Good UI is Great UA – Eliminating Content as a Band-Aid for Bad Software

For my second presentation this week at WritersUA East 2013, I’ll be covering a topic especially near and dear to my heart.

There’s not much worse for a tech writer than having to come along behind poorly designed software to solve usability problems or prevent support incidents with your content. Worse, products often keep changing right up until the last second. What can you do to influence better UI so that you have to create less traditional forms of UA?

In this session, I explain why it’s so important to build relationships with the designers and developers creating the software “upstream” from a writer’s work on Help or manuals and how to ensure accurate content across all languages even when the UI continues to change.

ABecraft_UI-is-UA-2

SEO for UA – How to Improve the Discoverability of Your Content

I’m presenting this morning at WritersUA East 2013 in gorgeous Newport, Rhode Island.

Many software users turn first to Google or Bing to find answers to their questions. How do UA professionals ensure content is discoverable beyond traditional manuals or Help systems? There’s a lot of talk about SEO among web pros and marketers, but what does a UA pro really have to do to make it easier for users to find their content?

In this session, I present on why SEO is just as important for UA as it is for marketing communications, how every writer can improve their content for search, and what tools and technologies site owners can use to make optimized content even more discoverable.

ABecraft_SEO-for-UA

The poetry of Thien Pham’s Sumo [Review]

As I wrote when reviewing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the graphic novel form enables the writer and artist to explore structure in ways that are more overt than the purely written word. In fact, I would argue that the techniques I’ve observed in great graphic novels — the way sections echo each other, how the artist alludes to things beyond the immediate page, and even the layout of the panels — shift graphic novels along the spectrum of literary genres away from “regular” novels and more toward poetry.

The structural similarity between graphic novels and poetry is, for me, most evident in Sumo, the first solo work by Thien Pham, published last year by First Second.

Sumo tells the story of Scott, an American who moves to Japan to pursue a career as a professional sumo wrestler after his girlfriend dumps him and his NFL dreams have been dashed.

But first, a few words about the greatest sport on earth.

I grew up following sumo in the era of Chiyonofuji and Konishiki. Back in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s, my classmates and I marked off a ring in the dirt of the schoolyard, stamped our feet, slapped our hands, and then slammed into each other until one of us fell over or stepped out of the ring. My hero was not, as you might expect, the American-born Konishiki, but Chiyonofuji — smart, and light on his feet. A chorus of 「ずるい!」 (“Not fair!”) would erupt when I’d side-step a much-larger boy and propel him stumbling from the ring with a shove between his shoulder blades. In my defense, I’d just mention Chiyonofuji’s most recent win against the likes of the monumental Konishiki and they would fall into grumbling acceptance.

I love sumo, from its ancient Shinto traditions to the way the modern sport has begun to open its doors to American, Russian, Bulgarian, and — most successfully of late — Mongolian wrestlers. It’s beautiful in ways that I can’t explain to someone who didn’t grow up watching it on NHK and mimicking the previous night’s bouts with your friends in a dirt ring you marked off yourself.

I don’t know anything about Sumo author Thien Pham beyond what appears on the book jacket — “Thien Pham is a comic book and visual artist based in the Bay Area. He is also a high school teacher.” Somehow, Pham manages in this small graphic novel — barely breaking a hundred pages — to encapsulate all that is wonderful about sumo.

Like the sport itself, Sumo is a minimalist work of art — as sumo is to ballet, Sumo is to poetry. Pham eschews both sound effects and thought bubbles. Everything you learn about Scott and his journey happens through action and dialogue. The beauty of some of that action lies in stillness and simplicity, with long sequences in Sumo showing nothing on the page but single-color illustrations.

Sumo is a story whose power lies in the convergence of three story threads — Scott as he prepares to leave for Japan; his early days there and friendship with the sumo stable master’s daughter; and his life as a wrestler rising through the ranks of professional sumo. Pham uses three separate colors to highlight each story, and intertwines them throughout the novel.

When Pham ties all three threads together at the end, the real emotional impact of Scott’s story becomes apparent. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but the hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck.

Such a deep effect is something I encounter rarely, even in the best poetry. I heartily recommend Thien Pham’s Sumo and eagerly anticipate his next work.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

As I clawed my way free of the grip of Modernism early in my literary life, Seamus Heaney was one of the first post-Modern, contemporary poets whose work I fell in love with the moment I began reading it. Heaney died today in Dublin at the age of 74. As fellow Irish poet Michael Longley said today, “I feel like I’ve lost a brother and there are tens of thousands of people today who will be feeling personally bereaved…”

I write a lot about “connections” — how archaeology connects us through our shared human heritage, but also how one can discover unexpected connections with a beloved poet. Having cast aside the New Criticism of the Modernists, I fully embrace the power that a sense of personal connection brings to the reading of poetry.

And yet, any sense of personal connection to Heaney was always tangential at best. I bought my copy of Human Chain at a bookstore in Dublin a block away from Trinity College, and I harbored a brief, secret hope that I would run into the poet taking a walk in St. Stephen’s Green. Earlier, I picked up District and Circle in London. In other words, my only connection to Seamus Heaney in life was through my purchase history — not really the stuff of inspiration.

What, then, about Heaney’s poetry do I find so personally attractive? It’s simple, really — and more than a little obvious, if you’ve read anything I’ve written: It’s the words.

Watch this beautiful compilation from footage over the years of Seamus Heaney reading his iconic ars poetica “Digging.”

Though I can assure you that the influence was entirely unconscious, astute readers will observe a straight line from “Digging” to my own “Waiting for Work to Begin” (which I wrote more than a decade after I first read Heaney).

There is an inevitable shared language among poets of the Pacific Northwest and of Ireland. From W.B. Yeats to William Stafford and from Seamus Heaney to myself, we set our poetry against the same backdrop of wind and rain, of moss and soil. We flit back and forth between the city and the wilderness; the interplay between fellow humans figures as prominently in our work as the balance between ourselves and the natural world around us.

Yeats, Joyce, MacNeice, Roethke, Stafford, Hugo, Wagoner, Kinsella, Longley, Heaney, Muldoon, and so many more — perhaps there is a “green” school of poetry that spans centuries, literary movements, and continents. If there is such a school of poets, count me among them.

Traversing all 4 seasons in just 17 days

In two weeks, I’ll be traveling again to New Zealand for work. Though the contrast will not be nearly as stark — last time, it was snowing in Seattle when I left and I hit the beach on a bright summer day in Auckland the day I arrived — I’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere for the Spring Equinox on September 22. That means that in just 17 days, I’ll spend time in all four seasons.

I made an infographic illustrating this quirk of global travel caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

4 Seasons in 17 Days

EDIT: Antipodean friends inform me that Spring begins on September 1st in both New Zealand and Australia. Frankly, I find that ridiculous. Spring begins at the equinox, and isn’t something you shuffle around at the national level as though it were Daylight Savings Time. I’m sticking to my guns on this one!