Writing for applications accessed through mobile phones and touch-screen-enabled devices

As mobile phones and other handheld devices start offering exciting technologies and tools to users, the way information is accessed too varies. Mobiles are no more used for only calling – they are used for accessing email, playing games, sending text and multimedia messages, transacting on bank websites, shopping online, and social networking. Tablets such as the iPad from Apple, Galaxy from Samsung, Streak from Dell, Slate from HP, are trying to combine the best of the laptop and smartphone worlds while reading devices like the Kindle from Amazon offer a new reading experience.

Meanwhile, touch screens have become common on mobile phones and other devices.

 Technical writers are in for an interesting phase as writing for such users offers newer challenges. Some observations:
  • The devices are all small meant to be used anywhere. So any content has to be primarily for online purposes (no one will want to lug a printer on the bus :)) 
  • User attention spans are shorter
  • Smaller devices although convenient in terms of access are not great for doing “work”
  • Users find it difficult to read when the pages scroll too much or when there are too many pages to jump through 
  • Users will probably do other things – like attending a call in between tasks 
  • Users might want to share information and would look to post content to websites and friends

Therefore, if users need help or information, they will think of the user guide as a last option. The information in user help has to be crisp and to the point. This requires a lot of planning. The TOC should be for example very high level as smartphones are not great for navigation back and forth across screens. Procedures have to be real short. If the user requires more information, provide a link to that. But watch out – too many links make it tough to navigate. Avoid images as a rule.

  

Navigation gets complex as you need to deal with both touch and standard screens. Screens are smaller or larger and any content has to look fine both vertically and horizontally. The next advance would be double sided mobiles! The terminology you use to describe anything has to be spot on. Tap or Touch? Touch or Select? Tap or Type? Enter or Type? Slide or Drag? Standard key pad or inbuilt? Expand or Enlarge? Popup or Window? Window or Screen? Hold or press? And I have not listed click at all. These are key questions.

The scenario is even more complicated as each device has its own operating system, user interface, icons, navigations methods, and standards.

Currently, Madcap Flare supports Mobile Help output (similar to Webhelp) while RoboHelp provides Mobile output through an eReader.

Flare’s output is supposed to work across browsers and multiplatforms – in Blackberry, iPhone, Android, and Windows Mobile (not yet Tablets?). But developers in my project cringed when I said the output would have some JavaScript as Android does not support it. Blackberry too has some image display issues.

So before you plan a user guide or online help for Mobile devices, get your information plan crystal clear.

 Another critical aspect is that users will “search” for information by typing in keywords. Other navigation aids such as TOCs and index won’t be so useful.

Therefore, plan your content in such a way that search will yield the desired results.

Flash and heavy graphics may not work well – so user experience designers had better look at HTML and other technologies.

By design these mobile devices will test anyone’s patience. These devices are positioned for those on the go – students, working professionals, and fun lovers. Thus, such users will be impatient when they are seeking information.

More on this coming up…

Agile SDLC and some tips for technical writers

Technical documentation is usually written following the SDLC (software development lifecycle) model of the project. The text book DDLC (documentation development lifecycle) fits snugly into the waterfall model. However as customers have moved to a different way of doing and tracking business, they have moved to the Agile SDLC method (for various reasons). Development and testing have been able to follow the Agile method without too much of discomfort. Developing or testing only the selected features is okay as long as the bigger picture of the “Product” is understood. The dependencies of modules, code, and test cases have not really mattered much.

 

However, things are different for technical writers in the Agile world.

 

Although a lot of information is available about how documentation fits into the Agile methodology, standard approaches are not yet in place. This is because of these factors:

 
  • Each product is different and requires different levels of focus from the writers. For example, a complex security or network product might require the writer to learn technical stuff leaving little time for worrying about the approach.
  • Planning might be difficult as requirements might not be clear. Writers might still be looking for basic information about the product
  • Each and every Sprint (a cycle of usually a month that is taken up for development and testing of selected features) is different
  • Documentation approaches for GUI-based manuals contrasts with purely technical explanations (where writers concentrate on 1. how a product is built – the architecture, the workflow, the configuration, deployment, and administration and 2. the technology (high availability, replication, backup, load balancing, Replica management, logging, firewalls, hosting, data recovery, synchronization, and APIs.
  • Writers write well when they have something to say – that is plan a TOC and follow it and ask questions. Agile is about providing just enough documentation for the selected features.

 

So some of the common approaches that writers working in an Agile SDLC have used are:

 
  1. Wait till end of Sprint, see if the software GUI is available and then write. Document only what is available. Leave room for more text and planned features.
  2. Plan a TOC to get the big picture (how the document and yes the product will look like). the TOC comes from each feature in the Development or Testing Analysis sheet.
  3. Ensure that document is not PARALLEL to development. Else it will be impossible to write anything.
  4. Topic authoring – write information required for the topic – procedures, concepts, or reference. useful when you don’t have any GUI to document the tasks.
  5. Some writers follow a “write once in 2 months” approach. This is a good approach too provided your project management agrees
  6. keep your source diagrams and screen captures in a safe place. You may need to edit these very often.
  7. keep content you write for concepts as technical teams might revert to what you wrote originally. For example, you might have written about database management in the product. The tech reviewer might have felt it was not what they had in mind. then a month later they would say, that it was the same thing they had decided on 🙂
  8. Ensure that you have a detailed review only every 3 months or so when some parts of the product is froze.
  9. During interim releases or internal betas, give a list of things that you will deliver and no more. Some modules will not have content and that’s fine.
  10. if you can, maintain a Doc WIKI and ask the SMEs to collaborate and provide their comments

 

This should get you started! As you move on, there will be lot more you will learn.

Time for reform: companies must monitor interviewers

A new writer joined our project recently. She mentioned that she had attended an interview at a leading product (anti-virus) company and was asked to explain “Reflexive Pronouns”. Well it is a pronoun – used instead of an antecedent noun or pronoun (example He, She instead of Bill or Tom) but  it is emphasized. For example “he himself” or “she herself”…

So the question is: why did the interviewer ask such a question? Technical writers need not know the explanation or details of Grammar to such an extent. Do the technical writers in that company think about Grammar when they write user manuals and online help? If a writer knew how to write correctly without ever thinking of Grammar, I am fine with it. Years ago, I too was asked a question by a poorly trained interviewer “what is a Gerund”. I said “It is a verb with ing form”. She said “No you are wrong!” I found that it is a noun with ing form. But why does it matter? It should not. I can write very well (am sure much better than the interviewer) and I know no grammar (American slang :)).

Is there an ulterior motive here? Or are the interviewers just unprofessional? Knowing the country and its technical writers I think it is the former…

Time the interviews were recorded as they do with the Cambridge exams for example. Time the questions and hiring methods were standardized. Give them a written test please.