Technical writing is the process of taking complex, often jargon-laden information, and presenting it in a form that is easy to understand and follow by someone without an extensive background in the topic being covered, but is still accurate.
Case Study #1: XYZ Homework
More than a decade ago XYZ Textbooks was started by longtime lecturer and textbook author Charles "Pat" McKeague seeking to reduce the often outrageous college textbook prices that have become a burden to many young adults. McKeague used several of his older textbooks that had their copyrights revert to him from one of the big publishing houses as a starting point and the business has continued to grow, publishing other authors and providing a low-cost, high-quality alternative to the big corporate players.
Early on, XYZ Textbooks ran into some resistance to its effort to put their affordable textbooks in students' hands because many college professors insisted on online homework solutions that were bundled as part of the textbook purchase by the large publishing houses. XYZ Textbooks fixed that by adopting Professor David Lippmann's open-source IMathAS as the default homework system, and then coding thousands of problems covering everything from basic math to business calculus. XYZ Homework was born.
Sadly, like many open-source software platforms, the documentation provided with the system can be overly technical, dense, and make it difficult for instructors to find an answer to questions that begin: "How do I do… ."
The initial effort at XYZ Homework of spinning up an online homework site was focused on coding numerous problems using the IMathAS and supporting sales efforts. The writing of the original user guides were outsourced to an independent contractor. This turned out to be a mistake. The guides that were provided to XYZ Homework and then distributed to instructors were poorly written and contained a problem that graphic design professionals have long known as a no-no.
In order to direct a user's attention to what they should click or where they should enter information using a screenshot and a simple arrow, or perhaps a box drawn around the input field, the contractor instead blurred everything but what the user needed to select. Without the visual reference of what was surrounding the desired field or selector, it made it frustratingly difficult for instructors identify just where on their computer screens the option they were looking for was located.
We quickly realized our error and set about rewriting the guides and inserting updated art assets with more conventional and easier to navigate images. You can find some of the guides below.
Click on the links below to see the rewritten How-To Guides
In 1995, The Daily World embarked on a redesign of the newspaper using an outside consultant. Part of the in-house tasking on the project was to take and all of the decisions that had been made through various rounds of prototyping, mockups, and feedback, and turn them into an in-house design guide that would serve as the basis for the newspaper going forward.
The design guide would be a reference for current employees and an integral part of the on-boarding process for new employees who would be tasked with designing pages. The guide outlines everything from standard fonts, column widths, and header styles to how mug shots should be cropped.
You can find a PDF version of the guide at the link below.