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Posts Tagged ‘User Documentation

PDF with embedded video: H1N1 Awareness

This is a screenshot of an informational H1N1 Awareness PDF with an embedded video segment: imported video, hand-illustrated characters, Photoshop and Adobe Acrobat. The subject is the H1N1 virus.

Who says a PDF has to be just an e-version of the static printed page? Now you can offer your readers a rich, multimedia experience by including video in your PDF documents. Although many documents could be made more useful and engaging by adding short video segments, customers and users may find such a feature especially helpful in reference guides, how-to tutorials, and training procedures.

Many writers create documents using content-authoring software like Adobe FrameMaker, Microsoft Word, MadCap Flare, or the OpenOffice word processor. As far as I know, all of these companies have a document-to-PDF guide on their website. If you are working with FrameMaker, for example, you’ll find the conversion guide under Resources.

Are you among those who already use video-capture software to create video segments? Then no doubt you are probably familiar with names like SMRecorder, HyperCam, Camtasia Studio, Adobe Captivate, and CamStudio, among others. If you’re new to these (and similar) packages and want to get a feel for what they can offer, take a look at CNET Download.com for reviews of Camtasia Studio as well as links to reviews of the others.

Once you’ve got your document and video files ready to roll, how to munch and crunch everything into one fabulous PDF?

Use Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro (and Extended Pro) or Acrobat X to embed video directly in the PDFs you create. (By the way, if you have ever wondered about embedding a flash file (*.flv or *.swf format) in a PDF, yes, your users will need a flash player to view the file. Fortunately, about 99 percent of internet users already have flash player installed.)

When you create a PDF, Acrobat will allow you to embed the video directly in the PDF file, or embed a link to a remotely hosted video.

Here is an Acrobat X Pro step-by-step guide to inserting rich media into PDF documents.

And here are some links to video tutorials that show the embedding process:

These resources can help you easily learn how to embed videos in PDF files.

At long last, you can turn those ho-hum, static PDFs into media-rich productions that will boost your users up the learning curve.

Now it’s your turn: If you embed videos in PDF files, which packages do you prefer, and why? Have you discovered any pitfalls to avoid? Can you recommend any helpful tips and tricks? Please leave comments to share your thoughts – thanks! Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals: Multimedia and Multi-Platform

Does your company use Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM)? These documents offer users a multimedia and multi-platform experience.

Around 1980, some companies and organizations, notably the aerospace industry and the branches of the U.S. military, began to re-think how they presented technical information. Their products were complex, and their maintenance, troubleshooting and product-support requirements were stringent and time-consuming.

They knew they needed to improve performance, reduce errors, and shorten learning timelines. But how?

As it happened, they looked at emerging computer technologies and wondered if moving from paper to an electronic format would improve results. Among their questions:

  • Would users find it easier to learn and use the material?
  • Would they reduce errors and improve performance?
  • Could they integrate documentation with other systems?
  • Could they save money?

Tests with interactive electronic formats showed positive results and so, encouraged, the companies and the military forged ahead into the world of Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM).

Since that time, we have seen IETM systems develop a variety of features, with most using one or more of the following:

Linear Structure. This sort of electronic document is based on the structure and layout of a printed book and uses navigational aids, such as a table of contents and a list of figures, that hyperlink into the content. A PDF file is a good example.

Nonlinear Structure. These online documents are organized around the logic of the product or task, for example, instead of following a linear book-type structure. However, the concept of a static page remains. As you would expect, there are lots of hyperlinks and other navigational aids. This type of document is often authored in a markup language.

Dynamic Data. These online documents are very nonlinear in structure. Content and pages are dynamic, drawing much of their data from relational databases and data dictionaries. Background programming automatically updates the dynamic data when the databases and dictionaries are updated. Hyperlinking in these documents is typically very complex and is, therefore, usually handled by programming. Content may also be context-specific and user-specific.

Integrated with Expert Systems. As companies build databases of heuristics and expert feedback, these can be integrated with the IETM system to improve the user experience and results. This information can be dynamically mapped into documents in all sorts of ways. For example, feedback by expert troubleshooters about errors and how to resolve them is sought after by companies across the product and process spectrum.

New Frontier—Multiple Devices. Many companies are now changing the way they and their customers think about IETM. From design concept to reality, they are experimenting with unleashing product support through all sorts of channels, for example: Mobile devices such as tablets and phones, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, websites, CDs, PDF, print, wikis, and blogs.

The new frontier of IETM seems to call for a “basket” of delivery platforms, each carefully selected for a certain type of content.

And no matter the platform, content rules. As ever.

Content must be organized in a way that suits the product, the audience, and its intended use. Content must be consistent across multiple platforms, well structured, properly modularized, cross-referenced and completely accessible by a full range of search and navigational features.

IETMs and their spin-offs present design, writing and production challenges, but produce a better user experience and greater performance improvements over stand-alone paper documents.

For more on creating an interactive user experience, see my recent post Let Your Customers Tweet in Your Documents.

Now it’s your turn: Does your company use IETMs? On which delivery platforms? How would you describe your experience implementing IETMs? Do you think the results are worth it? Please share your thoughts and questions about IETMs in comments. Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Social Media and Static Documents

Have you thought about embedding live Twitter streams in your company's online documents? Do you think this could help you connect better with your customers?

Recently a colleague and I were talking about product promotion. As is so often the case in the world of business, the real issue was how to connect with customers on an ongoing basis and get them more involved with the product and the company. All successful companies are interested in that, because they want to encourage customer loyalty, get feedback on specific products and help build a word-of-mouth campaign about their products.

And what better way to accomplish those objectives than by engaging your customers in conversation?

This is where tweets come into the picture.

What if you decided to embed live Twitter streams in your company’s document pages and then invited your customers to become part of a lively exchange of opinions, feedback, suggestions and idea-sharing?

The more my colleague and I batted around ideas about this, the more I thought about the many ways a tweet stream could benefit everyone involved.

So I decided to poke around the Internet and see what I could find, since I was pretty certain that someone, somewhere, must have already experimented with such a useful tool.

As you might expect, there are companies out there which have already embedded live Twitter streams in their documents. I found a really nice example at ffeathers, a technical writer’s blog written by Sarah Maddox. In her post on embedding Twitter streams in documents, she describes how she integrated Twitter into some of her company’s online documentation.

Although Sarah’s post concerns technical documentation, what she has to say could be applied to all sorts of online business and technology documents: imagine brochures, books, white papers, instruction manuals, marketing documents … and the list goes on.

I think the fusion of dynamic social media like Twitter with more static pages like company documents could usher in a wholly new way of interacting with customers.

Why not offer your customers the immediate gratification of expressing themselves directly to you about your products and services? Why not take advantage of this tool to keep a closer eye on the marketplace? There are so many possibilities …

Now let’s talk: Do you use embedded live Twitter streams in your company’s online documents? Do you use other social media to keep in touch with your customers? If so, what are the results? We’re all ears, so please let us know! And thanks for leaving your comments. Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

 

Does Your Documentation Satisfy or Perplex Your Customers?

Does Your Documentation Satisfy or Perplex Your Customers? (Click the image to see credits and source.)

 

Does your company’s documentation provide excellent customer service, cut down on the costs of customer support (those call-center calls are not cheap) and help bring in qualified leads?

Is your documentation just a cost center or a smart investment that helps drive revenues?

Does your documentation help you win repeat business and attract new customers?

Really great product and services documentation can (and should) be an important part of your company’s business strategy. If you’ve always thought of documentation as just something you had to do, because every other company does, well, you’re missing out on a powerful tool that can help you lower costs and increase revenue.

What Makes Quality Documentation?

While quality documentation has many characteristics, the net-net result is that it provides a superior experience when your prospects and customers interact with your products and services. That, in turn, happens when the documentation makes it easy (and maybe even interesting and perhaps—gasp!—fun) for a prospect or a customer to find information they want, to learn what they need to know, or to solve a problem.

Put another way, it’s all about developing productive and valuable relationships with your audiences. And documentation is at the heart of it all.

Here are two key characteristics that are often overlooked, and that I think are essential if you want to build great documentation that will help you outmaneuver your competitors.

List of User Tasks and Links to Solutions

A key characteristic of excellent product and services documentation is the list of user tasks and links to the solutions. Even if you have parts and pieces of this elsewhere in your documentation, you need to have one section or module that lists every task and its links. Your listing should present tasks from a customer’s perspective, for example:

I want to do X

How do I …?

When you create a task list, it is critically important that you use terms and phrases geared to your target audiences, which means you have to know who your audiences are and how they think. So be prepared to don your research hat.

How many times have you tried to find something (in print or online) and failed, only to discover that the documentation did in fact contain the topic you were looking for, but the index entry or other references to that topic required you to use one specific search term or phrase? And which one? Oh, it’s guess-a-lot time? Isn’t that frustrating? Help make your corner of the world a little happier by using a variety of terms and phrases in indexes, and build your search engines so they display “close but not quite” matches. Help your users find those tasks.

Your goal is to create a superior experience that helps build a positive relationship between your company and its customers.

A Customer-centric Perspective

The second key characteristic of outstanding documentation is that menus, options and features are presented and explained from a customer-centric perspective.

After all, your customers will look at your product and its parts and ask: Why would I use this? To do what?

When you explain menus, options and features, be sure to:

  • Focus on real-world applications.
  • Provide links to detailed how-tos.

To create documentation that is all about the customer requires thought, research and effort. This is much more difficult than merely churning out material that is product-centric or developer-centric, and is probably one reason why too many companies still produce perfunctory and ineffective documentation that is, quite frankly, not all that useful to the end user.

Great Documentation Is an Asset

Whether your company is a high-tech geek enterprise or entirely non-technical, your business needs great documentation to win in the marketplace.

It’s part of paying attention to your customer, as well as leveraging what can be an important sales and revenue-generating tool.

So, how is your documentation doing? Is it working for you?

Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

3-D Laser Scanning: A New Documentation Tool?

3-D Laser Scanning: A New Documentation Tool?

Could 3-D laser scanners become the next breakthrough tool in business and technical communication?

According to Wikipedia, a 3-D laser scanner is a “device that analyzes a real-world object or environment to collect data on its shape” as well as its surface textures and colors. This produces a high-definition map, a sort of “point cloud” of collected data, which can “then be used to construct digital, three dimensional models useful for a wide variety of applications.”

One such application currently underway is to “back up history,” a process by which preservationists use portable 3-D laser scanners to make digital records of at-risk landmarks around the world. The non-profit group CyArk calls these high-resolution scans “reality capture.”

The U.S. National Center for Preservation Technology and Training also intends to launch projects in the preservation field in order to “use the 3-D images to show changes in the structure and color” of objects.

And Popsci reports on “the coolest backpack ever: a wearable collection of cameras and lasers that maps the interiors of buildings as it goes, instantly generating photo-real 3-D maps of structures.”

In addition to documenting cultural artifacts and building interiors, such scanners can be used in industrial design, prosthetics design, prototyping, engineering and quality control, among many other potential applications.

Does your company use 3-D laser scanners to document products? Do you think this technology is feasible and realistic for most companies?

Would you, as a business or technical communicator, like to use this technology in your work?

Please leave comments to share your ideas on using 3-D laser scanning as part of product and process documentation.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Without good documents that speak to the needs of your customers, a product is just a product. It’s like a car without gasoline: the potential for satisfying a need exists (transportation in the case of the car), but there is no way to realize the potential. To successfully market a product, your company needs to supply its customers with the “fuel” they need to learn how the product works and how to use it.

Let’s take a moment here to ask: what is a product? It is essentially a tool for solving a problem. It is something that lets you get the job done better, easier, cheaper, faster. A product satisfies a need or a want. The critical feature about a product is the benefit it renders. How much we benefit from something determines our perception of its value.

To give your customers a complete product, one they will value, requires that you communicate with your customers in a way that is meaningful to them. These communications, or documents, may take many forms: copy for print or digital media, blogs, e-publications, brochures, user manuals, computer-based courses, reference guides, data sheets – whatever your marketing mix calls for.

What benefits can you and your customers expect?

Well, the right documents give your customers a special key that they can use to open the door to all they need to know about your product. Nonproductive downtime is pared to a minimum. Customers get what they paid for. And the happier people are with your product, the more likely it is that they will buy from you again and recommend the product to their friends and colleagues.

If you intend to grow a company and build a market, remember to develop a document strategy for each of your products. Good written and visual communication will help your product gain acceptance in the marketplace. The investment is worth it if you mean business.

The right documents deliver. Without them, your company is just spinning its wheels, trying to travel with the fuel gauge on “empty.”  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas

When you are writing a document, how do you begin to tell your story? How do you snag your readers’ attention and charm them enough to keep them reading?

The beginning of your document is the critical point where you must engage your readers’ interest. If the beginning isn’t good, it will also quickly become the end, and your attempt to communicate with your audience will fall far short of the mark.

So, how to begin? The short answer is that there is no definitive answer; it all depends on the following, which you defined in the planning phase of your project:

  • type of document
  • audience
  • purpose of the document

For example, if you are writing a report, you might start with an executive summary, in which you present the gist of your research, conclusions and recommendations.

On the other hand, if you are writing a user guide, you could start with an overview of the product, its intended audience, ways of using the product, and other useful “getting started” information for your company’s customers.

In a memo, you may decide that opening with a summary of results or conclusions would work best for your audience.

In other types of documents, you could begin by presenting a theme, or opening with a question, or stating a problem, or by providing an answer.

What all these ways of starting a document have in common is that they must give your readers a general sense of where you are going and how you intend to get there. You need to manage their expectations and get your document off on the right foot to accomplish your communication objectives. So think of your opening as a sort of “roadmap,” with the details to follow.

There are no absolutes in how to begin a document, because each type of document has its own requirements, as well as its intended audience and objectives. So put your thinking cap on and nail this part first, before you begin the first draft.

Now it’s your turn, dear reader: What is your approach to beginning a document? Please comment on your most successful method.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas


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