Best Practice Round-Up
Earnsy (rhymes with Guernsey) successfully completed the GDID (Graduate Diploma in Information Design, Ara) in 2017. She’s interested in many aspects of information design and is partial to flat whites. In her quarterly TechCommWire column, she looks for evidence (not just opinions) to help you manage the daily conundrums we face in our profession.
- What's the evidence? Does onboarding work? September 2021
You get a new app and all these tips pop up. Do people engage with this stuff? Is it useful?
As far as I can tell, the jury’s still out on this. There’s research and plenty of advice, but no convincing evidence.
- What's the evidence? A penny for your thoughts April 2021
Do you speak to yourself? Mutter under your breath, cuss, and swear even? You do? I wonder if you’d make a good candidate for think-aloud research. I’m thinking of the think-aloud protocol, where usability researchers ask you to speak your thoughts.
- Alt text should be half a tweet long, they say May 2019 How would you know what an image was if you couldn’t see it? You’d need someone to describe it to you. That’s what alternative text (alt text) is: a text description of an image. It’s not a caption. It makes information accessible to everyone, including those who are blind or visually impaired, and anyone whose device doesn’t display images properly. But how much should you write?
- How much do we read on our phones? March 2019 Alas, despite trawling through screeds of articles and reports, I don’t know how much users read on their phones. I can’t tell you that typical mobile phone users spend X min a day or Y per cent of their time reading. But hey, don’t go! Let me explain why I don’t have an answer (it depends what you call reading) and make it up to you with other interesting, related findings. Tell you what: I’ll even mention sex, love, and Kamasutra. (Don’t worry if you’re at work — it’s safe to keep reading.)
- When should we use visuals? November 2018 To assemble that chair, start by inserting screw a6 into b1 while holding down c. Got that? No? Why not? It’s a short sentence (15 words) and there are no big words. Would visuals help? When are they a good idea, when not? What do users prefer? Let’s look at the evidence on the use of visuals, compare text and visuals, peek at a comic-style employment contract, and finish with some tips.
- Asking about Gender August 2018
Do technical communicators need to think about gender? I think so. We may be asked to review wording in forms or surveys, we may need to develop personas, and we need to ensure our writing doesn’t alienate readers and give them a bad user experience.
- Deciding between words and tables May 2018
Looked at the Super Rugby results lately? A bus timetable, perhaps, or the TechCommNZ subscription rates? Chances are, you’d have looked at a table. How should technical communicators decide when to use one?
- What's in a Caption? February 2018
Do you read captions? What do captions do?
- What’s the evidence for outline numbering? November 2017
Should technical communicators number sections in a document?
- What’s the evidence for learning styles? August 2017
Do technical communicators need to cater for different learning styles?
- Do too many warnings cause problems? May 2017
Do too many written warnings in manuals cause problems?
- Do metaphors put us on the right track? February 2017
What do the crossroads of life, the greenhouse effect, and jump-starting the economy have in common?
- Is it readable? November 2016
Just how important is the ‘look’ of a document?
- Are headings useful? August 2016
Do we know for sure that headings are useful? And what makes good headings?
- Five or 5? Words versus numerals... May 2016
Do you write numbers in words or numerals? What’s recommended, and are there exceptions to the rule?
- How many words make a sentence? February 2016
How many words should we have in a sentence? Why is sentence length important anyway, and just how important is it? Should we count words or chunks of information? And how can we manage sentence length?
- Is there a role for Technical Communicators in help forums? November 2015
Has googling has displaced technical writers? Why do users turn to help forums, and do technical writers make good forum moderators?
- Death by screenshots: Should we include them in online help? August 2015
‘Screenshots can be like crack. You don't need it, it can kill you, but you want it bad’ (MattBNH, 2009, para. 4). Screenshots can kill? Let’s hope not, but we can’t tell for sure because there’s a dearth of research.
- What's better? video or written help? May 2015
Should technical communicators provide video instead of written help?
- Using "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun February 2015
This article looks at the use of singular they. There has been surprisingly little research on it in the last decade, but we’ll look at its background, popularity, and what style guides recommend.