tech comm – elearning – information experience

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Hey, you looking at SME?

Subject Matter Expert (SME). What does that mean?

That special someone, somewhere, who has perfect knowledge of a feature, a product, a technology. Sitting in a Mastermind chair (explainer article by @rhodri), which they can spin around, Blofeld-like when called upon by lesser mortals to offer an opinion on the .. er.. subject matter. It is so singular, so individualistic, so me, not we.

Check out iSixSigma site’s definition:

The Subject Matter Expert is that individual who exhibits the highest level of expertise in performing a specialized job, task, or skill within the organization.

Rest your shoulders a while there Atlas, that sounds like a heavy load.

Does the SME have a place in this collaborative, agile, social, user- and customer-centric world in which we develop software and content today?

Image of book with spotlight lamp

We, not me

I’m not devaluing expert knowledge or expertise. I don’t doubt that in your product development cycle – agile or otherwise – there is someone with expertise on how a feature was built, on how it should perform under certain conditions, and how, when you put all these things together, you end up with a more nebulous term: domain knowledge. In fact that’s part of the problem. Neither of the terms SME or “domain expert” does justice to what it means to be an expert in a field. I have had the privilege over the years to work with some of the brightest and best engineers and designers who bring years of experience, research and innovation to bear on amazing technical leaps forward.

I sympathise if they have been in meetings which are anything like the one in Lauris Beinerts’s comedy sketch, The Expert (7 mins, 12 million+ views). In the video, everything is dumped on “the expert”. While there are four other people in the meeting, not one of them offers any leadership or expertise from their own areas.

To bring a product, feature, and technical content to the market is a team effort. It takes experts in many fields: design, testing, user research, product management, customer support, content development, publishing, marketing, and more. A village to raise a child and all that…

Agile and cross-functional teams

Agile development has both empowered and diluted expertise. Empowered in that it gives all members of the team a say, a voice in making a great product. Yes, testers can help design; yes, engineers can lead user research, yes, tech writers have a voice in UX. Yikes, but this feature is all about specialist area “xyz”!

We still need a SME. And… we also need the PM who was last involved, the marketing team who put that great video together, and the customers who joined the beta programme. That’s not dilution, that’s building a stronger team to deliver a “product” in a broader sense of the word.

In September this year, I took part in 2 days of the UX Cambridge event. Lots of great talks. One, entitled “You don’t need a UX Designer” was given by Jonathon Roberts (@touchdeluxe), UX Designer at Red Gate. He talked about the challenges of being a specialist, about preventing bottlenecks, and about coaching engineers to take active roles in user research. By the end of the presentation he hadn’t talked himself out a job. He remains the UX expert, however he’d shared some great insights into empowering teams to share and rotate areas of responsibility so that the whole team could move forward at a greater velocity and with more empathy for both customer and co-worker. This kind of coaching takes time and some team members will be more willing to be “empowered” than others. UX isn’t the only niche area. We are all experts in our fields.

I can’t write that without thinking of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Brian: You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we are all different!

It takes time to change, and it’s not always comfortable at the start.

Embrace your inner SME

Yes, the SME does have a place in this collaborative, agile, social, user- and customer-centric world in which we develop software and content in today, in a more-coach-less-Blofeld kind of way.

So, go ahead:

  • Embrace your inner SME. You are the expert in content creation, information development, translation, whatever that thing is that you do best. You are not supporting other experts, you are the expert.
  • Share your expertise with those willing to join your band. Start with those who have shown a glimmer of interest or enthusiasm for that thing that you do, and build momentum.
  • Identify multiple SMEs. Find the experts in all the areas which are impacted by what you are working on. This one is especially for technical communicators. You sit at the intersection of so much expertise. Develop a balance of input from multiple sources, not just from the “loudest” ones.

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Tech Comm conferences on a shoestring

May and June are big months for conferences and events ahead of the summer lull and before things get going again in September. The ISTC calendar has a taste of what’s on offer in the UK and internationally. Whether you are self-funding or persuading your company to part with funds, if the budget has evaporated and you don’t want to miss out, read on.

Events image

Early bird and last minute deals

Like booking budget flights, timing is everything. Conference and event fees often come out of training budgets agreed at the start of the financial year. If you are super keen to go to a particular event, ask early to get the cost included in a budget, have a compelling business case ready, and go for the cheapest early-bird rate.

Alternatively, take the last-minute approach. Unspent budget can reappear towards the end of the financial year. If there’s an event on close to the end of your company’s financial year, wait it out, state your business case, and go for it.

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking..

Submitting a proposal and speaking usually earns a waiver of the conference fee at least. It’s unlikely to be the sole driver if you’ve never tried it before, I include myself here, but I’ve also seen colleagues go for it and never look back. Power to them.

Creative travel planning

Depending on the host country and city, taking the conference hotel price out of the equation may just drop the price under your budget signer’s pain threshold. Before the meteoric rise of Airbnb, there were, and still are, other options for immersing yourself in your host city on a budget. I stayed in a youth hostel in Scandinavia, within walking distance of the conference venue, for a significant saving. I made my own bed and emptied my trash at the end of my stay, felt pretty good about it and the Wifi was free and superior to many corporate hotels I’ve stayed in. Check out for UK and international bookings.

Free, new and smaller events

Time and travel expenses may be easier to find than training budget. There is a blossoming of free events and meet ups, and conferences with a wide range of price tags. They cover a great breadth of interests: User Experience (UX), coding, content strategy, information architecture and of course tech comm. Find the groups and professional bodies, start following them on social media, or start your own group. The dynamic and collaborative nature of these groups means you can also have a bigger influence on what gets on the agenda.

I went to the 2-day soap! conference in Krakow last year for under GBP 100 plus a low-cost airline flight. It had big-name key note speakers such as Rahel Anne Bailie (@rahelab), workshops and a fresh vibe.

World IA Day is on my list for 2016.

Online events

As technology and bandwidth improves, live or recorded streaming of selected sessions can be free of charge or cheaper than going in person. STC Summit 2015 is offering a virtual track this year. Vendors such as Adobe offer a whole range of live and recorded events.

You’re worth it

Regardless of the cost, the starting point is you. What type of event is going to be of maximum benefit to you, your professional development, and will help you to deliver greater value to your customers and  users? Then go after it, use some of the thrifty tips above, and have a great learning and networking year!


If tech comm content is an asset, can analytics measure its value?

Analytics, like school league tables, should be approached with a healthy degree of scrutiny. As more of our technical content, such as help, white papers and product guides, goes out onto the Internet, the pressure to measure and quantify its value using analytics increases. analytics-image

From post-sale necessity to valued asset

Let’s start with some good news. As companies wrangle growing quantities of diverse content, which has to look great on any device out there, technical content is included in that challenge. That’s a good thing. We now apply weighty, finance-derived words such as assets and collateral, previously reserved for the domain of marketing, to a wider range of content. We recognise that content which was previously destined exclusively for post-sale audiences is now increasingly used up front before a purchase is ever made. This raises its perceived “strategic” value, and contributes to blurring the line between technical communication and content strategy.

What can we measure, and what does it tell us?

For example, you host user help on your web site. Add an analytics code on every help page, and you can start measuring traffic. Simples. But what does that traffic tell you? Is it confirming what you already know, or delivering new, actionable insights?

“Data is your eyes, not your brain.” — Colleen Jones of Content Science and author of Clout, the art and science of influential web content

If you have an established relationship with your help desk or tech support team, you probably already know the main “gotchas” and stumbling blocks experienced by your customers, and you’re either providing supporting material to help resolve those issues, or you’re lobbying for an improved user experience to remove the “gotchas” in the first place. The traffic gives you a benchmark against which to measure changes you make to your content. Over time, you can track the effect of changing titles, improving landing pages, adding detail, removing clutter, and moving high value elements to more visible areas on a page. Lana Gibson, of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), wrote a great post in February, on the analysis of analytics data and influence of changes to content: GOV.UK page performance: are we fulfilling our content goals? The clue to the real value, however, is in the last part of Lana’s blog title – content goals. The GDS is measuring against specific goals which they have set based on the aims of GOV.UK.

This highlights one of the challenges for tech comm: once your technical content is on the web, it is no longer exclusively used in a post-sales context by people with the same types of issues that are coming into your help desk. You have to take that into account when analysing the data or your interpretation is skewed. Also, does your analysis of the analytics data take the wider organisation’s content goals into account? Can you accurately define, or measure its “value” unless it does?

Please do share your thoughts on, and experiences of, analytics in tech comm in the comments. If you’d like to wade in on school league tables too, please do. Both are on my mind right now. Lastly, I wanted to give a hat tip to Indi Young, whose talk on Practical Empathy from UX Lausanne last year made me challenge some of my thinking on analytics to date. It’s 45 minutes long – grab yourself a cuppa and enjoy.

Indi Young – Practical Empathy from UX Lausanne on Vimeo.

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A small dose of empathy goes a long way

I stood at the front of the class, full of enthusiasm, ready to deliver a training course on a wonderful, new, soon-to-go-live software product. It was a hands-on course with lots of exercises and fun quizzes. I’d worked hard with the project team to make sure we’d keep the focus on relevant features for the different departments who were completing the training programme.

What was missing?

Before we’d even switched on a machine, the questions were coming thick and fast. How will this change my role? How will I work with department x? Where will I find y? And.. why are we doing this?

Was explaining all that part of my job? I was the software expert, not an organisational change guru.

It was my job that day, and in a way, it still is now.

The things you can’t see

Technical communicators create conceptual content as well as instructions. They build visual as well as text-based content. And today, all of this information can be consumed and shared via your web site by people, for whom a product purchase is but a twinkle in the eye of some far away budget holder.

The value that technical communicators bring is not in describing what the user can see, but what the user can’t.


That includes: seriously technical content – how to build a complex customisation that you can’t see yet; and it’s content which answers conceptual and scenario-based questions – how do I relate this to my role, my world, to the thing I have to get done right now?

Today, there are lots of ways to gain insights into the things which your users cannot see clearly, without physically being in the same room as them. However, few come close to delivering an equivalent injection of empathy.

And you’ll carry that with you for a long time afterwards.

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soap! conference Krakow round-up

Chalk board at soap! conferencesoap! is a technical communication conference for all stakeholders in this industry. The audience was a mix of writers, editors, UX, engineers, product managers, and translators. I met lovely people from start-ups and multi-nationals from all over Central and Eastern Europe. has a great write-up of the conference on their blog. It’s in Polish, but Google Translate does a pretty good job. The conference sessions were all in English over a two-day period, with the exception of one workshop run in Polish on the first evening.

This post hooks you up with some of the presentations from day 2. My previous post gives you a taste of day 1.

Rahel Bailie of Intentional Design presented the keynote, Do You Trust Me Now? Creating technical content in the age of social media. New vocab and things to think about: edutainment = elearning with entertainment elements; ephemeral content for business use; and putting the customer at the centre of omnichannel experiences.

The day then split into two tracks. I followed Ray Gallon, who talked about using content and tech comm to build a better end-to-end customer experience. He mentioned Tin Can API as an interesting “lightweight SCORM” development. If elearning is your thing, it’s worth checking out.

Noz Urbina‘s Messages for your manager about content covered a lot more than the title suggests. On one level, it was about the language you use when pursuing content strategy within your organisation’s overall business strategy. Somehow within 35 minutes, Noz also layered in a tour of modern content architecture, examples of metadata in action, and an inspiring pep-talk for tech comm professionals.

Agnieszka Tkaczyk told her team’s story about getting started with infographics at IBM and the lessons learned along the way. Two 3’s to remember: infographics work well as stories with an introduction, a middle, and an end; and they usually include three components – a data visualisation (e.g. chart), an image, and text. In tech comm, they may not substitute detailed instructions, but they help draw the user in. However, enterprise audiences beware – they can be perceived as not “serious” enough!

soap conference soap

soapy giveaways

This was only the second year of soap! and it has doubled in size and duration. At under GBP 100 it is great value-for-money.

More importantly, soap! is an enthusiastic, optimistic, and very friendly meeting of tech comm minds. Big thanks to the soap! team for all the hard work and fun.


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sponge, bubbles, soap and a dog

So glad I made it

I nearly didn’t land in Krakow at all. The pilot made one missed approach.

“We get three attempts, then we have to land somewhere else” explained the senior cabin crew member to his junior counterpart.

At the second attempt, we made it. And I’m on my way to soap! conference, hosted at hub:raum, an innovation hub for Central and Eastern European startups. It’s light, bright, buzzing and there’s a cute dog too.

This is soap!’s second year. @RayGallon does a nice tweet, which sums up why I want to be here.

The cute dog is a bonus.

Takeaways so far

Kasia Mrowca and Sabina Misiarz-Filipek talk about feature development and elearning respectively – their lessons apply equally to any aspect of tech comm:

“Easy to add features, hard to make the app simple” – Kasia Mrowca on feature gluttony

“The client knows what they want it to look like, but not the goal that it is trying to achieve” – Sabina Misiarz-Filipek on elearning

I really liked Kevin Duncan’s talk which pulled in highlights from The Diagrams Book. 50 ways to solve any problem visually. My kind of communication.

And Rajeev Kumar Tiwari and Rajesh Khurana, conferenced in from India – two tech writers utterly committed to UX. Impressive.

Day 2

The last day opens with Rahel Bailie, then splits into two tracks: sponge and bubbles. Sponge includes Noz Urbina on Messages for your manager about content, and bubbles has Ray Gallon on a Your most important business asset, build better end-to-end customer experience. And lots more. Looking forward to it, and to seeing the cute dog again.

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SaaS for cash

I love Software as a Service (SaaS), but how do you persuade me to hand over the cash? First, a quick shout-out to Ellis Pratt (@ellispratt) of Cherryleaf for his recent post on SaaS… it got me thinking.

I have been working with cloud-based software products for some years. What has changed over the last few months is that I have increased the number of applications for which I am prepared to part money with on a monthly basis, in some cases as a preference over buying the software upfront. Whether it’s authoring or publishing software such as Madcap Flare’s MadPak or Adobe’s Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office 365, accounting software or contact management software, the shift to offering Software as a Service (SaaS) is well underway. Here’s Gartner’s definition and helpful links if you want some background.

It works for me because there are great products out there which suit my budget, my devices, my mobility, and my desire to always have the latest software with minimum hassle.


However, with an increasing amount of quality free software out there, what is it that persuades me to part with my cash – even on an affordable subscription basis?

  • Sign in and trial. Ideally, I don’t want to install anything locally, especially not for a trial. And if I do, fast and painless please.
  • Stellar trial experience. First impressions count. Pull out all the stops in the trial. This might not be a time to show a “subset”. Show it all, and show it off.
  • Great design. I recently quit a trial after less than two minutes because the first new record I added felt like a task from 2004, not 2014.
  • Great ecosystem. Because I might not have a friendly account manager at my beck and call, I want a vibrant community of fellow users and experts who blog on industry topics and engage with me. People still buy from people they like.
  • Great design, again. This one is more about the user experience (UX) and information experience (IX) cross-over. The software (your company) understands the core 80% of the tasks I want to do most of the time. It makes sure those tasks are easy to do, and that I know how to do them. Do that well, and I’m prepared to cut you plenty of slack on the 20% which I occasionally have to do which are just, well, tricky.
  • Trust. I want to know that I am engaging with industry experts who know my business. I expect free, vendor independent whitepapers and research. If I see at least some of that, it builds trust and then, yes, I am prepared to part with extra cash for premium content and services such as training.
  • The odd nudge. Even mercenary cloud customers require the equivalent of a soft sales call. A good E-marketing campaign from the moment I sign up with well-placed resources (IX cross-over again) and super-easy conversion from trial options. It works if you have the preceding six items in place. It will probably be ignored without them.

And you want all that for £9.99 a month? Well, the price point varies depending on the product. But value for money is high on my agenda. Inflation is outstripping wages for the fifth year running in the UK. Unless, weirdly, you are an undertaker – for more on that, see this fascinating report from the Office for National Statistics via the BBC.

A final thought. As I read back over this list, there’s not one item which cannot be applied to on-premise software which is paid for upfront. You still have the fundamental SaaS-style expectation that, through interaction with content on your web site, social media, and in your product…

…I know, that you know, what it feels like to be your customer.