UA Conference Notes – Day 1

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Notes and thoughts from Day 1 of the User Assistance Conference

Session 1 – Tony Self – Emerging Help Delivery Technologies
It’s been quite a while since I heard Tony speak but as ever he provided an entertaining, if somewhat limited, presentation. Covering the various types of help viewing technologies he nicely summarised some of the available choices including the features to look out for, including the ability to wrap up an online help system in its own application (using technology like Adobe AIR). It was interesting to hear some Web 2.0 features making their way into online help technologies, including voting and commenting facilities which would give you direct feedback from the people using your help system.

Session 2 – Joe Welinske – Write Mote, Write Less
Embracing the Value of Crafted Words and Images
Another regular speaker and Joe was certainly fired up, challenging us all from the outset of his presentation to consider how we work in far more detail than we currently do. First up he suggests that we should be writing fewer words whilst making sure those words are correct and so lessen the impact on the reader, providing just the information they need and nothing more.

And then he hit on something that I’ve previously mentioned here (although Joe nailed it much better than I did), namely allocating writing resource to the highest priority pieces of documentation work, rather than the traditional approach of documenting everything. It’s a simple approach that, when combined with better writing, leads the craft of technical communications to provide much higher value to the business which is good news for all of us.

Session 3 – Sonia Fuga – DITA & WordPress Solution for Flexible User Assistance
A showcase style presentation of a stunningly simple concept. With a little bit of coding work (building a DITA importer to get XML content into the WordPress database), the team at Northgate offer a web-based help system which allows users to add their own notes and to vote for useful information, and which is can receive updates with new content with each release.

How? By using WordPress features. Notes are left as comments, votes are left using a WordPress plugin, and the updateable content is controlled by only allowing the customer (who has access to the WordPress admin screen) to create Pages, leaving the Posts controlled by Northgate. I use WordPress for this website, and spoke to Sonia in the evening to confirm some of the finer details. It’s a very clever use of WordPress, and I hope Northgate release their DITA importer to the open source community!

Session 4 – Question and Rants
A short session with four speakers each giving a two minute ‘rant’ and then taking questions. Nothing particularly noteworthy came of this but it’s a good addition to the usual style of presentations and made for a little bit of light relief.

Session 5 – Dave Gash – True Separation of Content, Format, Structure and Behaviour
Another familiar name, Dave is always entertaining and a very dynamic speaker and in this session he even managed to make the somewhat mundane topics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript interesting!

Outlining some basic principles he showed how you could take an HTML file, full of embedded behaviours (javascript), style rules (CSS), and content and strip out all four parts into a more manageable set of files. This way, holding the style and behaviours in referenced files, you can make changes to either and have them ‘ripple’ through all of your deliverable.

Admittedly this was all done by hand but the basic principles are something that you should be following if you have that kind of output.

Session 6 – Matthew Ellison – User-centred Design of Context-sensitive Help
Interesting presentation by Matthew which started a little slowly, covering the history of context-sensitive help before taking us onto the idea of task support clusters. Originally presented by Michael Hughes at the WritersUA conference, the premise is to offer the user a smarter landing page, referred to as Keystone Concept topics here.

The key to a successful Keystone Concept topic is not to limit what is presented, and to consider that it should be different depending on the context from which it was launched, with the ultimate aim of getting the user back on task as quickly as possible. This includes any form of tips and hints, and crucially suggests NOT to include the obvious stuff (don’t answer questions that users will never have!). This mirrors part of the theme from Joe’s talk early in the day, and certainly seems to be a sensible goal given the business (time and resource) pressures we are all under.

After that, I had a few beers and a chat with some other delegates, and as ever it was great to hear that most of us have similar issues, problems and solutions.

I’ll post my notes from Day 2 of the conference tomorrow.

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