Monday, January 31, 2005

Writing User Guides

I'm soon to attempt version three of our intranet CMS user guide - we have a good handle on what our users want and need to know, as they are pretty good at providing feedback, and I tend to act as the coalface for this. My issue is more in supporting the various different modes of learning that our users have (they range from the technically not knowledgeable to the technically very knowledgeable indeed!) and making sure that they move from passive reading to active learning.

With this in mind, I've been looking at various types of software training books to try to get a handle on as many different learning types as possible. So I've come up with the following ideas:
  • use common-sense names as well as the technical names for all aspects of the system in the section title even if this makes it quite lengthy;
  • use plenty of "What you need to know" call-outs - make these hands on demonstrations of key points of the system;
  • use as many illustrations as possible - not just of the system, but some pictures/photos to make neophytes feel at ease (e.g. photo of a user using the system);
  • keep the illustrations with the text they illustrate (not just "close to");
  • repeat information over and over in as many ways as possible - for instance the "big picture" view, the "step-by-step" approach, the "case study" etc.;
  • Have illustrative step-by-step instructions on the page, but back these up with animations of a user achieving these (ie. instructions backed up with a demo);
  • run short end-of-section exercises to test the reader's knowledge;

Does anyone have any foolproof tips to add to this list? I'd really appreciate any input. As an NB: we do - of course - test the guide with users before releasing it, but are restricted to no more than three users, and not necessarily of all the types of user we would like to test against.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Enterprise Distributed Categorisation: I Get on the Folksonomy Bandwagon

I haven't posted for a while, but like many out there, I've been thinking about services like delicious which can offer the benefit of developing a folksonomy (a.k.a. free-tagging, ethno-classification, distributed tagging) within a corporate environment. On the wicky wacky world wide web, the benefits seem obvious - flat metadata categories which help you to easily identify useful information (power laws usually meaning that only a restricted set of tags become wholeheartedly utilitarian) from the vast quantity (and quality) that is available. Tags let you let others do your spadework for you.
I have been wondering whether in an enterprise environment, a similar folksonomy approach could be used for the rapid (and flexible) development of iterations of a classification system. Taxonomy projects always seem to be tagged as inflexible, long-winded and time-consuming - couldn't folksonomies get rid of some of these disbenefits?
Owing to my own priorities, I've been thinking about this for intranet metadata and search integration. It strikes me that the flat categorisation of a folksonomy could be clustered and analysed using the same techniques as are used for a card-sort, and that key, popular categories coming out of a distributed categorisation exercise could be used to form the structure of an intitial taxonomy.
I suppose my suggestion would be to allow a "tag this page" section in our CMS (which at present has very limited metadata functionality) which allows for multiple space delimited tags in the same fashion as delicious. This functionality would be explained to current content authors, who could tag new and existing content in an unrestricted manner for a set period of time. At the cut-off point, the tags would be analysed for popularity and similarity (synonyms, misspellings etc.), and a reduced set then used for an open (card) sort. The results of this could be analysed and transferred into a first iteration of a taxonomy, along set rules.
The taxonomy could then be exposed to the search engine and CMS - authors would now tag their content using the taxonomy, and, for ongoing maintenance would still have the option for creating a new tag. New tags could be processed by the taxonmomist and added/amended to the overall classification as necessary. I'm not sure whether this would work in practice, but it might be the outline of using rapid, distributed categorisation to move to a stable classification, and it would certainly reflect a consensus opinion...
[NB: Clay Shirky (I think) mentioned that delicious tags can be moved into hierarchies (xml>xslt, for instance or mammal>dog), although I can't find out how to do this, or any reference on delicious as to how to do so - otherwise, I might possibly suggest allowing users to set their own "corporate" hierarchies and then clustering them in this way rather than just going for the clustered approach.]
Has anyone implemented anything similar or looked at the pros and cons of such an approach? I know Adam Mathes Folksonomies - Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata touches on some of the issues, as does Ulises Ali Mejias A study -
Bookmark, Classify and Share: A mini-ethnography of social practices in a distributed classification community
, and the always helpful Lee Bryant at Headshift with Can social tagging overcome barriers to content classification?
[NB(2): check out while you are at it - if you haven't already - a nice visualisation of your own delicious personal information cloud.]
Should have checked Louis Rosenfeld's bloug out first - some of this is discussed in a post there, makes for interesting reading.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Back from Thailand

Many thanks to everyone who emailed to see if we were OK after the Tsunami - your concern was greatly appreciated. Back in the UK in one piece, I suddenly remembered an inscription in our copy of "The Life of Pi" that Yann Martel wrote after spending the day with us in Glasgow: "May the ocean be merciful to you". I'm not a superstitious person, but this time I like to think of the inscription as having acted as a talisman, so thanks to Yann too.