Piecemeal Editing in the Agile Environment

Last week, I had a detailed conversation with one of my regular readers. While chatting over a few miscellaneous items, we drifted into talking about technical writing in the Agile-based environment. That is when he asked the following question. My answer led the discussion to more questions. This post is about those questions and answers:

In a lot of companies, which either follow the Agile methodology or claim to have sprints that are designed inspired from the Agile methodology, the technical communicators don’t have enough time for reviews and edits. How do you address challenges that arise in such situations?

I answered: As a technical communicator, I do a lot of things that majorly fall under either writing or editing. In a lot of my previous professional stints where we worked in an Agile-based environment, we could not afford exhaustive edit iteration cycles. So, we ran short edit cycles; mostly, quick checklist-based scans. For the most part, as writers and editors, we implemented our own versions of piecemeal editing.

Hey, what is piecemeal editing?

When pressed for the documentation delivery deadlines, writers and editors observe increasingly shorter cycles of creating, finalizing, publishing, and republishing the technical content. In fact, mostly they only get to republish the technical content, and not create any.

I’d call piecemeal editing as considering working and finalizing on parts of technical content rather than focusing on the whole project. It is a conditional response – an ad hoc arrangement, or sort of, at least – which is subject to the change in the prevailing situations. When you are pressed for time, you tend to focus on what’s:

  • Urgent
  • Important
  • Not worth missing

So, piecemeal editing is focusing on producing “just good enough” parts of documents that can qualify as a document when put together. The documents may still not be complete, yet will certainly contain everything the customers need to get things done.

How does it benefit?

Piecemeal editing is breaking the documentation plan down by focusing on making the instructions in your documents workable. You don’t cover the details, but still get to list everything that matters. You also don’t get to fix bugs, but still create error-free documentation. So, you save a lot of time and effort by concentrating on what needs your attention. This makes the writing clearer and to the point.

Are there any challenges?

Yes; much like every other thing. In the Agile development environment, the technical reviews and technical edits aren’t exhaustive. The editors do not have a lot of time to repetitively (Or, at least more than once) run through the writing process/the written stuff. So, all they get to do is keep a check to not miss out on anything critical.

If, for example, your organization assumes implementing the Agile software development methodology, you will continue to run in similar shorter sprints. This means you won’t get time to look into your legacy documentation or be able to edit and improve the quality of the technical content.

Then there’s another big issue: Unification. Piecemeal editing is One Thing at a Time, and not the whole thing at a time. Because of this, the contextual information that derives cues from the unification of information fragments often gets missed.

However, the biggest threat lies not in the process, but in the way it is often perceived implemented. When rushed, most writers become blind toward their mistakes. They overlook the errors by mentally placing words and associating meanings that the actual documents often don’t reflect. In absence of sufficient time, writers release the unedited versions of their content.

How do you resolve such issues? Or, are there any workarounds?

Technical documentation is always a collaborative effort – even if you are the only technical communicator in your organization. Here’s what I’ve tried and have succeeded at achieving:

  • When I worked as the lone writer, I would share the documents with the development/testing stakeholders. They designed and tested the product. So, they knew its limits. Also, when there weren’t any developers or testers around, I would perform edits the next morning, read those documents aloud, or just review the write-ups on a projector. Believe me, the text looks entirely different when you read it on a projector.
  • When I worked in teams, we would perform peer reviews. We would cross check the write-ups to make sure that we didn’t miss out on anything critical. Although, the writers would still remain primarily responsible for the quality of their documents.

But, here is, I believe, the BIGGEST condition: You cannot have piecemeal writing, but you can have piecemeal editing. It is “one thing at a time” as far as only editing is concerned. Writing will still focus on quality. Writing will still require commitment: The commitment toward creating and communicating correct information; in parts and in the totality. What’s your take at that?

Why Isn’t a “Help” Helpful Enough?

It is strange – and true – that technical communicators, like you and I, are into a profession that most others care a damn about… unless, of course, they are in dire need. No wonder most of the users yearn for the documentation only for troubleshooting their stuff. “I want to somehow get through this”, they intend. So, for the most part of their exploring the product, the users are busy finding answers to their how-does-this-damned-thing-works questions. Why is it still that we are unable to design formats that can make the users’ troubleshooting pursuits easy and manageable?

If I think about this whole thing as a user, it seems a daunting task for me to search for something I am not sure about; All I want is to solve my problem. But, how do I go about the help? How do I know where exactly to look for? How do I make sure to turn all the stones before I take a step further? How do I know how much information is sufficient? How, just how?

The users, I find as a technical communicator, use the following justifications for sending verbal curses to our so called “Help”:

  • Can I search for pictures? Does your help contain data/metadata to support searching for pictures?
  • I am lost. Where am I? What was I searching for? Is this what I was looking for?
  • I am tired. I’ll rather sleep.
  • I believe the reviews on the Internet provide more information than you can possibly cover in your next ten iterations. Sorry, I prefer the reviews.
  • I got the Internet; I will Google things up! I don’t need you.
  • I have other, better things to do.
  • I want a PDF. Do you take orders?
  • Is that a Help? Almighty, help me!
  • That many pages… are you kidding me!
  • The help only answers questions on information that is otherwise obvious and easy to locate and resolve. Why would I need answers to such simple things?
  • This help is outdated. Is there a new version?
  • This isn’t what I was looking for.
  • What I read partly solved my problem. What about the issues that remain? And, where can I find information about how to resolve those issues? Hello, are you listening?
  • Why aren’t there any graphics? Your writing sucks!
  • You call those graphics? I am better off with the written text.
  • You can’t expect me to read 20-odd pages just to look for a one-line information tidbit.
  • Your help does not contain the keywords that I am searching for. Why?

Sadly, this isn’t any one-person opinion. Most of them have equally creative, purposeful, and heartfelt verbal abuses for the help texts we share with them. Fact of the matter? The help isn’t helpful enough. Yes, it is true that a product is like a shrine with a thousand doors, and that the devotees can enter from anywhere. Yes, it is true that each devotee has a story to tell and a prayer that they want heard. And, Yes, it is true that it is close to impossible to predict the needs of each devotee. But, hey, isn’t that what we do every day as technical communicators? Just some food for thought.

Don’t Fix What Isn’t Broken!

We all learn. And, here’s the post on one such thing I learned, recently. For one of the projects I worked before I switched jobs last week, I was the only tech-comm contributor who held the dual role of preparing technical content as well as marketing collateral for the flagship product.

Until that time, I thought that technical writing made me be proud of one habit of pursuit: Perfection. I have grown, learned with time. And, I have gradually improved on my work and writing style. Consequently, I have developed this habit of looking for perfection in what I deliver, both in my work and in the blogs I publish.

The tasks required me to prepare the “usual” user and administration guides and then some customer-facing, enticing marketing collateral to increase the purchases of our products. I took up that dual role on the special requests from the content writing team lead, because I – being the sole writer for the thread – could explain the products’ core strengths.

Though there were a lot of things that I improved upon in the project, there were some that I had to leave untouched as I wrapped up. Friday was my last day at the office. I also had the other engagements at my home to look into before I joined my new company on Monday. So, I was hardly left with any energy and time to manage the tasks pending with me.

I knew – and still know – that had I tried harder, I could have managed a couple of additional edit iterations on the marketing collateral I prepared. I wanted to share only the perfect content with my then customers and colleagues, but I was short of time. Just one more write-up. One more edit iteration cycle; another better version. One more day. One more feature. One more document. One more inch toward perfection… just… one… more…

<Pause>

Please realize that I don’t WANT to commit mistakes – no one wants to. Also, I don’t think that I am perfect. But, knowing that fact does not – and cannot – stop me from TRYING to be perfect. And, here comes the wisdom: I AM WRONG.

Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.

The truth is: One of the biggest challenges in technical communication is feedback. And, it is good to assume that even if the users provide feedback, it is only for what (they know or they think they know) is missing from your documentation. Assumptions are good. So, if they never get back to you, you can ASSUME that you are good to go. Like it or hate it, it has always been the way to go for technical communicators.

But, if that is true, then what is perfection?

Perfection is the state of being “all correct” in a situation, given a premise, under specific parameters, and at a certain point in time. Given that to be true – I can’t find a definition better than that – I think perfection is BAD. It stops you from progression. Progression toward a version better than you created. Perfection is status quo. And, I want to continue to flow. I want to continue to evolve.

What is Aperture?

This post is a part of the series of posts on Photography Basics.


I’ve been reading about it ever since I decided on nurturing my interest in photography. And, the more I read about it, the more I feel the need to read about it. Of course, experimentation follows reading – in fact, experimentation trumps reading – but it is always good to know things before you try them. And, hence this post.

In photography, what is aperture?

In simple terms, it is the hole/space through which the light (and hence the image) travels through the lens onto the imaging sensor and, if available, through the viewfinder. The aperture is one of the most important points to consider while capturing images. The other important points are the focal length, the ISO, and the shutter speed.

Basically, it is the right setting of the aperture that helps you bring either everything into the focus or only the subject by blurring the background. But, how does that happen? That happens because the aperture controls the amount of light entering into the lens and onto the imaging sensor. And – unfortunately – here’s the catch! A large aperture doesn’t mean more light onto the sensor. In fact, it is the opposite; A small aperture means that the lens is open wide enough to pass abundant light onto the imaging sensor.

How does the aperture affect the depth of field?

You can control the light entering the lens using a diaphragm. A diaphragm is a device (if that is the right word) that functions much like the pupil in a human eye – Diaphragm controls the diameter of the lens opening. The structures within this diaphragm are called stops. Each stop represents are definitive number that defines the opening of the lens.

The lens aperture is typically written as an f-number, which is also called f-stop. This f-stop represents the ratio of focal length to the opened aperture diameter. The following picture, which is taken from the Wikipedia page for aperture – which I think best describes the concept – represents the range of aperture. Remember that lower the aperture number, larger the opening of the lens.

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Lens exposure per f-stop: Wikipedia (Image Credits) best describes the concept of aperture. Look how the aperture settings change for each f-stop

 

Wikipedia mentions, “Reducing the aperture size increases the depth of field”. This means that you will choose a smaller aperture number when you want to cover everything between the subject and the photograph’s actual plane of focus, with the subject and the plane of focus included. For a shallower depth of field, and to isolate the subject from its plane of focus (Yes, for that creamy bokeh!), you will use a large aperture – typically something like f/4.

Let me make it simpler for you:

  • If you want the entire picture in focus, use the following formula:

Entire Area in Focus = Greater DOF = Smaller Opening in Lens = Higher f-stop

(f/8 through f/16)

  • If you want only the subject in focus, use the following formula:

Only Subject in Focus = Shallower DOF = Larger Opening in Lens = Smaller f-stop

(f/5.6 through f/1.4)

You can have f-stops that are smaller than f/1.4 and larger than f/16, but I am only using those figuratively here – to give you the idea.

How does the understanding of aperture affect my photography?

Switch from the automatic mode on your camera. If you are using a DSLR, switch to the “A” mode from the “PASM” modes available. For those who are new to this setting, the DSLR allows modes other than the two at the extreme ends of the spectrum – the Automatic and the Manual modes. The PASM here stands for Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode. For those of you who are using a point and shoot (P&S) camera, use the manual mode and set the aperture. You will have to dig into the menus, because every P&S has its own style of menus.

Select Aperture Priority as the mode for shooting. Aperture Priority is like a semi-automatic mode of shooting – but with a difference. Based on the aperture you set, the camera calculates and chooses the best possible ISO and shutter speed. You can use this to practice and master your understanding on aperture. Once you are habitual with the change in the shutter speed and ISO based on the aperture you choose, you can experiment with the Manual Mode, while changing any of these elements – Experimentation, as I said, trumps theoretical knowledge.

Do “fast” and “slow” lenses have anything to do with aperture?

A little background before we come to that question… Lenses come with either fixed aperture or variable aperture. For example, the 70-200mm f/2.8 denotes that across the focal length of the lens (70mm and 200mm, respectively), the lens will maintain fixed aperture of f/2.8; and the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 means that at 70mm, the lens will get you f/4.0 aperture and at 300mm, the lens will get you f/5.6 aperture.

Let us go back to the basics now. The lens aperture, as we discussed, denotes the lens opening diameter (managed by the diaphragm). A larger opening – which means a smaller f-number – will help you capture a lot of light, and a lot of details in your image. So, for a smaller f-number, opt for faster shutter speed. If this is too technical, read how simply Wikipedia defines this for you, “The aperture is proportional to the square root of the light admitted, and thus inversely proportional to the square root of required exposure time, such that an aperture of f/2 allows for exposure times one quarter that of f/4.”

Note that for both the fixed and the variable aperture lenses, we consider the maximum aperture opening as the most useful. This value of the maximum aperture opening is also called the lens speed. Lenses with aperture openings equal to or wider than f2.8 are called faster lenses. These lenses will give you faster focusing (usually, in combination with sharper picture, better detail retention, and faster shutter speeds). And, because you can focus faster with these lenses, they are called “fast” lenses. The lenses, though, are typically expensive.

I hope I have understood the concept of aperture, and that I was able to reproduce my knowledge correctly. I’d like you to let me know if there are any improvements.

Happy clicking!

What are the Advantages of DSLRs over Point and Shoot Cameras?

This post is a part of the series of posts on Photography Basics.


From all the question I’ve had on the subject, this one was perhaps the most common: What’s the advantage of a DSLR (or a mirrorless) over a Point and Shoot digital camera? This post lists down the points I gleaned.

Though it is true that the new Single Lens Translucent Mirror (SLT) or Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (MILCs) are technologies that are different from the DSLRs, for the purpose of the post we will consider those as part of the DSLRs. I could have used the Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs) as the differentiating category, but the sensor size is smaller than the commonly used APS-C in the popular SLTs and MILCs by Sony. And, the sensor does make a difference to the picture quality.

If you are a novice, and are yet to explore the limits of your Point and Shoot (P&S) digital camera, I recommend that you to look into the controls other than the Automatic mode to learn photography. This will help you learn about the things that your P&S is capable of doing, other than clicking pictures and shooting videos.

So, here are some of the advantages of DSLRs over P&S cameras:

Speed: I use a P&S. And, I’ve noticed that those of my friends who use a DSLR are able to start their cameras and shoot pictures, while my P&S just starts and focuses correctly. I’ve noticed a considerable difference in the focus speeds, too. In fact, the time lag between the shots is considerably lesser in a DSLR. The time lag is on account of the processor writing the captured data into the memory card.

Focus and Auto-focus: Though today’s P&S are equipped to focus faster, there’s still no way you can manually set a focus point. Of course, there are settings like spot metering that can help you restrict the area of focus, but setting focus manually can help you get shots even when something stands in front of your subject. Also, you cannot lock the focus point once the focus is set correctly. With DSLRs, you can do that, too.

Lens: I know how frustrating it is to not be able to change the lens. And, the basic-level P&S do not provide enough zoom, too. Besides, even if they do, I would compromise because of the variable aperture (and hence on the low-light photographing capabilities, if any). And, not having the capability to change lenses means that you can neither upgrade the lenses that you use on those cameras nor can you experiment with your photography.

Large Depth of Field (DOF): The P&S can never provide a shallower DOF, unless you are using the advanced P&S, which still are no match for full-frame DSLRs as far as the beautiful, creamy bokeh is concerned. The lenses on a P&S are designed to provide you zooming capabilities. But, because those lenses are fixed and come with the in-built variable aperture, you cannot manually set the parameters of the camera to capture images.

Lack of Controls: A P&S has lesser controls on the body. Of course, the controls are still there, but are limited and are rolled into the menus. So, for each shot, you have to dig into the menus to change the settings. This is time consuming.

Image Quality: This is purely subjective to opinions. Some say that the quality is more than enough. In fact, I am one of those who stand by this argument. But, the truth is, the sensor size is perhaps too small to capture the details. And, all the copper wiring and circuitry in the sensor is placed just too close to receive enough light to capture the details. This affects the image quality, mostly negatively, and pixels and white dots appear in the images that are capture in insufficiently lit conditions. And, that is why I will not go for the advanced point and shoot or the interchangeable compact system camera (CSC), because irrespective of how good my lenses are, I will not be able to get good quality low-light images. After all, there are, and will always be, some images that I would wish to capture in low light.

Should I go for a DSLR?

Big question. And, to answer that, we must break the requirements in parts. What are the requirements: Events and Weddings or Casual and street photography? If you are serious with photography, if you have tested the limits of your current P&S (and feel that it is time for you to upgrade), if you think that you can invest more money into the ecosystem (for example, batteries and chargers, external flashes, tripods, memory cards, and remote release cables), and if you have interest (or want to make money capturing) events or weddings, go for a DSLR.

What all should I buy?

It depends on your requirements. Consult a pro. I am an enthusiast photographer – this in one way increases my challenge with what equipment I buy, because I love experimenting with my equipment. I will probably never take up this hobby as a profession. Consequently, I do need a high-end camera. I might go for a full frame camera. But, I will certainly buy one macro lens, one fixed aperture zoom lens, one prime lens, a tripod, a shutter release cable/remote, a couple of filters (UV and ND), and – may be – a tele-converter. But, this is not a definitive list; I might skip one or two things. I think the question zeros in on what your requirements are. A pro knows what industry or vertical they specialize into, so they will go for equipment and lenses that deliver quality in only that vertical. But, for people like me, the sky is the limit. Or, maybe not.

Right, so back to where we started. I hope I have been able to help you find an answer to your question; I hope you now know what you can and might buy. I would love to hear from you!

What are “full frame” cameras?

This post is a part of the series of posts on Photography Basics.


I like to share what I learn. And, photography is one topic that I talk about quite often, these days. Here’s the answer to one question I researched for, recently…

As this skilful artistry of photography evolved after the invention of the camera, for some unknown reason, the 35mm became the standard size for all film cameras. All the film cameras, like the Yashica I used when I was a kid, contained film rolls that sized a picture at 35mm (width) and 24mm (height). And, this trend continued as we moved over from the film cameras to the digital cameras.

Based on the timeline, it is somewhere back in 2002 that the first digital “full frame” cameras were introduced. And, because the Canon’s marketing guys needed everyone to get attracted with a larger sensor on a camera, they chose to refer to it as “full frame.” Although, “full frame” is not technically correct, because there may be a time when a new sensor develops with larger dimensions.

There are different sensor sizes available on different cameras. Some of the commonly used ones, in the descending order of the sizes, are (in WIDTH by HEIGHT):

  • 35mm “full frame” format, which contains a 36mm X 24mm sensor
  • The “cropped sensor” APS-C size, which contains approximately a 23.5mm X 15.7mm sensor
  • Micro Four Thirds, which contain approximately 17mm X 13 mm sensor

What difference does the sensor size make?

The simple answer is: The bigger the sensor, the more light it captures. And, the more light a sensor captures, the better your photograph looks; even in low light. But, just having a bigger sensor does not make either your photographs better or you a better photographer. There will still be the other elements and the skilful artistry that unique to only you.

A full frame sensor gives you about 84° angle of view on a 24mm lens. But, an APS-C sensor will give you about 1.5 times of the same image, and consequently about 63° angle of view on the same lens. This means an additional zoom-in into the subject. Such image sensor sizes are popular amongst the wildlife photographers, who would like to zoom closer to their subjects.

On a micro four third sensor, if the lens is compatible, a 24mm lens will deliver almost twice the zoom. Consequently, the 84° angle of view will look like 42° angle of view, and will produce an output of about 48mm.

Does the sensor size impact Depth of Field?

Yes, it does. The simple rule is: Depth of Field (DOF) is in an inverse proportion to the image sensor size. So, you get a shallower DOF for a larger image sensor.

What are the advantages of a “full frame” sensor?

From what I’ve read, there aren’t any advantages other than the following:

  • In comparison to the other, smaller sensor sizes, such as the APS-C, a bigger sensor captures more light. And, more light means more details. However, the image quality is a combination of the sensor size, the pixel count, and the sensor circuitry and image read-out mechanisms.
  • We read that DOF is inversely proportional to the sensor size. This means that for a 24mm lens, the DOF will be different for APS-C and full frame cameras.

Photography Basics

Lessons for the Novice Photographer in Me!

Photography has long been a subject of interest to me, and I will – someday – like to test the limits of my knowledge on the subject and the equipment (that is a camera). I would like to call myself a hobbyist photography reader, and not even a hobbyist photographer, because I hardly get to experiment with my currently owned point-and-shoot camera.

Based on what I have learned on the subject, I am bringing this new series of posts on Photography. I hope you will like reading posts from this thread. In this thread, I will talk on different topics – from what I learned or have read on the Internet.

Happy reading.