Friday, May 2, 2014

Master of Science in Scientific and Technical Communication

Today, I graduate with my Master of Science in Scientific and Technical Communication. I've been working on this degree program for the last two and a half years from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. It's been a great program! And a lot of work, to be sure - especially on those days when I had to make the three hour drive from Morris to the Twin Cities. But I really learned a lot, and I enjoyed my classes. At the same time, it's nice to be done.

As I reflect on my Master's program, I wanted to comment on a few classes that really stuck with me. If you are interested in the MS-STC program, and want to know what some of the classes are like, this is for you.

Information Design: Theory and Practice (5112)
This was my first course in the MS-STC program. In this class, we studied how to organize information to make it easier to understand. Very dense information can be made simpler through good information design. Sometimes that's a matter of good formatting: headings, indents, font, etc. At other times, information design means breaking apart an information product so you can display it in another form.

I continue to use information design in everything that I do. It influences how I write, how I design web pages, and how I display data. For example, when I wrote about a usability test on GNOME, I needed to display the test results in a way that helped the audience understand what worked well and what needed improvement. So I used information design to create a heat map of the results.
Editing and Style for Technical Communicators (5561)
Another one that I apply every day. You could say this course is about the mechanics of writing style: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. There's also a little bit of information design in there, too. After this course, my writing style improved dramatically.
Usability
I replaced the standard course with an independent study of "Usability in Open Source Software," under the guidance of my adviser. For those of you thinking that an independent study is going to be easy: it's not. When you do a regular course, the instructor has already laid out the coursework. You work according to a curriculum with a set schedule. You know in advance what you will be working on, what chapters or articles you'll need to read.

But in an independent study, you don't have that kind of direction. My adviser guided me throughout the course, we had a set of objectives to meet, but there was no curriculum. I had to explore materials about usability, and usability in open source software. I was reading everything, which meant that sometimes I would read something that I couldn't apply towards my independent study project. Everything I read was interesting, but maybe half of it was actually applicable to my project. So think of a directed study as doing about twice the actual work.

This independent study awoke in me an unknown passion for usability. I have a long history of working in and with Free software and Open source software. (A few examples: The FreeDOS Project, GNU Robots, Cats/Kitten, SimpleSenet, … GNU Emacs, Freemacs, Atomic Tanks, GTKpod, … as both author and contributor.) But as I juggled life and work, and stepped into a "project coordinator" role in Free/Open source software projects, I found less time to write code. Working on this independent study helped me find another way to contribute to Free/Open source software: helping projects improve usability. Very few projects (almost none, in fact) pay much attention to usability.

I later expanded on this independent study when I worked on my capstone project: "Usability Themes in Open Source Software."
Visual Rhetoric
Another course that replaced the standard course. This was a directed study under one of our Communication, Media, and Rhetoric faculty at the University of Minnesota Morris. Throughout this directed study, I learned not just about rhetoric but about how rhetoric is applied to visual media. Specifically, we examined the visual rhetoric of comics, and our work will form the basis of a new visual rhetoric course at the Morris campus.

Again, if you think that a directed study is going to be easier than a standard course: it's not. Just as in my independent study, it seems I read everything about rhetoric and visual rhetoric. Rhetoric as argument. Rhetoric in advertising. Ethos, pathos, and logos. (And I would argue based on some advertising: eros. Think Axe Body Spray ads.)

After building an understanding of rhetoric, we used that to examine the visual rhetoric of comics. Yes, comics. Visual media spans a range from the artistic to the rhetoric. Many comics tend towards the "artistic" end of the spectrum. But some comics are at the "rhetoric" end. And those are the ones we explored. For my final paper, I performed a rhetorical analysis of a PHD comic: The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom. For my final project, I created a 16-panel rhetorical comic for our local animal humane society about why you should adopt special-needs cats (they still use this comic today).
I can't list all of the courses from MS-STC that touched me in a special way. I think I could find something remarkable and memorable about every one of my classes, both inside and outside the program (as an MS-STC student, you need to take a certain number of credits outside STC). But these are the ones that stand out the most.

So, what's next for me?

As I mentioned, my Master's capstone project was "Usability Themes in Open Source Software." I feel very passionate about this topic, and I plan to continue working with usability in open source software. As a start, I will keep writing in my Open Source Software & Usability blog, so keep an eye on that. (But don't worry; Coaching Buttons isn't going away.)

I'm going to submit a version of my capstone project to the Journal of Usability Studies. I think I can get three good JUS articles out of it: the usability study & results, using a heat map to display usability results, and a lit review of usability in open source software.

Both Linux Journal and Linux Voice said they would like to run a version of my article, so I'll write separate versions for them. And the Sourceforge.net blog has asked me to write an ongoing series of articles about usability in open source software. And I will be submitting proposals at open source software conferences like GUADEC, O'Reilly OSCON, Penguicon, and FOSDEM. I hope to see you there!

And the GNOME folks have asked if I can help them with future usability tests of new versions of GNOME. That would be a great continuation of this work!

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