Archive for May, 2008

Man, the STC webinar was fun!

Posted in MadCap, Tech Comm with tags , , on May 19, 2008 by Mike

The webinar we did for STC last week sold out in about 3 hours, which stunned me. I had no idea the topic was that exciting to everyone. I guess to me topic-based content development is like air, but I see now that people are really looking for advice on how to do it and why.

Oddly nervous

For the first time in a long time, I was nervous. This was 250 sites and it’s been a while since I’ve spoken for that many. I was also worried that I wouldn’t convey valuable information and people would think this was a waste of their time. It was sort of like doing standup comedy, in that I also couldn’t see the audience. Unlike standup, tho, I couldn’t hear anyone. So I had no idea if my jokes were going anywhere.

(Ask me about some of the worst stand up performances I’ve ever had sometime. Silence is not always golden)

But I think it went well overall. I talked much too fast for the first 10 minutes, as I do when I’m nervous. But I settled down and I think it was OK.

June is my very favorite month

If you wanted to attend the STC webinar and couldn’t get in, keep watching my blog. We are doing something in June that may help you.

Speaking of June, 2 great things are happening.

The first is the STC International Conference in Philadelphia.

Brief divergence

The last time I was I in Philly was 1980. My first husband and I were living in Naples, Italy and had come back to the States for a family emergency. Because he was active duty US Army, we flew thru Philly on standby military flights both way.

On the way back to Naples, they had room for my husband – because he was active duty, he had priority – but not for me and Matthew. The next flight was a few days later so the military put us in a hotel for two long, boring days. I was traveling with a 2 year old in a city I knew nothing about and I was 19 and very shy.

(No one ever believes that I was painfully shy when I was young, but it’s true. I could barely speak to strangers.)

Back to the main topic

I’m guessing this time will be utterly different, if for no other reason than I am several husbands later. Oh, and I’m a little more outgoing now. That’s also changed.

We have an amazing booth for the show. Come by and see it. We’re also giving away a lot of stuff, so make sure you’re in that loop.

The other cool thing that’s happening in June is my birthday. I love my birthday. It’s the beginning of the universe. I’m thinking seriously about going to visit my son for my birthday this year so you may get some more children pictures posted over the 4th of July weekend.

I miss Matthew and want to see him. My eyes are happy when I see him.

So, if you’re at the STC International conference, swing by our booth and wish me an early birthday.

Reading-to-learn and cognitive loads

Posted in MadCap, Tech Comm, technical writing with tags , on May 14, 2008 by Mike

While I was in Vancouver, you may remember, I read a great article about cohesion and coherence from the ISTC magazine. I mentioned that there was an STC Journal article about a year ago that related but I couldn’t remember how.

I found the article.

It’s The Effect of Heading Frequency on Comprehension of Print Versus Online Information by Alexandra L. Bartell, Laura D. Schultz, and Jan H. Spyridakis. Technical Communication, Vol 52, no. 4, November 2006. pages 416 to 426.

So, what’s the article say, Sharon?

Oh, many interesting things. Get another cup of coffee. And cookies. Everyone needs some cookies.

Except the woman who stopped in front of me this morning on the freeway and then slowly rolled 30 feet backwards into me, despite blowing my horn, yelling out the window, waving my arms, and backing up my car as much as possible. She doesn’t get any cookies.

She was going less than a mile an hour so there was no damage to my car or hers. Which is a good thing, considering how mad I was. But she still doesn’t get any cookies. (My car won’t go, she said, when asked why she hit me. Well, I said, it seems to have no problems going backwards. Maybe you should put it in Park until I’m gone.)

Back to the article

OK – now that you have coffee and cookies, let’s settle in.

On the first page, they talk about:

One area of empirical research with considerable information concerning print documents is that of “signaling.” Text signals consist of preview statements, overview sentences, headings, and other cues about the content and structure of a text. Empirical studies tell us that when readers who are “reading-to-learn” encounter signals in print text, they are better able to comprehend new or difficult information. These signals help readers create mental roadmaps or schemata of a text’s structure and content that in turn help them absorb new information. As readers take in new information, they instantiate existing schemata, adapt them as needed to fit the new information, and at times, even reject the new information. [p 416]

These seem to be the cohesive devices mentioned in Ward’s article. And they seem to be saying that cohesive devices create the coherence in the users’ minds. I’m good so far. We’re consistent with Ward’s article.

What are headings good for anyway?

They go on to wonder how the frequency of headings in print or online might impact comprehension (comprehension being cohesion, as it is in the mind of the reader and is testable). Headings are important as signals because they help the readers understand the structure of the text and assign meanings (create schemas). “The importance of text signals is evident when one realizes how much readers use cues in a text to help them discern a text’s meaning.” [p. 417]

However, difficulty of the text or reader motivation seems to matter in using signals for coherence.

[…] if readers lack domain knowledge or find a text difficult to comprehend, signals that provide text coherence may help them better understand the material. In contrast, text that readers perceive to be easy does not benefit from signals—in such cases, readers have little need for the extra help that signals could provide. Similarly, if readers find the information enjoyable to read, they may be less likely to need headings or other signals to help them understand the content. [p. 417 with references removed]

However, headings may be problematic in online text:

Because readers tend to scan online text, many Web usability specialists have called for the use of more headings in online text. Although such advice may be valuable for readers who are “reading-to-do” and who are thereby searching online texts for specific information, it may be less appropriate for readers who are “reading-to-learn.” [p. 417 with references removed]

Reading-to-learn vs reading-to-do

Reading-to-learn are people who are reading for learning the material for some reason. For example, they may be interested in consumer goods and how to reduce their consumption, as my son and his family are interested in. So my son sends me lots of reading-to-learn information links to help me know more. One of the goals to reading-to-learn is recall.

Reading-to-do is reading information with the intent to act on that information. Product documentation is a good example of reading-to-do material. You expect that your reader will read some of the material and then turn to the product and do something. Reading-to-do is short term. Recall is not usually a goal.

Cognitive loads can be so heavy

They also give good definitions of cognitive load, which you should be familiar with if you’re not. It’s an important concept for us, because our users don’t come to our materials with nothing else going on.

[…] three types of cognitive load that could help explain comprehension differences in print versus online environments:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load, which is inherent in the material itself
  • Extraneous cognitive load, which is imposed on the user by the format and way that the material is presented
  • Germane cognitive load, which involves the learner’s attempts to process and understand the information [page 418]

They suggest that online docs users may have an increased overall cognitive load because of the nature of online docs. Navigation, hyperlinks, and other common online devices may add to the cognitive load while the reader is trying to understand the material. So getting to that germane cognitive load part of the brain could be a little harder for online readers than book readers.

The point to their research

They found that reading-to-learn readers reading online material did better overall with headings that appeared at a medium frequency (1 heading for about every 200 words).

[…] readers of print-based text are able to comprehend more of the text than readers of online text regardless of heading frequency. And this may be particularly true of our reader population, readers with little prior knowledge of the topic or personal motivation for reading the information—even though our readers were extremely experienced in Web environments. [p 422]

Another of the interesting findings (and they had several more I won’t get into here)

[…] readers of the print text were much more resilient to heading frequency extremes than the online readers. In comparison to the online readers, readers of the print texts had relatively similar comprehension scores regardless of heading frequency. In contrast, readers of the online texts had higher scores with the medium-frequency heading condition and considerably lower scores with the high-frequency and no-heading conditions. The significant interaction of display medium and heading frequency reveals that the comprehension of online readers is much more susceptible to weak structural cues (such as too many or too few headings) than is the comprehension of print-based readers. [p. 422]

So what does all this mean?

Oh, sure ask me that. I was hoping you could put this together yourself. Fine, I’ll do the heavy lifting. You just sit there and eat that cookie.

What this all means is that the signals you use to create cohesion (headings) must account for the delivery method for coherence to happen.

For example, people who are reading-to-learn online need heading signals about every 200 words. So, if your sentences are less than 25 words each and your paragraphs are less than 5 sentences, you need a heading about every 2 paragraphs if you are delivering the info online to your readers.

If you are delivering the information in a printed form, you have more wiggle room with your heading signals. You could go as far as a heading every 300 words and still get coherence.

Future research directions

In good Graduate School form, I end this article with a call for further research.

But in truth, we really need someone to do this work with reading-to-do material. We have guidelines for teaching people the concepts in our materials now. But what about the people who just need to program the damn remote control again? What signals are best for them so they get coherence? Do they need coherence? Do they even need cohesion?

If you know about any research that speaks to this, let me know. I’m very interested in that.

A really proud wife

Posted in Personal with tags , on May 10, 2008 by Mike

My husband and I caught each other on the phone when I hit Portland yesterday and he had great news.

We’ve known for about a month that he won an award for his journalism for the IE Weekly from the Inland Southern California Professional Journalists chapter. It was the piece and the level of award that we didn’t know.

We know now.

And the winner is

David won a Third place. The winning piece is Masters of their Emminent Domain.

We go to the awards dinner tonight here in Riverside to pick up the awards. It’s going to be great. I’m so proud.

A brief salute

My husband took a brave leap several years ago and went freelance because he wanted to write what he wanted to write.

He writes for several publications now with a strong preference for Advocacy Journalism. This is the kind of journalism where you take a position and have an opinion in the story.

His work makes a difference because he tells stories that otherwise would just be a collection of facts. I’m insanely proud of him. His work matters because it gives a voice to people who otherwise might never have one.

My favorite, and most dreaded, piece

The first piece he wrote for the IE Weekly is called Wish. Hope. Pray. In honor of Mother’s day, I’m linking to it.  This piece haunts me, and several other people, still. The trial for this story is scheduled to get underway in a few months.

Time to catch up on my emails and drink coffee and listen to dogs chew.

Get a cup of coffee, this is going to take a few minutes

Posted in Personal, Tech Comm with tags , , on May 8, 2008 by Mike

First, DocTrain is a gas. I had so much fun talking to people and showing them our products. I got to show several people a really in-depth look at Blaze and Analyzer, which was cool.

The vendor part of the show was over this afternoon and I came back to the room for a nap and to catch up on emails. It’s amazing how tiring shows can be. Not physically, but mentally. You’re mentally completely on your game for 6 or more hours and that effort costs. Naps or quiet time are critical.

These are a few of my favorite things

So after a brief lay down (sleep is seriously my very favorite activity), I went for a walk in downtown Vancouver. I really like walking and this is a lovely city. We’re right near water and you can see boats and planes and stuff. The bay? was nice and the mountains with the snow are really pretty. Yes, there is snow but it’s all about 10 miles away and another 1000 feet up.

I really liked that walk but I got cold (other people were wearing coats and scarves. It’s not me being squeamish!) so I went back to the hotel to hang out and watch a little TV.

Then I went to dinner in the hotel. Having a meal by myself is also a favorite thing to do. I don’t understand people who feel weird in a restaurant all by themselves. I bring something to read and keep myself company.

My life is normally so insanely busy – working 100 miles from home, teaching at least 1 class a quarter, trying to puzzle out moving and renting the house, catching up on my fair share of the household – that for me to have the time to go and quietly eat a meal and read is luxurious. It means I have nothing else I can or should be doing right now. Being still and quiet is all I need to do.

Wow. I like that a lot. Almost as much as sleep.

There’s a point to this. There always is.

I brought the ISTC magazine from my show bag to read while I ate. It’s the Spring 2008 issue. The ISTC is the British version of the STC. I like the magazine very much. It’s what the STC should do with Intercom. It has really serious articles with lighter pieces mixed in. It’s good info. You can download the TOC here;

It’s a bummer that you can only download the TOC, because there’s a really fascinating article on page 27 by Pete Ward called Stylistic subtleties in English. This is perhaps the most coherent piece I’ve ever read on using the English language to create meaning. I’ll try to recap parts here so you can play at home along with me.

He starts by explaining that text creates meanings. There are 2 kinds of information in documents: “‘The content and the signals that help readers interpret that content’ [Rude, 2006, p26]”. After quoting Rude, he goes on to explain that while content is king, signals help the reader to interpret the content. Nothing really earth shattering here but good to point out.

Where he gets really interesting is when he talks about the importance of cohesion and coherence. These “…support comprehension of a text. Like structural and visual signals, the use of cohesive devices provides an underlying structure to the content that holds the elements together and makes the text cohere as a whole.” Slightly later, he says that these 2 are separate but tightly related and it’s accepted that cohesion facilitates coherence.

Fine, but why do we care?

Ah, because he says two things that are really interesting.

Cohesive devices are linguistic devises used by the writer. This is the magic we use to create schematas, for example, to make things understandable. This seems an etic approach.

Coherence is in the mind of the reader. It can only be determined by asking the reader, perhaps by testing them on the text. This seems emic to me.

(See my blog entry here: for more about emic and etic approaches)

The other thing he says that caught me was: “…cohesion does not always lead to improved understanding. A series of experiments has shown that ‘low-knowledge readers benefit more from high-cohesive text both in comprehension and recall but high knowledge readers actually perform better on low-cohesion texts’ [Louwerse 2004, p.5]” [emphasis mine].

What I think he’s saying is that the better you create the links, logic, and relationships for your readers to help them understand the schematas to understand the material, the better your reading-to-learn users are going to do. If you are writing for a reading-to-do audience, schemas explained in the text is going to slow your users down.

So, if you know your audience already knows the concepts but you decide to (or are forced to) include the explanations of the schematas for your product, you are actually hindering your audience. Oh, this is very interesting.

However, I’d like to know more about that testing. Was it recall of general text? Or technical text? Was it procedures and if so, how motivated were the users? Did the users have to find info and then remember it for the task at hand or was it “read it and then tell us what it meant” testing? I’d like to know much more about this.

The Technical Communication journal relates here

About a year ago, there was an article in the STC Tech Comm Journal that relates to this. But I can’t log in to my home computer right now, where I saved it. And I can’t remember how it connects, I just remember that the article was about the differences in reading-to-learn vs reading-to-do.

This is when I wish that my best friend was around tonight because she would remember what the STC article was about or might even have it on her computer.

Well, it took a while but we got there

If you have thoughts about this, please post comments. If you know the darn article I’m looking for, then feel free to forward it to me. I’ll be home tomorrow and can look for it Sat morning but it would be nice to have in case I lost it.

I’ve spent over an hour writing this. It’s getting late and I need to start settling myself down for bed. I pack and go home tomorrow late morning. I should be on the ground at my home airport by 5pm.

Dinner with my husband at home tomorrow night. Another of my favorite things. On the list right under sleep.

Seriously, I had no idea

Posted in MadCap, Tech Comm with tags , , on May 7, 2008 by Mike

Well, the word about the Topic-based content development STC seminar went out to people as I got on the plane yesterday. When I got to Vancouver and was able to get to my email (about 7:30), the webinar is full. We sold out in about 6 hours.

Wow. I had no idea this topic would be so popular.

Thanks for the emails

And my email box was full of people who wanted to get in, or the STC web page wasn’t working for them, or they were confused about the date on the STC page, or thought that the Director of STC shouldn’t ALSO work for MadCap (totally different Burtons), and so on.

I pointed all of them to the STC people, as I have no control over the STC website or how signing up works or really anything on that end.

So, I guess I need to finish the last touches on the slides! I like to write a presentation, let it cook for about 3 days and then revisit it for logic and flow.  

Downstairs, here I come!

I need to get myself together and get downstairs. The vendors part of DocTrain today starts at 10:30. And I need to get moving.

I’ll write more later.

Oh, Canada, redux

Posted in MadCap, Personal, Tech Comm with tags on May 5, 2008 by Mike

After a quiet weekend where I did lots of laundry, graded student papers, got all 3 dogs to the groomers, and started cleaning my home office, I’m up and awake. Almost awake.

I’m going to DocTrain this week and I’m excited. It’s in Vancouver and I’ve always wanted to go there. Not that I see much of a city when I go for a show – mostly I see the trip to and from the airport and the hotel. But still.

I’m hoping this Canada trip to not take home another lovely parting gift. My husband has been sick with the cold/flu thing for the last week. And he’s not good at being sick, poor guy. He’s pretty miserable.

If you’re at DocTrain, stop at the booth and see me. I’d love to chat about nearly anything!