Usability study? (Take II)

Subject: Usability study? (Take II)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 01 Dec 2004 13:46:25 -0500

Lynne Wright wondered: <<So what do you do in a situation where the document you are reviewing is totally sub-standard in every way.... unclear/confusing/grammatically incorrect writing, diagrams that don't make sense, document has no logical organizational structure, and its full of technical mistakes and contradictions?>>

Perhaps you need to start by confirming your impressions with the manager of the problem writers? If the manager doesn't agree with your recommendations, you've got a much bigger problem: you can't work successfully as an editor if you don't have the authority to insist on certain changes. You can gain that authority informally if the writers learn to respect your advice, but if they don't (your current situation), you need to obtain formal authority. They may still not respect your advice, but they'll have to listen to you anyways.

If the manager agrees with you that there's a problem, then there's a powerful "dynamic" that you can rely upon: The manager should meet with the writers, explain the problem, and make it clear that their performance appraisals will suffer if the problem isn't solved and soon. At that point, you become the solution to a serious problem rather than _being_ the problem. This could be parodied as a "good cop/bad cop" mind game, but that's missing the point: it's the manager's role to insist that the problem is solved, and your role to help everyone solve it.

<<This is the problem I've had with two "veteran" writers here... they resent/resist/ignore my editorial comments because they think their work is wonderful. My boss has put the onus on me to fix a sour relationship by providing a list of positives with my negatives, but try as i might... i can't find ANYTHING to complement them on!>>

Simply saying something positive will never improve a truly soured relationship. It can prevent the relationship from growing worse, but once the damage has been done, it becomes extremely difficult to undo it. Sometimes you need to sit down and admit your own responsibility: "Look, we both know that we don't get along well. I accept the fact that some of this is my fault. Can we agree that this situation can't continue? Great. Let's forget about the past 2 years and decide where we want to go from here. Here's my goals from the writer-editor relationship. How can we accomplish those goals in a way that you can live with? What changes would you like to see in the way I interact with you?"

In short, "forget the past and move on". Wars continue for generations because nobody is willing to say "we've all screwed up, but that doesn't mean we need to keep screwing up". Sometimes it's really time to decide that the fact that the other party clearly wronged you is less important than the fact that you want the relationship to improve in the future. The payback from foregoing "revenge"? A better future.

At a minimum, it's usually possible to say that they've done a good job of identifying all the necessary content and starting to provide it. Or that they've done an admirable job at covering such portions of the total job that they have covered. But if you truly can't find anything positive to say, then change your slant to one of problem solving. "The boss has identified the following problems with your writing. I'm here to help you make those problems go away. How can I do this in the least painful way possible, from your perspective?" Again, you're emphasizing that your goal is to work together, not to simply point out how lousy they are as writers.

Also, think "triage": Which problems account for the majority of the bad writing? Which problems would provide the greatest payoff if you solve them? Work on those problems first. Alternatively, and sometimes more effectively in a situation like yours, ask yourself which problems are most serious _for the writers_ even if they're not serious in the larger scheme of things. It may seem odd to ignore more serious problems by working on these minor problems first, but it has a huge payoff: by solving _the writer's_ problem, you are seen as their ally. (Deeds are more important than words.) That opens the door to them listening to you when you identify other problems that need to be solved.

One personal example: Several writers I used to work with had terrible problems with organization. As a result, they had a terrible time getting started writing because they had no idea of how to proceed. To solve the problem, I suggested that we work together to create a detailed outline before they even began writing. By interviewing them, I was able to find out the key points that they wanted to say, place those in a logical order, and turn this into an effective outline. I then released them to begin writing following that outline. Worked like a charm.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)



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RE: Usability study?: From: Wright, Lynne

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