Archive for February, 2008

Learning Styles

Posted in MadCap, Tech Comm with tags on February 22, 2008 by Mike

My brain woke me up at 3:30 this morning, very excited to see me. “Oh goodie,” it said. “you’re up! I’ve been thinking about things and I have a lot to tell you about.” I tried to go back to sleep, but my brain simply would not shut up. So I got up, let the older dogs out, made coffee, and started working. Why not? I’m up.

Fuzzy ducklings

One of the things I do is teach baby engineers at UC Riverside. About 2 years ago, the Department Head of Comp Sci called me. We knew each other slightly because he’s brought students to IESTC meetings occasionally in the past when I was president of the chapter.

“We have a problem,” he said. “We’re graduating engineers that can’t communicate.”

“Really?” I said. “Well, that’s unusual. I think you’re the only program in the world that’s doing that because all the engineers I know communicate perfectly.”

They realized that this failure to communicate was impacting their graduates in the workplace. They needed to have a class that teaches them to communicate technical information to others. Would I be willing to teach that? So I grabbed my best friend and we set up a class that we co-teach 2 nights a week, because we have other jobs. She teaches Tuesday nights and I teach Thursday nights.

We teach Comp Sci, IT, and EE engineers in a class that’s required for their graduation. It’s very fun and I love my students. They follow me from lecture to lab, chirping and quacking, just like little fuzzy baby ducklings.

Most of them find themselves interested in learning what we have to teach them about communicating in the workplace. We explain that not only do they have to do presentations, functional specs, and the like, but their products communicate as well. It’s all about creating products, whether those products are test cases or hardware, that people can use.

Last night, we worked on Audience and Learning Styles. And that made me think that perhaps a post about learning styles and their impact on user assistance might be an interesting blog entry. Since I’m up.

Please, my mother said, don’t draw me a picture

 There are 4 learning styles in Adult Learning Theory:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Read/write (or word oriented)
  • Kinesthetic

You have a preference for taking in information one or more of these ways. More people prefer 2 or more but I’ve had students who scored zero in everything but 1 preference. If you prefer 2 or more, you are multi-modal. I’m strongly kinesthetic and word oriented, for example. I score lowest on visual.

What this means is that I prefer to learn by getting my hands on something or perhaps reading about it. Or both, if I can do that. I learn least well if you tell me about it and show me pictures. I can still learn that way – most people can learn in any of the 4 styles – but I struggle much more if you tell me about a topic and showed me pictures.

There are no “better” learning styles. And these can change over the course of your life; it’s not necessarily fixed.

Sometimes a picture is just a picture

Most Tech Comm people are strong word oriented learners. They like words. More words are better, they think, so they add words. Lots of words. Words make them feel better because words are how they best learn information. And if you’re writing for word oriented learners, more words are going to help your users learn. It’s a great match.

But what if your users are not word oriented? More words are not going to help. More words are going to make things harder. Perhaps your users are more visual. Perhaps your users are kinesthetic or auditory. How do you address the learning styles?

  • Visual – provide lots of graphics. Conceptual graphics are really helpful because it shows the user the relationships or the flow of data. If you’re developing content for online delivery, use moving pictures, such as screen videos. Even tables and bulleted lists can be helpful here because these are sort of pictures of information.
  • Auditory – write in a more conversational voice. If you are developing content for online delivery, perhaps a sound track or a button that starts a voice that tells about the topic, even if it’s just reading the text.
  • Read/write – more words are good.
  • Kinesthetic – provide as much Do material as possible. Numbered procedures are great, labs are good. In an online environment, perhaps include screen videos the user interacts with.

Shameless plug here: The MadPak Suite provides all the tools you need to support all the learning styles. And it’s easy to include sound, video and pictures in your online content.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

So what does this all mean to you? You are always going to want to develop information that works with your learning styles. So if your reviewer says something isn’t clear and you’re a word oriented learner, you’re going to want to add more words. Because words make you happy.

Here’s a secret: If your reviewer says something is unclear, consider their learning style. If they jump to the white board to draw you a picture every time you ask them something, they’re a visual learner. Consider perhaps adding a conceptual graphic to clarify for them and other visual learners. If they always physically act out what they’re talking about, they’re more kinesthetic. Consider adding more Do material to support that learning style.

Also consider learning styles when working with your boss. If they are a visual learner and never seems to read your weekly report, consider creating a picture out of the data and sending that. You may discover they grasp what you’re doing much better.

It’s time for me to do other things with my morning

If you want to learn more, and especially if you want to discover your learning styles, go to and take the 15 minute online questionnaire. You may be very surprised at the results!


On the road again

Posted in Blaze, MadCap with tags , on February 20, 2008 by Mike

I’m on the road the last week of Feb.

The first is Des Moines, Iowa on Feb 26th. If you want to attend – and I’d love to see you – go to and get more info about the meeting.

On the 28th, I’m at the Silicon Valley STC. For more info on that meeting, go to

I’m giving away a copy of Flare at each meeting, so attending could mean you leave with about $800 in software. Such a deal!

The MadCap life

Posted in MadCap, Personal with tags , on February 17, 2008 by Mike

Tom Johnson asked if I could post about what it’s like to work at MadCap Software. I’m not so sure it’s interesting to others, but I’ll try to describe it.

I have all this fun and I get paid for it 

First of all, this is my favorite job ever, including when I was running my own company. I require a job that has a lot of variety and different things to do. One of the biggest challenges I face in any workplace is boredom. I really need to be learning and doing many things or I get bored. A bored Sharon is an unhappy Sharon – that’s why Cultural Anthropology Grad School and running my own very successful consulting company both worked super well for me.

Perhaps I have a form of ADD – I’ve often thought that some of the best tech writers have a form of ADD because that way of managing the world works so well in a hi-tech environment, where things compete for your attention in about 10 minute increments. My husband probably has a form of ADD, he admits, and it’s worked well for him in the journalism world, which usually moves as fast as the hi-tech world.

I also need to feel that what I’m doing is making a difference. My idea of hell would look like a factory floor worker, where I’m just another cog in a big machine. I need to feel like what I’m doing matters and impacts something. That what I’m doing is valued.

This was one of the big problems with my previous job as Docs Manager – there were several but this was the biggest – at the corporate level, they didn’t value docs. What I’ve spent 15 or so years doing and teaching and learning about didn’t matter to them at all. The CEO said to me in front of a customer “No one reads the manuals.” And then dismissed the customer when he protested that no, no, he read the manuals closely and liked the changes he was seeing under my watch.

I loved my staff and the difference we were making for the customer but the corporation had no interest in helping the customer use the product and eventually, it became too much for me. I have to feel like what I do matters to the people I’m doing it for or I can’t do it. I could wait tables again and at least get the good feelings from providing people with a pleasant meal.

Our culture is better than your culture

We have a very intense, start up, culture: We’re aware that we’re building the tools that will change the direction of the Tech Comm industry. We know that our product decisions have a direct and immediate impact on people. And that’s really exciting because how often do you get to do that?

Our developers are great – they know Tech Pubs but they’re not experts at Tech Pubs. So my years of experience are pulled in for things like workflow questions. Our guys want to elegantly solve design problems (they are engineers) but applicability is important too. So it’s not just “Should the product do this?”, it’s more “What would make life easier for a tech writer?” It’s a subtle development difference but a really important one.

For example, Analyzer. We were working hard on Blaze when a discussion about reporting and the lack of in the current version of Flare came up. Next thing we knew, we decided to delay Blaze to build Analyzer because Analyzer would help Tech Pubs people solve real problems right now. And we added features based on the idea of “What would be helpful for someone to be able to fix? How can we make lives easier?” I’m pretty proud of what we did and love demo-ing the product.

All work and no play makes us, well, who knows?

We also typically work long hours – notice that I’m writing this on a Sunday morning. Our tech writer works insane hours. He’s been with us from the beginning and knows the products much better than I do.

I can count on our Chief  Technology Guy to send emails overnight or on the weekends as a thought strikes him. I also know he’s writing code like a wild man because he thinks in code. I swear he does. Don’t tell him I said so, but I think he looks at his 3 beautiful kids as interesting long term engineering problems. (It’s really fun when they’re in the office because they mostly speak Swedish to him and they’re very small and adorable and cling to him. They love their Daddy. I like listening to his tone of voice when he speaks to them.)

But we don’t just work; we’re a pretty tight knit group. For example, we have a Ping Pong room with a table and we run championships. My interest in Ping Pong was actually an interview question. (I don’t know how to play, I said, but I’m very open to learning.) People stop work and grab someone to play a game with. It helps people to relax and refocus.

We have award ceremonies at the end of a championship play and the winner gets an award. A few people have several trophies on their desk. It’s pretty fun when the entire company gathers for the awards ceremonies and applauds the winners.

We’ve also started Happy Hours, which sadly for me, happen on Friday nights, when I work from home, 100 miles to the north. I want to go, but it seems a bad idea to feed me drinks and then put me in my little Miata to fly home in the dark at 80 miles an hour. Nothing good could come from that. When I move to San Diego, I can start going. (Anyone want to buy my house? It’s a great house…)

Where everybody knows your name

I think our biggest competitive advantage in this market space is being small and customer focused. Our competition is, largely, very big companies that can’t move fast because getting all those cogs moving in another direction is just hard. All software products have “issues” but when they’re found in our products, we can usually fix them in a day or 2 and release a patch. And we contact the customer that found it and let them know we fixed it.

We also listen to what our customers want – Analyzer came out of that, for example. We were willing to delay Blaze to meet a need that our customers told us about. If you’re using our products and see something that would help you, you can submit that to us. If you do that, make sure you include specifically why you want it. Remember, our guys know tech pubs but they’re not experts at tech pubs. They need to know why something would help you.

We also get new product ideas by talking to people when we’re out in the world, at conferences, presentation, or just watching a newsgroup. We really want to build products you want to use. We don’t have a 3 year roadmap that we’re locked into so good luck on your problems. We know where we’re going but we are also very flexible about it.

In sum, one can see…

I hope I’ve shared a little about what it’s like to work at MadCap Software. Everyone is very good at what they do, we work hard and a lot to build products you want to use but make time for Ping Pong and drinking. And to admire the firemen who go to the gym across the street every day about 3pm. Or at least, several of us take that time. I think it’s important to relax and refocus.

It’s really the most fun I’ve had in a long time. I don’t want it to ever stop.

When New England roars, or at least drips hard

Posted in Blaze, MadCap with tags , on February 13, 2008 by Mike

OK – maybe not for the locals, but today it roared as far as I was concerned. I went to sleep last night to snow falling fairly heavily. This morning, almost 8 inches had fallen. Everything was covered in snow. It was pretty but looked very cold.

Overnight, it had turned to rain. It rained hard all day. I thought that water melted snow but not if it’s 30 degrees, which is as warm as it got all day. The snow was still here, piled up all over the place. But by 3, things had started to flood. Not a good omen for my talk tonight. I knew that people wanted to drive up from Boston but the weather was clearly going to prevent that.

Wendy from the NNE STC chapter showed up at 5:15 and we drove (ok, more like rowed, there was so much water) to Daniel Webster college for the meeting. It’s a pretty, small college that, I’m sure, is lovely in the summer with lots of brick buildings and wide areas that must be grass when they aren’t covered with snow.

Wendy and I sloshed thru the rushing water and the heavy rain in the parking lot to the building they meet in. I got icy water in my shoes, which was nice.

Inside the warm building, we eventually got about 8 people but they were 8 great people. I really enjoyed showing them Blaze and answering questions. No one was using any of our products so it was a chance to explain out market strategy and show our products. I had a great time talking to people and listening to what they had to say.

We finished at about 8:30 and Wendy got me back to the hotel about 9. It has mostly stopped raining but things are starting to ice up.

I’m really glad I have my full-length down parka coat, my gloves, my scarves and hat. And dry socks. I was really glad for the dry socks!

So I’m finishing up emails and watching a little TV. I fly out tomorrow about noon, giving me enough time to pack and get to the airport without having to rush. I should land about 8pm and be home about 9.

I’m on the road this week

Posted in Blaze, MadCap with tags , , on February 11, 2008 by Mike

I’m going to the Northern New England STC chapter this week. If you’re in the Nashua, New Hampshire area Feb 13th, then drop by. The details are at I’m demoing Blaze, Analyzer, and tidbits of Flare 4. I’d love to see you! I’m giving away a copy of Flare so that’s about $800 of software you could win.

I’ve only been to New England one time before, about 15 years ago, for an Anthropology conference I presented at. I’m looking forward to meeting people and seeing what I can from a hotel window. I’m a So Cal girl and I have no idea how one might drive on snow. I’m scared to walk on snow. Driving is more complex than walking so it sounds scary. So no rental car and no seeing the country side while I’m there. Perhaps they’ll have me back one day and I can see more.

Have I mentioned that we’re having some of the nicest weather we’ve had in 6 months in So Cal? It’s almost 80 degrees in Riverside (where I live) and 72 in La Jolla. Not a cloud and the sky is so blue, your heart breaks. And I’m going to a place where it’s getting up to perhaps 30 degrees on Wednesday. This is going to be hard.

Great Blaze Pre-Review

Posted in Blaze, MadCap with tags on February 11, 2008 by Mike

I do a weekly preview of Blaze that you can sign up for, if you want. It’s open to the public and shows some highlights of Blaze and Flare 4. Go to and select the time and date that works for you.

Keith Soltys attended last week. It made me nervous when I saw him on the attendee list because I know his reputation and he knows a lot. He was a good guy, didn’t embarrass me, and seemed to like the product overall.

This morning, he sent me an email that he updated his blog. I’m really happy about what he said about Blaze. To find out more, go to

Topic-based content development: How now, brown cow?

Posted in MadCap, Tech Comm with tags , , , on February 6, 2008 by Mike

Well, I’d tell you to get a cup of coffee and have a seat, but we’re totally out of coffee here. This borders on Crisis. Had I known, I would have stopped at Starbucks on the way in. It’s bad all the way. I have a deal with one of our sales guys (because I helped him once on something) that when I need him to, he’ll run for coffee.

Today, I’m using that valuable chip. He’s a good man and will be a better man when he brings me coffee. I like men who bring me coffee.

So, if you have coffee, get some and have a seat. I’ll drink water, I guess.

You made a list and you checked it twice

When we left off last time, you made a list of all the stuff that your user can do in your product. Now, obviously, some of these topics are going to require more than Step 1, Step 2 and so on. Some of these topics will need overview sort of text. I call this narrative info, you can call it bananas, if you like. But this is the info your user needs to have before s/he can do the thing.

For example, before s/he can run a report, they need to know about what information appears on a report and why. So you may need a topic called “About reporting” that covers this info. It’s not a task, but it’s related to a task the user needs to do. It may also, by the way, need a picture that shows the concepts in the About topic. Consider that. It supports your visual learners.

Working in the coal mine

If you work in a Use Case- or Scenario-based development environment, topic-based content development is the only way to go. You can use the Use Cases or Scenarios to develop your topic list. It’s not a one to one correlation, though; one Use Case does not equal one topic. This helps you in planning and scheduling because you can tie what you’re doing directly to the development effort.

That’s huge. Seriously. It’s big.

Most companies have no idea how docs get done. It’s a dark and mysterious hole to them. Showing that Use Cases or Scenarios are things that you also do in Docs exposes what you do and when you can do it. You can show that these topics map to that Use Case and those topics map to this Use Case and so on.

You want it when?

You can also provide a rough time estimate for how long the topic will take to write. A completely out of the blue guess? I’d estimate, on average, 2.5 days to write a topic to ready-to-review draft.

Why? Because it takes on average 4 hours per page to get from air to final copy. A topic should be no more than about 2.5 pages, including graphics. Ready-to-review draft is about three quarters of the way there, in my experience. So rough estimate about 2.5 days – some topics will be easy, but the narrative topics may be much harder. But you know your material and how long this takes for you, right? You’ve been tracking your time and know for your situation, right?

This also helps you in scheduling. People get the idea that you can’t write about Use Case 345 until Use Case 345 is out of development and into testing, and that’s going to happen about… let’s look at the schedule… oh! Sept 25th. And you say it’s going to take you about 2.5 days to develop that topic, so we can expect to need to review it about Sept 28th or so.

When all things aren’t equal

Another big advantage with Topic-based content development is that you – or your boss or someone – can prioritize topics. In my experience, most tech writers have way too much information scoped for the time available. There’s never enough time to do all that could be done. Once you get your topics mapped to Use Cases and then on the master schedule, it becomes obvious to all if there’s too much work scoped.

When it’s obvious that the rest of the product will be ready in March and docs will be ready in August, this is now a scheduling issue. It’s not because the tech writer is stupid, it’s the schedule that’s the issue.

Now you or your team can start deciding what topics simply must be ready and what can wait or be delayed when time becomes an issue. “Perhaps we don’t develop the topics for new users or the expert users.” someone may say. That might cut the schedule back weeks or months. Perhaps there’s another writer that can be pulled in to help.

The point is, now people can see what you do and how long it takes. They have information to work with to start the negotiations to meet the release dates they are shooting for. Docs are no longer an unknowable black hole.

When variables won’t and constants aren’t: the review process

Another big advantage with Topic-based content development is the review process.

In a typical manual-based organization, you drop at least a chapter at a time on your reviewers. Is it a surprise that no one has time to review? You just dropped 45 pages on someone and want them to “just review that, please. Chapters 5 through 9 are coming tomorrow.”

But in Topic-based content development, you send a topic out for review. Most people don’t have the courage to tell you they can’t “possibly be expected to review 2.5 pages, that’s just too much.” So you may actually get your reviews done. Now, truthfully, you’re still sending 100 topics out for review but you’re doing it 2.5 pages at a time. It just looks like less work. You’re nibbling them to death like a duck.

Don’t mention the other 98 topics yet to come. Just smile and thank them for the effort for this topic.

All good things have to come to an end

While I typed this, my sales guy brought me coffee. I hugged him. Life is good. I think I’m going to go outside and sit in the sun, drink some coffee and warm up for a few minutes. My office is cold today. Expect more on this topic in a few days.

Where in the world is Sharon?

Speaking of cold – don’t forget to see me in Nashua, New Hampshire Tuesday of next week. I’m really excited to be in that part of the country. I’ve requested they warm it up by about 40 degrees. They said they’re right on that for me.

Nice people.