially Facebook and Twitter were essential! It was an easy way for me to check in with everyone who needed to know how my family was doing, but also for me to know how all my friends and family were faring as well. Even now, those family members and friends who are still without power are posting status updates letting us know that they are safe, with family or friends with power, or if they are toughing out another cold night. As I mentioned earlier, it was through social media venues that I could see the scale of the storm, through various messages posted on a continual basis. We found out that our local supermarkets were open through Facebook with fresh food, warm place to stop, and outlets to recharge our devices. It allowed communities to come together–multiple communities–to help each other. As I write this, it continues to be working. Posts on Twitter and Facebook are still working to gather supplies for those who are in more trouble than us, provide information for those who seek a safe shelter until their home is habitable again, and moral support, too, for each other. The power of social media is incredible.
When I took my social media class last spring, there were several purpose categories in which social media communications fell, namely broadcasting the self, the netizen, participatory culture, or how social media related to work/labor. To me, there were instances were all these purposes were used during this storm. Social media users broadcast about themselves, providing status updates on their well-being. The netizens were the local governments and other information providers such as internet news agencies, or even Twitter feeds of local government leaders (like Newark mayor Cory Booker) who kept apprised of his city’s situation by staying in constant contact through Twitter to help citizens who had extra needs. All social media users who got through the storm were part of a participatory culture, namely, they were part of the group of “storm survivors” that grouped together. It related to work because we could see how the power companies and other service companies were keeping their customers informed about the progress they were making with restoring power, and would ask customers for feedback on which areas needed more help. Even if one barely posted anywhere on any social media outlet, one could easily understand the breadth and width of this storm’s impact merely by reading the feeds coming from these outlets. I had more information that my husband at any given time because I was looking at all of this and absorbing it, whether it was for personal safety or just for information. It was invaluable, and truly emphasized the importance of social media not only now, but going forward.
Mobile technology and social media were essential in helping my family get through this storm, and it benefitted millions of others through this storm as well. Both of these things continue to be vital as the job is not done in recovering from the storm.
As technical communicators, I think you can see my point, but there is yet another point in which technical communicators are vital in pushing our agendas in our field. That is, helping to provide concise, cogent, correct, and clear information for our end users. One of the problems that I encountered with various apps and communications was that they were so poorly written and explained that sometimes it was difficult to understand the information being provided. This is part of why social media was so vital–there was more of a conversation among users to clarify what a website said, or what a communication said. So many who were providing the information were clearly not writers or natural communicators, and this in itself could be dangerous in certain situations. I’m hoping as we recover from Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy, as a technical communicator, I can try to push the agenda that experienced social media writers and technical writers are needed so that information is provided in a clear way that all people can access it easily, whether there’s an emergency or not.
I hope that technologists are working to make the means of communication stronger with stronger internet connectivity that doesn’t require much power, and that smart devices available can have stronger battery power so that recharging as often isn’t necessary, especially when needing to rely on those communication networks for information. I think social media has proven itself as a strong communication tool during this storm, and it has reinforced the notion to me that I need to continue to stay tied to it, because it’s not only connected to my career livelihood, but my livelihood at large.
Right now, I just have to try to recover and try to get life back to “normal.” Appreciating mobile technology and the power of social media make me glad to live during a time when we have these available to us. Now, I need to get back into the swing of being more technologically immersed after being mostly “off the grid” for almost a week.
This post is just a quick summary of the Adobe Day at LavaCon 2012 series from this past week. As you see, there was so much information that it took six posts to try to summarize the event!
Being in Portland, Oregon was great. It was my first trip there, and being a native Easterner, my thoughts pushed me to that pioneer spirit of moving westward in this country. Once there, I saw a hip, young, modern city, continuing to look towards the future. The information I gathered at Adobe Day was general information that was endorsement-free, and practical information that I can use going forward as a technical communicator, and that by sharing it, I hope that others in the field will equally take on that pioneering spirit to advance what technical communications is all about, and bring the field to the next level.
To roundup the series, please go to these posts to get the full story of this great event. I hope to go to more events like this in the future!
As I said, I really enjoyed the event, and learned so much, and enjoyed not only listening to all the speakers, but also enjoyed so many people who are renowned enthusiasts and specialists in the technical communications field and talking “shop”. I rarely get to do that at home (although it does help to have an e-learning developer in the house who understands me), so this was a chance for me to learn from those who have been doing this for a while and not only have seen the changes, but are part of the movement to make changes going forward.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of blog posts. I still have many more to come–at least one more that is inspired by my trip out to Portland, and I look forward to bringing more curated content and commentary to you!
Joe Welinske of Writers UA followed Sarah O’Keefe’s presentation on Adobe Day. I was especially interested in hearing what he had to say, because the topic of his presentation was about “Multi-screen Help Authoring–How to Deal With the Explosion in Device Sizes.” Anyone who’s read this blog before knows that I’m very much into the mobile revolution, and while I’m usually talking about m-learning more specifically, mobile goes beyond learning, and using mobile in technical communications is connected to m-learning in many ways.
Joe explained that the device population keeps growing! Smartphones and desktops are changing; the sizes between smartphone and tablet devices, whether they be iOS, Windows or Android devices truly vary. The same content needs to be displayed on everything from large monitors to laptops to tablets to GPS to small phones–there are dozens of choices! How do you design a UI (user interface) for all these variations?
Joe explained that different devices have different dimensions, different operating systems, different user interfaces elements…lots of variations to contend with when creating content. He suggested that a “graceful, efficient adjustment is needed,” namely matching the amount of content and the type of content with a device without crafting solutions for each. He contended that responsive design the key as it allowed for adaptive content. Responsive design would allow flexibility for different environments.
Joe mentioned that Scott Abel has touched upon this during his presentation, but Scott later clarified for me on Twitter, by saying, “That’s one way, although I question whether it is the best way…Lesson: Adapt content first, design second. Wrong content, right design = #fail.”
Joe continued by pointing out that one way to accomplish this objective included using HTML5/CSS3, tagging all objects in source code, create device-type style sheets, and including media queries in source. The end result would be a single-source content file that looks and works well on different devices. To prove his point, Joe demonstrated how same source content looked on different devices, specifically the iPad versus iPhone in this example. Joe also showed an example of how he divides the devices by “buckets” when creating his style sheets into categories such as 10″ tablets, desktops, phones, etc. He recommended using a “parent” style sheet, then fine tuning with a device style sheet for each device type. This would help create a graceful adaptation using HTML/CSS and query to allow your content to flow automatically and intelligently. From that point going forward, a technical communicator can consider making mobile the starting point and expanding from there. Joe’s last point was that a small percentage of people from traditional technical communications are involved in mobile projects but the user experience and design skills are actually similar.
I agree with Joe that designing for mobile really does use many of the same skills as traditional design methods, but it does take a little extra time to lay out the thought process and structure needed to make the content be delivered from a single-source to multiple types of mobile devices. It’s a little tricky, but with some careful thought, it’s not really as complicated as it could be. By using single-sourcing and customizing style sheets, multiple output of content can easily be attained. I strongly agree as well that this is the mentality that people need to adopt, whether involved in technical communications or e-learning/m-learning now. I think this opened the eyes of many attendees in the room. Mobile really is an important consideration now in content output!