Category Archives: Tech Writing

Volunteering with New York Cares: Computer Education program

This is a follow-up to my previous post: Volunteering with New York Cares: The Orientation.

On Wednesday, June 7th, I volunteered for the Computer Education program for senior citizens in Upper West Side. It was the most productive activity I had participated in since moving to the city. Around 20 senior citizens and four (or five, I think) participated in the program. I had expected to help the participants with basic computer-related tasks, like creating an email account, browsing the web, and so on. After all, those were the kind of tasks I had helped with when I volunteered in India. Little did I know, the session was going to be an eye-opener and a crash course in usability and accessibility.

I was assigned to assist three senior citizens: A 70-year old lady, a Chinese gentleman, and an Indian gentleman. The lady had already created her own fitness video for senior citizens, created her own YouTube Channel, and was now looking to add more tags to the video to increase viewership. After I helped her add the tags, she wanted to know how to send the video link as a message to her followers on Facebook. She had already set up two Facebook pages and was actively managing them both. I was blown away at how enthusiastic she was about learning new technology and most importantly, using the technology to further her fitness and commercial goals.

The Chinese gentleman wanted to learn how to set up his Gmail account on his smartphone. He already had an account, but could not configure it on his phone. After he configured the account on his phone, he asked me to help him install a translation app on his phone so he could work on his English conversational skills.

The Indian gentleman was an amazing poet who was working on his own book of poems and wanted to learn how to use MS Word’s layout functionality to design his own book of poems.

As a technical communicator, I found the event to be a real-world lesson on usability, accessibility, and audience awareness:

  • Audience awareness: I had incorrectly assumed the technological literacy level of my audience. The participants were much more tech-savvy than I had imagined.
  • Usability: When the event started, the lady was trying to add tags to the video. She kept telling me she had done it previously, but could not do it this time, and that frustrated her. She showed me the left-hand menu bar and told me that’s where she had added the tags previously. I clicked on her video’s edit button and scrolled down to locate the tags window. I think YouTube changed their interface since the time she had last attempted to add tags. For me, a digital native, it was very intuitive to click around and look for stuff, but that did not occur to her. I found this to be a very important insight for UX designers: Changing UI interfaces frequently can cause problems for the digital non-natives. One solution I can think of is tiered-versions of the software. Companies can create a basic, tier-one version of the software with critical functionality and leave it untouched or update it less frequently. And a tier-two version of the same software can have all the bells and whistles and can be changed as frequently as desired.
  • Accessibility: The Chinese gentleman faced issues because the size of the keys on the keypad on his  smartphone was smaller than his fingers, so he kept hitting the wrong key. I helped him increase the key size, but again, that is because I knew the functionality existed. There is no point of providing accessibility options if people are not aware of it, let alone know how to use it. Making the accessibility functions more intuitive and educating users about the existence and usage of accessibility functions is important.

I wish I was still teaching at Missouri S&T (I miss it already), so I could share the experience with my students. I would sincerely encourage every technical communicator, UX designer, and developer to volunteer for the Computer Education program at least once.

 

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The Writing Process

I have seen brilliant engineers go totally blank when asked to write a document. And the reason is that while we assume everyone can write, no one teaches us how to write well. Over the years, I have realized that writing is not an art, but a step-by-step methodical process. There are three primary phases in the writing process:

  • Planning
  • Writing
  • Editing

As you can see, writing is only one phase of the entire process. If we start and stop only at this phase, what we get is a brain-dump instead of a well-written document. Let’s break down the phases into doable steps:

Planning:

Step 1: Audience Analysis

This is the most crucial step in the writing process that most of us forget about. Audience analysis lays the foundation of a solid, logical draft. Before starting any writing task, take a moment to ask yourself:

  • Who am I writing for? Who are my readers?
  • Why are they reading this piece of writing?
  • What do I want them to do after they are done reading it? Study it? Share it? Make some decision based on it?
  • What environment are they reading it in? In office, at home, while commuting to or from work?
  • Which device are they using? Laptop? Handheld device? Printed hard copy?
  • How much time do they have to read this?

Asking yourself these basic questions helps you think from the reader’s perspective. Instead on focusing what you want to say, you can focus on what the readers want to know. It helps you decide how you structure your content, what layout you choose, what background information do you include in your document, and so on. And trust me, that makes all the difference in the world.

One trick I use is hold imaginary conversations with a representative reader. For instance, if I am documenting a software design for a new employee, I imagine myself explaining the design to them in person. It helps me figure out how much they know about the product and where my document needs to start. This trick is definitely worth a try.

Step 2: Brain-dump

Once you have figured out who you are writing for, it’s time to brain-dump everything you know about the subject you want to write about. You can use the following techniques for this step:

  • Free-writing: Just open a word processor and write everything you know about the subject. Don’t edit it, don’t stop to think. Just let it flow.
  • Mind-mapping: Go to a whiteboard or take a piece of paper and make a mind-map of everything you know about the subject.
  • Brainstorming/Talking it out: Talk to a coworker or a friend and explain everything you know about the subject to them.

When you are working on a writing task, your brain is filled with things that you know and want to communicate. This overwhelming information is what leads to writer’s block. Dumping everything you know on paper or screen or whiteboard allows you to get those thoughts out of your head and into a visual form. Once you have a visual of all the information, it is easy to pick and choose the information relevant to your audience.

Step 3: Filling in the missing pieces

After you analyze your audience and brain-dump information, you can identify the gaps in your content. Depending on how much you know about the subject, you may or may not need to research the missing information and fill in the gaps.

Step 4: Organizing your information

Once you know who your audience is and exactly which information you want to convey, it’s time to decide on an organizing pattern. Choosing an organizing pattern helps you give a structure to your document. Here’s a cheat sheet for choosing an organizing pattern:

If you want to… Then use…
Explain events that occurred or might occur or tasks that the reader is to carry out Chronological order
Explain a complex situation, such as the factors that led to a problem or the theory that underlies a process General to specific – Understanding the big picture helps readers understand the details
Present a set of factors More important to less important
Present similarities and differences between two or more items Comparison and contrast
Assign items to logical categories or discuss the elements that make up a single item Classification and partition – Classification involves placing items into categories. Partition involves breaking a single item into its major elements
Discuss a problem you encountered, the steps you took to address it, and the outcome or solution Problem-methods-solution
Discuss the factors that led to a given situation Cause and effect

Writing

Now we get to the actual writing process. By now, you have a clear idea of what you want to say and how you want to say it, so you have skillfully avoided the writer’s block. Now you just convert the points you want to convey into sentences. Again, don’t stop to edit at this point. For now, just convert the points into sentences and paragraphs.

One trick to write a draft quickly is start from the crux of the document instead of the introduction. Write the main content first, and then the introduction and conclusion follow easily.

Editing

By now, you have already completed 67% of the writing! Congratulations!

To quote the Guru of writing well, William Zinsser, “The essence of writing is in rewriting”. No truer words have ever been spoken. Once you have your draft ready, take a break. If you can, leave it alone for a day. If not, at least take a coffee break or go walk around the block.

When you get back, focus on the content of the draft first. Don’t get into the mechanics of language – grammar and word choices just yet. Think about your audience once again. While writing, has your understanding of the audience changed? If yes, does the draft reflect the changed understanding? Does your content serve the audience’s purpose? Make changes to your content if required.

Once you are sure you have the right content, now move on to the technicalities of language. There are innumerable rules about how to edit your copy and most of them are overwhelming if you edit the whole document at once. I use a simple trick: I start with the last sentence of the document, edit it, and then make my way to the beginning of the document in reverse order. This forces me to focus on one sentence at a time, and it becomes much more manageable.

Another helpful resource for editing is the paramedic method. I use it extensively and highly recommend it. Here’s a video of the paramedic method in action:

 

 

A practical example:

I used the writing process while working on grant proposal for a Usability Lab at Missouri S&T. Here’s the process in action:

Audience analysis profile sheet: Audience_Profile.doc

Mind-maps:

Writing Process_MindMap 1

Writing Process_MindMap 2.jpg

This was followed by the writing and editing phases. And here’s the final proposal: Usability Lab Proposal – Amruta Ranade

So there you have it. A step-by-step method to write well. Go try it out!

Localize the Right Way

One of the most challenging times in my career as a Technical Writer was when the management of our organization decided to launch our software product in the Japanese market and asked us unsuspecting technical writers to localize all the content for the product. Localization is the process of adapting existing content to suit the target market. As naive as we were, we used Google Translate and converted all our text – around 1500 pages of it – to Japanese. At the end of the project, we felt accomplished and proud, and celebrated a job well done with pizza and cake.

I realized my folly when I was introduced to the concepts of national culture, intercultural dimensions, static and dynamic approaches, and so on in the Advanced International Communication class. In today’s hyper-connected world, a product or website created in one country is readily accessible to a person halfway across the globe at the click of a button, thereby opening up a global market for the organizations. The organizations then need to be mindful about how their products and websites are perceived in different areas of the world so that they can craft their messages to appeal to the global audience and increase the reach of their products and services. Since the messages are usually crafted by the technical communicators, it is important for them to educate themselves about the theories and practices of intercultural communication. I realized that translating the language is just a part, albeit an important one, in the localizing process. But the crux of the localization process is understanding the cultural differences between the nations and customizing your message accordingly. And that is where intercultural theories like Hofstede’s cultural dimensions come into the picture.

The inception and evolution of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions

Professor Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist and a former IBM employee. He conducted a broad study of how values in a multicultural workplace are influenced by the national cultures of the employees. He based his study on the value scores collected from over 116000 IBM employees from over 70 countries between 1967 and 1973. Out of this data, he used the data from 40 countries with the largest number of respondents, and subsequently extended his analysis to 50 countries and 3 regions.

Professor Hofstede defines national culture as the “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.” From his study, he developed his model of culture wherein he identified the values that distinguished national cultures from each other. He categorized them into four dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity, and Uncertainty Avoidance.

In 1991, a colleague of Hofstede, Michael Harris Bond, conducted research in East Asia and analyzed his data in a different way. When he analyzed the data using Hofstede’s method, he found the same four dimensions. But Hofstede and his colleague, both belonged to Western countries. They wanted to administer the survey without their western influence. So they asked their Chinese colleagues to prepare the survey questionnaire, and then administered that questionnaire. They found the same four intercultural dimensions from the results of this survey as well. And they found an additional dimension, namely the Confuscian Dynamism, that is long-term vs. short-term orientation.

In 2010, a sixth dimension was added based on the research conducted by Michael Minkov, who analyzed the World Values Survey data for 93 countries. This new dimension is called Indulgence vs. Restraint.

Professor Hofstede assigned scores to each dimension for every country. These scores, or indexes, range from 0 to 100, with 50 being the median.

To summarize, the six cultural dimensions of Hofstede’s theory are:

  • Power Distance

The extent to which people in the society expect and accept unequal distribution of power. People in high power distance societies accept hierarchies and are more deferential towards authority figures, whereas people in low power distance societies expect a more democratic and consultative atmosphere and do not hesitate to question authority figures.

  • Individualism vs. Collectivism

The extent to which people are bound by their social networks. People in individualistic societies prefer loosely-knit social frameworks, whereas people in collectivist societies prefer tightly-knit social communities.

  • Masculinity vs. Femininity

The extent to which people prefer materialistic rewards or intangible rewards. Masculine societies focus more on achievement and accomplishments, and are competitive. Feminine societies value mutual care, quality of life, and so on.

  • Uncertainty Avoidance

The extent to which people feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. It shows the extent to which people in the society are open to risk-taking and experimenting, as opposed to being risk-averse.

  • Long-term orientation vs. Short-term orientation

The extent to which people value principles and traditions and do not deviate from those norms.

  • Indulgence vs. Restraint

The extent to which people allow gratification with respect to enjoying life and having fun.

Applying Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to technical communication

I realized the importance of knowing and applying the intercultural communication theories in the real world when I read an article about Match.com not being able to capture the Indian market. In India, marriage and relationships are the biggest drivers of the society, and the sheer number of people means a huge market for a well-developed relationships service. I was curious to know why a service so popular and successful in the US was unable to capture the Indian market. At the time, we were studying the cultural dimensions in the Advanced International Communication course. Out of curiosity, I researched the Match.com website from the intercultural perspective. It was no surprise it was not doing well in the Indian market. Though the website has an Indian counterpart, it is not customized for the Indian audience. The profiles talk about the user and their preferences, while not referring to family, community, location, and salary at all. To be successful in the collectivist and long-term oriented society in India, they need to drastically revamp not only their website but also their core offerings and compatibility algorithms. But these changes are normally out of the scope of influence of a technical communicator. What we can influence though are the information products.

To understand how Hofstede’s cultural dimensions can help technical communicators localize their information products, we can refer to the process of localizing content proposed by Nancy Hoft (1995). She advises us to research the international variables, analyze the competition, identify international resources, and synthesize data. To better understand the practical application of the theory, let us consider the example of a US-based website that could be localized for a foreign market. The website I have chosen for this exercise is Plated.com.

Plated is a fast-growing startup based in New York. It delivers ready-to-cook pre-proportioned ingredients and chef-designed recipes to the customers’ doorstep, so as to enable them to prepare a delicious meal without the efforts of recipe-hunting and grocery-shopping. I love the idea and wish we had something similar back home in India. So I wondered: if the management at Plated.com wanted to expand their operations to India and wanted to localize the content to suit the Indian market, how could they go about it.

To localize the website, we would first need to study the existing website and analyze its cultural orientation. As Hofstede states, culture exists only by comparison. Thus we would compare the cultural orientation of the United States with the cultural orientation of India. Next, we would study the existing Indian websites similar to plated.com, and analyze what works for the Indian community. This analysis will help us come up with concrete, implementable steps to localize the content.

Comparing America and India in terms of Hofstede’s dimensions

To compare the cultural values in the American and Indian societies, let us refer to the data provided by The Hofstede Centre.

Power Distance (PDI)

This dimension refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

United States has a Power Distance Index of 40, which means it is a Low Power Distance society:

  • The people give importance to equal rights in all aspects of American society and government.
  • Within US-based organizations, hierarchy is established for convenience. Employees are comfortable finding their own way of doing things and approaching superiors only to get their doubts clarified.

India has a Power Distance Index of 77, which means it is a High Power Distance society:

  • The people appreciate hierarchy and a top-down structure in society and organizations.
  • In Indian organizations, the employees are dependent on the boss or power holder for directions. They expect to be given explicit instructions to carry out their tasks.

Individualism vs. Collectivism (IDV)

This dimension refers to the extent to which people are bound by their social networks. People in individualistic societies prefer loosely-knit social frameworks, whereas people in collectivist societies prefer tightly-knit social communities.

United States has an IDV Index of 91, which means it is an Individualist society.

  • Society is loosely-knit in which people look only after themselves and their immediate families.
  • Americans are accustomed to doing business or interacting with people they don’t know very well. They are not shy to approach their counterparts in order to seek information.

India has an IDV Index of 48, which means it is a mixed society with collectivist as well as individualistic traits.

  • The collectivist traits of the Indian society indicate that people prefer belonging to a larger social communities. Actions of individuals are influenced by family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and other social groups.
  • The individualist traits of the Indian society indicate that people are individually responsible for the way they lead their lives.

Masculinity vs. Femininity (MAS)

This dimension refers to the extent to which people prefer materialistic rewards or intangible rewards. Masculine societies focus more on achievement and accomplishments, and are competitive. Feminine societies value mutual care, quality of life, and so on.

United States has a MAS Index of 62, which means it is a Masculine society.

  • People strive to be the best they can be.
  • Many American assessment systems are based on precise target setting.

India has a MAS Index of 56, which means it is a Masculine society.

  • Visual display of success and power is common and accepted in the Indian society.
  • However, India is also a spiritual country, so the lessons in humility and abstinence temper the Masculine tendencies to some extent.

Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)

This dimension refers to the extent to which members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

United States has a UAI of 46, which means there is low Uncertainty Avoidance among the people.

  • The people are open to new ideas, innovative products, and are willing to try something new or different.
  • They are less emotionally expressive.

India has a UAI of 40, which means there is low Uncertainty Avoidance among the people.

  • The people accept imperfection.
  • India is a patient nation with high tolerance levels.

Long-term vs. Short-term orientation (LTO)

This dimension refers to the extent to which people value principles and traditions and do not deviate from the norms.

United States has a LTO of 26, which means it is a short-term oriented society.

  • People are open to changes occurring in their environment. They are comfortable with one-time interactions.
  • They are not bound by long-held values and investments.

India has a LTO of 51, which means it is also a long-term oriented society.

  • People prefer conforming to long-held values and traditions.
  • They focus on long-term value creation and relationship building.

Indulgence vs. Restraint (IND)

This dimension refers to the extent to which people allow gratification with respect to enjoying life and having fun.

United States has an IND of 68, which means it is an indulgent nation.

  • People prefer enjoying their lives and living in comfort.
  • They would not think much about saving for the future as opposed to having a good time now.

India has an IND of 26, which means it has the culture of restraint.

  • People prefer to budget their expenses and save for the future.
  • They look down on others who choose to live their lives comfortably at the risk of not investing in the future.

Summary of comparison

To localize the content, we need to focus on the cultural values that received opposite scores and then try to address them in the content. Let us see which dimensions have values on the opposite sides of the median.

Dimension United States India
Power Distance 40 77
Individualism vs. Collectivism 91 48
Masculinity vs. Femininity 62 56
Uncertainty Avoidance 46 40
Long-term vs. Short-term orientation 26 51
Indulgence vs. Restraint 68 26

From the comparison, it is evident that to localize the American website for the Indian market, we need to focus on the cultural dimensions of Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Long-term vs. Short-term orientation, and Indulgence vs. Restraint.

Analyzing plated.com and comparing with Indian websites

To perform comparative analysis of the American website plated.com, I chose two Indian websites in the same category: Localbanya.com and Goodybox.me. I compared these websites based on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions:

Power distance

India being a society with high power distance index, the website targeted towards an Indian audience needs to address this dimension. Power distance in web communication can be established by establishing credibility and authority. This can be done by incorporating the bio-sketches of founders and testimonials of expert users.

Another feature of a society with a preference for a higher power distance is that they require explicit instructions. Thus one way to establish power distance is to spell out the procedure and rules to use the website.

Plated.com fails to incorporate these elements in the website. The About Us page is hard to find and has no information about the people behind the website. The details of the team members are difficult to locate.

The How It Works section is under-explained. The existing content would work for the American users who prefer low power distance. These users do not require explicit instructions, and prefer figuring things out for themselves. But it might not work with the Indian audience, who would feel much confident about using the services provided by the website if the team had spelled out the rules and procedure in detail.

Now let us see how the Indian websites establish Power Distance. The About Us page of Localbanya.com talks about the founders in detail, thereby giving a personal touch to the website. It also establishes credibility through the wording of their message: “At the helm of Localbanya’s success is a management team of experienced and high calibre professionals from globally recognized organizations.”

The How it works page at Localbanya.com is as detailed as it can be. It strives to answer all the questions that the user might possibly have, thereby addressing the basic power distance characteristic of needing explicit instructions.

The Home page at Goodybox.me showcases testimonials of satisfied users that establish the credibility and trustworthiness of the service.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

India demonstrates mixed tendencies for the dimension of Individualism vs. Collectivism. The individualistic tendencies of the Indian population are well-addressed by the existing content on Plated.com that was originally designed to cater to the individualist American society. But it misses the mark while addressing the collectivist trends in the Indian society.

The website focuses on individuals exclusively. It does talk about how “cooking brings us together”, but only in the context of date nights and weekends. Family being the fabric of the Indian society, the Indian audience would not be able to relate to content that does not refer to family, friends, and society.

Contrast this with the language used by Goodybox.me. Their welcome screen talks about snacks that are perfect for home and office. They talk about “100% kids-friendly snacks”, and how they “donate a meal to a hungry child for every goody box delivered” on their home page. Their About Us page tells the story of how the founders started the company because they did not find nutritious snacks for their kids and wanted to provide healthy eating options to other families as well.

The blog of Localbanya.com features user-contributed recipes and suggestions, thereby promoting a sense of community and sharing.

Long-term vs. Short-term orientation

India being a long-term oriented society, it is important to cater to the need for value creation and establishing relationships.

Plated.com does not create any long-term value proposition for the user. Whereas its Indian counterparts – Localbanya.com talks about how for them “customer always comes first.” This indicates that they are thinking and working towards establishing a long-sustaining relationship with the customer, not a one-time business transaction.

Indulgence vs. Restraint

Indian culture puts emphasis on restraint over indulgence. Shopping online instead of at a mortar-and-bricks grocery store is an indulgence. Focusing on the comfort and ease of placing your order at the click of a button would work well with the indulgent American population. But in India, it would be considered unwise to shop online just to save oneself the trouble of going to the grocery store.

The Indian website creators know this well, and pulled the strings to the Indian customers’ hearts – bargains and deals. Their website focuses on deals and bargains, and super-value plans that resonate with the bargain-crazy Indian audience.

Recommendations

On comparing the Indian and American cultures based on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, and analyzing the Indian and American websites, I think the team at Plated.com would be well-advised to make the following changes:

Power distance

  • Establish authority through the About Us page: Include the bio-sketches of the founders.
  • Include testimonials of expert users.
  • Elaborate the How it works section: Detailed FAQs, process, and so on.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

  • Reword the content to focus more on the societal units of family, kids, friends, and society at large.
  • Plated prides itself on how the ingredients it sources come from farmers directly. They can emphasize this benefit to the farmers on their home page.
  • They can include user-shared recipes, contributions, and success stories of customers in their blog.

Long-term vs. short-term

  • They can talk about the nutritional value of the food they provide to indicate they are concerned about the overall long-term health of their customers.
  • Plated supports sustainable farming and environment-friendly shipping practices. They can promote content related to these areas on their website to indicate long-term value proposition for the society in general.

Indulgence vs. Restraint

  • They need to talk about deals and bargains and highlight them on their website.
  • They also need to include super-value monthly plans in their offerings.

Limitations of Hofstede’s theory

Though Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions is substantive and practically applicable, it is not without its limitations. This model of culture is a static approach to national culture. Thanks to the omnipresent Internet and ease of transportation, the geographical and ideological lines between nations are blurring, resulting in exposure and influence of western world on the Indian mindset. It is a very strong possibility that the scores assigned to the cultural values decades ago could have changed. The Indians in the metropolitan cities might actually identify and relate to the American version of the website. Thus the limitations of Hofstede’s theory also results in limitations of its application for localizing content. Nevertheless, it is definitely a good starting point for the localization process.

Conclusion

In today’s web-based world, technical communicators need to be aware of the intercultural theories and practices and put them into practice to enable their organizations to reach out and capture the international markets. While doing so, they need to be mindful of the dynamic changes in the cultural values, and craft their message accordingly.

References

Hofstede, G. & Hofstede, G. J. & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of    the Mind (Rev. 3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hoft, N. (1995). International Technical Communication. New York: Wiley Technical Communications Library.