Same mess, different tools – Liz Fraley on the Content Content Podcast

Summary: In her interview, Liz Fraley talks in detail about the history of structured authoring and how her opinions have changed over 17 years in the technical writing industry.

Last month I had the opportunity to talk with Ed Marsh of the Content Content podcast. I’ve known Ed for a couple of years but we’ve never really had time to sit down and talk. It’s funny how much you realize you don’t know when you really get the chance.

We did a series of podcasts several years ago: We interviewed long-term Arbortext users to capture the spirit of the many community members who work to help each other. I interviewed people at all different levels–developers, first time users, experienced integrators, stylesheet professionals, tool masters, and many others. And learned a lot.

Good interviewers expose great information

When Ed Marsh asked me to be on the other side of the interview for his Content Content podcast, I was honored to be included. It’s unusual for me to be the center of attention; it’s just not in my nature. I was the “other bride” at my wedding. I like to learn about what other people are doing. Our customers know that it’s never all about me. Until recently, whenever I presented, the “about me” slide was at the end because I always felt that it was more important to make sure you got what you came for before I advertising myself.

In any event, there’s no getting out of the spotlight when you’re the subject of the interview. Ed’s a good interviewer. He asked all the right questions for a good profile piece. In fact, it was interesting to me as well. We all forget what we know. We take it for granted. We forget that other people don’t know what we know even if we think, “hey, everyone knows this…”

What surprised me most was how much we’ve done here at Single-Sourcing Solutions, how we’re different, and how much knowledge is buried in our own heads.

I’ve been in the technical communications industry nearly two decades at this point. I’ve seen structured authoring develop and change. I’ve seen SGML and XML and DITA rise and DocBook decline. I’ve worked with military documentation and with high-tech software docs with a lot of pre-generated content. I’ve programmed stylesheets and used a lot of tools.

And over those two decades, my perspective and opinions about what to do have changed. A lot.

Where to find the interview

Listen to Episode 19 of the “Content Content Podcast” the podcast about “the people behind the content” for my interview with Ed Marsh.

I hope you enjoy it.

A brief sidebar

I refer to a lot of different topics during the interview. The links are here for your convenience:

UI/UX for technical communicators is the theme for TC Summer Camp 2017

I sit on the TC Camp board and am sponsoring the Structured Authoring workshop at TC Summer Camp in DC on September 9th.

Every year, we ask what topic people want for the morning workshops. So far only one topic has been in the top of the voting for both the East Coast and the West Coast two years straight:

UI/UX for Technical Communicators

In January, I did a UI/UX post every day on our social media channels. We knew it was hot, but this is the only topic crossing regions for technical communications professionals in 2017.

So we went all out for TC Summer Camp. We talked to two UI/UX professionals.

  1. One comes to us from the University of Maryland iSchool. She’s a computer scientist and, if you were at STC Summit, you saw her on the panel in the closing keynote.
  2. The other comes to us from George Mason University. She’s a professor in the Technical Communications degree program and she’s developing an UI/UX course for techcomm students.

We think it’s going to be a great learning experience.

Tickets are on sale now. The event is on a Saturday. If you’re within driving distance, I can’t recommend it more highly. See the tccamp website to see video of past camps and reviews from attendees.

And see you in September! It’s the best learning experience on two coasts at the most economical price for those of you who want to be the “one who knows” in your departments.

Get your tickets today!

Teaching Martians to make a sandwich–How Technical Writers can improve patient safety

There’s a well-known exercise to experienced technical writers: How do you teach a Martian to make a sandwich. It’s so well known that we talk about it as an exercise in best practices for user experience and modern instructional design.

In the last few years, this exercise has become a hot topic in medical school programs that are creating new degree programs focused on improving patient safety.

Many schools like Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and George Washington University have launched master’s programs in health care quality. Patient safety is a critical component of these programs. The programs are small and just getting started, but at Northwestern, one approach has been to use this exercise to teach students better ways to communicate instructions to patients:

in order to learn about how challenging it is to communicate medical directions, students practice explaining how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to an instructor pretending to be a Martian — someone who doesn’t have familiarity with basic English and the mechanics of peanut butter jars and bagged bread … “Invariably the student will write, ‘open the bag of bread,’” Woods said. “And so he rips the bottom rather than doing the little twist-tie thing.”

It’s meant to illustrate that some directions might not be carried out as the medical professional intended.

It turns out that this disconnect is not just between doctors and patients but between doctors and other doctors as well:

when she was trying to convince liver transplant surgeons to use a different combination of painkillers to cut down on side effects, she found that, even though she distributed a clearly articulated set of directions, surgeons weren’t following her directions

Creating clear instructions is a challenge for any technical writer. Understanding the user, their situation, their experience, and their journey is essential to their success. And I, for one, find it encouraging that there’s a whole new place where experienced, professional technical writers can contribute!

If you want to read more about how medical schools are changing, head on over for the full article at Stat.