Books Reviewed in This Issue
Mathew Patterson. 2010. Collingwood, Vic, Australia: SitePoint Pty. Ltd. [ISBN 978-0-9805768-6-3. 144 pages, including index. US$29.95 (softcover).]
Create Stunning HTML Email That Just Works! should be in the arsenal of all freelance Web designers looking to expand their client lists. It also belongs in the library of anyone working in a field that sends mass messages.
The six-part book starts with a useful discussion of the role of e-mail. Patterson cites statistics that belie the idea that e-mail is an old tool, useless in an era of tweets and apps, and notes that “email is a low-cost, high-return medium that appeals to businesses” (p. 2). Bless him, he urges planning and information reuse.
Here is a statistic that should give you pause if you design your own e-mails: “Building HTML for email means you're dealing with more than four or five major web browsers, and 12 to 15 different email clients, each with solid market share” (p. 70). The guts of the book explain why the
tag is vital to HTML-coded e-mail despite the advances in coding for Web sites. It should also affirm why a designer's skill and know-how are needed to do the job right.
E-mail samples abound in the “Design for the Inbox” chapter, and examples are liberally included in the “Coding Your Emails” chapter. Patterson offers numerous tables that compare feature support in various clients like Outlook, Thunderbird, and Gmail. For example, Table 4.6 (p. 84) compares HTML font properties support for 11 e-mail clients.
Patterson writes with a light and deft touch that makes this book easy and enjoyable to read. For example, a subhead on page 20 poses the burning question “How can I avoid my email being filtered?” The answer: “Use magic, if possible.” His running example is for a company (with a Web site, of course) called Modern Henchmen.
The book has a functional design that works with pages of text as well as the many colorful examples of HTML-based e-mail messages and side-by-side comparisons of e-mails viewed in different programs. Clearly marked notes, tips, and warnings are sprinkled throughout. The book has a dedicated Web site with errata, a code archive, downloadable templates, reader reviews, and ordering information.
Page vi informs us that SitePoint specializes in publishing “fun, practical, and easy-to-understand content for Web professionals.” HTML Email That Works! is all that and more.
Ginny Hudak-David is the senior associate director in the Office for University Relations, the communications unit of the three-campus University of Illinois.
Guy Hart-Davis. 2010. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. [ISBN 978-0-07-163317-8. 206 pages, including index. US$19.99 (softcover).]
HTML, XHTML & CSS QuickSteps is a great how-to book that takes you through the world of HTML, XHTML, and CSS in very simple, bite-sized, step-by-step chunks. The QuickSteps books use guideposts (icon-based text boxes) on almost every page to give you additional detail about information on that page. This book will teach you everything you need to know about creating your own personal or business Web site. Hart-Davis covers topics on how to structure your Web pages, apply manual formatting, add graphics and links, create tables and frames with HTML, use cascading style sheets (CSS) to control formatting, use Microsoft Office applications (for example, Word, Excel, PowerPoint) for Web page creation, and create forms and scripts to collect information from your Web visitors.
Images (graphics) are an area that many Web creators fail to set up for proper accessibility and use by screen readers for visitors with visual challenges. Hart-Davis says to tag all Web site images with the alt attribute for decorative, bulleted, or horizontally lined images. This tag shows text to visitors if the image does not display in their browser or instructs screen readers to tell visitors what is being displayed.
Hart-Davis recommends testing every aspect of your site with the three common browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari. The majority of people use Internet Explorer (60-70%), with 20-25% using Firefox and 7-10% using Safari.
It's important to find the right Web host. Hart-Davis suggests you look for eight features in hosting: amount of space, amount of traffic, number of e-mail accounts, your own domain name, Internet connection speed and uptime, Web tools support, audio/video streaming, and shopping carts and secure servers. Web hosting services offer multiple types of services, ranging from basic to developer, at reasonable rates. Many internet service providers have generous service offerings for no charge or for a minimal fee.
HTML, XHTML & CSS QuickSteps walks through an in-depth process on how to plan, design, and create your Web site to meet the needs of your audience. As you begin building your site, make sure that you have permission to use any digital content (music, audio/video, photos) to prevent a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Not everything on the Web is available for free use.
I enjoy especially how Hart-Davis provides common Internet and computer terminology (site, servers, clients, URLs) with enough detail not to detract from the step-by-step instruction. Also enjoyable are the historical bits, such as how the Web should have been called the Mesh because many sites are nothing more than a “mesh of links among pages” (p. 28). The book's layout, simplicity in style, and use of the iconic guideposts make it an easy read.
Jackie Damrau has more than 20 years of technical communication experience. She is a Fellow and member of the STC Puget Sound chapter and the Instructional Design & Learning SIG, and General Manager of the STC International Summit Awards. She serves as the Book Review Editor for Technical Communication.
Steven Johnson. 2010. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. [ISBN 978-1-59448-771-2. 336 pages, including index. US$26.95.]
A writing assignment that is part of my annual performance review includes a section on innovation. The instructions mention that people in the global company I work for are expected to “think differently to innovate or develop improved alternatives for existing products, methods and approaches.” So I turned to Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
Johnson is the co-founder of three influential Web sites (most recently, outside.in) and author of seven books about science, technology, and culture. Where Good Ideas Come From is the closing volume in an unofficial trilogy that began with The Ghost Map (Riverhead Books, 2006) and The Invention of Air (Riverhead Books, 2008), books about world-changing ideas and the environments that made them possible.
To answer the question “Where do good ideas come from?” Johnson took an environmental perspective, looking for the spaces that have historically led to unusually high rates of creativity and innovation. He states the argument of the book: “A series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments” (p. 17). He then divides them into seven patterns (the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation, and platforms), devoting a chapter to each.
Johnson builds his argument around anecdotes drawn from different historical periods and contexts. Examples are mostly from natural sciences and high tech. A key takeaway from the book is “the more we embrace these patterns—in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools—the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking” (p. 17).
The book ends with an analysis that takes roughly 200 of the most important innovations and scientific breakthroughs from the past 600 years and then plots each breakthrough somewhere in one of the four quadrants of a diagram.
This may not seem like a book to recommend to technical communicators, but there are plenty of inspiring examples from today's leading innovative companies that easily make the book worth reading. One of the best examples is Google's “20-percent time” program for all engineers. It lets them spend 20% of their time on whatever pet projects they want. The program has played a part in generating key products such as AdSense (in 2009, responsible for more than $5 billion of Google's earnings), Orkut (one of the largest social network sites in India and Brazil), and Gmail. Also fascinating are the remarks on Apple, which is consistently ranked as the most innovative company in the world.
For a book that approaches innovation from the more traditional perspective of group action and the individual, I recommend The Innovator's Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation (The MIT Press, 2010), by Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham.
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.
Christopher Schmitt. 2010. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media. [ISBN 978-0-596-15593-3. 704 pages, including index. US$49.99 (soft cover).]
This is the third iteration of this reference on coding with cascading style sheets (CSS). Browsers have evolved since the first published edition in 2004, and Schmitt's compendium has attempted to incorporate these changes. As with almost all technology books, however, the technology—browser support for specific features—changes faster than the time it takes to write, edit, publish, and sell a book. As a result, some browser limitations noted in the print version may no longer apply by the time a coder uses the CSS Cookbook. There is an online edition, but it is only free of charge for 45 days after entering the coupon code from the print version.
CSS Cookbook is not intended to be read cover to cover. Instead, readers can look up the “recipe” for the particular task they want to accomplish. Even though the current CSS 2.1 standard offers many more options than 1.0 did, the “Hacks and Workarounds” section is still one of the most useful portions of the book. Other helpful information includes notes on accessibility (did you know that right-justified text is difficult to read for dyslexics?) and an appendix listing all CSS properties, their values and defaults.
Each “recipe” outlines the problem this particular item is intended to solve, the solution itself (including sample code), a discussion of how that solution works, known browser issues with this item, and a “see also” section referring to further information elsewhere on the Web. Many “recipes” also include screen shots and other graphic elements. While many “before and after” shots help readers visualize how exactly this particular solution changes the display of text or graphics, some add little to the text. A few screen shots are downright confusing, as when a caption purports to show the effect of a selector on an ordered list, but the corresponding image shows an unordered list.
Somewhat perplexing also is the inclusion of a chapter on HTML basics. According to the preface, CSS Cookbook assumes the reader “possess[es] some web design or development experience” (p. xviii). Presumably, anyone with such experience would not require an explanation of how to code a basic HTML page. While leaving that chapter and some of the less helpful illustrations out would not have slimmed the volume down to the 240 or so pages of its first edition, it might have made the book somewhat easier to handle (not to mention saving some paper).
All in all, however, CSS Cookbook still is a useful and comprehensive reference for web coders of all stripes.
After writing software documentation and managing an IT department, Barbara Jungwirth now translates technical documents from German to English and codes for an HIV Web site. She owns reliable translations llc (www.reliable-translations.com) and writes a blog, On Language and Translation (http://reliable-translations.blogspot.com/).
Rachel Spilka, ed. 2010. New York, NY: Routledge. [ISBN 978-0-8058-5274-5. 272 pages including index. US$39.95 (softcover).]
Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, edited by Rachel Spilka, is a very comprehensive look at the shape of our field and how we influence, and are influenced by, the technology that we work with on a daily basis. The table of contents reads like a “who's who” list of notable scholars such as Saul Carliner, Bernadette Longo, Barry Thatcher, and Michael Salvo, to name a few, who have contributing chapters in this collection. When I began reading this book, my expectations were quite high, and the content and the writing really deliver. It has been years since I have felt this inspired by a collection.
The purpose of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication is “to help current and future technical communicators better understand how the nature of their work—and their potential contributions to industry—has changed dramatically in the new digital environment of modern work” (p. xi). The theme of the collection is how much we have evolved as a field because of the rapid changes that are continually taking place in technology. What it means to be “digitally literate” changes as technology changes. We will become obsolete if we don't constantly adapt to new technologies and the new ways information is planned, disseminated, critiqued, and used. Despite that central theme, the attitude toward technology is neither critical nor enthusiastic. Instead, the various authors challenge us to reconsider how we think about technology.
The text is divided into three parts: Part 1 addresses “Transformations in Our Work”; this section attempts to define the field of technical communication and the direction it is moving, as well as explain how technology has fundamentally changed what we do on the job. I was not in the field yet at the time of the Internet revolution, and as a result I found Part 1 fascinating reading and very informative.
The second section, “New Foundational Knowledge in our Field,” contains chapters by Dave Clark, Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski, and William Hart-Davidson. The goal of these three chapters, according to Spilka, is to present three new areas that should form the core knowledge of our field: the rhetoric of technology, information design, and content management. A snapshot of last year's Society for Technical Communication Summit presentations backs up this claim that these three areas are of great interest in the field today.
Finally, Part 3 addresses “New Directions in Cultural, Cross-Cultural, Audience, and Ethical Perspectives” with chapters by Bernadette Longo, Barry Thatcher, Ann M. Blakeslee, and Steven B. Katz and Vicki W. Rhodes. These four chapters ask us to question the current theories prevalent in the field and to consider them from a fresh perspective. Each chapter in this collection was notable to me for a variety of reasons, but the chapters by Longo and Thatcher, in particular, stood out as they challenged us to consider that technology is not culture neutral and to question the ways in which we use technology to spread our culture in ways that might not be palatable for others.
Despite the focus on theory, the tone of Digital Literacy is not high-handed. The information is very accessible for all audiences that Spilka mentions in the preface: “practitioners, students, and educators” (p. xi). As a result of the clear and approachable level of discourse, many practitioners would find value in this book, as it most directly concerns them and their workplaces. However, the theoretical nature of the collection and some of its contents would probably not appeal to some. I hope that is not the case, however, because many of the chapters, particularly Carliner's reflections on how technical communication has evolved and Thatcher's chapter concerning digital literacy across cultures would be especially interesting and/or useful to practitioners.
This collection would also be useful for a graduate course in the history of technical communication or the rhetoric of technology. Academics who try to keep a finger on the pulse of industry trends would find this book invaluable because its contents help illustrate how pedagogy should evolve to reflect what is needed in the workplace. Quite honestly, I was so excited by many of the concepts in Digital Literacy that I immediately e-mailed one of the authors with questions as well as shared the book with a colleague. I know it will have a valued place in my collection for years to come.
Nicole St. Germaine-McDaniel is a senior member of STC and head of the Technical and Business Writing Program at Angelo State University, as well as a freelance writer and consultant. Her research interests include technical communication for a Mexican-American audience and technical communication in the health fields.
David Matsumoto, ed. 2010. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. [ISBN 978-1-4338-0780-0. 327 pages, including index. US$79.95.]
The APA Handbook of Interpersonal Communication, edited by David Matsumoto, presents 13 studies neatly divided into two sections: theory and application. As I reviewed my notes for this book, I noticed x's and squiggles denoting my lukewarm reception for each chapter dedicated to theory and bold checks and stars denoting my satisfaction with each chapter covering application. Clearly my biases are poorly concealed. As I am only somewhat conversant with linguistic theory, much of the first section was lost on me. As I am deeply involved in the everyday practice and observation of interpersonal communications, both in the workplace and in my personal space, I found the second section to be extremely relevant.
The topics of theoretical perspectives covered in the first section are intriguing—body language, spatial semiotics, politeness, humor and irony, and praising and blaming. I cannot doubt the validity of the arguments presented here as each chapter is well researched with historical literature and recent empirical data, yet to apply them is difficult to figure out. Many of these studies are simply too short to provide tangible insights. For instance, the chapter on “technically-mediated interpersonal communication” (misspelled as “technically-medicated” in the table of contents) provides approximately one page each of information on topics such as blogs, social networking sites, and virtual worlds. One page is enough to introduce a topic, yet too brief to provide actionable information. For a student of linguistics or clinical psychology, this section is likely to prove academically fascinating; for the average technical communicator, mildly curious.
The six-chapter section on applied interpersonal communication is compelling and filled with pragmatic topics such as everyday communication, the language of the elderly, and media competence (a nice companion piece to the earlier chapter on technically-mediated communications). Although several of the pieces focus on specific communication events and situations, such as a chapter on therapy, counseling, and diagnostics, the insights afforded are relevant across a number of scenarios.
Two of the more memorable chapters are “Youth, Discourse, and Interpersonal Management” by Jannis Androutsopoulos and Alexandra Georgakopoulou and “Nonverbal Communicative Competence” by Nancy M. Puccinelli. In the chapter on youth, the authors offer insight into language tactics that youth use to align, converge, and collude. My favorite is a delightfully academic description of the use of expressions such as “like,…you know,…right?, innit?,…really” (p. 239). With equal adeptness, the writers also cover how youth mark boundaries, manage conflict, and practice exclusion through language. Workplace communicators or leaders should read Puccinelli's chapter on nonverbal communications. Revelations such as “employees skilled at eavesdropping on positive emotions were evaluated more positively by supervisors and peers” (p. 282) are plentiful and make for furious underlining and margin writing.
An average technical communicator may find the price for The APA Handbook of Interpersonal Communication prohibitive. APA members or psychology students with an interest in communications may find this book is certainly a fair deal at its reduced member price.
Gary Hernandez is a communications manager for BP. He received his English literature MA from George Mason University and received his technical writing MS from Utah State University. Gary belongs to STC and IABC.
Geoffrey A. Cross. 2011. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company. [ISBN 978-0-89503-400-7. 252 pages, including index. US$54.95.]
“You're only as good as your last ad,” Geoffrey Cross relates in the opening chapter of Envisioning Collaboration: Group Verbal-Visual Composing in a System of Creativity (p. 23). This quote, from the chief creative officer at an advertising agency, underscores the difficulty and importance of creating excellent work that integrates visual and verbal elements. With its focus on advertising writer-artist teams, this book fills an important gap in research on visual-verbal composing. Frequently, studies focus on either visual or verbal collaboration; however, this study examines the overlap between the two.
Cross spent considerable time—more than six years, including three months of participant observation—working with several teams at this advertising agency to learn how they created “effective persuasive and informative verbal-visual messages for client/manufacturer, retailer, and consumer” (p. 25). The thick description afforded by this ethnographic research allows him to make strong claims regarding visual-verbal collaboration. In some cases, these claims extend prior research on collaboration; in most cases, Cross refines or refutes claims made in that prior research.
Along the way, readers sit in on early meetings between writers and artists who are competing to create a winning ad campaign to pitch to their client, a well-known lawnmower company. The writer-artist pairs, or dyads, seek to create a campaign that could translate from standard media campaigns to point-of-sale (POS) ads. The chapters that introduce the two primary dyads make for a fascinating read. Cross interweaves his description of the collaborative process with follow-up interviews, giving the reader a chance to understand the writers' and artists' thought processes.
A key challenge for these teams is one that most writers and artists face: complex audiences for their visual-verbal messages. The work these teams produce must appeal to a number of audiences: colleagues at their agency, supervisors, the client, and customers of the client's company. A related challenge is the company-wide “tip-ball” meeting model, which serves as a gatekeeping meeting that narrows the company's focus to one or two pitches. The “tip-ball” meeting should theoretically offer the opportunity for collaboration among all the creatives; however, Cross notes that the tip-ball often leads to team competition, a common collaboration problem.
Envisioning Collaboration is primarily valuable for researchers studying collaboration and verbal-visual composing in technical communication. Instructors and practitioners interested in developing different modes of collaboration will also appreciate the insights that Cross draws. Besides his theoretical claims, Cross offers several practical recommendations. For example, he presents an assignment cycle that could be adapted for different courses, one that builds on the brainstorming and collaborative techniques used by the study's participants.
Ashley Patriarca is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric and Writing at Virginia Tech. She earned her master's in English (technical and professional writing) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she also worked in the Department of Enrollment Management as a technical writer.
Adrian Wallwork. 2010. New York, NY: Springer. [ISBN 978-1-4419-6590-5. 180 pages, including index. US$29.95 (softcover).]
This slim book is aimed at presenters with English as their second language (ESL), and specifically at scientific researchers—an unfortunate choice, as this book has far broader appeal. It provides a great introduction for anyone who must learn the art of presentations and a refresher for experienced presenters. Designed as a reference book, it leads you through the steps in preparing a presentation and helps you quickly find topics using the table of contents, which also cleverly serves as a checklist. Although Wallwork makes an early claim to ignore the issues of designing and creating visual aspects of the slides, he provides ample information on integrating visuals with written and spoken text. Though the rules are simplistic, and you will break many of them as your skills grow, they are an excellent guide for beginning speakers and will not detract from a professional's presentations.
A refreshing change is the book's focus on audience. Wallwork explains the characteristics that determine how audiences listen and understand. He reminds us that too many speakers spend more time designing their slides than practicing their presentation and the value of conducting informal colleague reviews before giving the formal conference presentation. Wallwork clearly distinguishes between papers and the presentations based on them, and explains how to identify and clarify the key messages before we start creating the slides. He offers the intriguing insight that crafting a 2-minute “elevator speech” ensures that you focus on the real messages.
English for Presentations at International Conferences is full of useful tips, including a section on overcoming nervousness. It includes copious examples, like “before and after” comparisons that help make the principles concrete. Much of Wallwork's advice applies equally well to writing, and doubly so if you are communicating with an ESL audience. Yet the heart of this book lies in its many presentation-specific gems, such as speaking in your own voice. For ESL presenters, Wallwork mentions online resources such as annotated BBC news transcripts that display the words and let you hear how they are pronounced. For anyone, the collection of speeches at TED.com reveals the tricks of the world's best presenters.
Starting presentations with bulleted lists of your key concepts helps the audience learn your pronunciation as you describe what they are seeing on the screen. Although Wallwork discourages the use of “builds” (adding one bullet at a time to the screen), he correctly notes this technique's superiority to filling a slide with text in a single step: It primes the audience to understand what you are about to say and accommodates the fact that most ESL audiences are better at reading than listening to English. I have found this technique remarkably effective in my own presentations to diverse audiences.
English for Presentations at International Conferences is not without problems, such as Wallwork's mixed message about humor. Though he notes that visuals can “inject humor” (p. 83), he subsequently advocates caution (p. 101). Unfortunately, few people are natural comics, and the risk of cultural gaffes is particularly high with international audiences. In my experience, only mild self-deprecation successfully spans cultures, and no presenter should attempt humor without a profound understanding of their audience. The book's index is inadequate, as it is more a concordance, exacerbated by the decision to repeat the index with page and section numbers, instead of creating a larger and more usable index. The writing is generally clear, yet several typos and other proofreading lapses slipped through (for example, the list of editing services on “p. 164” actually appears on p. 166), and words or phrasing may sometimes be difficult for ESL audiences to parse (“adverbs of concession”, p. 134; “emotive adjectives”, p. 139). Wallwork's suggestion that Chinese authors often get l and r reversed (p. 29) is rare, though it is common for Japanese authors. And the suggestion (p. 73) that automatic spellcheckers may incorrectly and automatically change words is incorrect; he was undoubtedly thinking of Microsoft Word's AutoCorrect feature.
These quibbles notwithstanding, I can unreservedly recommend this book for ESL presenters, English presenters with ESL audiences, and anyone who needs to learn or polish their presentation skills. The best thing I can say about English for Presentations at International Conferences is that it kindled my desire to try many of these tricks in my presentations.
Geoff Hart has given dozens of presentations and workshops to STC chapters, as well as to audiences in India and China.
William H. Dutton and Paul W. Jeffreys, eds. 2010. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. [ISBN 978-0-2625-1373-9. 382 pages, including index. US$33.00 (softcover).]
James Gleick, in his new book The Information, views information technology evolving in three parts: the historical (drums, smoke signals, etc.), Shannon's 1949 information theory, and the flood (post-Shannon). In addition, changes in electronic storage (Moore's Law) means massive increases in available research data leading to the flood with its accompanying access problems. Those issues are what Dutton and Jeffreys' anthology addresses, specifically, finding and accessing relevant data by researchers.
The editors have divided the papers into four major groupings: The Foundations, State of the Practice, Social Shaping of Infrastructures and Practices, and Implications for Research. The collection ends with an essay from the editors, The Ends and Means of World Wide Research. All papers are from the James Martin 21st Century School, University of Oxford.
The problem, as described by Dutton and Jeffreys, is that a deluge of research data exists in the sciences and humanities that requires attention to designing access for use by cross-disciplinary researchers. It does not matter if the researcher is a single individual or a research consortium scattered across several disciplines and located worldwide. They all face the mounting deluge of data and problems associated with it.
The editors call using such data “e-research” and insist that the problems will generate waves well beyond the laboratory or the ivory tower. The result is a change in what e-researchers know and how they know it.
The editors write:
Our edited collection focuses on how e-research is reshaping and will continue to reshape not only how research is done but, more important, its outcomes. … Our aim is to create an understanding of this process in a way that enables researchers and an array of other relevant actors to generate a “virtuous cycle.” (p. 3)
That cycle is the standard way to do research: collect data, analyze and organize them, write papers or presentations, and upload them as data to the system.
Of interest to technical communicators is the usability in e-research section with essays by de la Flor, Jirotka, Lloyd, and Warr; Martin; and Thelwall. Usability, say de la Flor et al., is no longer about software interfaces. Rather, it is “a means through which support can be given to the requirements of cooperative work arrangements” (p. 135). They discuss three areas in which usability becomes important: Requirements Engineering, Human-Computer Interaction, and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. Martin's essay looks at computer platform security, speculating how trusted computer technologies might work, and Thelwell addresses social networking and its e-research role.
For the price, this collection is a bargain. It offers insights into how researchers manage the flood of data/information, emphasizes the importance of understanding how e-research teams cooperate, and notes the ways they communicate and collaborate. And it should prove useful for not only technical communicators, but also managers and e-researchers.
Tom Warren is an STC Fellow, Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence recipient, 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.
Gary Woodill. 2011. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-07-173676-3. 269 pages, including index. US$29.95.]
Although it seems we are entering the age of mobile devices, mobile technology began to emerge as early as September 11, 2001. Many people that day were using their BlackBerry devices to communicate via text messaging during the attack on the World Trade Center. People used mobile communication in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Now, text messaging is commonplace. Yet, the use of mobile devices for learning is still in its infancy.
In The Mobile Learning Edge, Woodill provides an overview to mobile learning, addresses the need for companies to develop a future-oriented mobile learning strategy, and includes a case study in most chapters. I found the Intuition.com case study involving Merrill Lynch among the best.
Merrill Lynch, one of the world's leading wealth management companies, found its employees struggling to find time for training. They conducted a pilot study by providing their employees with three compliance training courses over a two-month period. Merrill Lynch conducted the pilot training because of the need for security on BlackBerry devices. They branded the training delivery medium as “GoLearn—a new way to take your training with you” (p. 22). This pilot study was so successful that companies now want to develop similar mobile training for their employees.
Managers will find Woodill's book exceptionally helpful, as it not only guides the reader through the evolution and methods of effective mobile learning and how to gather information with mobile devices, but also spotlights contributing writer David Fell's work on the management of mobile learning. In Chapter 8, Fell addresses the guidelines for developing a future-oriented mobile learning strategy, a key topic of this book. He quotes from Pip Coburn's book, The Change Function: “…new technologies are adopted only when the present crisis in your business is more painful than the ‘total perceived pain of adoption’ of the proposed new technology” (p. 170).
It is important to plan for the present and the future. Fell addresses such mobile learning business models as just-in-time learning, contextual learning, information storage and delivery, and the creation of field-based learning materials. He stresses the importance of understanding the strategic context and competitive environment into which mobile learning will evolve.
Herle closes the book in Chapter 10 by addressing how to implement and manage the enterprise mobile learning offering. She suggests developing a vision of your organization's overall mobile culture. In addition, Herle poses such questions as who gets mobile devices? how do you control employee data on devices? and how do you control personal use of the device?
This book is a nice reference for managers and technical communicators who want to know more about mobile learning. In fact, you can begin your own mobile learning by purchasing Woodill's book from Amazon's Kindle Store and reading it as you are on the go.
Rhonda Lunemann is a senior technical writer with Siemens PLM Software, a senior member of STC's Twin Cities Chapter, and a member of the Hill Speakers Toastmasters Club (Club 4415).
Ulf-Daniel Ehlers and Dirk Schneckenberg, eds. 2010. Heidelberg: Springer. [ISBN 978-3-642-03582-1. 533 pages, including index. US$179.00.]
If you are concerned with the unrealized potential of technology to increase the abilities of universities to prepare students for work in the twenty-first century, Ehlers and Schneckenberg's Changing Cultures in Higher Education: Moving Ahead to Future Learning may be of interest.
This book focuses on the implementation and implications of new technologies for university education with ongoing cultural changes and rapidly evolving information and communication technologies. The cultural changes include changes in student demographics; the faculty's role in collaborative, cross-disciplinary, user-center, participatory learning that develops problem-solving competencies; the need for institutional administration to lead and support innovation; and greater dependence on universities by the government and civil society to contribute toward solutions that benefit the society and support economic prosperity. The editors provide 37 articles from an international array of scholars and practitioners who address the topics of strategic change management, competency development, and quality assurance.
The section about strategies to support change focuses on the needs for a holistic combination of top-down management and bottom-up faculty activities that support the development and implementation of technology-enhanced education, identification and reduction of important organizational barriers to change, increased participatory decision making, and an environment that facilitates incorporating technology that supports collaborative learning.
The section about developing competencies of faculty and students to use technologies for teaching, learning, and research focuses on the conceptual framework and methods for developing the competencies required to effectively execute e-learning. Schneckenberg contends that many universities have neither fully recognized nor exploited the potential of e-learning because of organization barriers and faculty failure to recognize the e-learning potential and to develop the requisite competencies to effectively use e-learning. He concludes that universities should take the lead in training their faculties.
The section about quality assurance of e-learning in universities focuses on the need for comprehensive strategic plans for the implementation and assessment of both e-learning programs and outcomes. The authors argue that such plans should focus more on pedagogy and organization, and less on the technological component. These plans should be derived from established quality assurance strategies that are already in place for strategic management of universities' business models, revenue, and collaborative initiatives.
This book is forward-looking and thought provoking, yet has some shortcomings such as the two-and-a-quarter page index that is inadequate for a textbook of more than 500 pages. The content, and its organization, would benefit from adding a chapter to each of the three sections that identifies and concisely explains the principles essential to each section. The editors' emphasis on Web 2.0 technology is odd, since this technology will be replaced by whatever follows, which will be replaced by something else.
Changing Cultures in Higher Education can be a useful resource for those who are interested in strategies and case studies about the use of technology to increase the readiness of our universities to prepare students for work.
Wayne L. Schmadeka serves on the faculty in the Professional Writing Program, University of Houston-Downtown. He founded and for 12 years ran an educational software development firm, has extensive experience developing varied documentation, and consults with engineering firms to increase the effectiveness and reduce the cost of their documentation.
Scott Berkun. 2010. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly. [ISBN-978-1-449-38962-8]. 228 pages, including index. US$17.99 (softcover).]
Despite the importance assigned to innovation, most of us know little about how innovation takes place in the real world. Worse, Scott Berkun argues in The Myths of Innovation, much of what we think we know is clouded by myths or misconceptions that interfere with our ability to actually understand and bring about worthwhile change.
In this expanded paperback reissue of the 2007 hardback, Berkun adds to the work that has already established him as one of the thought leaders in the field. Before becoming an author and consultant, Berkun spent a decade (1994–2003) in the trenches as a manager at Microsoft, where he worked on the early editions of Internet Explorer. Berkun is also the author of Making Things Happen, and Confessions of a Public Speaker.
In Myths Berkun examines what he calls the ten most “pervasive and misleading” myths about innovation. He discusses the belief that innovation can be achieved by some method, and the role and importance of epiphanies and bright ideas (including the belief that good ideas are hard to find); he also covers the figure of the lone inventor, the idea that the boss knows more about innovation than you do, that people like new ideas, that innovation is inherently good, that the best ideas win, and more.
Throughout, Berkun uses well-researched historical and contemporary examples to expose what is misleading, and then point to better models for success. Take the story of Newton and the apple; even if it were true (it's not), it obscures the hard work that went into deriving the laws of motion, Newton's real achievement. Stories like the Newton story feed our misconceptions about the role of epiphany in innovation—the pervasive belief that innovation starts with a bright idea. Yes, epiphanies happen, Berkun says, but they usually come at the end of a long process of hard work on a problem, like finally seeing the picture when the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle is placed, not at the beginning. Would-be innovators, he says, would be better off searching for good problems to work on than on waiting for bright ideas to strike.
While Berkun works to debunk myths, it is clear throughout that his purpose is to arm you with the wisdom you will need to improve your own chances of success. To this end, The Myths of Innovation has been considerably expanded for the paperback edition and now includes chapters on “How to pitch an idea,” “Creative thinking hacks,” and “How to stay motivated.”
The book also contains an extensive appendix on research and recommendations, which contains both an annotated bibliography and a ranked bibliography in which Berkun orders his sources according to how useful they were to him while writing the book. Even those who have the hardcover may want to look at the paperback edition for its new material.
Patrick Lufkin is an STC Associate Fellow with experience in computer documentation, newsletter production, and public relations. He reads widely in science, history, and current affairs, as well as on writing and editing. He chairs the Gordon Scholarship in technical communication and co-chairs the Northern California technical communication competition.
Ilene Strizver. (2010). 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-470-54251-4. 272 pages, including index. US$55.00 (softcover).]
Type Rules!: The Designer's Guide to Professional Typography is in its third edition, revised for current standards and practices. A new chapter on nonprint typography has been added to cover type on the Web and type in motion. Technical tips (TECHTIPS in the book) have been updated for recent versions of Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress, while type tips (TYPETIPS) carry helpful hints and interesting tidbits about typefaces. Each chapter offers one or more exercises designed to reinforce concepts learned in that chapter, especially if you are using this book in an introductory graphic design course. In later chapters, the exercises provide potential portfolio pieces, such as a spa brochure exercise.
While Strizver stresses in the introduction that the book does not need to be read in order, someone with little to no experience in typography will benefit from reading the chapters in sequence. The first three chapters cover a brief history of type, an introduction to font technology, and what makes a typeface look the way it does. This information provides a good grounding for all the succeeding chapters.
Strizver then leads you through selecting the right type for the job, formatting type, type emphasis techniques, and fine-tuning your type. These chapters go into the details of type, including type size, line length, indents, tracking, and kerning.
The section on finessing your type describes some of the options available if you're using OpenType fonts, including small caps, figures, swash characters, and alternate characters. To round out the topic, Strizver also covers drop caps, raised caps, and the many types of initial types and techniques.
The book finishes by identifying and showing how to avoid common typographical typos; how to use typographical elements such as symbols, signs, fractions, and accents; and how to design your own typeface. A three-page glossary with the terms used throughout the book is included, along with a bibliography, the digital font foundries and distributors mentioned, and a list of typographic resource links.
I like how the book's examples include not just art pieces, but also real-world products and layouts. The examples illustrate the concepts in each chapter without being inaccessible. The use of color to make some examples pop from the page is a refreshing treat for the eye.
Type Rules!: The Designer's Guide to Professional Typography is a comprehensive introduction to the principles and practices of typography. This third edition is a reference I'm happy to have on my bookshelf.
Rachel Houghton is a Senior Information Designer at Sage, a leading-edge construction productivity and real estate solutions company. She has more than 14 years of technical communication experience. Rachel is the STC Secretary and is actively involved in the STC Willamette Valley community. She enjoys photography and Photoshop.
Ralph Keyes. 2010. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company. [ISBN 978 0-316-05656-4. 279 pages, including index. US$24.99.]
Ralph Keyes has written an excellent book about euphemisms that will teach you not only their history but also why we use them. Do not read this book in a library, because you are bound to laugh out loud. And while it is written in a popular style, Keyes' erudition shows through in every page and is supported by a fine bibliography that can take you deeper into the subject.
Euphemisms come from dis-ease, or as the author defines them: “words or phrases substituted for ones that make us uneasy” (pp. 7–8). And what makes us uneasy? Topics such as sex, the body, secretions and excretions, illness and death, unfamiliar food, money, and war. Euphemisms allay that discomfort, or as Keyes puts it: “Euphemisms represent a flight to comfort, a way to reduce tension when conversing. They are comfort words” (p. 6).
What did I learn from reading this book? That “sleeping with” someone is not anything new—it was well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans—and is perhaps the most venerable euphemism of all. Are you annoyed with people who say “passed away” instead of died? That goes back to the Middle Ages. Did you know that “bear” is a euphemism for “the brown one”? That Johnson—the most often used last name for penis—goes back to the British lexicographer Samuel Johnson, subject of one of the most famous biographies ever written? And that riffed (Reduction In Force) is a terrible euphemism for laid off?
One of the helpful insights of this book, though perhaps not an original one, is that class has a great deal to do with euphemisms. The middle class has always thought it could separate itself from the lower class and move into the upper class by eschewing vulgar words. The lower classes, meanwhile, reveled in them and the upper class had nothing to lose by using them.
The chapters on sex, farting, bowel movements, and body parts will have you in stitches, while those on money (one of the most taboo of topics) and war may get your blood boiling. It's amazing how the Civil War and World War I changed the way we speak.
Why do we euphemize? “The primary social value of euphemisms is that they make it possible to discuss touchy subjects while pretending we're talking about something else” (p. 229). Plus it's fun and creative and provides a code to keep people in or out.
Whatever the case, this is an enjoyable, well-written book for those wishing to have a more profound understanding of the role of euphemism in language.
Charles R. Crawley is a Lead Technical Writer at Rockwell Collins, Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was riffed once and would like to see the Cubs in the World Series before he passes away.
Michelle Dunn. 2010. Plymouth, NH: Never Dunn Publishing LLC. [ISBN 978-1-4536-0530-1. 174 pages. US$23.95 (softcover).]
Mosquito Marketing for Authors will start you thinking about marketing your book without relying on a publisher. So will most other marketing books for authors, but Dunn includes many examples from her own experience, such as a timeline of speeches she gave and her experience at the Book Expo of America. If you are looking for a jumping point, Dunn's book includes important concepts, if not always actual information. The final chapter includes a list of books, magazines, and Web sites with more information about marketing books.
However, the concepts are the same ones that people already know, yet they aren't expanded with important “how-to” information. The promising title “Promote your website for under $50” merely says to look at Google Ads. Another promising title, “Word of mouth advertising,” vaguely says it is a good thing, but offers no advice on how to get it started, other than “it really does work … but you have to work at it” (p. 145). Knowing that word-of-mouth advertising is free and really works doesn't help me without some pointers on how to get it started.
Where useful information exists, such as examples, the organization makes it difficult to reference specific information. Various pieces of related information are scattered throughout the chapters. For example, the chapter “Marketing off line” includes selling your books over the Web. Many sections do not outright relate to the chapter, leaving the reader to decipher the connection. For example, Dunn describes name recognition in the chapter “What is my niche?” She writes that “selling yourself means getting as much name recognition as you can or becoming popular in your genre” (p. 59). Dunn does not say how her methods of name recognition, which I assume reference sections such as “Donations” and “Promotional items,” relate to your niche.
Besides the disordered and lacking information, the writing is poor. Errors include linking independent sentences with comma after comma and switching “to” and “too.” But the writing style has greater problems. One of the first sentences Dunn offers: “One very important point I have to make right away in this first chapter is that if you are an author and your book is published, no matter who publishes your book it is up to you” (p. 14). Regardless, the best information was in sections written colloquially with personal examples. Yet many sections never fleshed out the idea.
Finally, the cover states that she “self-published an award winning book that is a consistent best seller in its category.” I am not sure how other writers feel about using word trickery in marketing, but Mosquito Marketing discusses that the best-seller may be the only book in its category. Dunn also includes advice about publishers, yet this book is self-published. In the end, this book doesn't offer anything better than would a different, well-written marketing book.
Angela Boyle is a technical writer for Tyler Technologies, Inc, where she has worked since April 2006. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BS in technical communication.
Jennifer Tidwell. 2011. 2nd edition. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly. [ISBN 978-1-449-37970-4. 550 pages, including index. US$49.99 (softcover).]
Designing Interfaces is a well-annotated interface design pattern library. It's an excellent read for interaction design students and entry-level user experience designers to get a full spectrum of the popular user interface patterns. It also works well as a shelf reference book for experienced designers when it comes to design brainstorming and problem solving.
The book starts by laying out the theoretical framework by introducing the online user behaviors such as “safe exploration,” “instant gratification,” “deferred choices,” user expectations and how they may interact with software/Web site, and design implications for making the interface more intuitive and user friendly. Chapters 2 through 10 provide a complete overview of the user interface (UI) patterns for navigation, layout, commands, information graphics, forms and controls, social media, and mobile. Tidwell gives two to five pages to each pattern where she discusses and illustrates the information in sections titled “What,” “Use when,” “Why,” “How,” and “Examples.” The book's layout and information is well designed and presented.
The first edition of this book was released 5 years ago, and Tidwell has added two new chapters in this edition: one on social media that discusses tactics and patterns for integrating social media into a site or application, and another about mobile device design, which is a heated topic at conferences and in publications.
The last chapter, “Making it Look Good: Visual Style and Aesthetics,” is an enjoyable read. Starting with the manifesto “Looking good matters” and quoting Donald Norman's well-known book Emotional Design, this chapter touches on the basics of visual design (color, typography, spaciousness and crowding, angles and curves, texture and rhythm) and what it means for desktop applications. Tidwell talks in-depth about the patterns and examples, drawing from the basic visual design theory like deep background; few hues, many values; corner treatment; borders that echo fonts; hairlines; contrasting font weights; and skins and themes.
Designing Interfaces comes in two versions: paperback and a slightly cheaper Kindle version. The 576-page paperback is designed nicely with quality paper and color print; the Kindle version is visually less appealing, yet offers less weight with hyperlink navigation for references between chapters.
Overall, I find this book to be a comprehensive collection of best practices and reusable UI design patterns. The title might be a bit misleading; this book might not be your ideal choice if you are looking for interface design fundamentals, case studies, or design lessons learned. Designing Interfaces is more descriptive rather than analytical. It is not about describing a problem and guiding you through the analytics and reasoning to create a holistic user experience design. It's the readers' job to apply the patterns to the real-world problem solving.
Kejun Xu is a User Experience Designer in Santa Barbara, CA. She wears multiple hats (interaction designer, information architect, user researcher) and designs across platforms (desktop, mobile, iPhone/iPad). She is extremely passionate about bringing her customers a more usable, useful, and enjoyable user experience.
Moira Allen 2010. New York, NY: Allworth Press. [ISBN 978-1-58115-743-7. 290 pages, including index. US$19.95.]
The second edition of The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches & Proposals leaves technical writers like us who want to write a book, newspaper column, play, or other work for publication with no excuse for not proceeding. This book is a prospector's map to a gold mine of information, examples, and surprising facts about resources and methodology to use in accomplishing the task of hitting pay dirt in the publication world. One interesting nugget is that you can leverage your work experience into a pitch for freelance work with a trade publication in the same industry.
In the introduction, Allen states that much of what is new is how to use the proliferation of online avenues for reaching editors, checking posted guidelines, and actually submitting queries. Those who have a similar yet outdated reference book already on their shelves will have a good reason to purchase this one. Spare yourself time and frustration by circumventing the long wait, wondering if the intended editor has received your communication. Unfortunately, you must remain patient for a time while the editor reviews your submission.
Ah! Which to send? A pitch, query, or proposal? If you don't know the answer now, you will after reading the chapters on “The Perfect Pitch,” “Writing the (Almost) Perfect Query,” “Preparing a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” and “A Novel Proposal.” Submission guidelines available from each publisher will indicate whether the shorter pitch and query or longer proposal is in order. Other chapters of interest include “Why Not Self Publish,” “Speaking and Teaching Opportunities,” “Pitching to the Greeting Card Market,” “Grants for Writers,” “When to Give Up,” and “Capitalizing on Success.” Another nugget worth discovering is the inclusion of dozens and more real samples of publisher contacts that resulted in successful publication. You can study successful maps instead of guessing and perhaps missing the mark.
Being the possessor of an extensive list of rejection notices and author of a self-published book, I am preparing to don my prospector's helmet once more and search for an actual publisher. From personal experience, I suggest that anyone like-minded have the following in place: a timely idea or passion about publishing a written work, a plan with several options for marketing the work, a list of potential purchasers (audience) and appropriate publishers, and Allen's book. Remember, the cost of this book is tax deductible if you make a sale.
Hoping we strike it rich … or at least find success as each defines it.
Donna Ford is a senior member of the STC. She has been a technical writer since 1987 in the hardware, software, and government health care industries.
Barry Thatcher and Kirk St.Amant, eds. 2011. Amityville, NY: Baywood. [ISBN 978-0-89503-377-2. 288 pages, including index. US$58.95.]
“The trend toward off shoring means that much previously indigenous work is now produced in parts of Asia and eastern Europe” (p. 19). Because so much high-technology work is done worldwide, technical communicators must be aware of cultural differences, especially since many products now have a global audience.
I was expecting this collection of academic writing to focus on how to teach intercultural communications, specifically in the technical writing classroom, because Teaching Intercultural Rhetoric and Technical Communication contains a “Teaching Approaches” section with chapters on teaching intercultural communications and visual rhetoric. Yet this section focuses on ways to integrate and not “ghettoize” interculturalism in the general classroom, with scant attention paid to the specific issues for technical communicators. However, there are some interesting criticisms of teaching practices that focus on grammar instead of other areas of writing instruction. For example, given the rise in global world English, non-native audiences will understand and maybe even prefer what some native speakers might consider incorrect grammar or usage like “I am hearing a noise” (p. 77). Another section contains chapters on course development that could be useful for instructors in other fields. For example, you could apply the information on study-abroad programs to nearly any course.
The book does address technical communications in the field surveys in a particular country or in a case study. For example, the chapters on technical writing in India, Israel, and New Zealand are interesting. Various authors discuss how technical communication instruction is seriously lacking in many parts of the world. France is reassessing its state-approved curriculum, looking at including writing instruction at the university level. India has a postgraduate program, but according to two surveys (done in 2005 and 2007) most technical communicators have no formal instruction or training in the field. Another chapter presents a case study of international trainers in Japan. The author's advice, which runs counter to the typical audience analysis that focuses solely on the reader, is that “we must learn just as much or more about ourselves as about our audiences. We cannot assume a shared frame of reference; our language, our versions of history, our views of time, and our assumptions about professional relationship may all be different” (p. 132). He then explains some cultural exchanges that prove his point.
The examples and content are interesting and thought-provoking, the book is generally well written and organized with a strong index, and many in higher education—specifically rhetoric and composition—will find the materials here useful. However, I was disappointed. As a technical communications teacher, I was hoping for answers to common problems, suggested course content, or current technical communication practices. The chapter on teaching International Organization of Standardization (ISO), for example, would be useful in any of the sciences or engineering fields. But if you're looking for material directly addressing technical communicators, this probably isn't the book.
Kelly A. Harrison, MFA, works as a consultant, speaker, and writing instructor in San José, CA. For more than 20 years, she has written technical materials and online content for various software companies. Currently, she teaches writing at San José State University and prefers short-term and part-time contracts.
The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know About the Costs, Contracts, & Process of Self-Publishing
Mark Levine. (2010). 4th ed. Minneapolis, MN: Bascom Hill. [ISBN 978-1-05098-55-3. 274 pages, including index. US$16.95 (softcover).]
Getting a book published today is not like it was once. It's common knowledge that traditional book publishing is shrinking, and that e-books and self-publishing (SP) are increasing. Less known are the challenges, and pitfalls that await the self-publishing author. Mark Levine does a fine job guiding new authors through the mist.
Technical communicators need to understand the problems that SP authors face as we may be providing them editing support. The first part of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing deals with the many facets of e-books and self-publishing. Major topics include marketing, publishers' contracts, and notes on book design.
Levine approaches marketing from several viewpoints: the author, the publisher, and online booksellers. Traditionally, publishers traditionally marketed their own books, but today traditional publishers as well as SP houses often ask new, unknown authors to cover most of the marketing costs themselves. Marketing your own work involves a completely new marketing strategy where the author must blog, get on specialized Web sites, conduct media interviews, and publicize their book in diverse ways. The SP company's job is to work with online booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble to list the book. Amazon.com is crucial for authors, since traditional houses often use their sales rankings to decide when to offer the author a contract. About six million books appear on Amazon, so that even a ranking of 100,000th is not bad.
Levine emphasizes the magnitude of the shift to SP and e-book publishing: In 2008, for the first time, more SP titles appeared than hard copy. On Christmas day 2009, Amazon sold more Kindle e-books than off-the-shelf titles.
The Fine Print of Self-Publishing highlights two important yet problematic elements for SP publishers: cover design and margins, which incur costs and affects profit. For cover design, Levine stresses that covers sell books: “A bad cover will kill your book” (p. 15). Authors can make covers from templates or custom designed them, normally using Adobe InDesign or Photoshop, yet it's worth spending more for a good cover. Margins are important to the overall design of the book and crucial to its sales. The margins for a 100-page book should be different from a 400-page book, to accommodate the gutter. “While the public might not notice that [the publisher] extended the margins to lower the page count and save on printing, the buyers for retailers and wholesalers will know the second they crack open your book” (p. 16).
Contracts for an SP author can be very detailed. Contract elements include printing markup, return of original production files, exclusive versus nonexclusive licensing, and royalties. In chapters 8 through 12, Levine discusses the individual SP houses, ranging from Outstanding and OK to the Worst of the Worst. Though you may not be an SP author, or not yet one, it really helps if you know your potential audience.
Steven Darian is an STC Fellow, having retired from teaching business and technical writing at Rutgers for 25 years and in eight countries. He was a manager for Raytheon in Saudi Arabia. Steven is co-authoring a forthcoming book, IMPACT: Writing for Business & the Professions, with Professor Olga Ilchenko.
Susan Manning and Kevin E. Johnson. 2011. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. [ISBN 978-0-740-63424-0. 208 pages, including index. US$40.00 (softcover).]
“Teaching is not easy, and teaching with technology is a little like trying to hit a moving target” (p. vii). If this excerpt from the authors' dedication resonates with you, then you may find this book of interest.
The Technology Toolbelt for Teaching briefly reviews rationales and processes underlying several instructional design models. The review serves as a cautionary note about selecting Web-based teaching tools: do not buy a hammer to peel an apple. To help ensure that the tools satisfy the instructional need, instructional planning, including identification of the educational needs, should precede tool selection. Manning and Johnson provide a decision matrix for teachers to use in evaluating and summarizing how well various tools satisfy the identified needs. They apply this matrix by evaluating a few tools to demonstrate how instructors can use it. As the authors observe, “requiring students to use too many tools within one class can become overwhelming and frustrating, and can distract students from meeting instructional goals” (p. 22). Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.
Eighty percent of the book is devoted to identifying and describing an array of tools, which include screenshots of tool interfaces and examples of tool uses in elementary, secondary, and higher education. Manning and Johnson categorize the tools by the functions they serve: organization, communication and collaboration, content presentation, assessment, and “identity transformation,” with a multichapter section devoted to each function. Chapters compare a small number of competing Web-based tools by posing and answering questions such as: What is the tool? What problem does it solve? Is it something that instructors or students use? Is the tool for novice, intermediate, or expert users? What special equipment or software is needed? What are some cautions about the tool? How accessible is the tool to all users? What additional vocabulary is needed?
The organization section includes chapters about calendars, scheduling, graphic organizers, social bookmarking, and file management. The communication and collaboration section covers discussion forums, Voice over Internet Protocol, instant messaging and chat, blogs, wikis, microblogs, and Web conferencing. The content presentation section compares audio, video, screencasting, narrated slideshows, and image tools. The assessment section addresses quizzes, tests, surveys, rubrics, matrixes, and e-portfolios. The identity transformation section covers avatars, virtual worlds, social networking, and emerging technologies.
Manning and Johnson explicitly state that the product list they selected for evaluation is not comprehensive because of the abundance and typically short life cycles of Web-based tools. They picked products that represent a category and may have some expectation of longevity. The primary value of The Technology Toolbelt for Teaching lies in the categories it identifies as areas of interest to instructors and in the methodology for evaluating tools. This book can be a useful resource for educators who want to use Web-based tools to help improve the achievement of educational outcomes.
Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte. (2010). Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media. [ISBN 978-1-933820-77-4. 266 pages, including index. US$39.00 (softcover).]
In the foreword to Remote Research, Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path says, “lab usability engineering was born of a simpler time. … These days, our customers' technological world is much more complex. … Although the world has changed, the methods of standard usability practice are essentially the same as were practiced in the early 1990s. … When everything about the observation environment is so unnatural, how can we expect our findings to provide legitimate insights?” (pp. xiii–xiv).
Bolt and Tulathimutte's book guides you on a journey to the new methods of usability research. Usability practitioners are now moving from the traditional lab settings to testing in people's homes, offices, and other environments as well as conducting usability testing from their desks with their observers in other rooms or in other parts of the world.
The authors compare market research, which looks for opinions, with user experience research, which is more behavioral. In the first chapter, Bolt and Tulathimutte introduce the concept of time-aware research. Time-aware research makes it possible to capture the participant in the middle of performing a task of interest on the Web site, enabled by live recruiting.
Chapters 2 through 5 provide details on setting up, recruiting for, and conducting a basic remote “moderated” study. In these chapters, you learn the details about the equipment needs, the process for conducting a pilot test, designing recruiting screeners, and drafting research documents. It also includes a comparison table on screen sharing tools like GoToMeeting and Adobe Connect. The chapter on remote research uses cases studies to describe automated forms of research (remote card sorting, task elicitation, surveys) an example of which is a comparison of the Club Med and Beaches.com Web sites. Chapter 8 is a guide to the tools and services that are available for conducting remote research. Interestingly, I found a few automated tools missing from the list, like iPerception and WebIQ (which I have used many times).
Of great interest were the discussions of mobile device research and what they term “reverse screen sharing.” At work, we use reverse screen sharing often, as we test many prototypes long before the software upgrades have been developed and integrated into our program.
Remote Research presents the challenges of remote testing with the authors discussing the issues of not being able to see the participants' faces through the challenges of online recruiting. A highlight in chapter 10 is the troubleshooting table that outlines problems and solutions for technological issues that might occur during the testing process.
Overall, I found this book to be an excellent addition to my library of usability books and references. The case studies, tables, figures, and chapter summaries effectively support the text. If you are new to usability testing or to conducting tests remotely, this book is a fairly complete guide. I highly recommend it.
Elisa Miller, an STC Associate Fellow, is a Senior User Experience Engineer for GE Healthcare. She is a past president of the Lone Star Community and is an active member of the STC Usability & User Experience SIG.
Heather Hedden. 2010. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc. [ISBN 978-1-57387-397-0. 442 pages, including index. US$39.50 (softcover).]
Heather Hedden, a taxonomist and web indexer, has written an in-depth guide to the professional world of taxonomy, aiming to educate the person who perhaps has been required to work in the field without having intentionally decided to move in that direction—hence the title The Accidental Taxonomist. Nonetheless, this work can be fruitfully used to guide the already practicing taxonomist as well, as is evident from the wealth of information it contains. Its most salient features, however, reflect Hedden's assumption that the reader will have had no previous experience in the field and will need a full and comprehensive introduction.
Copiously illustrated with screenshots, tables, and other figures, the work is especially detailed and clearly written. Hedden gives us 12 chapters that define the field (“What Are Taxonomies?”); introduce its practitioners, their duties, and training (“Who Are Taxonomists?”); explain and define terms and their relationships (“Creating Terms,” “Creating Relationships”); investigate software (“Software for Taxonomy Creation and Management”); differentiate human versus automated indexing (“Taxonomies for Human Indexing,” “Taxonomies for Automated Indexing”); elucidate structure (“Taxonomy Structures”); present the display of thesauri and hierarchical taxonomies (“Taxonomy Displays”); introduce the steps in planning and implementing taxonomies (“Taxonomy Planning, Design, and Creation,” “Taxonomy Implementation and Evolution”); and review taxonomy as a profession (“Taxonomy Work and the Profession”). In addition, four appendixes (Survey of Taxonomists, Glossary, Recommended Reading, and Websites) supplement the main text. A biography of the author and a serviceable index round out the volume. Hedden also supplies an online version of the links mentioned in the book, which she expects to update as online addresses change or disappear.
In a work of this length, it should not be surprising that the information contained goes down to a fine level of detail. For those who have less knowledge of the field, it can serve not only as an in-depth introduction to familiarize new practitioners with the basics but also as a desk reference for those who need the occasional refresher or as a reference work to check best practice or the meaning of a term. For that reason, the glossary and index become especially important as reader aids in locating partially remembered information. These are generally well executed, but would have been even better had Hedden included a few more abbreviations as entries in the glossary. For example, “related term” is an entry in the glossary, but the reader who looks for “RT” will not find it. In the index, “RT” is listed in parentheses (“related term (RT)”), which it could have been its listing in the glossary, too. On the other hand, “OWL” is an entry in the glossary, but “Web Ontology Language” is not.
These are very minor complaints about a useful and usable volume, one that fills a gap in addressing a field that becomes more important as the world's data explosion challenges us to access information that is increasingly difficult to tame.
Karen Lane is a freelance technical editor, indexer, and coauthor of a technical communication textbook, Technical Communication: Strategies for College and the Workplace. She is an STC Fellow and has served on several Society-level committees, as well as serving as program manager for the 2008 STC Technical Summit.
Moira Allen. 2011. New York City, NY: Allworth Press. [ISBN 978-1-58115-760-4. 317 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
So you want to be a writer and you think you have what it takes. But you're not sure. Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer tells you everything you need to know to launch your freelance career.
According to Moira Allen, being a successful freelancer takes writing ability, business sense, professionalism, motivation, perseverance, and discipline. In this 300-plus page book, Allen details the steps to writing an article and locating the right market, explains the query and submission process, and walks you through a contract and your rights as an author. Other sections give you more information on growing your writing career and “commercial” freelancing. The final chapter urges you to take the plunge into the brave new world of freelancing.
Allen has guest contributors pen the chapters on writing for businesses, social networking, writing for newspapers and making cold calls. All the writers include numerous examples. Each chapter (a total of 39) is fairly short with lots of sections. You can read from start to finish or hop around based on your interests or the current state of your career. The information is up to date; the text covers online outlets and resources, e-mail communications, and Facebook and Twitter.
Allen has a friendly conversation style that makes her work easy to read. In chapter 14, for example, she writes about special-interest publications that are “always hungry for new writers” (p. 97). Ah, but you say you aren't an expert? Fear not. According to Allen, being an enthusiast about fly fishing or quilting helps you ask the right questions, means you know the vocabulary of your specialty, and provides you with a keen interest in the topic. The chapter details the types of articles you could consider writing (think personal profiles, current controversies, or how-to), and whether you should specialize as a writer or be a generalist. She covers all this in five pages, yet the brevity doesn't leave you feeling that information is missing.
Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer is well organized, nicely written, interesting, and succinct. A successful freelance author (and editor) herself, Allen is professional, polished, and positive in her book. She gives you hope that you too can be a successful freelance writer.
Jane Bozarth. 2010. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons. [ISBN: 978-0-470-63106-5. 175 pages. US$40.00 (softcover).]
I can't say that I've ever been so mixed in my reaction to one book as I am with Social Media for Trainers. The book covers the popular forms of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and wikis. Bozarth begins the book by clearly explaining how social media tools can enhance and reinforce learning. She also emphasizes that technology needs to fit with learning objectives, and that we should not use technology for its sake of simply existing or being popular. Another positive aspect is that each chapter begins with the basics and then moves into a list of possible uses of the tool for training purposes. This is an excellent setup because it does not assume readers are already tweeting, on Facebook, or blogging. If someone is new to these technologies, the book provides simple guidelines for setting up an account to finding topics or people to going mobile. Screenshots and additional sites for information provide extra guidance, which new users cannot underestimate.
I did find a few things that didn't set so well with me. The first is that Bozarth makes a good case that since people are already using the most popular social media tools, trainers should take advantage of that popularity and transfer training courses to those tools instead of setting them up on a separate learning management system. One less place to have to log in would probably be welcome to most employees. However, I doubt that employers would want the bulk of their employee training residing on Facebook and allowing open access at work to that site. Bozarth reiterates at the end of the book that trainers should push for this open access, but I could definitely see an employer's concern over this.
The other thing that disturbed me was the constant referral to filling in the spaces between “formal learning events” as a way to reinforce learning objectives. I have no doubt that the activities that are included in this book will do just that. Yet, I kept asking myself several questions: Doesn't this kind of activity keep people “on” constantly? How much of this “filling in” is mandatory? When do I have time away from work and training? It made me tired just reading about how much would be expected of me outside of work if my training department were to expect me to tweet, respond to Facebook discussions, blog, and then collaborate on a wiki, all while I'm not at work.
It appears as if Bozarth does not want to necessarily tackle these issues, but rather simply help trainers “choose the tool or tools you need” (p. 17). These issues really should be part of a training discussion when it comes to moving material onto platforms outside of work sites, especially if the intention is to fill in the space between formal learning events.
Diane Martinez is a writing specialist for Kaplan University's online Writing Center and a PhD student at Utah State University. Her technical writing experience has been mostly in higher education, engineering, and government contracting. She has been with Kaplan since 2004 and a member of STC since 2005.
Michael J. Albers and Brian Still, eds. (2011). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. [ISBN 978-1-4398-2894-6. 372 pages, including index. US$79.95.]
In the opening paper of Usability of Complex Information Systems: Evaluation of User Interaction, Michael Albers notes that usability testing for complex information systems requires new and “fundamentally different” concepts and techniques than ordinary usability testing. The research collection brought together by editors Albers and Still unites theorists, researchers and practitioners to answer the question: What are those new and different concepts and techniques?
One overarching theme of the book is the art of defining and conceptualizing the nature of “complexity.” Different contributors treat the notion in unique ways. Albers himself, with two papers in the book, sees complexity in the interaction of context and multiple related pieces of information. Vladimir Stantchev sees complexity in work environments and domains such as health care or project management. Kain et al. note the complexity and additional urgency of risk communication. Golightly et al. define complexity in terms of “technical” and “contextual” complexity, showing an interaction between the two.
The notion of “context” is a constant theme: how does the context of an interaction shape the behavior and the design? Shearer applies activity theory to operationalize context, while several authors in different papers point out the need for contextual analysis and field studies in understanding complex systems. Other techniques are needed when the context cannot be fully known, as shown in Watson's paper on application program interface (API) usability or in Barnum and Palmer's paper on the use of product reaction cards to gauge desirability.
The book includes four sections. The first set of papers work to define complexity in the context of information systems and usability. The second set provides a theoretical framework for analyzing complex systems. The third set looks at how the design requirements of complex systems can be shaped and defined. The fourth and final set looks at the practical side of the problem, using case studies to demonstrate usability testing methods applicable in complex systems.
No book can include every possible perspective on a topic, and a few are missing here. Domains rich in complexity such as distributed computing, cloud computing or computer-supported co-operative work are only lightly touched upon.
Usability of Complex Information Systems: Evaluation of User Interaction builds on the call from thought leaders like Arnie Lund and Janice Redish to re-consider usability evaluation. Instead of techniques for evaluating individual tasks, the papers in this book look at the broader context and user goals in each domain. Taken as a whole, the papers in this book suggest a strong new direction for research in the user-centered design field. They highlight the importance of framing discussions of usability in an overall system, with all the complexity and potential framing that discussion entails.
Colin Birge is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Human-Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. His dissertation is on how UX designers approach design problems involving privacy and security issues. He is an experienced program manager and a consultant on privacy and trust.
Virtual Collaborative Writing in the Workplace: Computer-Mediated Communication Technologies and Processes
Beth L. Hewett and Charlotte Robidoux. 2010. Hershey, PA: Information Sciences Reference. [ISBN 978-1-60566-994-6. 479 pages, including index. US$180.00.]
Collaborative writing, sometimes across multiple continents, is becoming a fact of a technical communicator's life. This substantial book not only describes principles, practices, and examples of successful virtual collaborative writing, but also is itself an example of what a dedicated team of geographically dispersed writers with both industry and academic backgrounds, connected through digital technology, can accomplish using virtual collaboration.
The first section overviews the literature of collaborative writing and highlights the move from traditional collaborative writing efforts into the virtual arena. The book's core revolves around six principles for virtual collaborative writing. Each of the main sections deals with one of these principles, starting with a case study, followed by two or more chapters elaborating on that principle. The table of contents provides chapter summaries, making it easier for readers to hone in on a particular area of interest. Sections describe creating a culture of collaboration while building a virtual writing team; managing team dynamics, including developing leaders and establishing trust; planning and making decisions virtually; developing content virtually and using tools and collaborative modes effectively, including measuring and tracking performance; creating structure as a way of supporting content quality and consistency; and using new media in virtual collaborative writing. In short, virtual collaboration is more than cooperation; it is, in fact, interdependence.
In creating this book, harmonizing the theoretical perspective of the academic authors and the practical concerns of the workplace practitioners was challenging. Some of the writing does tend to be academic, but for the most part the text is well balanced and readable. Virtual Collaborative Writing in the Workplace works well as a course text or a practitioners' guide. The case studies in particular leaven this content with stories of real-world collaboration experiences. Most chapters end with practical suggestions that can serve as a springboard for those who are considering or are in the midst of a virtual collaborative writing project. The book has an excellent glossary of virtual collaborative writing terms, an extensive bibliography, and a comprehensive index that makes accessing information easy in this rather large book.
The last chapter summarizes the experiences of the authors in collaborating virtually to create this book. Anyone managing such a project might find this the most useful chapter in the book, as it includes comments by the writers about what worked and didn't work, along with tables tracing the application of most of the principles and their results. One writer captured the essence of the whole collaborative writing experience: “our editors allowed us to create a collection of people, not just text and words” (p. 432).
Marguerite Krupp is an STC Fellow, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, and a technical communicator with more than four decades of experience in the computer industry. She is a frequent presenter at conferences, a playwright, and the author of several articles.