Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Udaan - an awakening

By now, you've probably read the technical part of how Udaan came into being here - Writing Technically - The Udaan publishing story. And anyone who has worked with her would agree with me when I say that it was an absolute delight to work with Anindita.

And as promised, here's another perspective (a softer side) of the same story along with a few lessons. Maybe.

The backdrop

The Pune STC India conference 2015, was always meant to be special. Mugdha, the program manager set the tone, along with Sheece, and the rest of the incredible team that worked with her. Her first task was to put together an unbeatable team. And she was clear about working with the best.
Ahem, ahem ;)

I was approached to put together the newsletter initiative as part of her X-men/women team. I was a little hesitant initially as it seemed a better idea to give the opportunity to someone from Pune. The primary reason I think was that a local flavor is usually appreciated a little more, especially since a majority of the audience would also be from Pune. But she'd have none of that and persisted. In the end, she got her way, like she usually does. Now you have to remember this. I've never put together a newsletter for STC. I haven't even written an article for one either. All I had going for me was a blog that I update once a while, a penchant for words, a few ideas and an awesome accomplice (who came in a little later). And that's all it took.

Of course, it helped that Mugdha also has the ability to get people out of their comfort zones ;)

At first, Udaan wasn't a book. It was a regular conference newsletter. Well, let me try that again. There would be nothing regular about it. But it was definitely not yet a hardbound book. Initially, I was all for having only an online version of the newsletter. We were clear that it had to be more than text. It had to engage all the senses. It had to  have videos, pHowever, we had to print something and also carry sponsor ads. And that's how Udaan became more than a virtual entity. Or more than just a conference newsletter.

Very early in the process, it was apparent that this would be a monster that would need more than one person to manage. I was so glad Anindita joined me as a co-conspirator and took up the online part of the deal. She also set the standard with the first article. Of course it was not interactive just as yet.

Ingredients - what went in

We wanted to do things differently. Very differently. It started with getting the right kind of people to contribute. So one of the first things we did was to get a list of people who write well. Really well. We didn't want the book to be put down before it was completely read. (Of course we didn't know it would be 100 pages at this stage!) We wanted it to be a story that would allow a seamless transition from one article to another. In the process, we also wanted to encourage new writers, without compromising quality or value. Doing something great using awesome, well established writers isn't a big challenge. But identifying people who were not that well known (and unproved) and then using them to create a magical experience involved some risks. And Udaan had to appeal to a wide spectrum of users and still have something in it for everyone. From the fresher who's still trying to learn the ropes, to the old bandicoots who are difficult to please! We didn't make a call for papers as is usually the practice. We wrote to some of the leaders in technical communications in India and asked them to point us to new writers who wrote like them. And we are indebted to them for their leads.

Once the author was identified, we gave them a topic. That was how most of Udaan was created. Some of the authors wrote back to us with topics that they felt they could clearly articulate. And there was some back and forth communication that eventually fine tuned the topic.

And soon the articles started to come in one after the other. Anindita made short work of it on github. Many an author was delighted with how she brought their articles alive with interactivity, cartoons, and color.

The next best thing

But we were still not satisfied. The initial idea was to collaboratively develop content. Everyone puts out a first draft and then invites criticism and comments that will help improve their ideas and finally become Udaan worthy. But by the time we got the all the articles together, there wasn't much time left for many iterations. So we randomly picked articles and assigned them back to different authors and asked them value edit the article. (That's why it's probably the next best thing). So when we sent it to them, no one knew who was editing their article other than the assigned author and the editors. The dictate given to them was to rip apart the article like it was written by their worst enemy. While some authors did exactly this, some went out there and would have made new enemies, had it not been for the anonymity!  But there were also lessons to be learned from one specific contributor who was extremely graceful in her comments. Oops. I let that one slip by. Some very valid comments were made as suggestions while keeping the writer's thoughts and sensibilities in mind. BMC is lucky. After seeing a lot of venom flying around, I was blown away by the manner in which the edits were suggested. Made me see the real idea of why they say, what you say isn't as important as how you say it. Another way to look at it is that the importance of what you say could be lost in the way you say it. We also realized that Udaan was too close to us to be able to find flaws with it easily. We both suffered (in varying degree) from the it's-my-baby-and-my-baby's-the-best syndrome. This single exercise of collaborative edits caught quite a few issues. There were several comments from some authors wondering if we had actually reviewed the content! And we had! Several times. That's how blind you get when you get so close to the action. So don't skip that peer review of any content you create. We are all experts at finding faults so long as it isn't ours. Make use of that attribute! Everyone, without exception, has it.

The ones that got away

Not everything that came our way, was published. We sent back a few articles and those who were able to rework, we published. Mostly. There were also a few ideas that we would have like to have articles on. One was about conversational writing, that eventually became a conference presentation. The other was about how advertising was impacting the way technical information is being consumed.
All this happened before we realized that there was so much content. The idea of a book wasn't far away.

The Oven

I've worked with Microsoft Publisher earlier. It has some really cool features that Word struggles to handle. I found it very easy to work with, especially for the kind of work we did for Udaan. Since there was a lot of content to port, I asked Mugdha for help. And that's where Sangeeta came in to help. A quick call to explain the features of publisher and she was ready to port. She ported most of the content over a weekend, while being spoiled by her mom during Dushera! Very diligent at her work.

And then I started with the tweaks. Inserted sponsor ads and fillers. And then read and re-read each article, and if there was a change, I had to quickly go to github and replicate the change there too. Most people I know would go half mad by the time the copy was ready for the printer. I sent a copy for printing and though the content was of an A5 size, the PDF continued to use A4. Some quick research later, I got the correct size and Mugdha Kush Hua :)

And how it all came togther

From the beginning, we wanted to spin a story around all the articles. We had a variety of stories from personal branding, to management lessons to information design and localization. How do we spin a story around such diverse articles? Here's how we did it. And then we drummed up curiosity and support using the #STCAIC2015 tag. There was also some talk about creating an experience around the Udaan unveiling. It was supposed to be more dramatic. But there were probably too many dramatic things happening already : )

Here is a peek inside the book.

What a ride it has been! What would I do differently? Nothing!

P.S. We still have a few copies left. Since STC is a non profit, these are being sold at cost price plus shipping. And that's just Rs 250.  So if you are interested, please reach out to me at and I can put you in touch with the right people.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Club Mahindra - Pudhucherry

"Find something that you love to do and then get someone to pay you for it," they said, "and you won't have to work for a single day in your life." 

You've heard this said before. Many times. And every now and then, you might have also come across one or two people who behaved like this. In spite of the long hours and cranky customers. One thing is certain, you really can't fake it for long. Because most customers will immediately distinguish between the 'good-riddance' smile that an air-hostess might flash you at the exit of an aircraft and a genuine smile. For the latter to happen, one has to be genuinely happy! And we met several happy people who were terrific at what they did. In our world, getting one such hire would be a challenge. Getting a team like this, is nothing short of a miracle!

Ajith, Siva, Pradeep, Imran, Priyanka and the rest of the team, you folks rock!

It was our second visit to Pondicherry. And this time, it was to Club Mahindra. Most of the road to the destination was good, save for about 20 kms in between that was really bad. It made even the SUV we were driving, to groan in pain. The roads however, were forgotten once we hit Pondicherry.

Club Mahindra, Pondicherry is a few kilometers in the interior and access is via narrow roads. But there were Club Mahindra sign boards at all turns which made it seem that all roads lead to the sea! We were given a traditional welcome and then shown the campus. Every Friday sees the women staff dressed in white saris and the men in sparkling white mundus and shirts. The resort sits on 24 acres that is right next to the beach. You can hear the roar of the sea as it hits the banks. It's also a beach with sand, not the rocky beach that Pondy is famous for. The walk to our room was through narrow winding walkways. Our baggage arrived later from the reception, in an Omni.
Time for Mahindra to switch to their own electric vehicles!

We were shown our rooms and briefed about the basic controls. After ensuring we were comfortable, and that we don't lock ourselves outside the room by mistake, Shakthi, our host dropped the first bomb...

"Wifi works only in the lobby" he said. This evidently was to get people to come back to the lobby from their rooms and participate in the many activities they had planned! Seemed to work for me. But from conversations we overheard, it could also be the reason why most people would open the score card by giving Oyo Rooms 1 and Club Mahindra 0.5 :)

We went back to the lobby, because that's where all the action seemed to be happening. This is one resort that will ensure that you are not just whiling away your time, but are occupied, doing something engaging and useful. It's time well spent. And it's usually something happy! At 12 noon on most days, some of the staff teach guests how to dance. This is a scene you'll thoroughly enjoy, even if you have two left feet. Now remember their apparel. And now imagine the dance. What a lively bunch of happy people! And my golly, were they dancers! Don't take my word for it. Watch how happiness spreads -

This video was actually shot on the next day. But on day one, they were dressed in traditional apparel. And there were no accidents. Or wardrobe malfunctions ;) All this without missing a single beat!


This place is an awesome place for children. Any place with/near water usually is. However,  swimming or venturing into the sea is risky as the sea on this side is not calm. Add strong currents and a pretty steep bank, and it's a recipe for disaster. So your best bet when it comes to water, is the L shaped swimming pool. It's just 4 feet, which means it is safe for most children. One part also has a kiddie pool for infants. Those who do not know swimming can have their feet firmly planted on the ground, inside the water.

Now, if you don't want to get into the water, you can try water zorbing. It's a good exercise to check your sense of balance or to fall head over heels and still enjoy the fall at the same time!

Even if you are not a water baby, they have an entire team focused on children. Lots of activities from various kinds of painting and handiwork. And trust me, your children will not have enough of it! There are plenty of other team activities. Some free, some paid. The staff always make it a point to try and engage with children and are quick to distract a particularly cranky child so the parents can take a break. And they did a kick-ass job at it. Without actually kicking any ass. There are lots of indoor and outdoor games for small and big kids (parents)! Children can also be kept engaged by signing up for magic shows, riddles, games and of course - food!


The spread for the buffet in each meal is pretty exhaustive. There's more than something in it for everyone. And if that's not enough, there's also a live counter. You are bound to put on more than a few grams in weight. You can try to walk off your guilt on the beach during dawn or dusk.
But some sins aren't forgiven so easily!


Find out if you can be a cosmonaut.

Or if you have a Formula One gene

Or simply enjoy the flora.

And fauna.

 Or just push a few trees apart!

And then watch the splendid sunset (after missing the sunrise because you slept like a lazy bum)!

The adults don't have to feel left out.There are various 'big people activities' including cookery, outdoor games, tug of war, riddles, paper craft, treasure hunts and other fun stuff.

Tail piece
Take a walk along any beach. One or two kilometers. You'll come to a colony of fishermen. The earlier in the morning, higher your chances of an 'encounter'. While there are people who won't accept anything offered using a left hand (because it is for the 'other' use!), we also have people who take a squat in the same sea that feeds them! Even if the government wasn't building toilets, one would wonder, why don't they use their brains? Would they crap on the same plate that they eat from? Modi needs to start building those toilets in fishermen colonies on the beach! Or maybe Mahindra just got itself a new CSR project : ) And for the right-hand-is-holier debate, remember that you are forcing between 10 to 30 percent of the population (the lefties) to shake hands with you using the their other-use-hand!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Purple Club

It has been a best seller. It consistently stands head, shoulders and torso in sales above its closest rival in the D1 segment. More than 130,000 units have be sold in the last 4 years. It's born on a 700 acre facility that has a 12km perimeter. The monocoque frame is put together in a press that is just one of three of it's kind in India. The frame itself is put together using more than 5000 spot welds. The tolerance allowed for deviation of the frame is just 1.5 millimeters. A single unit takes 2.5 days to make from scratch. And the stats go on...

Grand Welcome

We are talking about birthplace of the XUV 5OO - Chakan! About 45 owners were invited to visit the plant as part of the purple club initiative.

The entrance to the plant
When they said customer is king, Mahindra pulled out all stops to ensure we felt like kings. Complete with a welcome party that included traditional trumpets! 

To the point of mild embarrassment : )

The welcome party

Proud owners had driven from Bangalore, Belgaum, Mumbai, Hyderabad and of course, Pune. After the initial greetings at the entrance, we were fattened with delicious Poha and sandwiches for breakfast. 

It was then time for theory classes : ) But not before all our phones were 'confiscated'. Mahindra has a strict no camera policy inside the plant. (They were quite serious about it as everyone were frisked before entering the assembly area). 

We were welcomed by Anand (not Mahindra!) who is responsible for the Purple Club initiative. We were quickly taken  through successive presentations about M&M the company, areas of operation, various locations they operate out of, markets they serve, stats about the Chakan plant, employee information, social initiatives, etc. We also watched a couple of videos and were introduced to the W-207, the latest version of  the XUV5OO from the Mahindra stable. Lots of different and interesting stats were reeled out. Chakan is the latest and most modern plant for Mahindra and Mahindra vehicles. There are about 3000 employees working at this plant with the average age of employee hovering around 24.

It was really nice to listen to the many green initiatives on this plant. There are over 10,000 trees planted in the campus. The plant also has implemented rain water harvesting, solar dishes and heat recovery systems. The plant is also a zero discharge plant which means all the water that is consumed is treated, and recycled. About 70 acres of the plant is dedicated to 5 suppliers. This ensures that there is almost zero inventory and a certain part of the supply chain is extremely short and much more predictable/controllable.

The Press Shop

The first hanger we visited had a huge machine that gulped down metal sheets, cut, formed and pressed them into different kind of body panels. There was the roof, the doors, the bonnet, and all other metal panels that were being hammered out at 12 parts per minute. As the giant arms lifted them onto the press, the huge jaws clamped them into shape. The movements seemed incredibly fast for such a huge machine. Once the pressing operation is over, the arms then quickly lift the panel and place them on a conveyor that then brings the part outside for inspection. It was all over in 5 seconds, before anyone knew what was happening. Operators along the conveyor inspected each panel as it came out. Nearby, we could see that there were different fixtures for different panels and they were stacked one on top of the other like a tall multi-storey building. Huge overhead cranes are used for changing each fixture, when it's time for a different panel.

The Welding Shop

The assembly line brought the various panels together and at each stage, several spot welds were done, all entirely by huge robotic arms. As the line progressed, the panels that were added to the car also increased. The final inspection of the welded body is done manually.

The body in white, as they call it, is then taken to the paint shop. Or does it become the body in white at the paint shop? Not really sure. The paint shop wasn't on the schedule, so we went directly to the assembly shop. As we boarded a bus to be taken to the assembly shop, we could see large conveyors moving overhead, carrying the shell of the car from one hanger to another. It's interesting to note that there is no change made to the W207 (latest version of the XUV 5OO) frame. It's the same one that was used in the W201 (Original one with whiskers). All the changes are external. Another interesting fact is the steel used for export cars is different from the steel used for the OE market. And that's true for most components. In fact, I know of another company that had different suppliers, processes and assembly lines (that were air conditioned) for export products.

The Assembly Shop

The conveyors brought the painted shell of the car from the painting hanger into the assembly area. There were huge lifts that were fed by the conveyor. This conveyor fed another conveyor that took the shell to different assembly stations, along the assembly line. From the engine, the transmission, the windshields, dashboard, airbags, insulation, the seats, tires, each sub assembly had a station. The assembly stations are configured to handle any design or version in any order. So a W6 LHD (Left Hand Drive) could be assembled by the same team just after they put together a W10 AWD RHD. It's not done as a batch. It's interesting to note that when the car is ready, the quality team act like the real customer. Unless the acting customer is satisfied, the car does not pass inspection.

On the assembly floor we were introduced to the 'man behind the XUV'. He took a few questions from us. And bowled a few bouncers too : ) There's a lot of discontent (using a mild word here) with the suspension of the W 201. And those who have driven the W 207 could feel the huge difference in the way it jumps in and out of potholes. Not many of us were happy with his analogy of comparing the IPhone 3 to the Iphone 6. What ever happened to backward compatibility? As someone jovially said, we are not expecting the suspension of the W 207. Would it be possible to give us maybe a  W 205? Even at a price?

Then there was one owner who had driven down from Bangalore and had issues with gear changes and complained about a loss of power. All the issues that we brought up,  seemed like they were new ones and he had never heard of these before. In spite of being an XUV owner himself. And driving a car that has clocked 40K plus on the odo. The suspension issue for example, seemed to become more tolerable after a retorque of the nuts, for those who did it. It would have been great for someone competent to drive the vehicle in question and at least see what the real issue was. I'd have done that if it was a product that I was involved in making. All we really wanted someone to say was "Yes, this is my product, let me help you". There was another owner who said he drives back to Bangalore from Hyderabad just to service the car! And it's not because there are no service centers in Hyderabad.

Some of the lucky owners

Hungry Kya?

Lunch was arranged at the Marriott which was located close by. (Remember the green supply chain :) The convoy to the hotel was quite a sight to see.

XUV Convoy
Waiting for the bomb check :)

Marriott lobby

At the pool

Purple Club

Buy an XUV and you automatically become a member of the purple club. However, many users aren't sure what this 'purple' thing is all about. This was evident when owners were approached to say something on camera about the car, the company, purple club, etc. While many spoke about the other questions, questions on the purple club mostly drew a blank.

Some customers think it's something that they get once a year, when Mahindra remembers people who put their trust in them. Others think it is the dedicated relationship manager. But most owners will tell you that RMs are not very different from service advisers. And then there is the free pick up and drop that is offered. But that's offered by many manufacturers. Moreover, many owners I've interacted with, don't use it. They prefer to deliver the car themselves and watch the job being done. Because lots of information is lost in translation. The purple club is a huge opportunity waiting to be tapped. There's so much that you can do when it comes to creating wonderful experiences. To remember the brand, to appreciate the company, to build a relationship, and ensure that the next car we buy, will also be a Mahindra!

Mahindra spends so much in trying to convince people to believe in the company, in the car. What they should try instead, is to focus half the attention on the already convinced.

The List

A list of issues that was painstakingly consolidated by the group was handed over to the Brand Manager of the XUV. He said he would get it to the attention of the right folks. I hope he does. 

Ratan Tata thought about a Nano when he saw a family of four getting drenched in the rain while the family was traveling on a two wheeler. Someone at Mahindra just needs to visit a fuel pump when a Scorpio/XUV customer is trying to carry out the TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) relearning procedure in the car. The system needs to know where all 5 tires are located. Only then can it accurately tell you which tire has how much pressure. And this is done by releasing air in a sequence from each tire. So logically, how many tires do you need to 'teach'? 4 right? Because it's understood that the remaining tire is the spare one! But no, while there are folks honking behind you for their turn to top up air, you have to lower your spare, fill it to about 45 PSI and then start releasing air from all 5 tires, one after the other in the prescribed sequence. And if even one tire does not get registered, the entire procedure will have to be redone. And someone could get murdered. This is feedback I've been giving for over 6 years now, from the Scorpio days. Everyone I've talked to say that learning 4 is better. And in all these years, no one was able to explain why all 5 tires needed learning.

The lights on the car are turned on when you unlock the car in a dark place. Now, this happens even during the day when there is sufficient light. Since the respective sensor feels that it is dark, it automatically switches on the headlights even when there is no need to. Give us a way to switch off these auto features. I appreciate your features. In fact, we are spoiled by them. But I as a customer must have the final say. Same goes to the auto fresh air mode getting engaged when the AC is switched off. If I wanted fresh air, you've provided me a button. Allow me to make that decision.

VMS has been introduced on the new XUV and there's a software update being tested out on older cars that enables this new feature. This is an incredibly useful feature. I'm not always looking at visual cues on the dashboard. And it really brings the vehicle to life. Look, he speaks! Many service advisers/relationship managers haven't heard of this update. You've implemented poke-yoke on the shop floor. Many times over. Think up a similar system where it's not just service advisers that get this information, but all customers (based on some kind of opt-in). Customers are not just aware of any software updates, but could maybe also do it themselves using a wizard and a USB drive. Look at how much such self service options will relieve the always full service centers. The key is to make it fail safe. And with all the Poke-Yoke implementations at the plant, you have probably mastered this. In case of an issue allow a roll back. Just in case.

Another issue that was highlighted is how the alloys get damaged every time they visit the spare compartment. There is a high point in the shell, that rubs against a part of the alloy and leaves a mark. Every wheel that has been rotated and has landed as the spare, has a scar to show. A video was created and shared with some folks in Mahindra. But the only news we got is that the spare is no longer an alloy!

The maps are miserable. Map my India has come up with an improved version... But no one seemed to know if an upgrade was planned or not.

Somewhere, there is a gap. What's the best way to deal with it? Writing to Anand Mahindra or Pavan Goenka isn't the solution. They are extremely responsive. But the question is, why should that be the only way of getting someone to listen? Why can't the folks lower in the pecking order show the same passion and response BEFORE we reach out to the top? Shouldn't there be a process for such feedback to get back to the design team? What's the best way to get to the people who want to listen?

Because the list we submitted has a bunch more.

I'd love to see some of the dashboard systems applied at the service centers. Your manufacturing processes are so sophisticated. But the service centers are still very primitive. Wrong tools used. Lots of time wasted. Hardly anything is streamlined. And the customer ends up paying for all these inefficiencies. Customers should have a consistent experience, irrespective of the service center they visit. The process to troubleshoot, identity issues/solutions and share knowledge with other service centers is nowhere near where we see it at the manufacturing plant. If a station stops working, all hell breaks loose in the plant. Maybe there is an opportunity to apply some of the technology at the service center too. Don't lose the already convinced. The service center should be as welcoming as the manufacturing experience we had. It is nowhere close. Brand Mahindra seems to stop at the gates of the plant. Once a car is sold, your only contact with the customer is through these service centers and the people working there. They build or break all the experiences you've created. Take a guess on which of the two is really happening.

Customers like to feel valued, much after they have invested in your product. One way of making this happen is to engage with those who can add value. Your customers come with varied expertise, in various areas. Consult with them. It's free! I'm sure you already do it, but get your customers to review your ideas, new products, when they are on the drawing board/ready for launch. You will be in a better position to make decisions with the data you've gathered. One aspect of your purple club could be around this. Make your existing customers feel special. It doesn't cost you anything if information about new launches was shared first with your existing customers, even if it's only a day earlier, and then with the rest of the world. Think about it.


The feedback form was only about the experiences that day. Many of the questions brought a smile to my face. The questions seemed to assume that no one would give them the best rating. The thing about feedback is that you have to try very hard to get the user to say exactly what the user want's to say. Not what you want to hear. Look for both kind of feedback, the good and the bad. It was an opportunity to take feedback about the car too.

The icing

I've always drooled over the coffee table book that M&M had made for the Scorpio. But I couldn't get my hands on it. So imagine my delight when I saw the coffee book for the XUV 5OO! And to top it all, there was a scale model of the car as well, in the goodies bag!

Had the goodies been given first, the feedback collected might also have been better.
Here is what really lit up our eyes.

All the secrecy in the plant made me wonder if it was really needed. Your competition already knows what's in your pipeline. The competition always knows. What if they copy? When I was younger, telephone pals was a big thing. Someone had come up with an innovative way to make friends using a telephone answering service. So if you were out of town, you could give clients a particular number and they could leave voice messages for you. You could call in and check these messages from any place. The same system was used to make friends. You could leave a message and people who were looking for friends would call up and listen to you. If they liked what they heard, they'd leave a reply and hopefully a number :)
My messages were unique and very engaging. (How did I know? I became friends with one of the folks working at the office and she told me this - The first thing that the owner of the company did on a Monday morning was listen to my message because I changed the message on weekends)! One day, I noticed that someone else looking to make friends, had copied my message - word for word. I was very disappointed initially. But then I was comforted with the thought that they just had one of my ideas. And that they could only copy what I said. But I had a lot more from where that came from! They had a copy of the golden egg. While I had the goose that laid them!
So don't worry about other manufacturers copying you. You too have a lot more from where 'that' came from.

So the next time, we want something better than what the Tatas did : )

Photo credits: Sanjay Phodkar, Anil Kumar.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Door Stopper

You've must have heard that great technical communication could open doors for you right? Well, there's more. Many years ago, so the story goes, one of VPs responsible for documentation went to visit a client to see how they were using the thick printed manuals supplied with product. Surprise, surprise. You've probably guessed how they were using it by now. If you haven't, you missed the title! Yup. They were actually using the manual as a door stopper!

That's the 'strength' of documentation skills.They not only open doors when opportunity comes calling, but they keep them doors - open!

About 25 folks responded to Guru's call to a User Assistance workshop held on the 25th at the Oracle Office, Lexington Towers. The two part session was very well received. Other than the regular crowd of tech writers, there were UI designers and a content writer as well.

Here's what you missed. Or should I say, here's what you could have learned.
  • Why is there a decline in the number of installation guides being created?
  • What does the UA team in Oracle do? How have they created a niche for themselves? 
  • What does the UA team in Oracle do that other technical writers don't do? Why is what they do becoming a norm?
  • Why is the conversational style of writing being adopted in technical writing?
  • Does this mean it's the end of style guides? Tip: Don't do cart wheels yet.
  • Why is API documentation becoming the must have skill?
  • Why are more and more organizations making their API available to users? 
  • What are the hourly rates of a writer who can create API documentation vis-a-vis with one who doesn't?
  • Why is REST API particularly popular? How easy is it to learn?
  • What is an orchestrated deployment?
  • What are the challenges when it comes to enterprise installations?
  • What is a best practice when it comes to documenting enterprise deployments?
  • Is it a good idea to make installation easier for end users?
  • What are Chef and Puppet? Hint: Not a cartoon.
  • Why were there no Devops team a few years ago?
  • What language is slowly replacing XML? Why?
  • What are some of the ways by which documentation team are addressing user assistance needs without creating traditional documentation?
  • What are developers doing with markdown editors? Is that a threat or is that a strength to the technical writer?
  • Did you know that in just a few years, the average Indian tech writer will lose the cost arbitrage that they have always had over their western counterparts?
  • What is 'first item' help?
  • Why is Confluence being used by many organizations as a knowledge base?
  • What is embedded user assistance? How does it differ from contextual help?
  • When would you use a getting started panel? When would you use a reveal all help bubble? When would you use overlays?
  • Why is it important to look for the right problem to solve when it comes to selecting one of the above methods?
  • Are animated GIFs catching on in documentation?
  • When would you use interactive infographics?
  • What is continuous delivery?
  • What do hypermedia tools do? Which tools are being used in Oracle?
  • What is the big idea behind
  • How do you document single screen UI?
  • What does 'start with the end in mind', mean?
  • What are some of the things that writers need, to remain competitive in such fast changing environments? What should managers do?
No, it is not going to be a total loss. Here are two of the videos shared. There were more.

The Audi A3 does not have a printed manual. See what Audi uses to help users understand the product.

So the heavy printed manual may not be the door stopper anymore. Especially since not as many are being produced now.
The session is a wake up call. Wake up, while you can still do something! Don't end up as a door stopper. Only this time, on the outside.

Monday, June 29, 2015

If a Tree Fell in the Forest...

The first encounter with Parth, was at the 14th STC Conference.  So when I received an email from him about the meetup, I had to see what I've been missing all these years. Well, since then, he's only gotten better!

The topic was Content Marketing. The audience was varied, but everyone seemed to have 'startup' on their minds, in some form or the other. The venue was the ZapStitch office in Koramangala. ZapStitch is a cloud application integrator. They do some integration magic with Zoho, SFDC, Marketo, Shopify, Xero, etc and act like a connection between some of these giants. Kapil and team were awesome. Great follow up. Even greater hosts!

And then there was also the Jifflenow crowd as well. Jifflenow is an organization that facilitates event management and scheduling. With clients like Linkedin, Ariba, Accenture, Adobe, Dell, Cisco, etc, you'd have to think that their offering is unique, and has a lot of value to add.

Coming from a documentation background, I've always been left nursing the creative side of content. Not that there's no room for creativity. Let's just say that it's not appreciated as much. You could relate the marketing content to the outbound process of a call center while the technical content is like the inbound process. While the intended audience is different, I must say that we techncial writers have it relatively easy. We aren't convincing anyone to buy anything. They (the audience) come to us when they need information. We seldom go to them. We want our users to read the stuff we write and then get off the band wagon. Problem solved. It's not like that in Content Marketing. It's like this.

Remember the saying "If a tree fell in the forest and no one heard about it, does it make a sound?" Well, for content marketing, that tree is the product! You have a very innovative solution to an everyday problem that no one is even aware about. They just live with it. Your job is to show the user the problem first, then help them appreciate and want the solution. And finally - buy!

However, we have one problem that we share with content marketers. People don't like to read. At least not what either of us write. And that's where Parth unsheathed his weapons.

Don't create any content that does not satisfy at least one of these objectives. The content should
  • Entertain
  • Educate
  • Solve a problem 
  • Make a job easier. 
I wish the same objectives are followed by some people every time they open their mouths to talk! We'd have a lot more peace and quiet. And less mad people. Especially at 9 P.M, during a certain Newshour.

Drawing parallels to the tech writing industry might be difficult, at least for the first objective. Unless of course you want to have a really entertaining (and probably the last) discussion with your boss! But I'd say all or most documentation would address at least one or all of the other 3 points.

Some other interesting bits and tips from my notes
  • The most important thought a content marketer must have, always - Be the Buyer. Sounds familiar?
  • Before embarking on the content marketing journey, ensure that a well documented content strategy is in place
  • Don't depend too much on SEO. SEO makes sense only if your product is one that people will search for. They won't search for something they don't know about. So if a tree falls in a forest, SEO can't really help!
  • Identify marketing channels you'd want to use 
  • Identify who your competition is and the strategy they are using
  • Determine how frequently you want to publish new content.
  • Your content shouldn't be an overload to your audience. At the same time, your writer should also not run out of ideas
  • Jifflenow publishes an article every week. 
  • Your audience always has an attention deficit, and as a result articles/blogs are now just 250 words long
  • Your article does not always have to explicitly end with a pitch. Your job is done if you can create enough curiosity.
  • The tone used in your articles also matters. Are your articles about solving a problem, or does it have a 'Man Friday' attitude to it, or does it have a cocky feel (like some of the posts on this blog!)
  • Writers must know their space, know what works when it comes to content and be passionate about the cause they are selling. Take the simple task of cycling. The writer really needs to understand just a couple of things. I had a few ah-ha moments, explained in another blog I wrote - The Art of Balance while teaching my little one to ride a bycycle. (I posted the same content on the TeamBHP site and it got over 1200 views in a week.) The point I was trying to make is that the writer needs have those ah-ha moments. Only then can they really explain/market it to their customers. And this applies to both technical writers and content marketers.
  • It doesn't have to always be about your brand. The article could simply be a solution to a problem that your customers face. Jifflenow had recently run a campaign to appreciate the event marketer, their target audience. There was no sales pitch. The campaign made event marketers proud of who they were and highlighted the challenges they faced as a group. The audience were able to connect with the article. Even with the last slide that said - presented by Jifflenow!
  • Learn to critique yourself in your writing. Even laughing at yourself doesn't hurt if you can prove a point.
  • Content can make things happen. Believe.
  • Think about how you will distribute content. People need to know about that tree that fell in the forest!
  • Determine what channel. Will you use traditional marketing channels? How will you use social media? Or will it be a white paper? Or it's just an email or a newsletter that will do the trick for you.
  • And the biggest revelation by both Jifflenow and ZapStitch (sorry Zukerberg/Page!) - paid ads on social media are hopeless. It's a good way to become a millionaire. But you'll have to start out as a billionaire!
  • It's imperative that you build a community for your content/product
  • You can't expect to see your content go viral without a community
  • What goes around, comes around. Remember to share other people's blogs. Not competitors!
  • Remember to rope in influencers who can help you get to that tipping point - a little faster.
  • The other thing to do (not said here) is to find the watering holes that decision makers frequent/visit. It could just be a group on Linkedin, or a blog that is followed by your connectors. If you can make a pitch very tactfully, (right time/place/people), your bait will work. Sometime back, I reviewed a very innovative interactive tool called whatfix and I know at least 4 companies who bought the solution after reviewing the post. I simply made people aware about the tree that fell. It's doesn't always have to be a WIIFM question. The answer to the HCIH (How can I help) question is also immensely satisfying.
  • Measure meaningful metrics. Every Jifflenow employee has numbers that they are held responsible for. Including the designer. How many people scroll through a page, how much time do they spend on a blog, do they check out earlier posts, all these can be metrics.
  • Remember to reuse content by cross linking, etc. Ensures that you continue to get royalty on the value of all your earlier content
  • Your audience is at different levels of an inverted funnel and you need to learn how to write to engage them at their respective level.
  • Content marketers are expected to help an organization define the value proposition of the product, help simplify the solution/product for its users and add meaning.
  • There was some more funnel talk at the end : )
Feel free to comment below. I wasn't paying attention the whole time ;)
If you got to this point, I believe all objectives above were met. Don't ya?

And the next time a tree falls in the forest, your customers must have this reaction.

Credits- The pictures are courtesy:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Art of Balance

Or is it a science? I'll leave it to you to decide.

Of the hundreds and thousands of things that you learn in the course of your life, how many do you still remember after a certain point of time? Here’s something that you'll never forget. Even if you've never done it for many years. And it takes less than a week to learn. Maximum. Many eons ago, I learned it myself. And there was not a soul to teach me.

Last week, I helped my daughter learn and in the process, I realized that there are some simple techniques to understand the art of balance. Quickly.

Now, you could learn how to cycle without knowing any of this, just by sheer practice. Brute practice. But keep a few of the pointers discussed below, and I promise you a journey that is shorter and less painful. Besides, knowledge is BHP (power). And if you are into documentation, you’ll know that the ‘How to cycle’ question is often asked in many technical writer test papers. And it’s usually written to an alien audience. So all you hiring managers out there, here’s an answer that you could use not just to evaluate the candidate's writing skills, but also find out if that alien flew back, or did it use the cycle track back :)

What you’ll need first - The right sized bicycle. Duh! Don’t complicate things by trying to learn on the first available bicycle. You need one that is the right size – for you. There are several parameters that you need to evaluate before selecting a bicycle. And Google is your best friend to find more. But to learn, here’s one that is very important. Once you’ve managed to settle your butt on the seat, your toes should just touch the floor. Your feet were intended to be on the pedal, not on the floor, and that’s where they’ll be most of the time. 

Note to Aliens: Just two feet and two hands are needed. You'd also need a butt that can be placed on a seat, but that I'm sure we can work something out! You could also do it with one arm and leg. But you'll have to be a champ like this guy. 

Simple Rules to Understand
  • At first ignore the pedals: Don’t try to pedal as soon as you get on the bicycle. You learn cycling in stages, one step at a time. Learn the part that you need to do with your hands first, and then move to the legs. Of course, you can disregard this rule if you are this guy, and simply do both!

    Your first aim is to be able to learn how to stay upright, while moving, on two thin wheels.
    Did you know that they actually have bicycles without pedals designed just to help kids learn this part?

  • Don’t ignore the brakes: Keep your hands on the handle bar with your fingers in contact with both brake levers at all times. You might be prepared to fall. But the people in your surroundings aren’t prepared to get struck!
    Remembering to apply both brakes simultaneously, always, will minimize a few embarrassments.
  • Keep your head up: Don’t look at the floor/pedal/feet. Look up, that's where the action usually is.
  • Balance is in your hands: Yes! Not in that big thing you place on the seat! And the most important thing - Remember to swivel the handle gently in both directions, as you move, continuously, till  it becomes second nature to you. No one will tell you to do this. And this is how you will learn to master this art quickly. If you've observed a cyclist, you'll notice how often he/she twists the handle to steady themselves. By twisting the handle you are consciously doing something that will not just correct your course, but also keeps you upright. Watch this interesting experiment to understand balance.

Time to start. Divide your learning into the two parts.

  1. Find a road that is slightly inclined (and preferably deserted), sit on the bicycle, place your hands on the handle, keep your head up and look in front. 
  2. Sit on the seat with both legs on the floor. Once you are ready to move, give yourself a gentle push with your foot to allow the bicycle to begin to roll downhill. Keep twisting the handle to the left and right, in small, gentle movements, continuously, while gravity moves you forward. As the bicycle gathers momentum and starts moving faster, and you begin to feel uncomfortable, remember to clasp the brakes! 
  3. As you move forward, all the while, use your legs to prop the bicycle up, on either side. Use your feet like oars. If you are falling to the right, put your right leg down and vice versa on the other side. You’ll notice that the bicycle will ‘sail’ forward in a smooth zig-zag manner and you will also be bobbing from side to side as you place alternate feet on the ground to steady yourself. Don’t worry about who’s watching;) And it’s also alright to fall a few times. Your objective is to get the farthest distance without touching your feet on the ground.
    Remember, we are still not touching the pedals.
  1. On the return journey (uphill), you’ll need someone’s help. While your friend/dad/whoever, is holding the bicycle upright, rotate one of the pedals up to the 10 O’clock position with your preferred foot. Keep the other foot on the ground. 
  2. Now, while the bicycle is held upright, apply pressure on the foot that’s placed on the pedal. As the cycle begins to move forward, quickly bring your other foot up to the other pedal and start pedaling. 
  3. All the while, as you pedal, don’t forget to continue to move the handle to the right and left. If you feel you are going to fall in one direction, turn the handle a little more in the same direction and then quickly try to straighten yourself again. You'll get this right after a few falls:)
  4. Whoever is supporting you will need to hold the bicycle upright continuously, at least initially. But as you progress, ask him/her to let go for short durations.
Do the down-the-road / up-the-road routine  for 30 to 45 minutes every day. I can assure you that by the 5rd or 6th day, the person who was supposed to hold the bicycle upright for you will be huffing and puffing (and losing a lot of weight) behind you!

You can use these tips to teach your wife (ok, let me not be sexist here) or your husband to ride a scooter. My wife didn’t know how to cycle. But I’m mighty impressed with her that despite not knowing how to cycle, she learned how to ride a scooter. You can read about our adventures here - Teaching the Wife to Ride a Scooter.

And 'adventures', is putting it mildly!