All posts by Cheryl

Design skills: Required in your next writing job?

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 5/1/2012.

Have you seen “design skills” asked for in a marketing or content writing job description recently? I have— the most recent two writing jobs I’ve held listed graphic design skills a prerequisite. The visual web has arrived: look no further than Pinterest, Tumblr, or the rise of cell phone photography for evidence. With tools like iPhones and Instagram, most of us can take good pictures without photography skills, but what about other kinds of visual art?

As the web has evolved from text to images and video, many jobs in the communications field now expect candidates to bring visual design skills to positions that were once mostly about writing. Experience with interface design, storyboarding, wireframing, prototyping, infographics, and even cartooning are all in demand, as they are now part of the content creation process in the visual web era. What’s a non-artist to do?

Read more…

Content strategy: Strategy vs. tactics

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 7/12/2012.

Content strategy experts Val Swisher, Scott Abel,  and and Kristina Halvorson  recently hosted a webinar about success factors in content strategy projects. It centered on an important theme: objectives vs. tactics. We’re often focused on the latter which can be to the detriment of customer needs and business goals. Here are four themes from the presentation that will help you set the right priorities in your next content project:

1) Avoid the buckshot approach

Most of us center our workday around tasks. In communications, this usually means producing information. Blog posts. Web pages. Status reports. Videos. Diagrams. Presentations. We define our accomplishments around the quantity and perhaps the performance of these items, and call this content strategy. But this isn’t strategy – its tactics. “A bunch of things all in a row is taking a buckshot approach if it isnt tied to business objectives,” says Kristina Halvorson.

What are the business objectives of your daily communications tasks?

2) Content strategists aren’t content developers

Many organizations confuse the roles of content strategist and content developer. Kristina Halvorson describes content strategists as people who “oversee the success of content initiatives.” This involves creating a roadmap of content initiatives (tasks and deliverables) that clearly serve business objectives, and ensuring the success of those initiatives via the use of success measures like analytics and scorecards. This is a management role, and differs fundamentally from writing page copy and shooting video.

Read more…

Use iPad to edit handwritten paper notes or hand-drawn sketches

I like to sketch and take notes on good quality paper using fountain pens. However, it’s hard to erase mistakes, and I don’t always have the right pens on hand to add color or other effects. Also when I’m done, I like to be able to share stuff online.

Using an iPad, I can have the best of both worlds- start with paper-based notes or drawings, then upload them and add effects with Sketchbook Pro for iPad. (I use a stylus for this, which I recommend. Mine’s a Wacom Bamboo.) Here’s how to do this yourself.

Things you’ll need:

  • A scanner
  • You’ve installed Sketchbook Pro for iPad and can use it at a basic level (I tried to find a good Sketchbook Pro tutorial online, lots of bad ones. Thankfully it’s fairly intuitive.)
  • You’re willing to buy/install a file management app for iPad (GoodReader)

How to edit your hand-drawn work on iPad:

  1. Scan the picture you’ve drawn and upload it to the internet (Flickr, Picasa, your own site via FTP or other method, etc.) and take note of its URL. Here’s my picture, I uploaded it to my web site:
  2. Install the GoodReader app on your iPad. It’s 5 bucks. (It does a bunch of amazing stuff apparently, although I’ve only ever used it for downloading files.)
  3. Open Safari on your iPad and type in the picture’s URL. Put a G in front of the http part like this: g and tap Go.
  4. This downloads the picture to GoodReader. When you open GoodReader you’ll see the picture file listed under Downloads like so:
  5. Tap your file to open it. At the bottom of the picture, click the camera icon to send it to your iPad Photo app’s Photo Album.
  6. Return to your iPad desktop and tap the Photo app. (The Photo app, as you may know, comes with the iPad, and its icon looks like this:)

    You’ll see your picture in the Photo app’s Photo Album.
  7. Now open the Sketchbook Pro app. Tap Gallery. (This is a button in the upper left that appears when all the tools are showing.) At the bottom of the Sketchbook Gallery, click the “import from” icon (the flower + plus sign), and click Photo Library.
  8. Click Camera Roll and tap your drawing to start editing it in Sketchbook Pro.
  9. When you’re done, save your picture to the Sketchbook Pro gallery, where you can send it back to your Photo Library or other options (Facebook, print, e-mail, etc.). Here’s my picture after I erased some lines and added color:

Creating content on an iPad: Is text passé?

iPad sketchRecently I wrote a big ol’ research paper on the future of tablet computing, in which I discussed the popular perception that the introduction of Apple’s iPad in 2010 (was it really that recently?) began a shift toward consumption-only computing— you buy a tablet and then use it more or less like an interactive TV with a pay-per menu of entertainment products. No more content production and contribution from unsanctioned entertainment entities, a.k.a. average people. A retreat from the hive-mind ideology of web 2.0 and a return to our place in front of the tube.

At the time I wrote this paper I agreed generally with this assessment of the iPad, particularly because of its sole reliance on the finger as an input method. What realistically could you create without pens, keyboards, and other tools of expression? The thing was, this conclusion was based on theory, as I didn’t have (nor had ever used) an iPad, which has since changed.

I had no idea of the sheer number of productivity and content creation apps that existed for the platform, having only previously used an iPod touch, for which most such apps are either unavailable or impractical. On using a few, I realized that the kind of creative expression best suited to the iPad is one which the computer didn’t formerly serve well or at all: a portable, spatial sort of creativity, in which one builds flowcharts, drawings, collages, to-do lists, information requiring visual elements that one can rearrange or manipulate directly onscreen, anywhere they are. It’s not about text.

Now, text is the internet— Google has built a colossal empire upon it. But as it stands, Google can’t do much with the visual products we create, unless they’re hitched to textual metadata. (I’ve been typecasting for years, and not a word of it has ever been understood by search engine technology). What little I know of HTML5 suggests that the keepers of internet technology aim to evolve the web in a more visual direction, but this will remain a theory until browsers comply (years from now, if ever completely). The kinds of information products you can create with an iPad don’t really fit well into the internet’s open ocean of words, which has become by any measure a glut of info-pollution. Is text passé?

Unlikely, but it’s merely a single and overtaxed information channel, one far more effectively paired with visual input for optimal learning, according to the dual coding theory. Rather than taking the instruments of creation out of our hands, are tablets like the iPad empowering us to begin creating visual and spatial information products alongside textual ones? I intend to begin reviewing particular iPad apps against the measure of this question.

The Napkin Sketch Workbook by Don Moyer

The Napkin Sketch Workbook

You can’t draw (I can’t either), but you know drawings are a compelling way to communicate information. Graphic designers usually handle the infographics, conceptual art, and other images that appear in web content, but graphic designers are not always information designers. If you create or manage instructional content, the concepts should begin with you or someone on your team.

The Napkin Sketch Workbook by Don Moyer is the essential textbook for how to get started with this. (I’ve recently misplaced my copy and it’s driving me nuts, because I refer to it all the time). Sketchnoters advocate drawing as a simple and universal way to make information easier to digest (an essential skill in our world of info-overpopulation) but here’s the thing about these guys: they’re artists. And their drawings are great. Now Don Moyer is an artist too, and his work is incredible. But! His book starts out exactly where you need it to: with a basic library of how to draw stuff. He makes NO assumptions. He gets that non-artists don’t have the first clue where to start.

Other sketchnoters hint that it’s easy to doodle, but don’t provide the tools. This book does. Not only does Don Moyer provide the basic shapes to work with, but he puts you to work proving to yourself that with just these basic shapes, you can draw vignettes that explain fairly abstract concepts. I tried it, and my 5 year old correctly explained every drawing I made. (Here’s where I scan a page of the drawings I made in the book so you can see how simple they are, if only I could find it).

If the book just contained this much information it would be worth the price, but subsequent chapters teach you how to use drawings to explain relationships, business processes, timelines, and other concepts that are poorly served by words alone. Because it’s a workbook, you’ll interpret and sketch out a fairly involved business process for yourself— which you can then compare against his version for ideas.

He also provides tips for how to work with designers to finesse the ideas, different styles you can use, and an excellent and thorough list of resources for further research on the subject, although if you stop with just this book, you’ll be white-boarding circles around colleagues or fellow students within a few hours (the book is a short paperback, and easy to read).

There is but a single downside to The Napkin Sketch Workbook, and it is this: you have to buy it from Blurb, which has absurdly high shipping prices (if it didn’t, I’d save myself the frustration of searching for my lost copy and just replace it). It’s self-published and doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else (a shame, it is hands-down one of the most useful business books I’ve ever encountered). That said, the knowledge you’ll gain makes it completely worth the investment (although hang on to your copy once you get it).

6 things I’ve learned about writing user interface text

#1) UI is the hardest kind of techwriting there is.

As a writer for Microsoft, that’s the first thing I learned about UI. You’ll never spend more time writing fewer words. Actually, that’s not quite the right way to say it, because…

#2) UI writing isn’t writing.

It’s user experience design. If a software design team hands you a finished interface and wants you to spray some words on it, you’re too late. Why? Because the writing *is* the user interface, and UI needs to be designed with language in mind from the ground up. Language is how people think. A colleague of mine once made a brilliant presentation about the value of words in UI: he showed a screen shot of software with all the words removed. What was left? Gray boxes. Now, those boxes had some cool drop shadows, and I’m sure there was a ton of complicated programming involved in making the boxes move around, but I’m going to guess a design like that wouldn’t make it too far through usability testing.

#3) Make friends.

Gain respect from program managers, designers, and engineers early in the product design cycle, when they’re first writing the specs. You want them to see you as contributing something essential to the team. Face it: technical types don’t generally think writers have important things to contribute to software design. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they had to take classes in college like Discreet Mathematical Structures, while you took classes like Harry Potter: Myth, Magic, and Morality (I love you, UCSC). However, no matter how smart they are, technical people tend to think terms like “stack overflow” and “fatal exception” make perfect sense in UI.

#4) Be assertive.

Maybe it’s Microsoft, but I bet it’s everywhere else. Program managers and engineers are competitive and opinionated. Technical writers tend to be introverted and circumspect. Now, there’s nothing wrong with introverts (although in a tech company, you may begin to question this), but to earn respect, you have to be verbally assertive (even if you’re bluffing, and especially if you’re female). Try to start an argument during a meeting for bonus points, just to practice holding your ground.

#5) You’re underqualified.

See point #2: UI writing is user experience design. Now, there are relevant UI degrees out there, but most technical writers don’t have them. Techwriters are mostly UI writers by fiat, because UI contains words, and writers write words. If you really want to contribute to good UI, though, learn more about it.

#6) It takes a nation of millions to write OK/Cancel

Imagine yourself writing something. Are you picturing a conference room, full of people who aren’t writers, arguing over every character you’ve proposed? Challenging your authority on every letter of every word? Pushing you for revisions for months on end? Are you envisioning the result of this trial being a few labels, and maybe a sentence fragment or two? User interface writing brings design by committee to a whole new plateau – bring your air tank. Why? Two reasons: UI text is the most important techwriting there is, and everyone thinks they’re a writer. Your job is to prove that you’re a better writer than they are (a given) and that you understand UI design as well as they do (here’s where the work comes in).

Visual Notetaking 101

sketchnotesI’m becoming a visual note-taking junkie. Now in addition to registering for Alphachimp University’s Rockstar Scribe course, I’ve signed up for Sunni Brown’s Visual Notetaking 101 online webinar.

The former is more of an asynchronous online class with a forum and exercises, and the latter a series of videos, both aiming to teach writers and communicators how to use iconic illustrations and handwritten typography to express information visually (here is a particularly amazing version of what this looks like, but you don’t have to be an artist to do it). I already posted about Sunni Brown on Strikethru a bit ago; in that post you can get a glimpse of the kind of material covered in her webinars.

Types of sketchnoting

Apparently there are graphic recorders, who visually interpret meetings on the fly, in large scale, by way of a profession, and then there are sketchnoters, simply people who incorporate sketches into their notes.

I’d like to do yet a third thing with the form: use sketchnote techniques to present information to an audience. Not capture it on the fly, in a live meeting setting, but use it as documentation that persists online or elsewhere to explain things in a more interesting way, a sort of graphic novel version of static web pages with those smiling idiots in the banner across the top, you know the ones I mean?

I’m convinced by the argument most sketchnote luminaries make, that we process most of our information visually, a channel that is hugely wasted by all the talk and writing that we currently lean so heavily on to communicate (oddly this does not appear to be changing, despite the fact that it would be a snap to incorporate more visuals into our now-ubiquitous screen-based communication tools).

Some of this thinking is behind my other site Strikethru and the whole concept of typecasting (posting typewritten documents) – that reading is a visual experience, and we crave something beyond Ariel 10 pt and smiling people banners- but I think it has professional application as well as artistic, and I’m hoping all of these sketchnoting classes get me closer to figuring out what that might look like.



Learning to sketchnote

Sketchnoting is the act of drawing to convey ideas. I think it has great potential to distinguish concepts from the glut of nondescript information online, and as a writer it’s a skill I want to learn.

There are endless links and personalities in the sketchnote world. I’ve attempted to create a Twitter list to keep up with it. Austin Kleon’s blog is my favorite on the topic, and this 2010 Web expo talk by Eva Lotta-Lamm is probably the best introduction out there:

Eva-Lotta Lamm: Visual Note Taking / Sketchnotes from webexpo on Vimeo.

So great is my interest in sketchnoting that I’ve become a student in Alphachimp Studio’s inaugural learn to scribe course online. Alphachimp is a longstanding visual learning company with much wisdom to impart on the subject of using art to convey ideas. I’m hoping some of that wisdom will rub off on me by the end of the course.

Here’s my first assignment, a ‘visual introduction’ of myself that’s supposed to answer a few personal questions (such as my greatest fear, one of which is dying in a burning DC10 over open water).