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How do we determine the bounds of digital literacy?

Yes, you are seeing this correctly. There’s a blog posting from me. No need to double-blink in disbelief. I am still alive and well. I don’t always get much of a chance to write here because I’m busy! One of these days, I’ll try to catch up with what’s going on with me, but in summary, I’m busy teaching a technical editing class at NJIT, working a part-time gig for BASF, working a “freelance contract” with a pharmaceutical company as a digital content strategist, and working my tail off for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter as president, conference chair, sponsorship chair, and competition chair.  Not a lot of time to come up for air these days!

But as I do have a short moment right now to put these thoughts down, I thought I’d start this conversation, because it is a frequent topic that comes up again and again in all the things I’m working on these days.

Where are the boundary lines what constitutes digital literacy? Just like a person needing to know how to read and write, we live in an age where almost everything is done digitally these days.  You can’t do a lot of what you used to be able to do on paper or manually. You call a toll-free helpline, and you are most likely to get an automated chatbot responding to you before you can even get to a real person. Credit cards use chips increasingly more than the magnetic strips, or even use Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or the like. To get help for anything, most people go online to find answers through browser searches.  So where’s the line of what’s considered digitally literate and digitally illiterate?

I bring this up because I often get into discussions about what is acceptable and user-friendly UX, and what’s not. I usually follow the tech comm mantra of “know your audience”, so many of the audiences I have to deal with aren’t necessarily the most digitally savvy bunch. I’ll argue to include something to make interactivity with the site more apparent, whereas others will argue that it’s not necessary.

I also wonder about people who still can’t figure things out like social media, or GMail or Google Drive, or things like that. These have been around for a decade–or more! There are other apps and sites that have also been around for a long time, and people still have no clue how to begin to use them (and it’s more disturbing to me when it’s someone who has to either work with digital on a daily basis, write for digital, or is teaching digital).  Now, some may argue that it’s a generational thing, but I don’t agree. I know people who are my parents’ age (into their 70s) who have a better clue than I do about how to use digital, and are very good at it. And then I know people younger than me who have no idea how to use word processing or a simple spreadsheet. It runs the gamut.  Digital has been a part of society for at least the last 30 years, and there isn’t anybody who isn’t touched by it these days. Those who don’t adapt fall behind. Digital is pretty much everywhere, and it’s even easier to use now than it was in the decades before.

Case in point: I recently had to go for my yearly eye exam. My optometrist is still scheduling in a paper book, does her bookkeeping in a paper book (the receptionist writes out receipts rather than prints them out), and most of the records are still done solely on paper. Additionally, they don’t have an up-to-date database or access to one to look up insurance information. I was told that I didn’t have certain kind of coverage, but when the place that I got my glasses (a different place than my doctor) looked the information up, I did have the coverage. Why? They could access the information online more easily.  While it seems old-fashioned, my doctor is actually severely behind the times, and she’s going to have issues keeping up with more modern practices soon enough. She complains that there’s no software that meets her needs, but she doesn’t know that no software will meet ALL of her needs, and she needs to work with a vendor to customize things as much as possible so that it WILL meet her needs.

I also had to deal with someone for whom I had help them sign onto Google Drive and Gmail. I’ve told this person many times how to do it–in writing, no less–and they still can’t figure it out. I don’t think it’s my instructions, as others have used the same instructions without any issues. I think part of it is a conscientious mental block that person puts up, because they don’t want to learn.

So, this is why I ask…

As a society, we put great emphasis on the basics of learning how to read and write. Same thing for understanding the basics of mathematics. So what’s the functional literacy level for using digital? I will grant you that understanding how to use digital has evolved over time. But there’s a point where, even as technical writers, we need to be promoting better ways to be literate. For example, if you are on a webpage, and you see text that’s in a different color or especially if it’s underlined, wouldn’t that tell you that it’s a hyperlink, and it’s going to take you somewhere else or open another window? Then why do we still have text like, “Click here to view the video” instead of “View the video”–or better yet, if the title of the video is mentioned in the sentence, just hyperlink the video title? This is especially true when it comes to writing for mobile, as you can’t “click” on something, just as you can’t “tap” on a desktop/laptop interface unless you have a touch screen.  This is an example of something that’s incredibly basic, yet there are those who still don’t get it.

So how do we define the parameters of being digitally literate versus being digitally illiterate in this day and age? I know I have my own ideas, but I would like to hear yours.  How would you define these parameters? Include your comments below.

 

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Technical and social challenges of conversational design — uxdesign.cc – User Experience Design

I made my website conversational. Here is what I learned.

Source: Technical and social challenges of conversational design — uxdesign.cc – User Experience Design

Thanks to Madonnalisa Gonzales Chan for posting this on the Content Strategists’ group on Facebook.  This is an excellent article that starts to delve into the idea of how one would create UX content to interact with people.  As I’ve been working in UX creating some of this style of text (but definitely not anywhere close to this deep), I found this fascinating, and the journey that the author took in exploring this brought up points that I hadn’t thought of, as well as points I could relate to.

What do you think? Where do you see conversational design going as we start to write more content for help, IoT, and other content outputs? Put your comments below.

–TechCommGeekMom

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Where’s TechCommGeekMom? Good question…

wheres-waldo
You’d think that “Where’s TechCommGeekMom?” would be a variation of “Where’s Waldo?”. You might not be too far off…

Yikes. It’s been quite a while since I last wrote any entries. I apologize for that. I am keeping up with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (not Google+ so much), so people do know that I’m alive and well.

The last few months or so have been incredibly busy. Much of my summer has been making the long commute to the office and back almost every day. I’ve gotten a bit of a reprieve for August when I’ll be working from home most of the week, due to an arrangement I made with my director so that I can stay home part of the time while my son is home for the last part of summer break. I’m grateful that.

Despite commuting issues, working on the UX team I belong to can be stressful. I finally settled into the position, and only now I’m feeling okay about speaking up and asserting myself. Yes, I’m a closet introvert, despite my seemingly outgoing personality. We’ve had a lot of very tight deadlines lately, and have not been given ample time to create UX artifacts that completely do justice to a given project, but that’s the way it goes, unfortunately. I’m fortunate that the team I’m on is full of good people who are both total professionals and who support each other’s efforts.

For my part, as I’ve continued to adapt, there have been intense frustrations and tears shed, and a few tiny victories in between. Writing copy for UX design has been a challenge, but I have to say that I think I have a good knack for it. Sometimes my copy gets overruled, but sometimes I know I come up with something good. It’s not like it’s something like marketing or customer service-related content, or even help content, but debating the semantics of “edit” versus “modify” versus “update” when writing customer-facing instructional content is the kind of stuff that gets my brain to work at its best. The other day, I needed to change the text on a button, and the text had to be instructional and have a marketing slant at the same time. I asked the UX graphic designer the limit of how many characters I could use in that space. She said it had to be less than 31 characters–including spaces. The fewer characters there, the better. I got it down to 21 characters including spaces. Those are the kinds of challenges I like! So, work has been truly occupying a lot of my time and energy for the most part.

Even though I have been told that I’m doing a good job and I provide a fresh perspective on the content being created, I decided that this was not the job for me. I asked my manager not to renew my contract at the end of the month because it’s really not the kind of work I want to be doing. I gave it a try, but this kind of writing–not to sound conceited–was not what I went to grad school to do. I know I can contribute much more than what’s expected at this job. I think my abilities are more than labelling buttons and headers or writing two instructional lines at a time. My manager was understanding, fortunately, which I was glad about.  This means that I need to figure what my next move is.

I have also been continuing my part-time gig doing content management for my old job. While it doesn’t provide me with many hours, it does help me keep my foot in the door of the content strategy and management world. I also enjoy that job, so even if it’s just a few hours a week, it’s a good thing.

I’ve also taken on a volunteer position. I was elected to be the vice-president of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter (STC-PMC). Of course, I don’t know what I was thinking. I wanted to help, and I was encouraged. Now, I’m trying to hustle and learn what the position is about while trying to get the job done! The VP of the STC-PMC, in addition to supporting the chapter president, also acts as the program manager for the chapter. So, I’m trying to figure out how to coordinate several meetings for the upcoming program year. While my chapter president is very supportive, and we work well together, it’s a little overwhelming. What was I thinking? I’m trying to get as much done now during the summer so it won’t be as high pressure in the fall, provided everything is in place at that point. I’m also co-chair of the CONDUIT conference, so I’m trying to get some things started with that as well. I want to do well as VP at this point, because it’s really my first crack at any kind of leadership position I’ve had in almost two decades, and I need to feel good about something related in my career.

I’m in a weird position in my career right now.  I’m not so young anymore, and I have experience. I know that I do good work, I can make intelligent decisions, and that when given the change, people value what I have to contribute.

BUT…when looking for appropriate work, I’m either inexperienced (not enough years doing something), not enough background (content marketers=a marketer who understands content, not a content strategist who has some understanding of marketing, for example), or I don’t know the right software. I’ve often seen rare positions come up that were totally appropriate, and then find that they were an hour and half (or more) commute away one-way, or they didn’t pay enough, or both. I’m starting to lose confidence in my abilities because I’m losing chances to gain experiences. Or, the only way to gain experiences is to take steps backwards. I’ve already stepped backwards several times in the past year, and I’m fearful of falling off the cliff’s edge now.  At the same time, I’m trying to figure out what direction I should try next. Or better yet, I’m trying to figure out what direction I should go in that aligns better with my interests, not what the “market” says I should do.

The irony is when I attended TC Camp this past weekend, I felt validated in my abilities. I could learn from others who were more experienced than I am, yet I found that I could speak competently about the subjects discussed at hand. I didn’t sound like an idiot, and people found what I said helpful. One friend/attendee even asked me if she could pick my brain about how to approach a project she had. I never had that happen before, but I was happy to offer the approach I had used and suggested some tools she might want to try. For a day, I felt like a real technical communicator again!

I know my weaknesses. I’m not MBA material, I don’t know medical, pharma, or financial terminology, and I’m not a person with web development in my background beyond HTML and being able to manipulate Javascript, PHP or other coding languages a bit. Yet, somehow, where I live, to get a job as a tech writer, you must have a strong background in one or more of these things. They want SMEs who can write, not writers who can learn to be SMEs. Nobody wants to train. You are either an entry-level, right out of college kid who has some of this know-how and is willing to be paid peanuts, or you’re a person who’s been doing more complicated jobs for about a decade or so.  There doesn’t seem to be much for something in-between, or opportunities for people who have raw skills and the foundational experience that would lend well to different positions. Nobody–or at least very few–want to train a potential employee anymore. And thus lies the rub of my frustrations these days.

I’m trying to figure out whether I need to get more training on my own. Even if I did pursue that, I really don’t know what direction to go in anymore. I was told to learn DITA, but guess what? There are no DITA jobs near me, so that would be a little pointless. UX jobs? Well, I don’t have enough design background to apply for something. I have several interests within the tech comm world, but none of it seems to align with positions available in my area. It seems like instead of “one step forward, two steps back”, I keep falling farther and farther behind, and my prospects get weaker and weaker as I get older and all the skills I gained in grad school and other former positions become a faint memory.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego
Hopefully the rest of my life this year will not be something similar to “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” Hopefully, you’ll find me here!

The STC-PMC VP role alleviates some of that frustration, even though it has its own issues. At least within the STC-PMC, I have a great amount of support, and enough space to learn, fail, and pick myself up again without dire consequences.  I feel more confident in that role. I can’t say the same for the rest of my career at the moment. While I don’t have a direction, I knew that staying longer where I have been lately was not good move for me. I want and need to be able to do more, and I am in a spot where financially I can take the break, and I have the support of my family and my tech comm community behind me while I figure out my next steps forward.

So, that’s where I’m at. TechCommGeekMom might still be looking for her place in the tech comm world, but I’m hoping that with a little luck, maybe what I’m looking for will be found. I’m hoping that in coming months, I’ll be able to bolster this blog again, and you’ll see some more content coming through.

But I’m still here!

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Being paid to write–for the first time!

Snoopy and Woodstock are writing the copy deck. It's a lot of work, but they are learning a lot!
Snoopy and Woodstock are writing the copy deck. It’s a lot of work, but they are learning a lot!

While I’ve spent years blogging and talking about being a technical writer, I haven’t actually been a technical writer except for doing projects in grad school–until now.

In the last two months, I’ve started a position as a content/technical writer for the UX/UI Design team of a large company, working on their global self-service portal. The position was available shortly after my last contract gig ended prematurely. While I’m not enjoying the extra long commute, and I took a pay cut to remain employed, I have to say that I am learning a lot while applying a lot of the “theory” that I know.

Up until now, I’ve been more caught up in content strategy, creating the UX of websites, and making suggestions about how to utilize content rather than actually writing it. This new position has taken me in a completely new direction that I’m sure most of my readers are already familiar with, but it’s new territory for me–at least in applying what I know about it. There’s an outside vendor who creates the business requirements, who passes those along to the UX and graphic designers to create wireframes and the UI designs, and then another writer and I create the copy decks based on those.  The project we’re all working on is the Company’s global self-service product (the image above is a hint of where I’m working), so there are a lot of details to consider.

My time as a knowledge management specialist in my last position was not as pleasant as I would have liked simply because I wasn’t doing that much actually related to knowledge management at all.  I was brought in to do one thing, and ended up doing something completely different and something that didn’t play up to my strengths.

This is the complete opposite of that.  While I will contend that I’m still very much in the learning curve of understanding my responsibilities and their expectations, the environment is much more in line with what I need to be around. Our manager has been talking about the idea of creating consistency throughout the product’s content. I’ve suggested looking into single-sourcing tools that might help us with that, but they don’t know how to wrap their heads around that idea yet. Even so, the other writer of the team and I have had some lively discussions about it.  I appreciate having a voice when asking questions of why a UX designer went in a certain direction, and I get a vote when the team discusses how customers think and how they should direct the customers on the site.  While I’m still learning by doing when creating new copy and editing old copy, I feel like I’ve been well-trained for this at grad school as well as from various presentations I’ve attended over the years at conferences.  I’ve even had the chance to share my localization/globalization insights to the company in the hopes that we can be sensitive to better copy when the product is ready for translation.

So, this is certainly a new adventure. It’s not the direction that I thought I’d be going into, but I’ve definitely been learning a lot over the last couple of weeks, and things are just getting started.  We’ll see how this progresses in the coming weeks. I finished my first copy deck last week, and I was told that I did a pretty good job for a first-timer. However the second, much bigger and more complicated deck I just completed with little guidance was ripped to shreds after spending a month writing it, with only a day and a half to fix everything. Needless to say, I was unhappy about that (spent the afternoon in tears), and it made me put all my education and self-confidence as a technical writer into question. As I said above, I know they need better processes that probably involve a way to write single-sourcing information, but the problem is that it’s not the kind of information that would eventually be published as a website, ePub or other documentation. It’s complicated to explain, but it’s a bad process. All the copy is done in Word. Need I say more?

My husband has said that there’s one thing that’s been for sure during this last year or so–I can’t say that as a contractor that I haven’t had an opportunity to learn new things, and to have very different experiences in the process. He’s certainly right about that! This latest position is one that I think will provide me with better insights into writing and developing content, and how it integrates best for a good user experience for the customer. I’m used to receiving content written by others, so it’s a great chance for me to be on the “other side” of the equation. It’ll also provide me with insight as to whether this is the kind of job for me. (I’m thinking right now that I like content strategy and management better.)

Where will this take me next? Good question–I don’t know.  But there’s still a lot to learn, and it definitely contributes to my skills as a technical communicator.

What was your first writing gig like? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Contracting Adventures Lay Ahead…

Indiana Jones
Taking on new contracting positions is always an adventure. Indiana Jones knows all about that!

It’s been a quiet start to 2016 for me, even though there have been some things going on for me “behind the curtain”. I wasn’t ready to share just yet, but I think I am now, since things have settled down for the moment.

My contract as a knowledge management specialist ended early. The projects that they kept saying to me, “They are coming…we’re waiting for approval…” fell through. Two of them. They also didn’t have any other work for me to do, so understandably, they cut the contract short. Unlike some other jobs, I was greatly relieved to be released. I did not feel that this particular position and company was a great fit. Even though I truly tried to give it a chance, I remember not having good feeling about the place from my first day of work there, and my gut instincts were right. It wasn’t a good match in the end, and the fact that they didn’t plan well for my presence there proved that.

In the meantime, I had two events that changed the picture rather quickly.

TechCommGeekMom speaking at the PANMA/STC-PMC February 2016 meeting (photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC)
TechCommGeekMom speaking at the PANMA/STC-PMC February 2016 meeting (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC)

First, I was invited to be a panelist/presenter for a meeting that combined the Philadelphia Area New Media Association (PANMA) and the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter memberships. The meeting was about freelancing and contracting. Each group contributed two speakers, and I was one of the two representing the STC (the other was my friend, David Calloway). I was the last one to present or speak, and to be honest, I came completely unprepared. I thought it’d be a quick introduction thing, and then moderators would ask questions based on our experiences and background. (I guess I’ve been watching too many American political debates lately.) I was glad that I went last of the four presenters. Although the other three presenters covered much of what I would’ve said, I still had a few things to contribute. David and I took the stance of being contractors rather than freelancers. And as you might remember, several months ago I started my own freelancing company, but it hasn’t quite taken off yet.

But I will admit, listening to the others, I had a big realization of my own that night. I’ve been a contractor for several years, but not of my own choosing. I’ve tried finding full-time employee jobs, and it hasn’t happened in years. I think the last time I was not a part-time person or a non-contract person, it was still the 20th century! Yet perhaps, without my knowledge, I’ve already been a freelancer by default of being a long-term contractor.

That was my “A-HA!” moment, as Mitchell Levy likes to call it. I realized that yes, perhaps I have been a freelancer all along, and perhaps it really isn’t so bad to constantly be getting contract jobs. After the meeting, I told my husband about the discussion, and he pointed out that there was great opportunity in being a contractor. The biggest thing he pointed out was that each contracting job was an opportunity to learn new things. I would learn more about different industries, and often I’d learn more about new software, new procedures, and generally pick up a few new skills. I would also learn more about myself, namely what I’m good at, what I’m not as good at, and what I actually like doing.  The more I thought about it, I realized that he was right. These are all opportunities to hone different parts of myself, both in improving what I do well, learning new things, and gaining insight about what is best about my capabilities and how to use them.

Group of PANMA and STC panelists, February 2016 (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC).
Group of PANMA and STC panelists, February 2016 (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC).

Now, not everyone can be a contractor. It’s not easy because of complications of being a non-employee, thus you don’t get the same rights and benefits, like affordable health insurance, as a contractor. Some agencies that contract out do offer these benefits, but they are usually at a higher rate than at a large company. But, at the same time, there are certain flexibilities that a contractor has. If a contractor is careful with personal finances, he/she can take time off, or work more than one position over time. Granted, in 99.99% of cases, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. So, for example, when I go to the STC Summit in May for about a week, I won’t be paid for “paid vacation”. In fact, a contractor doesn’t get any paid vacation. You get paid for the hours that you work. So, that can be good, and can be bad. If you are a good contractor, you communicate these occasions with your manager, and you ensure that you are caught up with your work to be able to do this, it provides a little flexibility that an employee doesn’t have.

I’ve lamented the woes of being a consultant recently, and it was especially because I was in a bad situation. It was not a good fit, and the worse parts of being a contractor were at their absolute worse. But now that I’ve been away from that, with the help of this PANMA/STC-PMC panel last week, I’m starting to change my attitude a little bit.

With that in mind, I took a new job that started this week…as a contractor. I will be working for a global insurance company as a content writer/copywriter for their global self-service websites. This is a big change for me, because while you’ve known me as a social media writer, I really haven’t done any writing for a company this way before. I originally was reluctant to take the job, as it’s a far commute than what I’m used to and I’m taking a significant pay cut to do this job. But, I saw it as an opportunity to actually put my technical writing, editing, and UI/UX experiences to work in a different way, so it’s worth a try. After all, the contract is only for six months with a possibility for extention. Unlike the last position I took in which I had a sinking feeling about it (and my instincts were right about it), I have a better feeling about this position. After completing my first day, I think it’ll be a challenge to do things from a different perspective, but I liked the group of people I’ll be working with, the environment was more inviting, and I could tell that the work we’d be doing is much more in line with my experiences.  While I’ll be learning to do copywriting the way they want, I’ll still be using skills I’ve acquired from all the conferences, webinars, grad school, and social media experiences I’ve had. In other words, I think this is a much better fit, and I think I can learn something positive from this position, which makes me feel much better about taking the position.  Everyone was speaking tech language that I understood, and I was deep in the mix with information architects and visual designers as well as spending a lot of time with the other copywriter on my first day. I think it’s going to be a good thing!

I’ve also been continuing to work on a part-time basis with my old content strategist/management job at BASF. It’s my “moonlighting” job, as I call it, but it helps keep those skills fresh at the same time while working with another company that I truly like.

See? Even the old Templar Knight agrees with this attitude change.
See? Even the old Templar Knight agrees with this attitude change.

These next months are going to be obviously very busy, but I think they’ll provide some good insights into something new for me. I’ll be able to truly write blog posts from a technical writing and UI/UX perspective based on new experiences. Hopefully, future contracting positions will also be providing great learning experiences along the way. Perhaps embracing being a contractor means that I will be more of an adventurer than I thought.