Wednesday, June 22, 2011

what's with all these infographics?

Infographics are popping up like mushrooms. They attempt to illuminate everything from how many people are really using social media to the Bruins' bar tab at Foxwoods.  Why so many infographics lately? Are we really learning anything from them?

I used postpost to find all the links to infographics in my Twitter stream. I should probably do an infographic of infographic tweets according to who tweeted them or what they were about. Yeah, an infographic about infographics ... OK, just spent about half an hour going over the links that postpost uncovered and the only topics that had more than one infographic about them besides infographics themselves were social media, the Bruins bar tab, and Foursquare. I can't even begin to conceive of how to represent that in an infographic.

For the most part, they don't really communicate very much to me.  I'm a fairly visual person. I love to take photographs. I often think in pictures. I can often figure out how something mechanical works by looking at it. Why am I having trouble understanding these infographics? Let me count the ways.


Some of them look like ransom notes with so many different fonts that I can't focus on the content through the jumble. Some of them have bizarre low contrast color schemes-- paler blue on pale blue is really hard to read on my laptop screen.  All of them are hard to read on my mobile device.

Reliance on Text

If they're supposed to be visual representations of quantitative information, why are so many of them crammed with text? I don't think that's what Edward Tufte had in mind in any of his works on graphics in technical communication.  By the way, none of the ones I looked at had any "alt=" text for anything except the title. My visually impaired partner would have a heck of a time using a screen reader on them. I mean if you're going to make stuff inaccessible to the visually impaired, why bother including text in the first place?

Get to the Point

Most of them had so much stuff crammed into them that I couldn't figure out what the main point of the graphic was. What exactly is my takeaway supposed to be? A picture can be worth 10,000 words if you have the right picture, but if the viewer is left scratching her head about what the picture is supposed to be, it doesn't communicate much. 

Context, Lack Of

Where does the data come from? Why are you comparing apples and peaches when the question was about strawberries? Or was it about strawberries? More context on what questions the graphic is trying to answer, data acquisition methodology, data analysis methodology, and who the intended audience is would certainly help.

Darn. I've barely skimmed the surface and this post has gotten too long already. I feel other posts on the subject building  up.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

all about #MIN27

this way
Westward ho! This month's Mass Innovation Night was at CCR LLP in Westborough, easy to find, plenty of parking, and a huge training room set up for us. 

the check-in desk
BetterScape  snagged the best location for getting attention right as people entered the training room. I totally love the concept: a Facebook game to reward your friends for good deeds in real life -- making the world a better place. An idea whose time has come.  I chatted with the guys about how in the late Jurassic when I was a young programmer, people gave each other rides to work when their cars were in the shop and fed their cats when they had to be away on business trips. Using the ginormous amount of time people spend on Facebook to bring back that kind of behavior can payoff in a better world for everybody, even if it isn't much of a business model.
Aris in his innovative hat talking with Casey from BetterScape
Aris made sure I took a picture of the wonderful food. Folks should give Aris a BetterScape badge for wearing his chef hat to the event. The food spread in the Experts Corner had loads of fruit, vegetables, and cheeses. Just the thing for a hot summer night.

innovators like fruit

Bedford Stem Cell Research had the most attention-getting graphic display for their PVSA  Post-Vasectomy Semen Analysis mail in test kit.  They have a solution for a problem I did not know existed.

Bedford Stem Cell Research - PVSA

I checked out PostPost. They were wearing matching red t-shirts and talking about social search -- explaining how to filter the Twitter stream.  I award them second prize for costume (Aris gets first prize for his hat.) This is a great idea! There are so many times when I want to go back in time to find something I saw in my Twitter stream or catch up on what everybody has been saying about a particular topic. It's "content curation" for the Twitter stream.  Even if you think that Twitter is only about what your friends had for breakfast, PostPost can help you find historical content about those breakfasts. I have already started using it.

On the other side of the room, I chatted with iPresentOnline  about their cool tool for adding social aspects to elearning and online training courses. I think the #techcomm crowd might find this useful.
I chatted with Rob from TourSphere about his extremely cool mobile app generator for museums and cultural attractions. It makes it really easy for institutions to develop platform-independent mobile tours. This seems like an opportunity for cooperation and mutual benefit for our New England Day Trips At Hand app. I gave Rob a brief demo of our app on my iTouch. We could get people to the attractions and the apps they build with TourSphere could take people around the attractions. By the way, the nearest attraction to CCR is Ashland State Park. Wish I'd brought a fishing pole and a picnic.
Rob from TourSphere presenting
I was impressed with the turnout in way out in I-495 land, especially on a night with the Bruins in the fight for the Stanley Cup and the Red Sox playing the Yankees.  The Bruins game did give the presenters a strong incentive for keeping to their 5 minute times slots so everybody could catch the puck drop. BetterScape badges to all for that!
the crowd is building
I saw people tweeting up a storm fast and furious, though it was hard to tweet at the speed of the presenters.
standing room
 TemplateZone's Facebook page builder demo was the hit of the night. He created, edited, and posted a professional-looking Facebook page with 12 seconds to spare on his 5 minute presentation. Spontaneous applause broke out!
TemplateZone building a Facebook page in less than 5 minutes
The Experts Corner was well-stocked with experts. Jeff from CCR LLP took a break from giving accounting expertise to pose for the traditional "experts looking expert" shot.
expert looking expert

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"technical writer"

Google Ngram for Technical Writer

Since the prevailing opinion in the #techcomm blogosphere seems to be that those of us who have been called technical writers for the past 35 years or so will not be called technical writers in 10 years, I got to wondering how far back the term goes, when usage peaked, and when the current decline began. Therefore, I ran a Google Ngram search on the term "technical writer". The Google Books corpus only includes works up to the year 2008, so the recent changes in terminology aren't captured, but we can get a little insight from past usage.

The little blip in 1806 is a bunch of references in various articles to the same passage in Knight's Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste about Homer's Iliad. While not strictly about a technical writer in the modern sense, the list of subjects for such a writer does sort of overlap with what we think of as technical.

The author of the Iliad has described every thing, in which error or inaccuracy might be detected, either by experience, or demonstration. The structure of the human body ; the effects of wounds ; the symptoms of death ; the actions and manners of wild beasts ; the relative situations of cities and countries ; and the influence of winds and tempests upon the waters of the sea, are all described with a precision, which, not only no other poet, but scarcely any technical writer upon the the respective subjects of anatomy, hunting, geography and navigation has ever attained.
The earliest use I could find of the term in the sense of writing about technology is from a brief book review in The British Architect from 1882. I like that the reviewer comments on how clear and precise it is. Clarity and precision are still good things to have in content.

No engineering draughtsman or foreman should be without a little work entitled "Details of Machinery" (Crosby Lockwood & Co., 3s.), which Mr. Francis Campin has just written, and which forms an entirely new addition to Weale's Series. It is a wonder a work exactly of this kind has not appeared before; it is here now, however, from a careful technical writer, and will much enrich the invaluable series amongst which it is published. The intelligent appreciation of what is required from the details of machinery is a most important matter, and it is only by the acquirement of sound knowledge of this kind that the able draughtsman or machinist is made. Mr. Campin's writing is clear and precise, and the engravings well chosen; throughout the author has adhered strictly to simple arithmetic, not having used even a plus or minus sign, or any of the calculations, which are illustrated by examples worked out in full.

As you can see from the graph, use of the term technical writer peaked in 1961, declined a bit, then started to rise again in the mid-1970s, continuing to rise with ups and downs to a new peak in 2000, though slightly lower than the 1961 peak. Interestingly,  a 1958 article in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication asks the question "What Can the Technical Writer of the Past Teach the Technical Writer of Today?" The same article also makes a distinction between the role of technical writer and technical editor. A 1957 issue of The Writer, a journal for writers mentions "a comparatively new job category, this profession of technical writer. The greatest boost came during the war..."  Ads for technical writer as a job category seem to have begun to appear between 1953 and 1958 in such magazines as New Scientist and The Manager.

The peak in 1961 marks the appearance of handbooks for technical writers, books about technical writing, and style manuals.  There are lots of journal articles with "technical writer" in the title or abstract, many bunched up between the beginning of 1960 and the end of 1962. (I could spend days going through them all, but I'm doing a blog post here, not a PhD dissertation.) Handbooks, style guides, and "how to become a technical writer" books continue to be common in the corpus well into the 1990s. References to technical writing for the computer industry start showing up in the mid-1970s. 

The end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century seem to have pretty much the same kinds of books and articles, with the addition of books about how to turn your creative writing expertise into money as a technical writer and referring to technical writing as a prospective career for teens in the arts . One book, How to Become a Technical Writer: You Can Earn a Great Living as a Writer Now!  from 2001 tells us "If you can write clear, concise instructions, then you can be a technical writer."  Hmm, that was pretty much still true in 2001.

The slope of the decline after the peak in 2000 starts to get steeper around 2006.  My scan of the literature didn't turn up much change in the types of books and articles except that novels start to appear in the mix, most notably R.J.R. Rockwood's The Last Ant: Elegy for a Technical Writer in 2007. Other novels have technical writers as characters but don't deal directly with the decline of the American computer/software industry. Even Rockwood's novel seems to deal more with the place of the individual in the corporation than with the end of technical writing as a such.

I can't find any pointers to what was going on in the literature between 2008 and 2011 because the data ends in 2008.  It will be interesting to see what the literature about technical writing looks like in 2021, assuming Google continues to add new data to the corpus.

It's hard to conclude anything about the future of techncial writing from this stroll through the past. However, I will continue to call myself a technical writer.