Books Reviewed in This Issue
Avon J. Murphy, Editor
Helen Armstrong, ed. 2009. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press. [ISBN 978-1-56898-772-9. 152 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
In introducing her slim volume, Helen Armstrong describes conflicts between the graphic designer’s desire to be acknowledged and the anonymity enforced by the profession (speaking in the client’s voice), and between the hope that our software tools liberate our creativity and the fear that they constrain our ability to communicate, as Edward Tufte famously claimed about PowerPoint. That sounds awfully similar to the concerns of technical communicators. In her foreword, Ellen Lupton notes, “Theory is all about the question ‘why?’ The process of becoming a designer is focused largely on ‘how’: how to use software, how to solve problems, how to organize information” (p. 6). This reminds us of the admonition to give the why at least as much weight as the how. If these points resonate with you, you should read this book: We can learn much about our own profession by observing how others embrace and struggle with their challenges.
The selected texts by key figures cover the history of modern design, showing where the field came from, the challenges and setbacks it encountered along the way, and where it may be heading. For example, authors chronicle the century-long dialogue between modernism’s quest for a pure and objective visual language (as embodied by the Bauhaus school), and postmodernism’s emphasis on vision’s irreducible subjectivity and the audience’s primacy. Sadly, rather than using this tension to strengthen both schools, many graphic designers have retreated into absolutist politics.
Selections contrast extremes of opinion, such as Marinetti’s radical (indeed, offensive) futurist manifesto, with its almost pornographic love of technology, and Rodchenko’s humanism (“technology is—the mortal enemy of art” [p. 23]), and compare less extreme viewpoints on design’s social implications and the designer’s responsibility. Some even attempt to synthesize the more extreme viewpoints from the endless debate between aesthetic and pragmatic design (form vs. function). Beatrice Ward, for one, emphasizes how beauty can be reconciled with practical, utilitarian concerns. Through these contrasts, Armstrong provides a fascinating portrait of social and technological change, and of a profession’s roles in this change. She reveals new ways to see and reminds us just how differently others may see.
One trend has been the evolution from designer as producer (conduit for information) to author (creator or originator) or even “mediator” between client and audience, providing more opportunities for agency and power. Technical communicators struggle with the same problems of self-definition and power, and learning how graphic artists have attempted to reinvent themselves and their work may help us change the perception of our own profession as “glorified typists.”
The writing, by those who participated most loudly in the debate, ranges from incoherent and melodramatic to simple and eloquent, but it always reveals a passion that technical communicators have seemingly forgotten. Graphic Design Theory provides snapshots of a century of rapid change, not the editor’s synthesis—thereby producing an almost “expressionist” work in which we are told not what to think and feel but rather that we should think and feel. Such passion remains important in our work, and that message alone makes the book a worthy read.
Geoff Hart is an STC fellow and information designer who can draw a straight line with a ruler on a good day, but who nonetheless has an avid interest in graphic design theory.
Carmine Gallo. 2010. New York: McGraw Hill. [ISBN 978-0-07-163608-7. 238 pages, including index. US$21.95 (hardcover).]
At first, I thought Carmine Gallo was going to deliver only an enthymeme: Steve Jobs gives (insanely!) great presentations; therefore, those who mimic Steve Jobs will be great presenters. The missing premise showing how to mimic Steve Jobs’ presentation style is the book’s underlying intent, but even Gallo admits that we cannot copy Jobs’s every move. More than once, he remarks on Jobs’s overly casual style of presentation dress (sneakers, jeans, turtleneck) and then admonishes us: “you’re not going to dress like him. He can get away with it because he’s Steve Jobs and you’re not. Seriously” (p. 195).
Gallo delivers presentation tips through induction, gleaning details from Jobs’s talks and then establishing general principles on how we can wow audiences. Some of the advice is not new, although Gallo does offer a creative spin: give a strong opening and set the theme early (“Answer the One Question That Matters Most” [p. 15]), open and close each section with a transition (“Create Twitter-Like Headlines” and “Draw a Road Map” [pp. 39, 49]), sell an experience, not a widget (“Channel Their Inner Zen” [p. 87]), and rehearse like crazy (“Master Stage Presence” and “Make It Look Effortless” [pp. 167, 179]).
So what makes Gallo’s book different from other how-to presentation books? Because of Gallo’s extensive experience as a speaker himself and as a communication-skills consultant to many famous presenters, he has countless stories of presentations gone awry as well as success stories. His narratives captivate, making us feel as if we are living the memory of these presentation gaffes and triumphs. For example, during a keynote Jobs made a prank call to Starbucks from his new iPhone and ordered 4,000 lattes to go. Gallo can explain that even pranks like these are scripted, for he has witnessed the slide notes firsthand.
Gallo has viewed, either in person or by analyzing YouTube videos, probably every Jobs presentation ever given. At times, the book does teeter toward hero-worship, yet when we consider Jobs’s cult-like following, Gallo’s language is not surprising. He refers to “The Apple Religion” to describe Apple users and writes, “True evangelists are driven by a messianic zeal to create new experiences” (p. 33). Offsetting this religious rhetoric is the use of several cuss words, including a chapter teaching presenters how to “Reveal a ‘Holy Shit’ Moment.” Ironically, Jobs himself is allegedly a Zen Buddhist.
Set up like a three-act play, the book contains 18 chapters (“scenes”), brief asides (“intermissions” and “director’s cuts”), and a compelling afterword (“encore”). We may find Gallo’s organizational approach gimmicky after a while, but its setup does mean that in using narratives instead of bullets, Gallo practices what he preaches about promoting more visuals as opposed to slides with copious bullets. My favorite line, after noting that Jobs has never used a single bullet point in any of his presentations: “By now I hope you have decided to gather up your current slides, especially those with bullet points, and burn them” (p. 97).
Gallo’s book is an homage to Jobs, who, above all, has an unquenchable love of drama. I find helpful both the abundant stories and the tips on how to improve my own presentation persona. I especially enjoy Gallo’s slide analyses, side-by-side tables of what is on Jobs’s slides (usually one word or visual) compared with what Jobs says to the audience (quite a lot). Although I had never witnessed a Steve Jobs talk, I now have watched several of his presentations on YouTube, and I plan to show my own students some clips. Despite any stylistic drawbacks, Gallo writes to move his audience—even us skeptical readers—to action, and that is exactly what The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs delivers.
Nicole Amare is a senior member of STC and an associate professor of technical communication at the University of South Alabama. Her research interests include ethics, editing, and visual rhetoric. She is associate editor of Industry Practices for IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.
Ana Labudović and Nenad Vukušić. 2009. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers. [ISBN 978-1-59253-490-6. 191 pages, including appendix and bibliography. US$30.00 (softcover).]
Field Guide: How to Be a Graphic Designer provides a postmodern view of what it takes to enter the graphic design profession. The book is not the manual that one might expect from its title; the authors plainly state that their book “has no definitive answers and offers no linear path to success” (p. 8). Instead, Labudovicć and Vukušicć describe several aspects of the graphic design profession and provide short profiles of about 30 designers, each of whom became a designer following his or her own path.
The authors gathered information through interviews of designers and studio directors and through online surveys of designers. Although the authors do not describe their survey techniques in detail, they report receiving 2,096 survey responses. If we can assume that the survey participants comprise a representative sample, that number is large enough to support effective generalizations about the design community.
Labudovicć and Vukušicć cover six main topics: defining graphic design and identifying disciplines within it, choosing among education options, getting a job, sustaining self-employment as a designer, creativity, and managing projects. Each chapter features interviews with practicing designers. Color photographs and examples of those designers’ works abound, making this book interesting and appealing while also establishing each designer’s ethos for the reader.
The authors identify important principles for each of their main topics but usually stop short of making broad pronouncements. The chapter on education, for example, includes quotes from art school graduates as well as those who learned on their own and on the job. Learning through school and learning independently are presented as equally valid choices. Labudovicć and Vukušicć do provide more specific guidance in the chapter about establishing one’s own design firm: write a business plan, hire an accountant, hire a financial manager, sign contracts with all clients, don’t undercharge for your services, and keep a certain percentage of money on hand.
The project management chapter includes a picture of Stoll’s triangle, which was unfamiliar to me. It is a simple but memorable tool for estimating and conceptualizing projects. An isosceles triangle has one word at each corner: “good,” “fast,” or “cheap.” According to Stoll, a project can embody any two of those traits, but not all three.
Selections from the survey data complement the discussions in each chapter. Chapters are preceded by hand-drawn illustrative information graphics; for example, responses to a question about the number of hours worked in a week are shown by a series of eyes with increasing numbers of “bags” beneath them. Qualitative responses to open-ended questions show a wide range of points of view.
Although it is not a handbook on what to do and how to do it, this book discusses a range of the challenges designers face as students, as coworkers, as vendors working with clients, and as creative individuals. My own title for this book would be So You Think You Want to Be a Graphic Designer? It boils down the experiences of many designers and gives readers a lot to think about.
Russell Willerton is a tenured member of the English faculty at Boise State University.
Thanks, but This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected
Jessica Page Morrell. 2009. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. [ISBN 978-1-58542-721-5. 358 pages, including index. US$16.95 (softcover).]
If you have written and submitted fiction, you have probably seen your share of stock rejection letters, most of them polite but not very helpful. In Thanks, but This Isn’t for Us, veteran writing coach, developmental editor, and writing instructor Jessica Page Morrell explains what rejection letters usually leave out: why your manuscript failed to be a marketable product and what you can do about it. While targeted at would-be writers of novels and memoirs, many of the ideas in Thanks could be applied by anyone interested in crafting effective narratives, including instructional designers, technical and marketing writers, and even those needing to tell their own story as part of a career strategy.
In addition to Thanks, Morrell is the author of Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008) and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006). Morrell says that less than 1 percent of submitted fiction manuscripts get published. This is partly due to the economic realities of modern publishing, but also due to the prevalence of common blunders that appear again and again to doom submitted manuscripts. Lacking a sufficient mastery of their craft and the fiction editor’s experienced eye for both good and poor writing, many aspiring writers fail to recognize fatal flaws in their own work.
In Thanks, Morrell isolates and discusses the most common mistakes and tells how you can avoid them. In fifteen lively chapters, she addresses the major areas of the fiction writer’s craft. She covers such things as the need for a strong opening that hooks the reader; using change, adversity, and action to shape a story; creating suspense; the importance of conflict; creating potent and memorable characters; and using scenes as building blocks for your story. She also covers handling dialogue, using physical details to make the writing come alive, and things to check on during the final edit.
What sets Thanks apart from many other books of advice on fiction writing is its practical, down-to-earth coverage of what actually goes wrong in rejected manuscripts. With wit, wisdom, and compassion, Morrell names, describes, and gives examples of the most common deal breakers that lead to rejection. For example, the chapter on writing openings discusses such unsuccessful openings as “Country Roads” (opening with a long, leisurely scenic tour that lacks “intrigue, tension, or conflict”), Crash Course (opening that dumps too much information on the reader too soon), Not Much Going On (protagonist just thinking and killing time), Paint-by-Number (clichéd opening that has been done to death), and others. To help you see with an editor’s eyes, Morrell illustrates many potential deal breakers with mock passages written in the offending style. The book also suggests potentially more successful writing strategies, and includes practice exercises, checklists, lists of recommended resources, and glossaries of basic fiction and publishing terms.
If you are getting rejections, or just want to improve your chances of success, Thanks would be a good place to turn for help. Even if you are a writer who does not expect to produce commercial fiction, you may find Thanks useful. At its core, it is about the art and craft of narrative and meeting audience expectations, and as such, it has much to say not just to entertainers but to anyone—technical communicators included—who uses stories to reach, teach, and persuade.
Patrick Lufkin is an STC Associate Fellow and is currently chair of the Northern California STC Kenneth M. Gordon Memorial Scholarship and Membership Manager of the STC Management SIG.
Stephen J. Pyne. 2009. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [ISBN 978-0-674-03330-6. 314 pages, including index. US$25.95.]
The best way to describe the purpose of Voice & Vision is to borrow a phrase from adman David Olgilvy: “It is a sin to bore your fellow man.” The idea, of course, is nothing new. Rudolph Flesch did a great job knocking down the walls of the up-with-which-I-will-not-put school of writing. But important ideas—and this is important for technical writers and for everyone interested in understandings—often need to be constantly refreshed, refashioned, augmented for the times. Pyne’s book makes its contribution to the rebuilding process.
The author’s purpose is to show how literary considerations can enhance the writing of serious nonfiction. Craft, he urges, is “what makes narrative out of facts, drama out of data, and history out of dates and artifacts” (p. 11). Many in business and technical writing feel that “literary considerations” tend to bend the facts. But there are always better ways to express what you want without falsifying the information. The trick, he suggests, is “knowing how elements of style can advance your purpose as a writer” (p. 17).
Pyne shows how some elements of literary writing—including journalism and popular nonfiction—can be adapted to technical writing. For instance, he provides a wonderful term, plot surrogates. “The progression of sources may be logical or chronological.” The document “might develop from one datum point to the next”; one might “organize the text by space rather than time . . . contrast periphery with its core . . . arrange it by orders of magnitude.” Such arrangements, suggests Pyne, convey “an ordered progression that does for your text what traditional plotting does for traditional narrating” (pp. 84–85). He again offers the term surrogates in place of the traditional concept of character associated with fiction. Even if the primary purpose of a document is a place, a social institution, or a scientific concept, the document that fits in human characters will be a lot more interesting.
The author cites Orwell’s strictures against clichés, overused metaphors, and pretentious diction, to which we might add overused jargon. He adds, “If you have something truly new to say, you may need to devise a new way to say it” (p. 70). He tackles simplicity: “If the point of writing is to convey meaning, we would do well to remember that the mind often works figuratively and delights in occasional alliteration and rhyme, and tends to recall wordplay and striking phrases; and that what appears to the prose puritan as decoration may in fact assist understanding” (p. 131).
Dramatic principles apply to technical communication, for we must keep the reader interested and turning the page. Even an informational document “tells readers something they didn’t know, or describes some practice or procedure or skill. We read on because we want to know how things turned out—what the laboratory results add up to” (p. 105). Interest can never be taken for granted.
Pyne offers worthwhile points on graphics. He freshly compares visuals to pilings beneath a bridge, bearing enormous weight and allowing prose to flow freely. In other words, often keeping the text from getting bogged down in endless description or presentation of data. Graphics can unburden the text and allow “access to quantitative data that might otherwise be dismissed because it cannot be reconciled with words.”
All in all, Pyne has some very useful suggestions for delivering more compelling technical documents.
Steven Darian retired from a career at Rutgers University, where he taught business communication, technical writing, and other language-related courses. His work in several countries includes managing a training school for Raytheon Corporation in Saudi Arabia and teaching in China. His most recent book is The China Business Reader (2006).
Ben Shneiderman and Catherine Plaisant. 2010. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley. [ISBN 978-0-321-53735-5. 606 pages, including index. US$101.00.]
As human-computer interaction (HCI) becomes more integrated into the disciplines of computer science, information science, and technical communication, the number of textbooks in the field increases every year. Ben Shneiderman’s Designing the User Interface is one of the classics of the field, first released in 1986 and now in its newly released fifth edition. This edition includes contributions from coauthor Catherine Plaisant, who joined Shneiderman for the fourth edition, and collaborators Maxine S. Cohen and Steven M. Jacobs.
By design and intent, the book is a graduate-level survey of most major HCI topics, with detailed reference lists to allow further exploration. It is comparable to other graduate-level textbooks such as Helen Sharp, Yvonne Rogers, and Jenny Preece’s Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction (John Wiley, 2007; reviewed in the August 2008 issue of Technical Communication) and Human-Computer Interaction, by Alan J. Dix and colleagues (Prentice Hall, 2003). Shneiderman’s original work predates both. The book’s organization and writing are very clear and the text and figures well laid out and easy to follow.
The overall structure of the book remains identical to that of the fourth edition. There are four sections: an introduction to HCI, a discussion of the development and evaluation of interface designs, a long and detailed look at types of interaction styles, and an in-depth look at several specific design issues. The afterword includes the authors’ perspective on the direction and controversies of the field.
For the most part, the fifth edition is an incremental update from the fourth. While the text incorporates small changes for grammar and clarity on nearly every page and many images have been updated, much of the text remains largely unchanged. That said, some areas of the book have been substantially rewritten. The chapter on software tools has been removed. The older chapter on information search and visualization has been split into two expanded chapters. The chapter on collaboration includes an extensive new discussion of social media. The chapter on user documentation now emphasizes the importance of online documentation. The afterword has been completely revised to describe some of the latest research directions and controversies.
Among the book’s strongest points, even in its earliest editions, are the comprehensive reference lists. These lists have been thoroughly updated, both to drop out-of-date or older material and to add the latest papers and thinking.
The book is written primarily as a text for students and researchers, but the authors explicitly note that the book is designed to be useful as a reference for practitioners as well. Every chapter includes a “practitioner’s summary” and “researcher’s agenda” designed to give a brief summary of each chapter for the appropriate audience. Although practitioners will doubtless be more interested in some chapters than others, the introduction provides helpful hints on how to find the subjects most appropriate to a practitioner’s field.
The companion Web site is geared toward students and instructors rather than practitioners, and parts of the site are not free. An extensive list of relevant links, discussion questions, and an infrequently updated blog are public. Students can gain access to self-assessment quizzes, slides, and example projects using an individual code given with each book that allows for six months of access.
As a textbook, Designing the User Interface is a comprehensive and engaging introduction to the HCI field. While the book necessarily cannot cover every topic in enough detail to be a true practitioner’s reference, the introductions to each topic and the related references may be of great value to the working professional.
Colin Birge is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Human-Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. His research interests include usable privacy and security, rhetoric, HCI, and user-centered design. He is a former Microsoft program manager and continues to work as a consultant.
Andrew Stellman and Jennifer Greene, eds. 2009. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media. [ISBN 978-0-596-51802-8. 482 pages, including index. US$39.99 (softcover).]
When seeking out advice about software projects, it is tempting to turn to a book expecting to be told what to do: “If you read this book and follow the best practices, you will have a successful project.” Andrew Stellman and Jennifer Greene, veteran software engineers and project managers, wrote Beautiful Teams with an entirely different approach: “If you picked up this book hoping to find the One Correct Way™ to run a beautiful team, we’re really sorry, because that’s not what this book is about. But if you’re looking to gain some insight into what makes a good team tick and what you can do to take a mediocre team and make it better—or take a great team and make it crash and burn—you’re going to get a lot out of this book” (p. xviii).
Beautiful Teams includes stories and interviews in 31 chapters from software industry veterans representing a wide range of organizations, including Google, IBM, Microsoft, and NASA. Organized into four main parts (“People,” “Goals,” “Practices,” and “Obstacles”), the book starts with an interview with Tim O’Reilly (founder of O’Reilly Media, the well-known publisher of books on computer technologies) and ends with one on record producer Tony Visconti. Visconti may seem like an odd choice, but you will learn in this chapter that producing records and building software have a lot more in common than you might think.
It is important to be up-front in mentioning that Beautiful Teams is for a main audience of software developers and not technical communicators. The book is most relevant to technical communicators who work on a team with software developers, but having the rare chance (for a lot of us) to get a developer’s perspective may be a worthwhile education for any technical communicator. The assumptions by the authors when starting the project also make a case for reading: “the more you know about how different people run their projects, the better equipped you are to run your own” (p. xvi).
At more than 450 pages, Beautiful Teams is no quick or very easy read. I recommend not trying to read from cover to cover; start by reading only the chapters that interest you the most. How to decide which chapters to read? Carefully read the “How This Book Is Organized” section, which has short summaries of each chapter. Pay close attention to hints for topics that interest you, such as agile or open source. Also, this section can be a big help in ruling out sections not to read, such as industries that are in no way related to your work (examples: video games or defense/aerospace).
Beautiful Teams is clearly not required reading for all technical communicators, but for certain people, such as the technical communicator working on a software team with developers, a lot can be learned from reading about the experiences—both successes and failures—of others.
David Kowalsky is a technical writer for NEC Corporation of America. He received his MA in East Asian studies from Washington University (St. Louis) and a certificate of technical writing and editing from the University of Washington. He is a senior member of STC’s Puget Sound Chapter.
Rajeev K. Bali, Nilmini Wickramasinghe, and Brian Lehaney. 2009. New York, NY: Routledge. [ISBN 978-0-415-99232-9. 135 pages, including index. US$160.00.]
Knowledge Management Primer gives you a taste of what knowledge management (KM) is, along with ways to explore and apply KM strategies, tools, and techniques. KM is built on the “relevance of the data, the pertinence of the information and the germaneness of the knowledge” of the specific context (p. 2). In a company, knowledge has tangible and intangible value toward the goal of collecting tribal knowledge before it walks away. Companies use KM to achieve and influence company goals by creating, sharing, and retaining a competitive edge to acquire knowledge and measure its assets.
Creating a knowledge architecture requires capturing knowledge in one of four knowledge spirals:
- Combination: Create knowledge from existing explicit knowledge resources.
- Externalization: Create knowledge from tacit knowledge
- Internalization: Create new knowledge from explicit knowledge
- Serialization: Create new tacit knowledge from existing tacit knowledge.
Knowledge exists in objective components (explicit or factual knowledge, written or documented) and subjective components (tacit or “know how,” undocumented information stored internally). Capturing tacit knowledge includes conducting exit interviews, providing social networks and wikis, and using brainstorming techniques.
KM tools and techniques rely on ontologies and taxonomies, data mining where “descriptive and predictive tasks are carried out by applying different machine learning, artificial intelligence and statistical algorithms,” (p. 40) and business intelligence and analytics. Narrative (storytelling) may not be considered a KM tool, yet it does bring different data-based sources together, providing qualitative research. Bali, Wickramasinghe, and Lehaney cite David Skyrme’s and Debra Amidon’s six knowledge types: know-how, know-who, know-when, know-where, know-why, and know-that. Next, there is External Structure Initiatives, Internal Structure Initiatives, and Competence Initiatives, which cover gaining knowledge, building a knowledge-sharing culture, and creating KM-based careers.
The authors review the concepts behind systems thinking (hard, soft, and critical) where KM is considered “the organization of parts and their dynamic relationships, that comprise a whole, rather than the study of static organizational parts” (p. 57). Hard-systems thinking looks at solving a problem by creating a structural system to achieve an intended outcome. It uses systems analysis and synthesis and does not work well with social or organizational problems. Soft-systems thinking explores the situation, determines what the problems are, and seeks to solve the situation. Critical-systems thinking considers the “individual, organizational, cultural, societal and political issues, and how these might be addressed and dealt within an organization” (p. 66) using a set of questions to determine motivation, power, knowledge, and legitimacy.
Knowledge affects a company’s concepts of learning, culture, and organizational structure. The authors state that “the terms ‘learning organization’ and ‘organizational learning’ are not the same. The overlap occurs because organizational learning is a prerequisite for a learning organization” (p. 83). They summarize Skryme’s and Peter Senge’s approaches:
- Skyrme’s four levels of learning: learning facts, knowledge processes, and procedures; learning new job skills that are transferable to other situations; learning to adapt; and learning to learn.
- Senge’s five learning disciplines: personal mastery, team learning, shared vision, mental models, and systems thinking.
Organizational culture should be shared, learned, passed transgenerationally, perceptually influenced, and adaptive. The book discusses Stephen Robbins’ 10 organizational culture characteristics—individual initiative, integration, control, risk tolerance, direction, reward systems, communication patterns, conflict tolerance, management support, and identity—that show companies the importance of understanding that knowledge is key to their success and organizational structure.
Organizational structure represents the company’s heart with core values, rituals, heroes, symbols, and structures. Core values guide its progress. Rituals cover employee relations, followed by heroes who describe the employees and their competencies and behaviors. Symbols relate to the corporate image, while structures help control and guide the company’s planned and coordinated activities.
Knowledge Management Primer is small, compact enough for use as a reference book or as an introductory KM course. It does have grammatical issues that may detract from understanding the concepts; tables are not directly referenced; and the overuse of “follows” that leaves the reader searching for the referenced graphic, table, or list. Technical communicators build a career on ensuring the accuracy of referenced items like these as we manage the knowledge provided to our audience.
Jackie Damrau has more than 20 years of technical communication experience. She is a fellow and member of the STC Lone Star community and the Instructional Design & Learning SIG, manager of the Nominating Committee, and member of the Competitions Task Force. She enjoys reading philosophy and psychology besides spending time with her grandson.
Anna Buss and Nancy Strauss. 2009. Berkeley, CA: New Riders. [ISBN 978-0-321-60588-7. 271 pages, including index. US$34.99 (softcover)].
Anna Buss and Nancy Strauss have written a book about building your business and brand on the Web. Technical communicators will find the book useful because companies are seeking to develop their own online communities, and technical communicators can play a key role in bringing those communities to life.
The book begins with an explanation of what an online community is. The authors define it as “a group of people who regularly interact with each other on a website” (p. 4). At first, this seems to be a broad definition. However, the authors explain that wikis, blogs, and message boards do not count as online communities, because they focus on a particular posting or thread of postings about a particular topic. An online community, by contrast, focuses more on the relationships between members of the community. The book then describes what online communities can do for your company, setting up your community, member recruitment and motivation, managing your community, monetizing your community, and growing your community.
The book is logically organized with plenty of examples that explain or show how other organizations have created and managed their own online communities. The examples provide good food for thought when you start thinking about creating an online community for your organization.
Online communities benefit both a company and its customers in several ways. The company benefits by staying in touch with its customers, providing product and service information, and selling products. Customers benefit by sharing feedback with the company and with other customers.
Technical communicators, thanks to their knowledge of the company, its products and services, its customers, and how to design and publish information, make a difference because they can lead in designing and managing such communities.
George Slaughter is an STC senior member and a former STC Houston president.
Sandee Cohen. 2009. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press. [ISBN 978-0-321-49220-3. 314 pages, including index. US$34.99 (softcover).]
From Design Into Print is a redesign of The Non-Designer’s Scan and Print Book (Peachpit Press, 1999), updated for new technologies and concepts. Concepts such as scanning, for example, needed to be covered in less detail, while working with digital cameras needed its own chapter.
You should read the five sections in order. The beginning chapters, in particular, cover knowledge that builds a foundation for understanding in later chapters. Specific software applications are not recommended or required, but types of software are recommended for different types of projects.
The section “Start at the End” teaches you that you need to know where you’re going (your end product, with its particular choices of paper and colors), how you are going to get there (project preparation), and the basics of commercial and desktop printing.
Cohen then helps you understand the types of computer applications, computer color modes, raster images, vector images, and file formats. Those not-so-minor details can trip you up later in the process if you haven’t considered them beforehand.
“The World of Color” gets into process color printing, spot colors, and duotones and explains how many colors to print. The book itself is printed in four colors.
Cohen describes “Getting Stuff into the Computer” by looking closely at several technologies, including digital cameras, scanners, stock photos and clip art, and fonts. She devotes one chapter to each technology, providing sufficient detail for the non-designer.
Finally, Cohen goes into what needs to happen after all the design work is done. She focuses on high-resolution output, Acrobat and PDF files, output specifications, trapping, and preflight and proofing. One appendix includes a handy sample preflight checklist; the other appendix is a glossary of common terms used by print providers and production managers.
From Design Into Print is a very useful reference book. The text is conversational but not folksy. Easy to read and understand, the book wouldn’t be out of place in an introductory course on graphic design projects.
Rachel Houghton has more than 13 years of technical communication experience. She is a senior member of the STC Willamette Valley and Lone Star communities and program chair of the 2010 STC Tech Comm Summit in Dallas, TX. She enjoys photography, Photoshop, and creatively expressing her design talents through digital scrapbooking.
Barbee Davis, ed. 2009. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly. [ISBN978-0-596-80416-9. 232 pages, including index. US$29.99 (softcover).]
Project management is part of any activity, whether it is as simple as planning work to get away at noon for a luncheon appointment or as complex as planning a software suite for a valued client. Indeed, the processes involved are the same and differ only in granularity.
For project management beginners there are numerous books, Web sites, webinars, seminars, and academic courses that can make what, to some, looks like arcane black magic become exercises in logical decomposition of an activity. 97 Things Every Project Manager Should Know is not for a beginner. It is for experienced project managers looking to learn what other, similarly qualified managers have learned. Even though the editor slips in an occasional footnote explaining some project management term, the reader is assumed to know the processes involved in developing a project plan.
According to the publisher’s blurb, this is the first in a new series of books, each providing 97 hints on a particular aspect of documentation. The 97 hints or tips in this book come from 53 authors who manage software development projects in the United States and 10 other countries. They are consultants, academics who also consult, academics who are also company employees, and company employees; most are professional project managers, and their advice ranges from the general to the specific.
Barbee presents each hint in a two-page spread. The hints are not arranged in any discernible order, and the editor’s preface is silent on both how she organized the book and how she selected the entries. She tells us that they came in response to a post on the Internet and she selected from them.
Even though there is no clear organizational pattern, the book works because of a strong topic table of contents. You can easily locate hints on agile methods of management, managing people and teams, distributed teams, communications, project processes, and so forth. As for the hints themselves, they are rather uneven, with some rather elemental and others advanced. The hints’ focus on software development makes it difficult but not impossible for project managers of other types of projects to draw benefits from reading and “translating” them to their subjects. The editor allowed authors free range of topics, but would have served her readers better if she had provided at least some talking points for each to cover.
Some of the hints leave the reader wondering about specifics. For example, a hint called “Keeping Your Perspective,” which addresses project business requirements, suggests asking stakeholders a series of questions. Sample questions would save the reader the trouble of wondering what kinds of questions and then how to integrate the answers into the project plan.
Because most hints focus on the three variables project managers always have to balance—time, budget, and quality—they are usable and valuable. The caveat is that if you are not in software development, you will need to adjust the discussions to your own particular subject.
Tom Warren is an STC Fellow, a winner of the Jay R. Gould Award for teaching excellence, and professor emeritus of English (technical writing) at Oklahoma State University, where he established the BA, MA, and PhD technical writing programs. Past president of INTECOM, he serves as guest professor at the University of Paderborn, Germany.
Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice. 2010. Berkeley, CA: New Riders. [ISBN 978-0-321-49836-6. 437 pages, including index. US$59.99 (softcover).]
Eyetracking shows us what people are looking at—and not looking at—when they work on a computer screen. It’s not a new methodology, but modern equipment allows us to use eyetracking much less obtrusively than was possible years ago. This less obtrusive eyetracking has become popular in usability studies, but it still requires special equipment, so not everyone is doing it. Many people, however, would be interested in what eyetracking tells us about how visitors use Web sites. That’s the subject of Eyetracking Web Usability.
As with Jakob Nielsen’s earlier book, Prioritizing Web Usability (reviewed by Ginny Redish in the February 2007 issue of Technical Communication), Eyetracking is based on an extensive research study. Nielsen, Pernice, and their colleagues at the Nielsen Norman Group watched more than 300 people doing one or more of 85 tasks, some very specific and some open-ended, across a wide range of sites. Furthermore, this study, like the earlier one, has great credibility because it meets Caroline Jarrett’s criteria for studies that practitioners can use: representative users (not university students), realistic tasks, and real sites (Journal of Usability Studies, November 2007). Nielsen and Pernice list the sites that study participants went to, and they explain that realistic tasks means having people go through the entire experience, not just seeing what users do on one page of that experience. As Nielsen and Pernice explain,
There’s a tension between eyetracking studies and real user behavior. Eyetracking records behavior within a single page, but Web usability is dominated by movement between pages. The way to resolve this tension is to conduct eyetracking studies with users who are navigating normally because they are using the Web to perform a realistic task. Only then can you get realistic data about how people look at each of the pages they encounter. (p. 37)
Based on this research study, Eyetracking Web Usability covers what Nielsen and Pernice learned about page layout, page organization, navigation, images, ads, and other fundamental Web elements.
Technical communicators will immediately notice what is missing from this list: content and reading. This is a huge disappointment and makes the book much less useful than it would otherwise be for many technical communicators, copywriters, content strategists, and others who help with the critical element of content and writing on the Web.
Nielsen and Pernice tell us early in the book that “Despite our tight focus, the manuscript for this book got bigger and bigger as we were writing….To keep this book at a manageable size, we cover two topics in separate reports instead of discussing them [in the book]” (p. xvi). The two topics are methodology and how people read. The report on methodology is available free at http://www.useit.com/eyetracking/methodology/. The report on how people read is also listed in the book with a URL but was not yet available as this review was being edited. However, the URL only promises the report in the future and does not indicate how much it will cost.
Despite the flaw of not covering reading, Eyetracking Web Usability is full of fascinating and useful findings. A few that may interest technical communicators are
- Chunking, using bold or colored headings, and setting the heading and its chunk off from others with space saves users time.
- Sassy, cute links that do not match users’ words don’t work.
- People who are doing a task just don’t look at those large pictures that dominate many Web sites’ home pages.
- If an ad or a large picture comes between the page title and the content, people are not likely to notice the page title.
- These adult study participants often chose the kids’ Web pages at a site or stayed on the kids’ pages if they happened upon them. Nielsen and Pernice hypothesize that this happened because the text and images on those pages make difficult information easy to understand.
The book is also a pleasure to use. Eyetracking Web Usability has the same layout as Prioritizing Web Usability—large type, good line length, full color, screenshots on almost every page, separate boxes with guidelines, and a clear writing style.
In a two-page appendix, Nielsen and Pernice summarize how much people looked at specific Web elements. This table gives percentages for navigation elements, images, and ads. It breaks each of these categories into quite specific elements, giving separate percentages, for example, for shopping cart in upper-right quadrant and shopping cart in upper-left quadrant; for images with a single person and images with multiple people; for text ads, different types of graphical ads, and animated ads. However, once again, they leave out all the elements related to Web content: There are no percentages for headings, paragraphs compared with bulleted lists, short paragraphs compared with long paragraphs, and so on.
If you are interested in what eye-tracking over many users, many tasks, and many sites shows about how people use home pages, navigation elements, images, and ads, Eyetracking Web Usability is a book to get.
Janice (Ginny) Redish is President of Redish & Associates in Bethesda, MD. Ginny is an STC Fellow and former member of STC’s Board of Directors. Her latest book, Letting Go of the Words—Writing Web Content That Works (Morgan Kaufmann, 2007), is still receiving rave reviews on book sites and in blogs.
Jason Crawford Teague. 2009. Berkeley, CA: Sage. [ISBN 978-0-321-57416-9. 360 pages, including index. US$44.49 (softcover).]
Speaking in Styles: Fundamentals of CSS for Web Designers, by Jason Crawford Teague, is intended for just that: an audience that already knows HTML and is already at work designing Web pages. As such, it doesn’t waste time discussing HTML or Web design in general. Instead, Teague begins by explaining the advantages of using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for stylistic elements on Web pages and reserving HTML for structural concerns only.
Once Teague makes his case for CSS, he moves into the nitty-gritty details of the syntax, semantics, grammar, and vocabulary specific to CSS. The chapters move in a logical progression of general information about CSS to specific instances where one might override a rule to break inheritance or to work around a noncooperative browser.
Where Teague’s book falls short is that there is a lot of explanation of CSS in terms of what it does, how the rules are structured, and its shortcomings and advantages over merely using HTML, but it does not show enough practical detail or examples of how CSS works in reality. It is one thing to discuss specificity (how the browser decides which CSS rules to apply and when) in theory, but it is quite another to actually write the rules and see for yourself how the principle of specificity works.
If Speaking in Styles included exercises to help the reader visualize the concepts and how they actually work in practice, I would say that this is the best book out there for Web designers who are new to CSS. Because it lacks this element, I would argue instead that it is an invaluable companion guide to another, more comprehensive text such as Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML (O’Reilly Media, 2006). Even though Speaking in Styles cannot realistically stand on its own for a designer beginning to learn CSS, its clean organization, illustrative full-color examples, and user-friendly explanations make it a must-have reference for this audience.
Nicole St. Germaine-McDaniel is a senior member of STC and chair of the Technical and Business Writing Program at Angelo State University. Her research interests include technical communication for a Mexican-American audience and technical communication in the health fields.
Dom Sagolla. 2009. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.. [ISBN 978-0-470-55613-9. 178 pages, including index. US$17.95 (softcover).]
There probably is no better person to write this book than the author, Dom Sagolla. Between involvement in the birth of twttr (better known as Twitter), the perspective of a self-avowed English major, and a desire to keep up with the latest software technologies, @dom (the author’s user name) has clearly fallen in love with the electronic short form.
The book is broken down into five sections with 19 short chapters, each titled as a single verb or noun. A ballooned tweet illustrates nearly every paragraph in the book, each from the author’s extensive collection gathered over years of twittering and following other tweeters. In case you tire of interpreting the nuances of each tweet, you can stick to the written text and still learn a great deal about this emerging art form.
The introduction details the origins of Twitter, a tool originally designed to use the short message service protocol (SMS) for quick communication. In the chapter “Link,” Sagolla breaks down the anatomy of a single message into its technical parts: an SMS is sent, an API notification is sent, an e-mail is sent, most URLs are shortened, and a Web page is created. “Simplify” explains innovations such as the @username (identifies a user) and the #hashtag (defines a topic).
The chapters “Voice” and “Word” reveal the author as a true lover of the written word. He identifies established short forms, such as haiku or couplet, with tweets to demonstrate. He even points out that a sonnet, requiring 14 lines with 10 syllables per line, could be a tweet, although he has yet to see such a one. Invention of new words is popular among tweeters. For instance, Sagolla’s glossary shows current examples using portmanteau: linner (lunch and dinner) and improssible (impossible and improbable).
“Link” emphasizes the power of hypertext in the short form. First, the author claims that “Twitter is the world’s easiest and fastest way to produce hypertext” (p. 71). He explains the three dimensions of text in this form: character (includes grammar, spelling, syntax, and shapes), line (negative space), and link. A single word can be linked to include “nearly infinite possibility and meaning” (p. 72).
Sagolla provides guidelines for using Twitter and an explanation of its uniqueness: “Facebook is for people you already know, and Twitter is for people you want to know” (p. 32). Other chapters cover social and psychological issues such as etiquette (caps-lock text used in moderation), addiction to tweeting (for example, several teenagers sitting on a couch texting rather than talking), and seeking praise from large followings (followings are a tweeter’s way to read other authors and vice versa).
Technical writers, who have already learned the economy of words, should be able to appreciate a form that encourages young people to write and learn to do it concisely. This book provides excellent basics for any who may have slept through high school English.
Donna Ford is current president of the Connecticut STC chapter. She has been a technical writer since 1987 in the hardware, software, and government health care industries.
Jono Bacon. 2009. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-596-15671-8. 366 pages, including index and bibliography. US$39.99 (softcover).]
The Art of Community might at first glance look like hard reading about a boring topic, but I found it a pleasant surprise from the first page. Both Leo Laporte, who wrote the foreword, and Jono Bacon have a fun and engaging writing style. Dots (with personalities!) are used to illustrate the essence of community early on, and amiable dialogue provides informative, yet engaging, guidance throughout.
Bacon carries his community theme from start to finish. According to the preface, you can actively participate in the community at http://www.artofcommunityonline.org in several ways:
- Follow links to download the book (with corrected errata).
- Write a review.
- Get related news.
- Chat with other readers.
- Read articles.
- Leave feedback.
However, when I checked on 15 April 2010, the last activity was by the author on 22 December 2009. Perhaps the book hasn’t been out long enough to encourage community participation. Fortunately, the book itself maps out a usable blueprint for creating and maintaining successful communities.
The first third of the text deals with the basics of starting a community, and the rest primarily covers operational, maintenance, and legal aspects. Emphasis is put on proper planning, unity, communication, and mediation. The advice offered throughout is garnered from personal, corporate, and civic experience and can be used for both large and small groups. Bacon is known for building computer open source communities (LugRadio and Ubuntu), but his book applies to all types of organizations.
If you belong to or plan to start a professional, civic, volunteer, commercial, computer/IT, or activist group, this book is packed with constructive information. Begin with setting up a community; the principles can be applied to associations as varied as a church group, a civic community council, a volunteer organization, and a company office. The basic principles are the same no matter the size, although as your group grows or shrinks, some requirements do change. Larger groups have more need for governance and community management, but all groups require good communication, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, contributing members, and more.
The Art of Community explains these critical factors, describes how to achieve them, discusses mistakes to avoid, and presents real-life examples of how organizations solved similar problems. Wondering how to build a mission statement? Covered. Want to discover essential building blocks of belonging for team building? Covered. Need to settle conflict? Covered. You get the idea—Bacon has done his homework and anticipated most issues you might encounter or need to consider in a community endeavor.
This is one of those rare books that delivers what it promises. It is also well organized and well written, and it could easily become a community member’s or manager’s dog-eared resource.
Sherry Shadday works for Southwest Research Institute as a principal instructional specialist creating print, stand-up, and Web-based training in Layton, UT. An STC member, she received a technical communication master’s degree from Utah State University and previously served 21 years in the U.S. Air Force maintaining aircraft electrical systems.
Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley. 2009. Raleigh, NC: The Pragmatic Bookshelf. [ISBN 978-1-93435-643-2. 221 pages, including index. US$34.95 (softcover).]
I admit I was excited when I received my review copy of Agile Coaching, by Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley. Excited because several of my colleagues have been enthusiastic about how effective this approach has been on their projects, and I wanted to learn more about the process and its applicability to the types of projects handled by my company. Specifically, I wanted to learn what the Agile process is, whether it will apply to my workload, and how to be a better manager of my team members.
This easy-to-read book—you can read it in the span of a cross-country flight—makes a straightforward promise: “You’ll learn how to build a team that produces great software and has fun doing it” (back cover). The authors deliver by sharing what has and has not worked for them over the years. They discuss possible pitfalls and provide guidance to avoid and overcome them. These recognized leaders in the Agile community share their personal and observed experiences (they consult with companies to successfully integrate the Agile process into the corporate workflow). If you’re learning about the Agile process or find yourself coaching an Agile team, you’ll want to read this book.
Beyond discussing the process, the authors hone in on how you can become an effective coach by breaking the method into logical and discrete segments, starting with defining the coach’s role in the process and moving through creating your team, facilitating development with your team, keeping your projects moving, maintaining a quality product, and observing results to improve the process for the next project or iteration.
The text is organized very effectively. Each chapter offers pertinent information about possible difficulties you may encounter as well as a checklist of best practices in working with and guiding your team throughout the process. These lists transform the book from a one-time read to a resource you will likely consult often as you manage your projects. This focused content make the book worthy of its $34.95 cover price. (Electronic versions are also available through the publisher.)
The authors embrace readers who have little or no knowledge about the Agile environment. They provide a clear picture of when the method is best used while addressing concerns of those who have an established team. After reading this book, you will have a base understanding of the process that will allow you to determine if it is the best approach to your specific projects.
Davies and Sedley provide sound principles of effective project management and developing teams that apply in general to any project team—Agile or not. Their attention to the full scope of their audience makes this a valuable book for any team member’s or manager’s bookshelf.
By the time I reached the detailed end matter of the book, I had developed a good understanding of the Agile process and whether it would work for the typical project in my company. While we won’t be embracing the Agile process in its entirety, I was able to glean valuable information that I immediately integrated into existing projects and team management. As a result, I’ve witnessed my team working together more effectively and have experienced increased productivity and quality in our projects.
Louellen S. Coker has more than 15 years of experience in public relations, instructional design, Web design, technical writing, and editing. With a technical communication MA, she is president of Content Solutions, an STC senior member, and a past Lone Star Community president. She has taught technical communication and presented workshops.
Jack Lynch. 2009. New York, NY: Walker & Company. [ISBN 978-0-8027-1700-9. 326 pages, including index. US$26.00.]
The English language changes constantly. And ideas about what constitutes standard English change with it. Even experts can’t agree on what is acceptable. To some, language change indicates social decay. Others welcome new words into the living language. Yet someone must pin down words, their spellings, and their meanings to create a useful guide to speaking and writing the language. This is the job of the lexicographer.
In The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English from Shakespeare to South Park, Jack Lynch, professor of English at Rutgers University, traces the history of the English language dictionary. Beginning with the seventeenth century, he provides a chronology of dictionary making in England and the United States, while introducing readers to the lexicographers, the “people who have surveyed the state of the English language, didn’t like what they saw, and resolved to do something about it” (p. 5).
Lynch also examines the challenges these lexicographers faced. For centuries, compilers of English language dictionaries have struggled to present collections of words and definitions that represent the language appropriately. But throughout the dictionary’s development, there have been disagreements, often emotionally charged, about the dictionary’s purpose. Lynch identifies two kinds of lexicographers: the prescriptivist and the descriptivist. Prescriptivists claim to know which words English speakers should use, defending their dictionaries as the authority on the language. Descriptivists survey the language, then report on and describe the words actually in use. These two camps don’t agree on the purpose of a dictionary, but they all face the same questions: “What does proper English mean, and who gets to say what’s right?” (p. 1).
There’s a lot for technical communicators to like about The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: discussions of writing styles and dos and don’ts of grammar, insights into how technology (from the printing press to text messaging) affects the language, and revelations about words. Above all, it’s the words that fascinate. Lynch sheds light on the origins of many words and categories of words, how they fell in and out of favor, the social trends that have influenced lexicographers, and the reactions these dictionary makers have encountered. Even as late as the 1960s, for example, Merriam-Webster was severely criticized for adding astronaut and finalize, words that we now routinely accept as part of the language.
As a writer, I appreciate most that Lynch maintains a certain amused detachment from the word wars and comes down on the side of “grace and clarity” (p. 275) in language, regardless of whether the prescriptivists or the descriptivists rule in the latest editions of their dictionaries.
Linda M. Davis is an independent communications practitioner in the Los Angeles area. She holds a master’s degree in communication management and has specialized in strategic communication planning, publication management, writing, and editing for more than 20 years. Linda is also a member of IABC.