Saturday, December 25, 2010

Where is the user in the guide

Yesterday, I got myself a new phone. Last time I had bought one, it was April 2004 - a time when cellphones here did not have built-in FM radios, internet support, multimedia messaging, and all such exciting features that are so much passé today. Consequently, it was a very celliterate me that held the phone gingerly and regarded its QWERTY keyboard with interest. And thence started my frustration. I could not figure out how to do any of those exciting features that all phones have nowadays (let's not blame the UI now.  All UIs seem non-intuitive to first-time users).
So, I reached for the user guide. A glance at the ToC, and I could not find answers to any of my three questions.
To magnify the picture, click on the picture

"So what", I told myself. "Just a 37 page booklet. I'll flip through it and will surely find something."

Five minutes later, I threw the booklet away, powered my laptop on, asked Google, and found answers to all my questions:
  • How do I transfer a photo taken on the phone to my laptop?
  • Where do I get the Missed Calls list?
  • How do I disable the keypad beeps?
I see several things wrong with this user guide but the one thing that stands out prominently is - this guide is describing the features of the phone; it's not describing the tasks I, the user, do.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Of currency notes and information

Today, I want to talk about currency notes. Indian currency notes, to be precise. Someone asked me, "How many languages are spoken in India?" Sighing with relief that the question was not the more usual "You all don't speak Indian?", I leaned over, pulled the wallet out from my pocket, extracted a 100-rupee note, flipped it over, counted something, and declared, "Fifteen officially. Not counting Hindi and English."

Users find information in the most unlikely of places. Had I been a "normal" user, the kinds that a techwriter would have had in mind while documenting something, I'd have gone to the Constitution of India website and referred to Schedule 8 - the place that lists all official languages (22, actually, till date, not including English). If I didn't know that's where the official languages are listed, I'd have run a Google search (which, in turn, leads me to the Eighth Schedule anyway). But I am not a normal user - just like most users are not normal users. Most users get their information from places that the writer might never have dreamt of.

The currency note designer, on the other hand, is very well aware of the implications of the panel that I referred to.

It is intentional - it's been put there to remind people what a greatly diverse country we are. I should know. I used to be part of our currency presses once upon a time. We used to call it the language panel. It's almost - but not quite- an easter egg *.

Which led me to wonder - do technical writers put easter eggs in their documents? I've not seen any but would love to know.
* More on easter eggs: Wikipedia link