Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11/2001 - Where were you?

So, September 11, 2001 - a day that changed the lives of many people immediately or later down the road with its repercussions. Do you remember where you were on that day? I imagine it's something that people will often be asked later - kind of like how we'll ask the older generations if they remember where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when Kennedy was assassinated, or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

I was on campus at the University of Missouri - Rolla doing some reading before my first class in the Engineering Management building. I had gotten bored with my textbook and decided to call my mom to see how she was since I still had plenty of time before class. I apparently called her right after the first plane hit the first tower and she was watching it on TV. Then the 2nd plane hit. My mom was describing to me what was going on on the TV and I couldn't believe it. I frantically searched my memory to try to see if anybody I knew from college worked in the WTC. I had to hang up with my mom after a little bit and go to class - an advanced writing course with Dr. Zepernick. She understood that people were upset, but she tried to carry on and teach class as normal. It was difficult but she succeeded.

After class, I went home to the house I shared with Marie, Vaz, Jay, and James. I think we were all glued to the TV for the rest of the morning and afternoon (until I got called in to work). A couple of the guys had even filled up a couple of water barrels used for camping with water and put them in the bathroom just in case all hell broke loose. I remember us all discussing who could possibly be behind this and what the possibilities of more attacks were and where. I also got called in to work at the Phillips station that I worked at because they were being overrun by people getting gasoline. People were afraid that it had something to do with Saddam and were worried about gas prices. The BP across the street was out of gas. We had a tanker on the way from St. Louis to fill us up, but we were low. Every employee that worked at the station was on duty that afternoon. To speed up the gassing process, a couple of people were outside taking cash payments and sending people on their way, using the intercom to call inside the store to tell use they had payment for a certain pump. Some gas stations were caught raising gas prices to almost $3/gallon and had to pay fines for it (gas was still hovering around the $1/gallon mark in Missouri).

An extremist terrorist group eventually claimed responsibility for the hijackings, and American patriotism reached an all-time high with the likes of Toby Keith singing about colors not running and little flags (made in China, mind you) being sold everywhere. With this patriotism also came hatred towards people that had nothing to do with the attacks. Students from Middle-Eastern countries and India (basically, if you had brown skin) attending UMR were put on alert and warned to watch out for people mistaking them from being from certain countries.

Since then, people all over the world have paid a heavy price for this event. Many Americans can't seem to differentiate a small group of extremist from the larger religion that they belong to and spout hatred towards them. Many American soldiers, Afghanis, and Iraqis have lost their lives (civilians and soldiers) needlessly. Air travel has become tedious and makes people feel like they're losing their privacy and freedom all for the sake of feeling secure. People directly affected by the hijackings are without their loved ones for no reason.

Many innocent people of all creeds, colors, and religions lost their lives on 9/11: the people working in the WTC, people in the Pentagon, brave emergency responders attempting to help people trapped in the buildings, and the people on American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93. Flight 93 was intended for the White House, but the brave passengers on that plane took it back and saved countless lives while knowing they were forfeiting their own. Many people mourned all over the world with the U.S. that day - people of all creeds, colors, and religions.

There are many lessons that we can take away from this horrible day in the U.S.'s history, but, to me, the most important is to love one another and not take each other for granted. No amount of hatred or war or fighting is going to erase what happened or bring back those lost. All we can do as a race, the human race, is look forward and help each other and love each other: put aside our differences and pettiness and make the world a better place for the future. Many of the people that lost their lives on 9/11 chose to call their loved ones and tell them how much the loved them in their final moments. So, I challenge every person that might read this post to not wait for a tragedy to do this: as we remember those that lost their lives on this day, tell your family and friends you love them. Tell them every day, don't take them for granted. Love each other and spread love, not hatred, to the future generations.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Counterproductive Much?

So, while navigating around Microsoft's website at work, I spotted this little ad on the page:


I read it twice to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me and promptly clicked the link. My first thought was "Holy shit! Why weren't they doing this shit when I was in college?" My second though was I wonder "Does Microsoft want kids to fail out of college?"

Yes. Yes, they do.

Why on Earth would Microsoft make this offer? Do they not know that after receiving a free Xbox 360, classes be damned. The type of students that would respond to this offer are the type that will be covered in Cheetos dust and surrounded by Mountain Dew cans instead of going to class or studying.

Yes, why indeed, Microsoft, why indeed *strokes white cat in lap*. See, I'm on to your little games, marketing/engineering people at Microsoft. Job security. That's why this offer is being made. You're all worried about the next group of college students graduating and being able to take your jobs as new hires for lower salaries; therefore, you will offer them free Xbox 360s to ensure that they never graduate.

Well played, Microsoft. Well played.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Are Screenshots and Images Necessary?

Hey, look at that! I’m posting in my other blog for once. Careful…the apocalypse might happen before you finish reading this post.

So, this is something that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: screenshots and images in manuals – do we need them? In my opinion, yes and no: It all depends on the situation. I know that seems like a copout answer, but hear me out on this. Like anything, there is a time and a place for it. Also, being just a technical writing team member might leave the decision out of your hands anyway.

Screenshots and images should enhance the manual and make the steps or text clearer. It’s fair to reason that nearly all users are going to be using the item or software while using the manual, so clear text instructions will usually be sufficient. For this reason, when I’m writing a software manual, I will always include at least 1 screenshot in the beginning chapter outlining the parts of the user interface. This is so users will know where I’m talking about on the screen if I write “In the left pane” or “Select Job Accounting from the main menu.” You’ll notice that nearly all embedded help files in software will be primarily text based, and user manuals seem to be heading that way, too. Since I write software manuals, this is where my personal writing experience lies. For hardware manuals or instructions on putting something together, starting with what is included and labeling them so the users will know to what’s being referred is usually the first step.

I’ve recently had a project manager than I work with quite frequently tell me that he wants all screenshots removed from user manuals for his projects. What purpose could this serve? I believe his reason for this is simply “laziness,” really. I use that term loosely since he’s not the one doing the work, but he doesn’t want any images because that means one of his engineers will have to capture the foreign language screenshots for me when it comes time for translation. This comes down to each screenshot for 7 or 8 languages typically and can add up if you have 10+ screenshots. Honestly, in my opinion, this particular PM has no idea what goes into writing a manual and doesn’t know what one needs to make it usable, but I digress. I had to argue with this particular PM for several weeks to include a few screenshots where I thought they were necessary to explain difficult parts of the UI when different sections dropped down or different areas had the same sub-menu names (this was a very complex piece of software and gave me multiple headaches on a daily basis). He didn’t expect me to be so adamant about it because, quite frankly, in Korean culture, subordinates don’t question their superiors and are supposed to do what they're told without question. Poor guy didn’t know what hit him when he had to work with the only American tech writer on the team that has no problem giving opinions, but that’s for a different topic. The point that I tried to make to him was no matter how intelligent or knowledgeable about the network the users of the software are, they’re learning a new piece of software and will need to know where what I’m telling them to do is located.

Since I’m usually learning the software as I’m writing the manual, I think I have a pretty good idea of where things could get confusing for the user since I’m essentially a new user when I start writing the manual. However, in some situations, your audience might require more than you think they do. I write primarily for enterprise software, so I don’t typically have to worry about general home users trying to use something I’ve written. However, once in a while, I do write a manual for some software included with our SOHO (small office home office) printers. For these, more screenshots might be required since I really need to write for the most software illiterate user that I can imagine. To do this, I try to imagine explaining using the software to my mother, who, poor woman, was one of the most technologically impaired people I’ve ever known and never even owned a computer or a cell phone let alone a printer *fondly remembers many frustrating phone conversations explaining how to use the DVD player or program the VCR*.

With most manuals being provided online or on installation CDs as PDFs, the argument of printing costs doesn’t really hold up anymore. However, if manuals are provided in hard copy, this could very well be a factor – especially outside of the software realm. For hardware, in my division (printers and computers) we also provide hard copy manuals. If you’re across the office trying to use the multi-function printer (MFP) and need to know how to do some tricky copying task, running back and forth between your workstation to consult a PDF and the MFP just isn’t practical. There should, of course, be a manual tucked away somewhere by the machine for quick reference. We also tend to provide installation guides for software as hard copies. Funny story about that really quick for y’all: I had finished writing a manual for some software and it was released. A few weeks later, one of the engineers contacts me and says they need a separate installation and setup guide ASAP since customers have requested it. I asked him why since that information was provided in the first chapter of the user manual. He tells me that users can’t access the manual until the software is installed and set up. O_o Forehead, meet Desk. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I just looked at my teammate and said, “They have got to be kidding me,” and explained the situation to her. She was as confused as I was. Anywho…screenshots and images.

Speaking of hardware manuals or instructions on building something, what about drawings vs. pictures? Drawings. Always. Unless there is absolutely no way to provide drawings, always try to include drawings instead of pictures. You might think that a picture would provide more detail, that isn’t the case. Remember back in your college days when you’re putting together that cheap furniture from IKEA or a bookshelf from Wal-Mart? What did the directions look like? Yup. Drawings. Pictures introduce too much distraction away from what you’re trying to draw attention to. With drawings, you can provide as little or as much detail as necessary and make things sharper than with a picture. If you have to include pictures instead of drawings, try to use as crisp of an image as possible and have them be in color. If you need to provide arrows or markings on the picture, use a color that will contrast well and make things clear instead of more confusing.

So, to sum it up, use screenshots only where they’re needed and sparingly. Using too many will just increase the visual length of the steps and frustrate users: I doubt users will need a screenshot for “Click OK.” You’ll have to really put yourself in your users’ shoes to do this. For pictures vs. drawings for physical items, always go with drawings when possible to make things clearer for your users.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Ya can't miss it." "Wanna bet?"

So, before I go to sleep at night, my mind often wanders to random things. Last night was no exception. My mind for some reason began to think about how much the phrase "ya can't miss it" bothers me.

It's often used when giving directions to people - "Go down the road about a mile then turn left on 3rd Street. It's about two blocks down on the right - ya can't miss it." To me that just triggers the response in my mind of "Great, I'm going to go right past it and look like an idiot." If I "couldn't miss it," I wouldn't be asking for directions in the first place now would I? Unless there is a giant monkey, a clown on a unicycle, or people sword-fighting to the death outside, I can definitely miss it.

If I'm on foot, yeah, I probably won't miss it since I can stop and look around without fear of being rear ended by the Hummer behind me. But if I'm driving, that's another story. Trying to pay attention to the road and other drivers while trying to look for a sign or building is a completely different story. I'm probably going to drive right on past it and have to make another pass back through to look for it unless I have a passenger that can be keeping an eye out for me.

Anyway, that's my randomness for the day.