Month: April 2008

Hungary bound

Camera, check. iPod, check. Books, check.

Ohhh! Clothes.. check (kinda).

Ummm… toiletries, check.

Ehh… passport, check. Cash, check.

Right.

We’re off to Hungary. Back on Sunday.

Ohh don’t worry, there’ll be a couple of posts along soon to keep you occupied.

Viszontlátásra!

Learning from others

I spent most of the weekend laying, re-laying, cutting and swearing at laminate flooring. I read the provided instructions, measured twice (hell, four or five times in most cases) but still it proved problematic. I re-read the instructions, googled a little and then, after some experimentation finally figured out what the problem was… me.

Well not just me, but my interpretation of the instructions which were a little vague in one key area. Namely, where to start. This is crucial as, most laminate flooring needs to be laid the correct way to make it possible to snap all the pieces into place. It’s a one-directional jigsaw puzzle, if you will.

The details here aren’t important, but what it taught me (for the umpteenth time I guess) is that documentation needs to be complete, unambiguous and for hardware related matters at least, a picture tells a thousand stories.

I keep going back to the assumed knowledge angle, and it rings true for this example. One of the forums I found during a frantic Googling session yielded a comment along the lines of: “The professionals know this but it’s not something you’ll find in the instructions”.

I have been guilty of this in the past. Presumption is the silent virus that can kill an otherwise excellent piece of documentation stone dead. All it takes is one presumption to render an entire document AND THE PRODUCT IT IS SUPPORTING, next to useless (or at the very least “problematic”). Introducing that kind of negative thinking at an early stage of the product lifecycle makes it very hard to undo.

Although that, itself, is a presumption. I’m presuming that most people only read the documentation when they are still novice users. So maybe that is another presumption that I need to work on removing.

We Haz Teh Kitchen!

Laminate flooring is a bugger (or maybe it’s the instructions?). But, finally, it’s done!!

Kitchen is finished (1)

Well, technically speaking there are a couple of small jobs to do but that’s the big stuff out of the way. You should’ve seen us when we laid that last bit of flooring, high-fiving like a couple of NBA All-Stars we were.

Anyway, nothing else to say about it, just wanted to mark the occasion.

Recently Read

Blimey, another week has flown past and, as ever a few things have caught my eye.

9 ways to gather user feedback
It’s often a struggle to get true user feedback on your documentation, Craig Haiss offers some suggestions to improve things in this area. Whilst I’ve tried some of these, and had heard of them all, it’s worth a look to jog the memory:

You can write the most detailed instructions in the world, but if they aren’t the instructions users actually want, you’re wasting your time. That said, how do you go about gathering feedback to flesh out your documentation?

Tech Comm Job to Job Title: Something Lost in Transit?
Ben Minson is musing on job titles and, as well as raising a giggle, ends up stuck. Job titles, as a way to convey what you do for a living, are important.

… the dictionary says one who documents is a “documentalist”—however, I’m reluctant to adopt a job title that includes the word “mental.” So this is where you get “documentation specialist.” The same goes for “usability specialist.”

It seems a little funny that, being writers at heart and therefore professional manipulators of language, some of the terms we pick for our field don’t easily translate into job titles.

I’m currently experimenting with the title “Technical Information Manager” which is a little OTT but seems to fit my current role, thankfully my company, like myself, isn’t hung up on formal job titles (they prefer that you, you know, get on with whatever needs done). So, what’s your job title?

Typography humour

Glossary of DITA terms
Bob Doyle is wondering if there should be a central, user-maintained, glossary of DITA terminology:

many DITA-related terms are not defined … They are simply assumed.
And some is insider jargon, like reltable for Relationship Table.
And there is no convenient alphabetical listing.
You can search for terms on the DITA Infocenter, but then you have to already know the term.

This got me thinking. If you have been toying with setting up a documentation Wiki, then this may be an excellent place to start. It might also throw up some interesting usage of terminology. Definitely something I’m going to have a stab at (well, I’ll add it to the list of things to try).

RoboHelp vs Flare
Interesting round up of posts and comments on this topic. If you use, or are planning to use, either product, give it a look.

And I’m done. Another week in the wonderful world of Technical Communications has gone, I wonder what next week will bring?

Distracted

Looks like a day of constant drizzle ahead so I’m stuck indoors. Louise is away out to do some shopping and catchup with a friend over lunch and freshly brewed coffee is currently gurgling away in the kitchen.

Tasks for the weekend are to finish the flooring in the kitchen. We failed last weekend as the starting point, cutting back the flooring in the hall, took much longer than we thought (lifting a few boards of laminate, against the lay pattern, is bloody hard!).

I’m also toying with installing Ubuntu on my old PC, and if I still have time I WILL make a start on organising my books.

But, of course, that doesn’t account for any distractions. The internet being an obvious one with the ubiquitous “I’ll only be 5 minutes, I’m just checking my email” swiftly becoming an hour spent surfing completely random websites (all of which are fascinating, of course). My current problem is, as I mentioned the other day, that as I’m trying to figure out how to best to get an online community up and running, I’m spending a fair amount of time researching ideas, trying technologies and so on.

It’s worse when I’m at work. Just when I’m getting my head around something another distraction appears. Of course, most workplaces are full of distractions, especially with the way we do things at my current place which relies heavily on conversation as a way to share information.

Although I do have to confess that I quite like being distracted. Naturally some distractions are more welcome than others and, if I’m very honest, I do occasionally seek out distractions. Sometimes it’s to avoid that task that I don’t want to do, but sometimes it’s a a means to an end, a way to refocus.

As an avid “lifehacker'” (Lifehacker.com, 43 folders etc), there are some techniques which I follow, but none to which I avidly subscribe. I have an almost zero inbox, I do break large tasks down into smaller ones and so on and so forth. Removing distractions is a common method to be more productive, allowing you to get into the ‘zone’ (allegedly), but I find those self same distractions can kick start the creative juices and… well you get the idea.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I welcome and seek out distractions knowing full well that I’ll reap the benefits later.

Now, where’s the remote?

Got TED?

Have you heard of the TED conference? (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design)

No? It’s been going a while now, and got started back in 1984

…out of the observation by Richard Saul Wurman of a powerful convergence between Technology, Entertainment and Design. The first TED included demos of the newly released Macintosh computer and Sony compact disc, while mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to map coastlines with his newly discovered fractals and AI guru Marvin Minsky outlined his powerful new model of the mind.

As well as the conference they share some of the sessions on the internet (freely under Creative Commons license). The quality of these sessions remains high with some of the brightest minds of current times talking about some mind-blowing things and I remain constantly fascinated by the crossover of ideas from one distinct stream of thought to another.

Personally the TED sessions have prompted me to buy several books and dig deeper into some of the topics, I’ve learned a lot.

So, when Adrian McEwen said he’d pulled together a downloadable taster pack of some of the best bits, and was looking for a little help with some bandwidth, I figured it would be good to give something back. Included in the torrent file he’s put together (which will nicely fit on a DVD once you’ve downloaded it), are:

  1. Dan Gilbert asks “Why are we happy?”
  2. Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce
  3. Sir Ken Robinson say schools kill creativity
  4. Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen
  5. Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice
  6. Gever Tulley on five dangerous things for kids

So, don’t just sit there, fire up your Torrent application of choice (I prefer uTorrent) and GRAB IT WHILE YOU CAN.

Web 2.0 and Communities

The timing of this post, and the announcement by the Cherryleaf blog that they’ve created a Facebook group for technical authors, is completely coincidental. However there does seem to be a genuine move towards online communities, or perhaps it’s just the latest fad?

It’s an interesting time to be building an online community, and I’m lucky that I can pull from the past ten years or so that I’ve had an online presence.

When blogging first started there were few tools available, but in a short space of time they started cropping up all over the place and these days there are many different ways you can post to your blog (as well as many different ways/places to host it). The same seems to be true of the current rise of “social networking” sites.

Places like MySpace and Bebo focussed on the network surrounding one entity, whilst FaceBook and LinkedIn focus on central groups, and finally services like Ning allow you to build an entire specialised community which can then focus in on central areas of commonality.

I have a LinkedIn profile, a Facebook profile and I’m a member of a Ning community, and for me they represent different things. Ohh and please don’t be offend if I don’t “friend” you on any of those websites, I do try and keep that sort of thing under control.

For me LinkedIn is, in essence, a smart contact manager that allows me to find other people related to previous places of employment or study, whereas Facebook is something I dip in and out of and which I primarily use to keep in touch with friends and other personal/social goings-on. Ning, specifically the Content Wrangler community, is very much focussed on my profession and is a good way to interact with my peers across the globe.

I’m wondering if my perception of these sites are common? The reason I ask is that whilst creating a group on Facebook or LinkedIn is very easy, perhaps the usage of such sites needs to be considered. There has been a lot of chat about companies starting to “lever” these websites, alienating users/customers. So it definitely isn’t just me that has a fixed idea about for what these websites should be used.

I’m in the midst of trying to build an online community for the technical users of our product, and I’m very conscious of the unwritten rules and presumptions that go hand in hand with how people act online, and which boundaries need to be respected. It’s a balancing act, that’s for sure, but a fascinating one.

A phrase I spotted online the other day rings true: “someone hit them with the Web 2.0 stick”. I’m a big fan of Wikis, blogging and online communities, and I think they offer some excellent ways to be part of the conversation, but perhaps we all need to step back a little and make sure that the tools we are using are the right ones for the job.

Merge

I really shouldn’t use that as a title for a post, all I now have in my head is Chandler (from Friends) talking about how funny it would be to have a Merge road-sign above the bed (“MERRGE”).

Anyway, the week is rolling past at a fair old lick, and the countdown to our trip to Hungary has begun. Louise has nabbed the book on Budapest my Dad gave us, and each morning I’m regaled with a new set of facts about either Buda, Pest, Budapest, the Danube or the surrounding area. We are slowly gathering a list of places to visit but, at some point, we’ll need to stop as we are only there for 5 days (really 4 when you discount travelling).

I’m taking my good camera to Budapest and have a nice big 4GB card to fill (and 2GB spare as well), so expect a LOT of photos. I’ll be competing with our host though, and she has a big fancy DSLR so it’ll be interesting to see some comparison shots. I’m getting quite excited about our trip to be honest, really need to start thinking about what to pack.

As for the title of this post … well it seems like this little hobby of mine and my work are finally converging with “web 2.0”, blogging and community websites becoming the main focus of my attention as I’ve just started to plan the creation of a “community website” for my current employers. It’s nice when hobbies (passions?) and work collide and I’m having to force myself to STOP thinking about it 24/7… well almost 24/7, the usual diversions still kick in (Wii, Champions League, Ollie, kitchen DIY, por… errr… some other stuff).

It’s also sparked some ideas that I can use to get Scottish Blogs back up and running. Admittedly that’ll be a little way down the road as I’ve got a couple of website clients to deal with first, but exciting (busy) times ahead.

What do YOU do?

Re-reading the article I submitted to the ISTC Communicator magazine, I realise that my average day isn’t:

  • particularly average at all
  • a true representation of everything I’m involved with

I lead a team of writers so my typical day may not apply to everyone, and I also have a tendency to stick my nose in and get involved in other areas if I feel I can be of help. Simply put, if I hear someone talking about “information” my radar pings and I see if I can be of any benefit.

Other non-typical items include collation of Product Release Notes, my team proof-read Marketing brochures and website collateral, we try and monitor consistency in the UI of our customer facing product, and I’m currently in the process of creating (and managing) and developer community website. As an “unbiased” member of the development group I also recently facilitated our retrospectives.

One of the reasons I love this profession is that you can (and should?) be involved in many different areas. We have a unique view of the product and I guess my day is sculpted by that, although it is helped that we are a small(ish) company and have a small group of people thinking about the “product” as a whole.

I’m lucky that our company doesn’t have a traditional structure, with everyone encouraged to talk to everyone else regardless of role or level. It’s a little like a zoo sometimes, with a lot of noise and activity, but apparently that’s a good thing. It does mean I am involved in discussions that can be hard to be a part of otherwise, chatting to the Product Manager, Product Marketing and Sales, all of whom are saying the same thing, which in itself proves that things are working and that technical writers are a valid part of that discussion.

I’m curious to hear if others have the same opportunity; What other areas, outside of technical writing, are you involved in? And why?

Don't panic

Watching the news, watching the cars queue at the garages, sucking them dry.

Which is all fine aside from the fact that OUR tank is close to empty. The car computer reports we have 94 miles left, so let’s presume we can squeeze that to around 120 miles (at the very very most). Given that we put about 55-60 miles on the car each day for our daily commute (kill the planet!!) and… yeah, I’m a little concerned. I will be going out later to fill our tank.

And next time we buy a car, we’ll be getting a hybrid of some sort. Performance be damned (mark my words please, I’m quite serious about this and have been watching the developments Honda are making with keen interest). To be honest, if it was more affordable I’d consider converting our existing car.

We are completely reliant on having a car. It IS possible to get to my work on public transport but it would (presuming everything ran on time) take just short of two and a half hours. One way. I’d really rather not spend five hours of my day commuting, which is, of course, hugely selfish of me.

Perhaps we should move.

But we like it here. We like our little house and, besides, we can’t actually afford to move. Have you SEEN the house prices? I know what our house is (allegedly) worth and it is, quite frankly, mental. I certainly wouldn’t have paid over £100k for it. Mental.

But things seem to be changing, and I’d really rather be a little ahead of the game, and remove some of our reliance on oil sooner rather than later.