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How the Online Communication Competition Started

By Marguerite Krupp

STC@50 logo Editor's Note: In honor of the STC's Golden Anniversary, this is the second in a series of articles reflecting on the history the Society and of our chapter.


The Beginnings of Online Help

Like many good things, the Online Communication Competition started, not so much with an idea as with the recognition of an idea whose time had come. And the Boston Chapter provided the support to make this idea a reality. Here's how it all came about.

Setup - An unidentified entrant makes sure all the cables are properly connected.  
Setup - An unidentified entrant makes sure all the cables are properly connected.  
Photo by Marguerite Krupp  

Back in the late 1970s, I was working for a company that regarded documentation as a necessary evil. I wanted to show my boss that there really were companies that had a high regard for documentation; companies that thought highly enough of their documentation to enter it into professional competitions. So I volunteered to run the Boston Chapter's Technical Publications Competition. We got hundreds of high-quality entries. Even my boss was impressedat least by the volume of material.

Fast forward a few years. Writers have alphanumeric "dumb" terminals connected to a central server and use PCs with MS-DOS and similar operating systems. Writers were developing a new kind of documentation that allowed users to get up to four lines of context-sensitive online help. Later, writers found a way to offer a fuller variety of help, using more of the screen. The problem was, however, that the help often hid the application, and the help was not print-friendly. With a lot of trial and error, we finally learned how to balance the need for information and the need to actually use the applications. And all this was without a graphical user interface.

Online Help Becomes a Standard

In 1983, while presenting at the National Computer Conference in Anaheim, CA, I wandered through the trade show exhibits and noticed that a significant number of products offered one or another form of online documentation. It suddenly hit me that we should start holding competitions for online documentation, just as we were already doing for technical publications. I thought that an online documentation competition would help improve the quality of the documents and would provide a learning opportunity for everyone involved.

The First Electronic Documentation Competition

When I came back to Boston, I presented the idea to the Chapter Administrative Council. They didn't think it would fly, but they'd let me try it out. Using the criteria for the Technical Publications Competition as a starting point, I developed the criteria for judging the online documents. The primary additions to the criteria were the elements of interactivity and navigation.

The first Electronic Documentation Competition took place at MIT on a wintry day early in 1984. Professor James Paradis, assisted by Professor David Dobrin, hosted the nine entrants and the flock of judges in his department's space. Judges, often working in pairs, had about half an hour with each entry and a few minutes to write notes before moving on to the next entry. We encouraged entrants to submit usage scenarios and encouraged judges to provide written feedback for the entrants. At about noon, we tried to break for lunch but found that most of the judges were reluctant to leave their workstations! "Uh, can you get me something take-out? Fish and chips, maybe? I'm kind of into this." The next year, we sent out for pizza, apparently starting a tradition.

  Concentration - Pat Clark, at left, and an unidentified judge focus intently on an entry.
  Concentration - Pat Clark, at left, and an unidentified judge focus intently on an entry.
  Photo by Marguerite Krupp

In these pre-Internet days, real interactivity and online information design were in their infancy. One entry I remember used all eight available colors, sometimes in the same word. Another displayed information in colored blocks on the screen, and at the same time had a line of little white letters dancing across another area of the screen. The eye, naturally, followed the movement. As soon as the white letters were in place, the colored block and its text would vanish. I saw judges literally jump out of their chairs and grab the sides of the monitor, hollering, "Come back here!"

I had read the Thinking Machines, Inc. entry in the Technical Publications Competition and had not been particularly impressed. The hard-copy books, encased in a set of 3-ring notebooks, were technically good, but seemed to have little continuity or navigational sense. The online version, on the other hand, had the same content, but the interactive nature of the presentation added the missing elements and brought the whole thing together into an elegant whole.

At least three judges evaluated each entry, and at the end of the day, all the judges debated the merits of the entries. Champions for one entry or another could get quite passionate! I don't remember who won that competition. I was just glad that it happened and was such a success. The following year, and the year after that, we had more and more entries.

The Boston Chapter Sets a Precedent

Relaxation - Suzanne Caton, seated, and Anne Ladd, briefly relax between entries.  
Relaxation - Suzanne Caton, seated, and Anne Ladd, briefly relax between entries.  
Photo by Marguerite Krupp  

Word of our success spread, and other chapters asked for advice and guidance for starting their own Electronic Documentation Competitions. Eventually, we had enough local competitions underway to consider having an International Online Communication Competition, which Donna Sakson brought to fruition. I was privileged to judge that competition the first two years of its existence, and the international criteria still reflect those that we developed and refined here.

The competition's name has changed over the years. The competitions now include Web entries, along with a plethora of other formats, and they're still changing. We now run all our competitions with dedicated committees who work very hard all year refining both the criteria and the logistics and conducting training to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Many judges now take notes and fill in the evaluation forms on their own laptop computers. I am still excited by the Online Communication Competition, by the amazing creativity and dedication of all the participants. And it all started here, in Boston.

Editor's Note: For the latest on this year's competitions, see the Competitions Page.

Marguerite Krupp is an Associate Fellow of STC and a member of [email protected], the Society-level committee working on the STC's Golden Anniversary Celebration.