3 Agile Insights or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Scrum

For over a year, I have been the lone tech writer on an Agile team full of top-notch system analysts. I have to confess that I was nervous about the prospect of spending my whole morning working on the same project, with the same people. And my development skills are limited to HTML and a few ill-advised forays into JavaScript and Ruby. How would I contribute to such a team?

I’m happy to announce that although I am still not much of a programmer, I have discovered some interesting things about Agile. So off we go…

1. Agile is a mindset, not a prescription. When people say they are “doing Agile” or a project is being run as an “Agile project,”  I’ve discovered that there is probably some room for argument. They might be confusing Agile with something else.

The characteristics of Agile were cherry-picked from a variety of software development project approaches, including Waterfall, Extreme Programming (XP) and Scrum. Eventually some developers formally codified these principles in the Agile Manifesto. Although this makes it easier to describe Agile, it also makes it a bit more challenging to define it.

To work in Agile, team members gradually develop an “Agile Mindset” that favors consensus, small changes, continuous feedback and learning, and individual interaction. Being Agile means that team members operate under shared vision and personal accountability, while enjoying the autonomy that allows them to choose how to tackle the tasks they work on.

In my time with the Agile team, I found that this way of working was both more efficient and more satisfying. Each day was organized around value-added priorities rather than a fixed schedule.

2. The Agile Manifesto is open to (mis)interpretation.

In 2001, a group of 17 experienced programmers gathered at a ski resort in Utah to codify their common beliefs by creating the Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

I recently heard a project manager say that developers don’t like to write documentation because “the Agile Manifesto prohibits it.” As a tech writer and an Agilist, I had to object. Another person in the room helpfully piped up, “People over documentation, right?” No, not quite.

The second bullet above is the source of much confusion. Lazy developers might use this statement to get out of documenting their projects, but the developers I worked with understood that “working software over comprehensive documentation” didn’t mean “eliminate all documentation.”The clue comes in the final, bolded statement: “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

In an Agile mindset, documentation flows from working software and constant communication. It may come later in the process, or it may grow out of the user stories that guide each sprint. In a complex project, a technical writer can take on many of these documentation duties.

3. Tech writers have a stake in Agile development. At several junctures, our Agile team was threatened by reorganizations and efforts to mirror our success in other teams. We usually were able to fend off these threats by emphasizing team velocity: it takes time to bring a team through the “forming, storming, norming” stages, and we were unwilling to lose what we had.

But why keep a technical communicator embedded with the team? In my organization, only a handful of other projects had used Agile or Lean methodologies, and as far as I know, they never included technical communicators like me.

Technical communication experts suggest  that even though technical writers on Agile teams focus on content, they can contribute to the team effort by providing usability input or helping with end-user testing. This type of participation creates a more visible role for writers, and allows us to offer more informed opinions—assuming we’ve been paying attention all along, as we should.  It is also important to insist on accuracy by asking questions, gaining access to test systems and prototypes, and learning as much as possible about how the product works.

One of the criticisms of Agile is that its fast pace does not always lend itself to improving the user experience (UX) through testing. My presence enabled us to do a modest amount of usability testing to improve the interface. With limited resources, we performed 20 tests during a single four-month project. Because of the iterative nature of Agile, we were able to conduct two or three tests after each of the latest builds, recording impressions and problems to take back to the development team.

In conclusion, I plan to bring my Agile Mindset to future projects, whether or not they are using an Agile framework. The availability of different project management models means that teams can always figure out a way to work to best meet the needs of end-users.

The Halo Effect

Statue with haloIf you’ve ever chosen a product based on its packaging, taken an instant liking to a person because he/she was tall & good-looking, or defended the merits of your hometown against all others, you’ve experienced the Halo Effect.

According to Wikipedia, the halo effect (or “halo error”) is “a cognitive bias in which one’s judgments of a person’s character can be influenced by one’s overall impression of him or her.” Some speculate that it grew from our most primitive ancestors: a tall, good-looking person was well-fed, had won (or avoided) battles, and seemed to be a good candidate for fathering one’s children.

Around here, we’ve been looking at our current and future needs and trying to figure out which products will help us achieve what we want. Some of us take an instant dislike to a product because of a  seemingly-trivial factor. It could be color, the salesperson, or almost anything that triggers a negative memory about a previous product. That’s called the “Devil Effect,” by the way: we demonize something because of deep-seated and inexplicable feelings. Imagine the consequences of the devil effect in a jury trial!

If you think about it, the halo effect is just as treacherous. We might overlook a product’s failings because we like the color, the salesperson…you get the idea. The halo effect makes it tough to be impartial.

While we can’t do much about our cognitive wiring, knowing about the halo effect can help us be more aware of the potential for bias. It can even make us more aware of how we present professional writing: even if my message is rock-solid, if I don’t present it cleanly, the reader might not receive it favorably.

That’s why we care about good page or screen design, sometimes even more than the content. There are cognitive reasons to pay attention to alignment, balance, contrast, consistency–what some of us refer to as the CRAP design principles.

Finally, the experts at Nielsen Norman Group applied the halo effect to web usability testing, and the results are interesting to say the least. Take a look at Alertbox: The Halo Effect and see for yourself.

 Photo Credit: bossa67 via Compfight cc

10 great resources for infographics and visuals

Minard infographic 1869Don’t you love a good infographic? According to Wikipedia, infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly. My favorite part is in that last prepositional phrase: to present complex information quickly and clearly. Yeah!

Infographics aren’t new; they have been around at least since the days of lithography. The famous infographic at top left is Charles Minard’s 1869 chart showing the number of men in Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign army, their movements, as well as the temperature they encountered on the return path.

An infographic can be created in almost any software that offers good support for visuals: Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator, PowerPoint, even Word. Infographics can be poster-sized or notebook-sized. It’s all up to the designer.

Infographics sure are great. But here’s the rub. Not all of us are visual designers–I count myself among the aesthetically challenged.What to do?

Fortunately, there are some great resources for designing infographics and images. Best of all, you might discover that someone else has created the perfect infographic, and with proper attribution, you can borrow it for your own purposes.

In no particular order of favoritism, here are 10 of my go-to sites:

10. Cool Infographics: Randy Krum’s blog highlights some of the best examples of data visualizations and infographics found in magazines, newspapers and on the Internet. This site can inspire you to greater heights in your own visuals.

9. Daily Infographic: According to the founders, “We spend countless hours searching the web for the most interesting, stimulating, mind-blowing infographics. We then curate our findings and choose one infographic to publish every week-day.” It’s true! Much like Cool Infographics, you can gather inspiration or find the perfect infographic for your presentation. Bonus: subscribe to receive a daily infographic in your inbox or feed reader.

8. Infogr.am: Not to be confused with Instagram, this site allows you to build infographics and charts from templates. Like most free sites, your options are pretty basic. If you upgrade to pro, you get a few extra perks. But for a quick infographic for school or a business presentation, this site will do the trick.

7. MorgueFile: When you need some free high-resolution stock photographs for your infographic, MorgueFile might be just the ticket. Don’t let the name scare you: in newspaper terminology, a morgue file is a place to keep post production materials for use of reference, an inactive job file. This is one morgue you’ll enjoy visiting!

6. IconsPedia: This site is great for when you need some stick figures, social media icons, or other themed icons for your infographic.

5. Piktochart: A drag-and-drop infographic editor, with several good-looking free templates. One caution: that nice functionality means that the site uses lots of Flash. The paid versions might be worth checking out if you plan to create infographics for your company or school on a regular basis.

4. Wylio: Wylio functions much like a Google image search (it’s not, but you can use your Google login to get up and running quickly). The free version of Wylio allows you to download 5 free images a month. Wylio is a “bootstrapping startup”, so you never know what you’ll find.

3. Mashable Infographics: Need to convince your company to launch a social media campaign? Mashable’s infographics cover every aspect of technology and social media. You’re sure to find something interesting here.

2. CompFight: CompFight searches Flickr Creative Commons images and produces some great hi-res images. You can filter by license, and best of all, they provide the HTML that will allow you to credit your source.

1. Visual.ly: Lots of cool infographics to pin, embed, or favorite. Visual.ly also bills itself as the marketplace for infographic designers and customers; you can find each other here.

Bonus: Easel.ly, another do-it-yourself infographic builder, is one I just discovered. It allows you to apply a theme (timeline, maps, etc.) and add objects. Seems like a really user-friendly site!

There you go! Get working on your awesome infographic. And add your favorites in the comments!



Infographics on my mind

Data journalist David McCandless believes that information design is about solving information problems. Visualizing information can help us solve these problems in a beautiful and clear way. In his TED presentation, McCandless visualized topics ranging from CO2 emissions to nutritional supplements (McCandless, 2010).

Because infographics share characteristics of business reports, they can also add a valuable visual component to the basic proposal or empirical report. Because they can be scanned quickly, they also can substitute for a traditional PowerPoint.

For example, the infographic below offers a summary of a simple Team Viewer human resources telephone survey that asked employees about their work-related technology use during vacation. Even though the graphics and colors are simple, this infographic communicates a message that surprises none of us: increasingly, we take our work with us. We can’t imagine being out of contact even for a week.

2013 Work/Life Balance of Americans

Of course, to really get at the heart of this data, it would help to have a break-down of age, gender, industry, and other demographics. We’d need to know more about the intentions behind this survey, and perhaps more about Team Viewer’s motivation and ethos (their product is used for remote desktop sessions). But if we just need a quick bit of data to help us understand this workforce issue on a basic level, the infographic might do the trick. The data are clear and usable.

Finally, it’s hard to talk about data visualization without marveling at the work of Hans Rosling, whose television documentary The Joy of Stats, used augmented reality animation to dynamically present data. In this video, he compares life expectancy and income across “200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers – in just four minutes” (Rosling, 2010). The movement and size of the data dances up and down as the timeline is punctuated by wars, plagues, and economic dips.

Like David McCandless, Rosling believes that having the data is not enough. It must be visually communicated. Rosling’s animation tells the story of the world in all of its triumphs and trials. It’s heartbreaking to watch so-called Third World countries languish near the bottom for the entire 200 years. But it’s also reassuring to see that over the past 60 years, many countries caught up with the prosperity and health of Western countries. Hopeful news, brought to you by the power of stats.

Flippin (2013). 2013 Work/life balance of Americans. Visual.ly. http://visual.ly/2013-worklife-balance-americans

McCandless, David (2010). The beauty of data visualization. TED Talks. http://www.ted.com/talks/david_mccandless_the_beauty_of_data_visualization.html

Rosling, Hans (2010). Hans Rosling’s 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes – Joy of Stats. BBC.  http://youtu.be/jbkSRLYSojo

Typography and Web 2.0

Google fonts

A weird thing happened in 2009 when IKEA decided to change from Futura to Verdana. People noticed! And they weren’t at all happy about it.

Even if doesn’t register in a concrete “Wow, look at that cool font” kind of way, the ethos of a font family is present in thousands of intrinsic little ways: the curve of a letter, the thickness of a line, the feeling that it invokes. College Humor took that idea to a new and silly level in its personified “Font” videos: check out Font Fight.

If you still think that a font is a font is a font, allow me to explain a little more about IKEA’s situation.

IKEA had a very good business reason to switch from Futura to Verdana: their website was already using it, and they wanted their print materials to match. Verdana is a fine font for the web: it’s available on almost any computer, and it looks clean and modern. It’s even a sans-serif font, just as Futura is. But the big difference was that Futura was not a web-friendly font (ironically, that isn’t the case now.)

So let’s take a look and see what the controversy was about. Below is an image of the two fonts, courtesy of http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/11/03/ikeas-epic-swedish-fontroversy/. Shocking differences, yes? 🙂

IKEA font

In a National Post excerpt of his book Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield explained more about the true source of the controversy:

Like the bookcase, Verdana was also in almost every home, and becoming something you barely noticed. But that, for dissenters, was the point: Verdana was everywhere, and now it was in one more place. It was becoming a non-font that we don’t even register [emphasis added]. Which is precisely why it was so effective, and exactly why it was chosen (Garfield, 2011).

Typography really does set a mood–it almost affects the way we speak the written words. Remember when LeBron James left Cleveland to seek his fame elsewhere? Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ majority owner, wrote a scathing open letter about James’ ‘shameful display of selfishness and betrayal’ (Gilbert, 2010). Very harsh words indeed.

The kicker? The letter was written in Comic Sans, one of the most reviled and ridiculed fonts on the planet.

It’s worth a short digression to read the letter in its original Comic Sans glory. Try reading it aloud without laughing. Was this font chosen in a show of disdain or in a tone-deaf move by an angry Clevelander? Or was Comic Sans one of five fonts that could be chosen in a basic web editor? You be the judge.

So this brings me to templates. Templates forsake individual control in favor of stability and consistency. As Kristin Arola explains in The Design of Web 2.0: the Rise of the Template, the Fall of Design, this separation of content and form means that the rhetorical choice behind a particular font, for example, is now taken away from us.  Much like the IKEA “fontroversy”, we are now presented with “non-fonts that we don’t even register”:

In the late 1990s, creating a web page through either hand coding or a WYSIWYG program necessarily included choices of how and if to incorporate graphics, colors, fonts, sounds, and hyperlinks. Today, our students still choose photographs, words, sounds, and hyperlinks (clearly all rhetorical choices), but they choose colors, fonts, and shapes less and less. Instead, the platform, or more specifically the design template, is chosen for them (Arola, p. 6).

Like most social media sites, my WordPress template works well for me because the creators took out some of the guesswork. There is no need for me to use HTML or CSS to structure the page; the template takes care of that for me. My site will look pretty much the same on Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. It’s a good thing, right? Maybe not.

Perhaps we all need to guard ourselves and our friends from the misuse of  Comic Sans (except on April Fools Day), but the very nature of Web 2.0 means that we must understand exactly what we lose: the ability to rhetorically create the space and ethos of a communication.

Come to think of it, that little bit of ethos might be worth fighting for.


Arola, Kristin L. (2010) The design of Web 2.0: the rise of the template, the fall of design. Computers and Composition 27 (2010) 4–14.

Garfield, Simpson (2011). IKEA’s epic Swedish fontroversy. National Posthttp://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/11/03/ikeas-epic-swedish-fontroversy/
Gilbert, Dan (2010). Open letter to fans from Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert | THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS. http://www.nba.com/cavaliers/news/gilbert_letter_100708.html

Why business majors should pay attention in history class

File this one under “the power of social media” or — even better– a lesson in the importance of liberal education. Someone at The Gap made the decision to offer a t-shirt with the slogan “Manifest Destiny” as part of the GQ collection. So what’s the problem?

While the slogan sounds innocuous enough to some, the problem arises when we review American history. As social media commentary noted, the genocide of native peoples was a shameful part of Manifest Destiny–surely not the message that The Gap intended to promote by creating this shirt.

The lesson here is that it’s not enough to master courses in marketing and advertising–we also need the cultural and historical background that allows us to make informed decisions about what we sell and how we sell it. A liberal education should provide this context, and hopefully help businesses avoid this kind of bad PR.

Gap Pulls ‘Manifest Destiny’ T-Shirt From Shelves After Social Media Outcry – ABC News.

PowerPoint Workplace Hell

I’ve noticed an alarming trend in business: the re-purposing of PowerPoint into a pseudo-Word document. I bet you’ve seen this too. Big corporations develop a slick-looking slide design template. Add in the customer’s logo and some boilerplate text, and <!–begin rant–> then just go NUTS! Use the PowerPoint medium for EVERYTHING, even things that would be better served in Excel or Word. The more you can cram onto the slide, the better!! <!–end rant–>

Don’t get me wrong–PowerPoint is not the problem. I like PowerPoint, and I use it a lot. PowerPoint works GREAT as a visual asset to an oral presentation. It even works great for design projects (see Pecha Kucha.) But it does not work as a way to display a complex, tabled/charted teeny tiny report to a room full of people. That’s not sharing: that’s just making things difficult.

My top five rules for PowerPoint:

  1. No more than three bullets per slide
  2. No more than seven words per bullet
  3. Lots of visuals (but only if they add something to your persuasive point)
  4. No more than 20 slides (20 X 20, the Pecha Kucha standard, is kind of nice & symmetrical.)
  5. No reading your slides*
    (*One exception: if words on your slides are important to your presentation, people with visual impairments need the context. But you don’t want a slideshow full of words anyway, right?!)