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Technical Writer and Designer Discloses Secrets to Designing User Guides and Websites (Interview)

Ash Hibbert is a contract technical writer and training designer at Victoria University with over five years of experience in his field and eight years of tertiary qualifications. Over his career he has worked for two high-profile University student management systems projects, delivering online and print training material. He has also worked for a number of cutting-edge IT companies, writing and designing online training and marketing material.

He is experienced in delivering training, particularly as an ESL instructor. As a creative writer, he has been published by the English-Arabic journal Kalimat, the University of Melbourne journal Strange2Shapes, the magazine of new writing Wet Ink, and Best of the Web 2009. He tries to be known in the blogosphere as the creator of topical and well-researched articles.

Contact him on LinkedIn, at his Blog, or on Twitter.

Q. Ash, how do you end up with a career in training?

After I graduated from Deakin University’s Professional Writing and Editing course, I was offered a position at Online Learning Australia. I’d been creating a few websites during my undergrad – volunteer projects mostly, as I enjoyed designing for the web – and University hadn’t destroyed my love of writing, so getting a position in an eLearning business was a pretty natural progression.

I enjoyed the research side of things a lot – learning about a new topic for myself – and then figuring out how to communicate that topic in as efficient, compressed way as possible.

During my time at OLA we produced quite a lot of training material for tourism students at Victoria University. That position helped me get to a retail POS software company, writing for and designing user guides and websites.

After that, I lived in Japan for a year as an ESL instructor. So within three years I’d worked on and with training material long enough, in a variety of business contexts, to make me feel confident in saying that it was the thing for me.

Q. When designing user guides and websites, what are the top three things to keep in mind?

I’ve been part of a few projects now where many dedicated colleagues have put a lot of hard work into producing quality training material; yet much of it failed to be utilized by end users. Which is not the fault of the users – they are the clients, after all, even if there’s a whole organization to buffer them from the technical writers and designers.

Such experiences have taught me how important it is to have some mechanism in place that allows user needs to be scoped out first and to derive continuous feedback from those users to make sure the documentation stays on track.

Then, any work produced can be directly assessed in terms of how well it satisfies the users’ needs. Such user-feedback mechanisms should stay in place after publication.

Another important thing to keep in mind when creating user guides and websites is maintainability. Plenty of training material will become out of date the moment it is published, which is to be avoided since users lose faith in such documentation if it no longer reflects the system they are using. One solution to this could be to allow users to build on documentation, as part of an eLearning 2.0 approach.

However, probably the best way to reduce maintenance costs is to capture information in only one place and format, rather than rehashing the same material so that it fits different mediums or target audiences. This might make the content less flexible and nuanced, yet it certainly means that more material can be produced, and what is produced is more trustworthy.

Building and delivering the user guides and websites with technologies appropriate to the organization is also important. This might mean going with a web-design program or CMS that is less powerful than industry standards, yet which empowers lay-users (and end-users with UGC) to create and maintain content.

Such an approach would support the above two points about increasing maintainability and taking on board user-feedback. Juggling between accessibility for lay-users on the one hand and powerful software systems meant for industry professionals on the other is always going to be a tough one though.

Q. What are the biggest challenges you face when training?

One of the biggest challenges that my colleagues and I have faced is trying to train users on something that is going to have a large impact on how people carry out their day to day tasks – such as a new student management system in a University. In this regard, I’ve benefited a lot from having worked in marketing and Change and Communications roles. These roles have helped me to understand the vital importance of winning over one’s trainees by conveying the value of learning a new subject before trying to actually communicate it.

Another challenge occurs when the product, processes, or system that you are trying to document is itself undergoing changes as you try to capture them. This can be because of changed safety requirements, re-configurations, or issue resolution. Keeping information centralized is one of the best ways to reduce the maintenance costs of such situation – as it means that only one document, for instance, needs to be updated.

Avoiding scope creep is also a big challenge. There often can be (often self-imposed) pressure to take on more responsibilities as part of documentation and training, such as re-engineering business processes, or trying to improve the product. The best response to that, I think, is to have faith in the rest of one’s project or team – to trust that those who specialize in the area are the best suited for that responsibility.

And one challenge that is probably familiar to the vast majority of professionals – avoiding information overload.

Q. How do you make training more interesting and keep attention?

My experience working with and alongside graphic designers has helped me better understand how well laid out training material goes a long way. Making training material clearly organized and visual helps trainees quickly conceptualize the flow of the instructions and encourages them to turn each page.

Engaging, interactive eLearning material and multimedia is obviously useful as well. Presenting information in a way that trainees can feel that they can be active participants and directors of their own learning is empowering for them and results in a lot more buy-in by participants.

For example, in terms of actual training sessions, I’ve found it very useful for both the participants and myself to make it clear that they can help shape the learning material and the flow of the classes. Often I’m only training people on how to use a different tool with which to do their job or up-skill in their profession, so it is useful to reassure trainees that they remain the authorities in their field.

Trainees will then often respond by taking on responsibility for their learning, rather than being passively resistant. The benefit for me is that the training material becomes a collaborative effort and benefits tremendously from their input – becoming both more relevant and more accurate (for instance, by allowing me to exclude content that is not directly pertinent to their requirements).

A few incidental tricks that work well in training sessions, especially longer ones, is to keep classes small, have frequent breaks, provide plenty of caffeinated beverages, and have additional instructors on board to monitor and support trainees who lag behind.

Q. What resources help you to learn more?

I enjoy studying quite a lot myself, as well as teaching others. I’ve completed Masters degrees in Creative Arts and Philosophy and I commenced a Master of Publishing and Communication at the University of Melbourne. While I’ve deferred the degree, I found the classes that I have taken so far, on structural editing for instance, to be immensely valuable for making my writing of a more concise and consistent style.

I also like to read non-fiction books concerned with writing and technology on a more general level. For instance, I recently read Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget and David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which have helped me understand the opportunities and dangers provided by technology for communication. Both books could be read as providing dichotomous arguments on the value of collaborative writing and learning and the so called wisdom of the crowds.

Probably the most useful resource for my writing though, online and off, is the Macquarie dictionary.

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