Defining Software User Expertise

Pawan Nayar, Cadence Design Systems, Inc.

A question often asked on technical communicators’ forums and in objective-setting discussions for both new hires and experienced technical communicators is, “How do I define an expert user?” In this article, I attempt to identify the various stages through which a user of any software tool commonly evolves.

The First Post–Becoming Comfortable with Routine Tasks

The first step in learning new software is to understand the basic tasks it helps you perform. This might involve learning associated concepts. For example, if you are learning FrameMaker, knowledge of basic terms, such as book, chapter, index, paragraph tag, and character tag, will help you search Online Help effectively. Similarly, if you are learning Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software, you can build your knowledge base by understanding basic EDA terms, such as schematic, board, netlist, primitive, net, or pin. Knowledge of concepts will help you use the software effectively to solve real-life problems.

The Second Post–Mastering Common Operations in the Context of Your Organization’s Requirements

Your expertise in the software you are using will increase as you build processes around the software. For example, if you have become comfortable with FrameMaker, you can create new books and process them, assign indexes and cross-references, or add tables, figures, and equations. You can work with multi-column templates or even build guidelines for using templates and paragraph and character tags.

At this stage, you are ready to start evaluating an optimum way to perform a task when multiple ways exist. As you perform the tasks with your organization’s requirements in mind, you become more comfortable in handling subject matter experts (SMEs) and mentoring new hires or folks assigned new tasks.

The Third Post–Integrating with Associated Tools

As you develop more expertise and move toward becoming a power user of a software tool, you might need to use the tool in conjunction with related tools in the same suite or in similar suites, using products from multiple firms. You start analyzing your business flow better and create solutions that you require, not simply settling for what is available in the market. For example, an expert FrameMaker user can develop proficiency in WebWorks Publisher to create scripts that generate complex conditional output in multiple formats. This skill may help you create organization-level systems that add quality metatags for search, use consistent templates for printing and searching, and integrate context-sensitive help with respective products. Knowledge of Perl in conjunction with FrameMaker can help in generating a variety of scripts that can help in automation, reporting, and follow-up tasks. For example, you can quickly verify the presence or absence of words, promote hundreds of books across multiple hierarchies, builds, or releases, and report issues such as link errors or standards violations.

The Fourth Post – Customizing, Innovating, and Creating Organization-Wide Solutions

Typically, in large organizations, power users become more successful if they can standardize content and delivery. In the context of technical communication, standardization can start with creating the right templates that may define the structure at the book, chapter, and page levels, defining the use of white space, fonts, paragraph and character tags, and creating standard sharable icons. When these standards are used with content-level guidelines, macros or scripts can be built to ensure consistency. You can verify standards by building check points (by using Perl scripts, Word Macros, or Visual Basic programs) in your document creation process. You may also build web-based systems to track the state of a project.

The Fifth Post – Merging Concepts and Technologies to Create Better End-to-End Solutions

You might not be considered to know a software application/tool thoroughly enough unless you know the comparative feature set and product roadmaps of all relevant software that you may need to use. After you have reached a certain level, your knowledge of FrameMaker, for instance, may become inadequate if you do not understand the nuances of XML/DITA or single sourcing. Any organization-wide decision to adopt new software needs to be backed by the identification of the right content-management system and the analysis of end-to-end costs (publication on paper, in CD, or by web posting). Most of these decisions require an ear for news and an eye for details. They also require a thorough comparison of available software applications that have similar capabilities. An expert consultant might not always be able to tell whether you need FrameMaker 7.2, Epic Editor, or XMetal to cater to your next generation documentation system. Therefore, to make adoption decisions, organizations need in-house experts to understand the complete flow of their processes and recommend solutions that work best.

The Sixth Post – Troubleshooting Complex Issues and Sharing Knowledge within the Global User Community

True experts are acknowledged not only within their organizations but also in relevant communities throughout the industry. They are the chief strategists who design processes and best practices that explain how to use multiple software tools well for different purposes. True experts are the evangelists of the software they use. They organize training for new hires in their groups, for intermediate users who need greater challenges, for cross-functional roles that need ways to identify the documentation process, for the community that needs to share best practices, and for the software maker who needs input to improve the software. The foremost experts are invited to major conferences to present their insights for the benefit of the community.

The Seventh Post – Promoting Software Development and Adoption

No software maker can work without the support of expert users. Expert users act as extended product validation and product engineering folks for the software they use. They can rip apart beta software and provide constructive criticism that helps shape a product’s future development. Their feedback can help create better input-output relationships to enhance productivity, performance, and usability. True experts are folks who ignite passion in the half-inclined and catapult them to become future leaders. True experts solve others’ problems by treating such problems as their own. And they often do all this by prototyping solutions far ahead of an articulated need.

This level of expertise requires synthesizing technical and market knowledge to create what may be an organic addition of related but seemingly irrelevant pieces or an inorganic evolution of breakthrough changes.

 

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