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Why is Sally SAD?

The Standard American Diet (SAD) needs an overhaul. We’re all eating what they told us in the ’70s is a healthy diet (no fats, “healthy” grains, no sugar), yet the majority of Americans are considered obese. This is Sally’s story.

The alarm shocked Sally awake at 6:30, as it does every day. She’d just, finally, fallen back to sleep after waking up at 2 am and surfing on the Internet until around 5. She rolled over onto her side, then slowly swung her legs over the side of the bed, placing her feet onto the floor, as the back doctor told her to do. She can’t just leap out of bed any more like she used to. “Boy, I really am feeling my age these days.” Each of her stiff, crackly joints reminds her to take it slowly. “Patience, Spot!” she tells her dog, who is whining to go outside to potty. “You wouldn’t have to hold it if you’d just use the darn dog door I put in for you!” Sally shuffles to the kitchen, puts her coffee cup under the Keurig, puts in a coffee pod, and pushes the brew button. While the coffee is “brewing,” she opens the back door to the let the dog out. An hour of Internet surfing and 2 cups of coffee later, Sally is still not quite awake, but she needs to get ready for work. “No time to cook breakfast. I’ll just have some Honey Nut Cheerios and skim milk. Maybe some toast with margarine, too.” Sally pours herself about 2 cups of cereal and a cup of skim milk, makes a couple pieces of toast, and eats it so fast, she’s burping and hiccupping her way to the shower.

After showering and dressing for work, Sally heads out the door. On the way to work, she stops at the Starbucks drive-through window to get a Skinny Iced Caramel Macchiato and a coffee cake. “Ah, that should start waking me up!” Sally finishes off the coffee cake on the way to work, arrives at work just barely on time, grabs a Diet Coke, pulls up a chair, and starts to work.

Sally doesn’t move from her chair until 10, her usual break time. She’s happy to work at a place that provides free drinks and snacks for employees. Today is Donut Day, so she grabs a lemon-filled Krispy Kreme and a Diet Coke. After a quick “pee” stop, she heads back to her desk and puts her feet on a box. They tend to swell up at the ankles lately.

Finally, it’s lunch time and Sally is starving! She grabs her purse and heads for the McDonald’s drive through. She picks up a Big Mac, super-sized large fries, a super-sized Diet Coke, and an apple pie. Sally takes her lunch back to her desk, where she can read the news of the day while she eats her lunch.

At 3 pm, Sally’s been staring at numbers all day and needs a break. She nibbles on her apple pie and checks email. The apple pie made her thirsty, so she walks to the break room to get another Diet Coke. She makes a quick stop in the bathroom to pee and wonders when was the last time that she had a bowel movement. “Must be at least 3 days.” She wonders if she might need to take something for that.

Back at her desk, she finishes off the apple pie and the Diet Coke, and before she realizes it, it’s time to go home. She stops at Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way home to pick up dinner: 20-pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, and biscuits. Her family of three easily finishes off all 20 pieces of legs and thighs and all of the sides.

After dinner, it’s “family time.” Sally, her husband, and their son sit down to watch a movie and have a bowl of “ice cream” and Diet Coke, and then they all go to bed. As she lies down in the bed, she fights gas and heart burn, and she just can’t seem to relax, as always. She thinks she might need to see the doctor about that. “I know there is a prescription pill to fix that. I should talk to him about my weight, too. I just can’t seem to lose weight anymore.”

Does this story sound all too familiar? Sally is eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) full of simple carbs and processed foods, and rarely gets any exercise. She thinks she’s doing herself favors by drinking Diet Coke and “Skinny” lattes. She sits at a desk all day long, then sits in front of the TV or computer at home until she can no longer keep her eyes open–yet she has trouble falling asleep. (Could it be all of that Diet Coke?) She has stiff, aching joints, she’s chronically constipated (alternating with diarrhea), suffers from insomnia, excessive flatulence, and heartburn, and gaining more and more weight every day. First, let’s examine Sally’s diet:

Food Calories Carbs, g. Sugar, g.
Cheerios, 2 cups

220

44

9

Milk, skim, 1 cup

86

12

12

Toast, 2 pieces, whole wheat

140

24

3

I can’t believe it’s not butter, 2 Tbsp

140

0

0

Starbucks Crumb cake

670

89

44

Starbucks Skinny Iced Caramel Macchiato

140

21

18

Krispy Kreme glazed lemon-filled

290

35

18

Big Mac

550

46

9

Super large fries

610

77

0

Apple pie

260

34

13

4 pieces of chicken

1000

52

0

2 servings of mashed potatoes and gravy

240

40

0

2 servings of corn with margarine

140

32

0

2 biscuits

360

46

4

5 Diet Cokes

15

0

0

2 Keurig flavored coffees

120

22

14

Breyers vanilla ice cream, 2 servings

260

28

28

Total

5241

602

172

You don’t need a degree in nutrition to see how wrong Sally’s diet is. But here are a few numbers to demonstrate:

  • One teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 4 grams of sugar. Even though she was drinking Diet Coke all day, Sally still ate 172 grams of sugar—that’s more than 43 teaspoons of sugar! The American Health Association recommends women get less than 30 grams of sugar per day. Sally had almost 2.5 times the recommended maximum!
  • A 30-year-old, sedentary, not overweight woman should eat around 2,000 calories per day. (Older women and obese women need fewer calories; active women need slightly more.) Sally ate 5,241 calories!
  • In a 2,000-calorie diet, you should eat about 250 grams of carbohydrates (per dietaryguidelines.gov.) Primal/Paleo dieters believe that’s still too many, especially if you want to lose weight, but Sally ate 602 grams of processed carbs! She had more carbs before lunch than she should eat all day.
  • Did you see any fresh fruits or vegetables in her diet? Nope. True, she had mashed potatoes and corn, but corn is actually a grain. A big salad of greens and fresh veggies would have given her diet a needed nutritional boost and she wouldn’t have eaten so much of the other stuff.

What is most shocking is how few nutrients and how many toxins Sally is consuming each day. Even though Diet Coke has very few calories, carbs, or sugar, it also has no nutritional value. What it does have is caramel color, aspartame, acesulfame-K, phosphoric acid, citric acid, and caffeine. Aspartame and acesulfame-K are artificial sweeteners. They trick your body into thinking you’re getting something sweet. When you consume Acesulfame-K, it stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin that you don’t need. (Too much insulin leads to “insulin resistance” which can cause a whole laundry list of problems.) Aspartame contains phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. (Certain groups of people should avoid phenylalanine.) Plenty of websites discuss the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners. In Sally’s case, she may as well drink regular Coke instead of the Diet Coke, but that would increase her already high sugar consumption. She would certainly be better off drinking plain water, mineral water, water with lemon, or herbal tea. (I would suggest black coffee or tea without sweetener, but I can’t do that, either. Blech.) You can buy powdered glucose online or at a health food store. Glucose is a sweetener that your body actually knows what to do with. Stevia is a sweetener made from a leaf that, so far, seems to be a healthy alternative.

Each time Sally has an ache or pain, she immediately heads to the medicine chest or the doctor. Many of Sally’s health complaints would lessen or go away entirely if she fixed her diet. And a little exercise wouldn’t hurt, either.

  • Her joints probably ache not only because of the excess weight she’s putting on them, but the lack of nutrients that she’s feeding them, and the lack of exercise she gives them. The most popular reason for not exercising: “I don’t have time.” Sally stays up late watching TV and stays in bed until the last possible moment, and feels tired from the moment she eases her body off the bed. She sits at a desk all day, and she serves herself and her family processed foods from a drive-through window. Why does she not have time to exercise? She doesn’t make the time. She could take the dog for a walk after dinner, instead of watching TV and eating ice cream. She could try asking for or making a standing desk at work so that she could stand for at least part of the day. At the very least, she should get up from her chair every hour and walk around the office for 5 minutes.
  • The heartburn and constipation tell me that she may not be digesting her food properly. That can be for a variety of reasons. For one, digestion begins in the mouth. Enzymes in saliva and the process of chewing start the breakdown of the food. If Sally is gulping down her food and not taking time to chew it, she’s missing out on part of the digestion process. Also, as we get older, we lose some of our digestive enzymes and she may need to take some in pill form and/or eat fermented foods like sauerkraut to help her get back on track. (Taking antacids will only make the problem worse. We need acid to digest our food.)
  • Her gut bacteria are likely overloaded with all of that sugar and processed carbs. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t have a major Candida infestation. Yogurt with live cultures and probably added probiotics in pill form would help her refresh the good gut bacteria, kill off the bad bacteria (Candida), and maybe even stop her sweet tooth.

The best thing Sally can do if she wants to feel better is fix her diet. I would suggest she have a consultation with a dietician/nutritionist who can provide her with a proper diet, not just for her, but for her husband and son, too. Once she’s in a routine of shopping for, preparing, serving, and eating healthy foods (and getting her husband and son to help with that), then she could look into adding more activity for herself and the family. (Starting both at once might be too overwhelming.) After a month, she’d probably lose at least 10 pounds, if not more. (Removing all of those processed foods would cause her to retain less water.) Her family could dust off their old bicycles in the garage and go for rides on the weekends. Maybe she and her son could do pushups and pullups together in the morning before school. No doubt her dog would also get healthier and lose weight, too. Maybe her son, like many, has been diagnosed with ADHD? That can be improved by eating fewer carbs and other dietary changes. In fact, some (children AND adults) get so much improvement by eliminating carbs and processed foods that they no longer need to be medicated.

Most of all, Sally should put some of her surfing time to good use and do some research into what she’s been eating and what she ought to be eating. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables, grass-feed beef, free-range chickens and eggs, cutting out all grains (not just processed grains) and processed foods, and taking the time to move frequently throughout her day would have her feeling like a new person in just a few months.

(In the interest of full disclosure, fixing my diet and exercising more is an issue I struggle with myself. It’s not easy!)

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In addition, what’s more, I disagree with that also, too

I often hear speakers say “also, too” in a sentence. Using both words in a sentence is redundant. They are synonyms.

Below are the definitions of “also” and “too,” according to Google:

also

too

Notice that “too” is listed under synonyms for “also,” and “also” is listed under synonyms for “too.”

Other synonyms that often appear in this type of error are “as well as,” “additionally,” “furthermore,” and “in addition.”

For example, this is something you might see in a company press release:

“In addition, he is also the CEO, as well as the president.” “In addition,” “also,” and “as well as” all mean the same thing. It’s redundant. It would be like writing, “Also, he is also the CEO, and also the president.”

You could rewrite that to something like, “Mr. X is both the CEO and the president.”

Why We Need Standards

No matter what you’re doing, you need to follow a standard. “But, Karla,” you say, “That’s just being anal. Everyone has their own way doing things.” Yes, everyone does. And that’s a problem.

Standards can be applied when cooking dinner, documenting a software product, coding a software application, performing a pre-flight checklist, or operating on someone’s brain. If everyone is “doing their own thing,” accidents happen, steps are skipped, errors are made, and the next person has to spend lot$ of time and energy to figure out what the heck you did. If you’re following a standard, everyone is on the same page.

“Should I manually format this document or should I use a style sheet? Meh, what do I care? I’ll never touch this document again.” Let’s suppose the document is content for a company newsletter. The company name has changed, the design has changed, everything that was orange is now supposed to be red, and so on. The person who has to update your lazily formatted document has to manually change all of your manual formatting, or create a style sheet and apply the style sheet throughout the document. Neither process is fast, and both processes are tedious—this time. But if you use a style sheet, the next time the document has to be updated, e.g., if the color scheme needs to be changed again, you only have to update the style sheet, not the whole document.Preview Changes

“Should I number every step or use bullets?” For this one, you don’t need to guess. Every technical writer who knows what’s she’s doing knows that you number steps that are to be performed in order and use bullets if order does not matter. That’s the standard for technical procedures. It’s not confusing. Yet so many “writers” do this wrong.

Do I write “Either of these dogs is the father” or “Either of these dogs are the father”? Either IS! That’s a grammatical standard.

On the GUI, how do I order buttons? Is it OK, Cancel, Help, or OK, Help, Cancel, or…? That depends on whether your group follows Windows guidelines, Apple guidelines, or Java guidelines. Find out which standard you’re following, if you’re even following one, so that you all follow the same guidelines. Hours of engineering time ($$$) are wasted “fixing” the previous programmer’s non-standard code, and the workarounds constructed because of the code. There are more complex coding standards that I have no clue about. The point is: Follow. The. Standard.

“What standard?” That depends on what you’re doing and who’s in charge. Ask your manager what the standard is. If he’s confused, discuss standards with your coworkers. If you can come to an agreement over which standard you should follow, then you’re halfway there. Getting people to stick to the standard is much harder.

When you get into an airplane, you hope that the pilot has followed the preflight check list. When you have surgery, you hope that your surgery team has followed commonly accepted protocols. And when you open up a document that you didn’t write and it’s your job to update it, you really hope that the author has followed a standard.

What’s the grammar rule for this?

I’ve been asked questions like this numerous times. The person asking wants a black or white ruling, but the “correct” usage is often very gray. And very often, there is no “rule” but rather a choice to make, either on the part of the author or the editor.

The Chicago Manual of Style has a Q&A section each month in its online version of the guide. This is from the April 2013 Q&A section:

Q. Where in the manual will I find guidance to answer the question whether the adverb structurally in the phrase “structurally modify or upgrade” qualifies only the verb modify or both the verbs modify and upgrade? I have looked at paragraphs 5.143 through 5.161 (15th ed.) but don’t perceive the guidance I need.

A. Alas—the great and powerful manual cannot tell you what this writer was thinking. The only way to know for sure is to ask him or her. If you don’t have access to the writer, then you will have to settle for ambiguity. If you need to know the exact meaning because you’re involved in a lawsuit whose outcome depends on the technical meaning of this phrase, you’re at the mercy of the judge. If you are the judge, well, good luck.

So how do I decide what is the “right” answer? If I am not the author, I ask the author for more information. If I am the author or the editor, I try to write the sentence a different way to see if that changes the meaning or intention of the sentence. I review my source material to be sure I understand what it is I’m supposed to be writing about.

When I was studying French in college, the professor would ask us to answer a question about usage, and then ask why we think our answer was correct. The point was to help us learn how to apply the variety of rules one needs to know to speak (or write) French without sounding like a 2-year-old French child. I don’t recall the exact question now (having to do with liasion), but I gave my answer and then the professor asked, “Why?” I replied that “it just sounds right.” I heard mumblings from fellow students about how stupid my answer was, but the professor said, “Yes! You got it! It sounds right to you, because you’ve absorbed the rule and can apply it instinctively!” (Then he proceeded to ask the mumblers to cite the rule.)

Every day, we apply “rules” of grammar, sentence structure, and style based on our experiences. If we had to “look up” everything, we’d never speak, let alone get any writing published. Those of us who have studied grammar, sentence structure, style, etc. write and edit based on years of writing and editing a variety of works, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and remembering the corrections. I can’t cite every rule (I wasn’t an English major), but I know enough about it that if you need a ruling, I can Google the answer for you. (Or better yet, Google it yourself. You’ll remember it better that way!)

We don’t always have a written rule to follow. Styles don’t follow rules (other than the rules set by the person who wrote the style guide.) Do you think e. e. cummings followed rules and styles? Of course he did! But it was a style of his own making, which is not wrong (in poetry) when you apply the style consistently. Usually, we follow the rules for the type of writing that we are writing or editing. That is, the rules for writing technical user guides are not the same as the rules for writing poems or advertising copy (“Got milk?”).

And sometimes we have to go with our gut—or with whatever looks or sounds right.

Cholesterol is not the enemy!

“Fat is stored inside the fat cell in the form of triaglycerol. The fat is not burned right there in the fat cell, it must be liberated from the fat cell through somewhat complex hormonal/enzymatic pathways. When stimulated to do so, the fat cell simply releases its contents (triaglycerol) into the bloodstream as free fatty acids (FFAs), and they are transported through the blood to the tissues where the energy is needed.” — http://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/what-happens-when-fat-is-burned.html

At a recent physical, it was pointed out by my doctor that my cholesterol is very high. She also did the “Berkley HeartLabs” blood test that tells us about my genetic markers for certain heart-related diseases. She had an expert in the Berkley HeartLabs tests come to her office to go over my results with me.

During our discussion, the expert pointed out, repeatedly, that my LDL cholesterol is too high (but my HDL is over 60, which is very good). I said that my cholesterol number has always been directly correlated with my weight. She insisted that my cholesterol was high because I eat too much saturated fat, and my genetic tests indicated that I don’t process fats well. I told her that I have been working out a lot more, running to 3-4 days per week, and reduced my calories by about half.

I said, “Doesn’t it make sense that because I’m burning fat, I would have more cholesterol in my blood stream?”

She said, “What?”

I said, “Well, the purpose of cholesterol is to transport fats in the blood stream, right? And because I’m burning more fat, there is more fat in my blood, and therefore more cholesterol to transport it where it needs to go.”

She said, impatiently, “It doesn’t go anywhere, it just gets burned up.”

I said, “It doesn’t just disappear! It goes into the blood stream to be transported to the muscles that need it, right?”

She said, “Well, that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here. Let’s continue.”

She has likely spent most of her life (maybe the past 50 years?) working with patients who have heart disease and high cholesterol and can no longer see the forest for the trees. She’s convinced that mainstream medical thinking is correct, and she can no longer think critically about what actually might be going on. Like many of her generation, she doesn’t question what she’s told; the doctor is always right.

Just to placate her and my doctor, I did the recommended carotid artery ultrasound. That involved running the ultrasound device over each side of my neck to look for plaque buildup in my carotid arteries. Buildup in the carotid arteries can indicate buildup in the arteries that feed the heart, which can lead to heart problems. There was no buildup in either of my carotid arteries.

  • Cholesterol is necessary in our bodies. “Cholesterol is a lipid (fat) which is produced by the liver. Cholesterol is vital for normal body function. Every cell in our body has cholesterol in its outer layer.” (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/9152.php)”
  • Cholesterol makes up the protective membrane surrounding each cell’s internal organelles … contributes as a building block for many of the essential hormones in your body.” (http://www.livestrong.com/article/25345-cholesterol/#ixzz2HDdm4rhS)
  • “Only about 25% of our blood cholesterol comes from our diet. Most of the cholesterol in our blood (about 75%) is produced by our bodies in the liver, intestines, adrenal glands, and reproductive organs. ” (http://solidbodyfit.com/2012/what-does-cholesterol-do/)
  • “When a long time has passed since the last meal, the concentration of fatty acids in the blood decreases, which triggers [fat cells] to release stored fatty acids into the blood as free fatty acids, in order to supply e.g. muscle cells with energy. … In response to low blood cholesterol, different cells of the body, mainly in the liver and intestines, start to synthesize cholesterol. This is then released into the blood. … Abnormally low levels of cholesterol are termed hypocholesterolemia. Research into the causes of this state is relatively limited, and while some studies suggest a link with depression, cancer and cerebral hemorrhage, it is unclear whether the low cholesterol levels are a cause for these conditions or an epiphenomenon.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_lipids)

I have not been able to find research that discusses a correlation between fat-burning exercise and cholesterol/triglycerides in the blood stream. I think it’s about time the medical establishment looked in that direction, stop making fat and cholesterol the villains, and stop trying to pump us full of liver-damaging statin drugs. Doing a study on “normal” weight men with “normal” cholesterol would not be helpful. Testing needs to focus on “average” overweight people (20-50 lbs, not severely obese) who are regularly exercising and reducing their calorie intake, not healthy athletes, and not only men.

For example, test people who are not exercising, haven’t for quite some time, and eat a “normal” American diet of breakfast pastries, fast-food lunch, and meats and starches for dinner, with very little fruits and vegetables. Then put these people on various diets (high carb, low carb, high fat, low fat, high protein, no animal protein…), and have them do an aerobic workout for at least an hour every day, testing their blood for cholesterol, triglycerides, and so on. Unfortunately for valid testing, you would have to isolate the subjects for 3-6 months to be sure that they are following the proper protocols, which will never happen.

Can Spelling and Grammar Checkers Replace Technical Writers and Editors?

No.

I could end this article right there, but some of you might want to know why…

Spelling and grammar checkers are not a replacement for good editing

  1. Most people, even experienced writers and editors, are notoriously bad at editing their own work. We see what we think we wrote, rather than what we actually wrote. A “second set of eyes” on a document, even if they aren’t stellar editors, is better than your eyes alone.
  2. Grammar checker programs aren’t human. It is a program with a list of rules to match and it cannot waiver from its list of rules. For example, in the sentence “The managers of the organization meet each morning,” Word’s grammar checker suggested I should use meets instead of meet. However, meet applies to managers, not organization, so “the managers meet” is correct, not “the managers meets.”
  3. Spelling checker programs don’t know which word you meant to use, only if the word you used is spelled correctly. Many words are confused by even the most seasoned writers (their, there, they’re; your, you’re; accept, except; advice, advise) and you need a seasoned editor to catch those errors. As always, a careful reading of your own work can’t hurt, but then refer to #1 in this list.
  4. A grammar checker program is not going to tell you if a bulleted list isn’t parallel. It’s not going to notice if you used the same tired phrase 3 times in the same newsletter. It’s not going to know if the wording or tone is appropriate for a given situation (e.g., a news article about a company’s new/improved product offering versus the death of the company president).
  5. Many writers struggle over proper punctuation, such as using too many commas or not using them at all. A seasoned editor is going to notice if something isn’t punctuated correctly. A common punctuation error I see is in compound modifiers. For example, “ad hoc reports” needs no hyphen (ad hoc is never hyphenated), “sixty-five-year-old runners” is hyphenated (to make it clear that the runners are 65 years old, rather than there being 60 five-year-old runners), but “illegally parked bus” does not need a hyphen.

Can spelling and grammar checkers still be useful?

Yes.

I leave Word’s Spelling and Grammar check feature turned on to check spelling as I type and to mark what it thinks are grammar errors as I type. (In Word 2010, click File > Options > Proofing.) Leaving these features turned on causes Word to underline what it thinks are errors. Then I can examine its suggestions to determine if I want to change what I’ve written or right-click it and then click “Ignore” or, if it’s a spelling correction, maybe I want to add it to the dictionary, which I often do for work-related words.

If you don’t have an editor available, try not to compose and publish a work in the same hour. Prepare it at least a day or two (or more) before you have to turn it in/publish it, and then let it sit for a day or two or at least overnight. The next time you look at the document, you’ll likely find errors that you didn’t notice the first few times you read it over, or perhaps find a better way to word a sentence. (For example, an hour ago I typed “at lease overnight” and grammar checker didn’t notice.)

Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit” and “Write drunk. Edit sober.” While I certainly wouldn’t recommend being drunk at work, putting yourself in a more creative mood before you write can be helpful to the creative process.

Articles that agree with me regarding grammar checking programs:

End-User Collaboration and Feedback

For the products that I document, the help documentation is installed and/or available as WebHelp for every product and every customer. They don’t have to go online to find it; they just click in the product to open the Help. This makes the help topic the perfect place for a feedback form—on the same page where they were looking for or found the help they needed to use the product to its full potential. Why do I want a feedback form on every help topic? Enabling collaboration in Help allows users to contribute and share information. Their feedback would allow me to refine and improve the Help and product usability, and assist with sales/marketing efforts. Users’ shared comments improve the Help experience, and gives the user a sense of “ownership” of the Help content (which means they’ll use it more).

Getting Management Buy-In for Feedback

Managers are often loathe to spend money for a technical writer, let alone for user feedback. Explain to your manager the many benefits to user feedback. Not only can it improve the help itself, but also can serve as a marketing tool. (i.e., who is using our product help, and therefore, who is using our product?) Comments can be used in marketing materials (minus any identifiers like full name or company name).

This is from http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/04/user-generated-content-embracing-social-networking-to-deliver-more-engaging-technical-documentation.php:

Business Benefits and Risks of UGC for Technical Documentation

User-generated content can help businesses reap additional benefits. Reader commentary can be instrumental in identifying the concerns of users. Based on user feedback, we can modify content to suit the needs of our audience. Creating more effective technical documentation also reduces the cost of helpdesk support. At the same time, UGC can serve as a strong marketing tool. A product’s audience can best reflect its proper market position. Good testimonials that a product’s customers or users have provided can work wonders in increasing its user base—delivering on the promise of greater adoption.

Feedback Management

Certain websites exist for the sole purpose of feedback form management and tracking, with varying levels of complexity.

Adobe Forms Central allows you to design your own feedback form, and the responses are stored on their website. However, it’s not free if you want more than one form or more than 50 responses. Their “Plus” plan is $143.88 per year, which allows unlimited forms, with a max of 5,000 responses per form. You can view the form that I made (from their templates) here. Adobe provides a link to the survey that you can email, embed in a webpage, or even send via Twitter. In the administration pages, one page shows the comment and the respondent’s email address in a spreadsheet format. You can also export the responses to Excel. A Summary Report has charts and graphs of data gathered.

Survey Monkey is widely used and has free and paid levels starting at $204 per year. As with Adobe Forms, it involves linking to an external website.

I think Survey Monkey and Adobe Forms are more than what I need regarding Help usage, plus the jumping out to an external website with no tracking of which topic they were on when they decided to submit a comment is a problem.

MadCap Feedback integrates with MadCap Flare (competitor to RoboHelp) and works with their Feedback Server or MadCap Hosted Service. In addition to comments, it allows you see which search keywords were entered by users. From their user guide:

“Let’s say that many users are entering the search term “sofa.” Unfortunately, you have not used that word in your project, so users are unable to find the topics that they need. However, you have used a similar word, “couch.” Therefore, in the Synonyms Editor, you enter “couch” as a synonym for “sofa.” The next time a reader enters “sofa” as a search keyword, topics containing the word “couch” will be returned in the results.”

Of course, I can do something like this in RoboHelp, too—IF I know which words they are using and not finding what they need. MadCap Feedback can work with any WebHelp (not just Flare projects). This app would provide a more detailed view of how our customers use our software and the Help files. The advantage to MadCap Feedback is that it was developed for exactly this purpose. They have group and one-on-one training ($$) for installation and setup. But Feedback is not cheap: $2,499. (Their Hosted Service is a monthly charge.) I imagine this would be something to try after trying a free or low-cost method to determine if I really want to do this.

Self-created and self-managed form

The alternative to online forms/survey managers is to create my own form, manage the inflow of emails, generate reports, and create/manage the database myself. If we have a tool that we’re currently using that could be expanded for this purpose (and includes reporting) that would be even better.

The design of the form would depend on the information that we want to gather, such as:

  • Was the information easy to find?
  • Was the information clearly represented?
  • Did this information solve your problem?
  • What can we do to improve this information?
  • What were you searching for?
  • What search words did you use?
  • Overall, how would you rate this Help documentation?

Of course, that’s too many questions. At the very minimum, I want to a display a comment box and ask them to leave a comment. When they click Submit, it would send an email to a dedicated mailbox, not to my mailbox. I would add something like this, at the bottom of every help topic:

Feedback Form

I already have the text above at the bottom of every help topic, plus “Leave compliments or complaints regarding the help in the User Forum.” But I’ve never found anything in the User Forum specifically for the Help. I think allowing users to comment directly in the topic, versus linking to yet another web page, would encourage more users to provide feedback.

Do you ask for user feedback? If so, how do you do it? If not, why not?