Jan 16, 2010

Migrating to my other blog

I will continue blogging, but on another platform: Free the Random Thoughts.

I have been running the two blogs in parallel with different themes:
  • This blog: Technical Commuication
  • The other blog: Life in Taipei + personal interests
At first it looked like the two could safely co-exist. But then I realized most of my interests are concentrated in either technology or communication (including miscommunication). The difference between the two blogs quickly became blurry.

Despite being a technical writer for several years, I haven't much thought about blogging on technical communication area, until I had started this blog. Probably it was because of my fixed idea that writing about one's job is boring. But talking about one's job (boring, end of discussion) and writing about it are two different issues and I have found the latter to be highly fulfilling, both for myself and hopefully my readers.

Since I spend at least eight hours during weekdays doing or thinking technical communication-related stuff, I found that my personal life (= life outside my workplace) already revolved around the big two concept: technology and communication. I decided to shift my blogging to more technical communication oriented style.

Also, I found that writing at the intersection of two seemingly separated concept (such as advertisement and technology) is more interesting than sticking inside one. I decided to fuse my interest under one umbrella topic (technical communication in Asia) to see what chemical reaction will occur in my blog.

Then why move to the other blog, not the other way around? The simple answer is that the other blog has been running for years with a small but (hopefully) growing number of readers. As a blogger, I am also interested in establishing my personal branding, if that is possible.

I would like to express sincere gratitude to people who have been reading this blog. Like I mentioned above, the blogging continues and will even be enhanced, adding a twist of cultural (mis)understanding and more humor, if possible.

All existing content in this blog will remain as they are. From now on, see you at Free the Random Thoughts.

Jan 14, 2010

We are all becoming editors - really?

Liz Danzico at Interactions Magazine says we are all becoming editors.
As the Information Age barrels forward, a new role has emerged. While new platforms-from Facebook to Twitter to Tumblr-have turned consumers into creators, they’ve given way to more writers, more content, and (as we painfully know) more choices. But there’s something else. Content creators are not passing content through traditional editorial channels, nor should they be. The cost of filtering content has passed from the pocket of the publisher way downstream to the pocket of the consumer. As a result, we as consumers are left in the position of having to decide what is worth our time. Whom should we pay attention to? Whom should we ignore? Who decides which content is exceptional and what to tune out?
Whether we like it or not, we’ve been given a new role. This promotion came about without warning, without training, without org charts or manuals. In addition to our current positions, let’s face it, now we’re all “editors.”
I have always thought information overload is making us harsher critics because we are constantly exposed to the best in any area of expertise, which explains why we do not feel any better about ourselves by knowing more. Even when we think of something totally mundane like making a gun using redundant rubber bands, a quick search on Youtube reveals something like this:

I agree with the idea of ourselves taking the editor's role, if it means "screening others." Filtering out redundant information, or picking up the essential part, is the first thing we do when we meet a new source of information. That is why almost everybody encourages writing "scannable" resumé and using tags for web pages to make sure a piece of information stands out.

But are we getting any better at editing in a broader context, which is editing ourselves? Or to rephrase it, becoming a better critic of our own work? Penelope Trunk (again) lists the reason why she works with an editor for whatever she writes in public:
  • Start strong - cut boring introduction
  • Be short - and be brave
  • Have a genuine connection - write stuff that matters to the readers
  • Be passionate - write stuff that matters to you
  • Have one good piece of research - back your idea up
They have one thing in common: difficult to do on our own. Even the "be passionate" advice tend to be ignored under the pressure to write something, or mistaking blog as a substitute of diary. I do not think the onslaught of information helps; it teaches us to be hard on others but it doesn't force ourselves to be more disciplined. I might even think that we are getting sloppy at editing ourselves because everything is becoming easier. For example, I do believe we will be more careful and disciplined if we are forced to write on a typewriter.

Therefore my take on the editing issue is that we all need editors, or editing skills, more than ever. Getting better at judging others doesn't mean we know more about ourselves.

Jan 12, 2010

Google is going to own total user experience?

MG Siegler disses Google for announcing its own Android phone merely a couple months later Motorola brought the Droid phone out, saying Google is undermining their reputation and killing each other inside its ecosystem rather than shooting iPhone off the top spot. But he still thinks in the end Google had made the right decision. Why?
The single biggest reason that the iPhone is great is because Apple is in nearly complete control of it. In fact, the only thing they’re not in control of, AT&T’s network, is its greatest weakness. Before the iPhone, no device manufacturer, let alone software manufacturer, had anywhere near the type of control that Apple does over a mobile device. With Nexus One, Google is moving in that direction too. And that’s the right call.
We have seen outrageous success stories of companies having complete control of their device's hardware and software.
  • Nintendo has created Wii with its revolutionary motion control but everybody agrees that they couldn't have pulled off the game so brilliantly without the bundled killer title, Wii Sports. 
  • Amazon is enjoying a great success with its Kindle e-reader. Again, they own the hardware, software, and even the network - downloading is allowed only through Amazon's proprietary channel.
On the other hand, we have seen companies which made fantastical flops even with total control. What the following two companies have in common: bureaucratized corporate structure and inconsistent decision making.
  • Microsoft creating Zune
  • Sony creating Playstation 3 (compared to Wii and Playstation 2)
Drawing lessons from the above-mentioned examples, it looks like the shortcut to having a revolutionary hardware is to:
  1. Have control on both hardware and software.
  2. Have integrity in what you do.
Google has it both. Although they are technically not in charge of the hardware (HTC is), the two have worked closely from the dawn of the Android OS (HTC Dream was the world's first Android smartphone). In addition, there are only three decision makers in Google - Schmidt, Larry, Sergey - with two of them (the founders) having greater power to veto decisions made against their will.

Therefore my verdict is that the new Googlephone will not suck, in fact it should be great, and I will be having one as soon as it comes out legally or illegally. Sometimes it really sucks that the latest mobile phones do not always reach Taiwan immediately, even though they are likely manufactured by a Taiwanese company.

Jan 10, 2010

No one reads manual

In the thoughtful blog I'd Rather Be Writing, Tom Johnson says:
Not many (technical) writers consider the positive aspects of users not reading the manual. If you do a lousy job on the manual, or if some SME (Subject Matter Expert) discovers typos and inaccuracies, you can just laugh it off by saying no one really reads the manual anyway.
But consider the opposite scenario where everyone reads the manual. Is this a scenario you want? No. Because if everyone has to read the manual to figure out the product, it means the product is so unintuitive and user hostile it’s probably going to tank on the market and you’ll soon be out of a job anyway.
Also, if so many people are consulting the help, you probably aren’t contributing enough on the design/usability side of your technical writing role. Remember that you’re part of a team building a solution to a problem. You want the user interface to be simple and intuitive enough to not require a manual. So if only 10 percent have to consult the manual to figure out the product, that’s a good thing.
It is an eternal dilemma for technical writers. The better we are at our job, we have less to show as the result of our work. How? Let's take a look at the process of writing a user manual for example.
  1. Start writing.
  2. See potential pitfalls users might fall into.
  3. Write about how to avoid them.

    That's it, if our job is to "write", it ends here. It's probably 90% of the cases. But as Tom says above, we are part of a team trying to present better "solutions" to the users, right? So if we really care about our goal and users, we should continue our work like this.

  4. Go tell the developer that the product sucks can transform into the next iPhone and you know how.
  5. Work with him to fix the product.
  6. Product becomes one step closer to iPhone, users have thinner manual, less dead tree consumed.
(In reality things go differently, especially when we use the deleted word which is also 90% of the cases, but that's the subject for another entry.)

Sounds like a win-win situation for everybody, except for technical writers. Like any other writers, we want our works to be read. Just look for the technical writer in your office (yes, that grumpy guy that you tried not to notice subconsciously) and tell him that you think he writes really well. You just got a loyal buddy (though it might be a creepy one-way affair, it won't hurt to get one).
Note: yours truly does not fall into this category :) But I appreciate encouragement.

Good technical writers switch their mindset/career so that they become "solution providers" than mere writers - as long as the users are happy, they are happy. Some funnel their creative energy into another media (such as a blog on technical communication :). Some solace themselves by looking up to fellow martyrs; look at the cops, what they try to achieve is a society that does not need them. We constantly battle this internal conflict: no one wants to read what we write, including ourselves.

If there is someone reading this entry considering technical writer as a writing gig, especially a creative one, be ware: you need to redefine your idea of creativity--providing better solution is nothing but creative work, for example. If you think otherwise, name any instruction manual that won a Pulitzer. There are award-winning books that have been used as instruction manuals, such as From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. But it's not going to work the other way around.

Jan 8, 2010

Social media harassment from Scheduletwitterposts.com and Twitter scheduling service

I signed up for scheduletwitterposts, a Twitter update service, and paid a minor but very irritating price for it. Without letting me know, they tweeted a post advertising themselves under my name (see the below post). I forbid them from accessing my Twitter account, and issued a statement telling my friends that the last post was a hoax (see the top post).*

* I made a mistake of including their URL again - any public relation is a good public relation, especially to a budding startup. Also, in their marketing pitch "Now I can tweet even I am asleep, so awesome!!!" there are three too many exclamation marks. And the word awesome is redundant. And all the rest.

Now that "create once, broadcast multiple times" is getting much easier thanks to these aggregation services, we need to be careful of being over-generous with our account name and password. This entire blog entry is for warning everybody of scheduletwitterposts and nasty tactics (+ my own stupidity).

That problematic company allow us to schedule Twitter postings, as its name suggests. That function itself worked fine (though you cannot edit a queued Twitter posting). But if you want a scheduled broadcasting, I recommend using Hootsuite instead. I am kicking myself over why I did not use Hootsuite in the first place. Hootsuite's benefit includes:
  • Editable queued Twitter posts
  • Create once, broadcast in multiple formats including Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin
  • Tabbed screen works also for Twitter/Facebook update viewing application
  • Absolutely free and web-based
  • URL shortening service included (you can use it for other places!)

Jan 6, 2010

Re-releasing books online

Kevin Kelly has been releasing contents of his book written a decade ago on his website as a series of blog postings.

The book itself has always been available online as free, so he is not offering it ( = paid content) free on the web for the first time. The difference between the past online offerings (PDF, website...) and this case is that as a blog, he is encouraging readers to participate in making it better.
There are many places in New Rules that I know could be updated with more current examples: I'll leave those to you, the collective readers, to do -- as I say in the book, no one is as smart as everyone.
Kevin Kelly is expecting more of an update rather than error corrections, as he says that the original book, written 10 years ago (a lifetime in the age of Internet), is "as pertinent today as a decade ago." I am wondering, what if an author, especially non-fiction writer, posts his earlier works on the web and let everybody scrutinize their contents? Did his message stood the test of time? Or if the author has changed his mind, found better ideas, admitted his mistakes, he can post them too alongside his readers.

Most authors won't touch that subject (that's why some of them keep churning out the book version of the X-men films), but I am thinking maybe that is the only way to let a book live its life for more than a couple of years. Sadly, nowadays whenever I buy any book dealing with current affairs, the first thing I do is to check the last publication date.
  • 2009: Certified fresh. Might be sour.
  • 2008: Ripe.
  • 2007: Getting dry, but sometimes that's not a bad taste either.
  • 2006: Need to check the smell before trying it out. (Won't buy it unless the Search Inside! option is not available in Amazon)
  • 2005 and before: Certified rotten.
I think I am not going to change my habit, like, forever. We have electronic readers and online subscriptions: why not go one more step and allow live-update publications with user inputs? It's not just about data corrections. One of my favorite books of the past decade is What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson. It is a fantastic collection of stories from people who were trying to find a path when they were lost without direction in their lives. The first thing I thought when I finished reading the book, and what I still do, is "I want to read more." If an "update" service becomes standard, my wishes might be met more easily from help both by the author and the readers who themselves have stories to tell.*

* There is a famous author who is already trying the "update" approach, although still based on printed publication: it is Thomas L. Friedman with his recent two books.

Jan 4, 2010

Microsoft's lost decade

CrunchGear published the biggest product flops of the decade (according to them). Unsurprisingly, Windows Vista OS won the cup. I am actually feeling sorry for Vista and its development team after so many bashing they have had to suffer. So here is my message to those hard-working people. Go to hell, then you'll be able to rest in peace.

The article has kinder words about Microsoft itself:
Microsoft has had a hard decade. They made billions, sure, but they haven’t led in mindshare since Windows NT. Geeks flocked to Linux in the early aughts and LAMP now rules the roost when it comes to web servers. Their mobile offerings are roundly and regularly panned and their incremental fixes to products have frustrated users.
They definitely had the worst decade in their entire history. There is a good news, though; at the end of 2019, the first decade of the 21st century would be regarded as one of the better era for them -- compared to this decade which has just started. One of my favorite bloggers, Dan Kogai, shares similar sentiment (in Japanese) that Microsoft did suck great in the past year, if not ten. His idea is that it was about their marketing mindset, not necessarily about their products.
(Translated from the original website) Considering how they are marketing, not how they developed, Windows 7 (such as preparing the totally redundant 32bit version), I cannot say Microsoft really understands what fundamentally is wrong with them. It reminds me of the Japanese society in the 90s, the so-called "lost decade." Worried people just stood by, watching the ongoing crisis pretending things would go back to "normal" soon. I hope Microsoft will not fall into the same trap as Japan did.
I think Microsoft has already accomplished its mission: to bring computers to every household. The problem is that they are still clinging to the same mission, trying to believe they are the challengers broadening the technological horizon for the masses. We are already enlightened, Microsoft. We do owe you a big deal, but we live in a different world. Why don't you go look for something else?

Note: This banner is on the Official Windows Vista Home Page. Who said Microsoft doesn't have a sense of humor?