Tag: Conference

What do we want?

At TCUK12 this year, I chatted with several people about authoring tools. Vendors, other technical writers, managers, I asked the same two questions, again and again.

What authoring application do you use, and why do you use it?

The answers were illuminating, interesting and always useful. There are many, many options out there, catering to many different needs, and all of them have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Alas, no matter how hard I tried, regardless of how many ways I tried to bend our requirements, all of those conversations led me to the same conclusion.

No-one out there builds what we want so we may have to build it ourselves.

As part of improvements to our content, one of my team has led the charge to restructure our information. She has a passion for information architecture and devised a three pronged approach to our content. You can either navigate in by role, by product area or… by something else we haven’t yet decided upon.

We’ve audited the topics we have and applied some simple structuring decisions and it is looking good so far. The problem we will soon have is that we will need to build this new structure and make it usable by our customers.

What we would like is to be able to tag our topics, and use those tags to present a default structure to our information. The tags would also allow users to filter the topics they see and, either by addition or subtraction, create a unique set of information for their needs. Ultimately this would lead to personalisation of content in a basic form, but that could easily be enhanced to provide a smarter take on content for each user.

Alas it seems that, without doing a lot of customising of an XML (most likely DITA) based system we won’t get near that and even the products that get close require a compromise somewhere. Most of the time it would be, for the team of writers, a step back to a less friendly interface, and more exposure to the underlying technology of the tool they are using. At present Author-it provides a simple authoring environment that allows the writers to concentrate on writing content.

But perhaps that is the point. Maybe it’s time to try a different set of tools, adopt new working practices, take on a the bigger challenge.

So that was TCUK12

It’s been a few days since I got home after the Technical Communications Conference this year, and I’ve been digesting and mulling over some of the ideas and thoughts gathered from the speakers and conversations.

The conference was in a new location, Newcastle, and that brought a different feel to the event. Hard to put my finger on it but it felt a little more business like, or maybe just a little less social? Not sure, and as ever my experience will be different from others.

Something that hasn’t changed was the value. It remains an excellent opportunity to learn from your peers, industry experts, and if nothing else it’s great to hear that we are doing the right things or just have the same problems as everyone else.

A few standout presentations from me, Leah Guren (whose workshop I attended on the Tuesday) kicked off the conference in great style. Passionate, funny, upbeat, everything that we can occasionally seem to lack in our profession here in the UK. Ray Gallon and Scott Abel backed that up with some excellent presentations that expanded the scope of what we can, and should, be doing.

It took me a while to realise it but the one thing I didn’t get this year was an overall theme. Not an official one, but typically there is one stream of thought that seems to be prevalent. I think the closest to that would be ‘Structure’ (as a strategy) and I wonder if, perhaps, that that particular stream of thought hasn’t yet hit a tipping point?

Still pondering that, and many other, things, one of which is that I really need to be blogging here more! Time will tell if I can stick to that.

TCUK 12

The time has come, so Gordon said, to talk of many things, of slides and chats, and learning facts, and something else that rhymes but I’m rubbish at poetry (with sincere apologies to Lewis Carroll).

Enough of that though, what I want to talk about is the Technical Communications Conference 2012 (TCUK12) and why you should go.

Disclaimer: I serve on the Council of the ISTC, who organise this event. 

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time a young (ok, middle-aged) man had started a new job and was trying to figure out the best way to improve things and solve some of his problems. The year was 2007.

At the time, the young man (oh shut up) had started a blog and was finding a lot of interesting people writing about Technical Communications. From that he heard about something called DITA. To learn more, as it sounded very much like it might solve his problems, he went to a conference (X-Pubs) in Reading. He learned a lot, and met a lot of inspiring and interesting people. Turned out DITA wasn’t for him though (yet).

Later that year, he had the opportunity (entirely thanks to his blog and a lovely woman named Anne Gentle) to attend and speak at TICAD, an opportunity that came about directly through this blog. It was a smaller conference in scale but just as rich in information.

Having set a precedent of attending conferences, he looked around for another the following year and, remembering how good he found the Digitext conferences (many years ago now) he decided to attend the User Assistance conference in Edinburgh (2008). Again, he found himself surrounded by his peers, and took away some valuable lessons.

The following year he heard of new conference, and as it had multiple streams of presentations he thought that would give him the best chance of learning. He also felt foolhardy enough to present at it (but let us not dwell on that). The conference was called Technical Communications UK (2009).

And that’s quite enough babbling about me.

It’s always interesting to see what presentations and theme the conference will have, each year has had a different third stream, and this year it’s focusing on Accessibility and Usability, something I know many technical writers working in a software environment inevitably get drawn into (if it’s easier to use, it’s easier to document). Add in the longer workshops on the first day and, for the money, it’s hard to beat.

Like many people I’ve had to convince my boss it is worthwhile letting members of our team attend, but I’m convinced that everyone will find a handful of topics that they could learn about and look to apply at their own workplace, the trick is to plan to do just that.

Any time I’ve ever returned from a conference I’ve been excited and looking to apply ideas and techniques to what we do. If we hadn’t managed to implement some of these things then it would be much harder to ask again the following year as the evidence of value is a hard thing to argue against!

Above all though, TCUK seems to have a good energy, a good ‘vibe’ and everyone who attends seems that little bit more driven and up for learning, discussion and basically getting stuck in. I does help that most people stay over so you start to make friends over a glass of wine (or three) and that carries through into the next day giving the entire conference a relaxed, friendly feel.

If you only plan on attending one conference this year, I would heartily suggest TCUK as a great starting point.

Hope to see you there!

TCUK – Call for Papers

Call for Papers for TCUK 12

Dear reader,

You are an intelligent person, have you ever considered sharing your knowledge with others? Perhaps doing a short presentation at an industry conference?

Regardless of your experience, or industry, the Technical Communications UK conference wants you!

New speakers and experienced speakers – all welcome

Regardless of whether you want to present for the first time or you are a seasoned conference speaker, we want to hear from you. We don’t mind if you are new to technical communication or if you have worked in this field for ever, if you have something to say to other technical communicators thenTCUK 2012 is your chance to say it.

Industry sectors

Technical communicators work across a wide range of industry sectors, including engineering, aerospace and defence, transportation, services, retail, charities, and government agencies as well as in hi-tech industries. TCUK 2012 is the conference for everyone who works in communicating technical information of any kind.

This year’s specialist stream

Two of the streams are open to topics of general interest to anyone in the technical communication industry. The specialist topic for this year’s third stream is Accessibility and Usability. Proposals for presentations within this area are particularly welcome.

There is one week left before the deadline, so get moving!

More information here: Call for Papers for TCUK 12

TCUK11

I went to a conference and it was good!

As ever the Technical Communications Conference sparked thought, debate and no little amount of revelation. The sessions I managed to attend were all well presented, well considered and well received, and the chats over lunch, dinner and at the bar prove to me that I’m in a profession full of driven, smart and engaged people. My impression of the attendees this year suggests there is a definite change in the attitude of the audience as well, a little more upbeat and vocal, all of which bodes well for Technical Communications in 2012.

As ever, I took sporadic, and somewhat random notes, and I’m happy to share them with you all… YMMV as to whether you understand them or not.

Tuesday 20/09/11

Workshop: Using the Tech Author Slide Rule by Alice Jane Emanuel

Should we enter our documentation into industry competitions? Probably worth it purely from a feedback point of view.

Scoring spreadsheet used in the workshop will be useful in a number of ways as it will:
– show areas of specific improvement in the product documentation
– provide numerical data to show we are improving the quality of the information
– help everyone understand what is required to provide good quality information (particularly new starts in the team)
– reporting on the numbers will raise awareness of what we do (targetting an ‘area’ will alert people we consider this important)
– drive internal team discussions on how we improve quality (some of the scoring will be subjective, so will need discussion to get agreement), have whoever scored an area present back their thoughts

Wednesday 21/09/11

Opening Keynote: Patrick Hoffman (Google)

Icon Designer for Google Maps, Patrick discussed visual design, how the smallest details make a difference, the part context plays in cognitive understanding of graphics, as well as the impact of culture/location on that understanding.

Good icons present a single core message (remove the adjectives from the graphics?)

Content Strategy from the Trenches by CJ Walker & Karen Mardahl

Interesting presentation concept with CJ interviewing Karen, fireside chat style.

Content Filtering becomes a strategy, our ‘articles’ are just a filtered view on to the bulk of the content
Analytics data – what are we using it for?
Change team ethos to focus on value add, adding info to docs is how we add to the value of the product

Writing for reuse by David Farbey

Define your goals for re-use – what influences the process? Know where the goals may fail and plan around them.
Taxonomy – spreadsheet for areas of re-use (categories of information we expect to re-use)
Metadata needed – consistent naming a must
Information Types – we already have these, do they meet our needs? Do we need to review them?
The less you want to write, the more you have to plan

Forget about the book!

Concept topics – learning something (About the….)
Task topics – doing something (Configuring… )
Reference topics – knowing something (Lists/Facts/Tables)

Other topic types, what are they for?

Thursday 22/09/11

Pattern Recognition by Kai Weber and Chris Atherton

“To understand a pattern you need examples”

Code examples – must be consistent to let reader derive the pattern to understand the rules
Little used patterns degrade over time. People forget.

Difference between how learn

Experienced users: Top Down – Uses prior knowledge, concepts > elements, emphasises context, quick; sometimes wrong (knowing, generalising, contextualising, applying).
New Users: Bottom Up – No prior knowledge, elements > concepts, emphasises relations, slow; usually correct (experiencing, acquiring, matching, segmenting).

? What patterns should we have? What patterns do we have already?
TOC can be a pattern – consist info titles, build the pattern, e.g. “How to” always displays topics that look a certain way and contain certain information.

Opportunities for reuse between documentation and training by Linda Urban

Reuse definition – for docs – single sourcing, topic level, granular (para) re-use

Re-use is hard due to context:
Training is about learning, building skills
Documentation is about “I’m working”, help me, quick answers

Training is about approach and doesn’t (shouldn’t) cover everything

Documentation is an external repository of information
Training creates an internal repository of patterns/information

In practice, re-use sometimes means repurpose

Re-use sweetspots: integration points

Bigger picture: need to plan the information in tandem, docs should compliment the training and vice versa

And finally…

I have to mention the entertainment provide as part of the Gala Dinner. A genius of word play and smithery, Judge The Poet was brilliant and perfect for the conference audience! You can see some of his work here.

As well taking notes during the sessions I attended, I also took some time to showcase what will be come the new ISTC website (sneak peek here), and hosted the Rants session which a lot of, noisy, fun! Alice Jane Emanuel kindly took notes and I’ll be getting them published in next months InfoPlus newsletter.

Conference chatter

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things…”

It’s that time of year again, with the UA Conference currently underway (see what people are saying about it on Twitter) and the Technical Communication UK conference just around the corner.

We are lucky enough to be able to get to such events, even though we still need to pick and choose due to budget constraints and, once again, the multi-stream approach of TCUK makes it easier to justify. Looking at the programme for this year, there are always two sessions of interest, sometimes three.

As ever, and this is something I’ve commented on before, the benefits of attending conferences go above and beyond attendance at the sessions. The conversations over lunch, or dinner, or over a quick coffee between sessions make all the difference. Being able to bounce ideas off fellow professionals from different companies (working in different industries) gives you some unique views and solutions which you would struggle to get otherwise.

Add in the additional interaction via Twitter and conferences can become a mind-bogglingly fast-paced solution centre!

Of course implementing those solutions is a different challenge but I’ve yet to come away from a conference NOT feeling energised and ready to tackle things and, again, social media then helps extend those conversations.

Creating the business case for attending a conference is usually centred around the sessions, and what the value and benefits of attending will be to the company, but I think it’s also worth factoring in the availability of your peers as part of that discussion.

TCUK10 – Social Media Models

As my slides are usually fairly sparse, I’ve written up some notes/transcript of my presentation. Probably best read in conjunction with the slides.

Slides 1 to 4

This presentation is about models. By and large it came about after several conversations at TCUK09 and I found myself trying to explain why you’d want to blog, or use Twitter, or why Wikis can be useful. The thing is, there are so many tools available you can’t cover them all so, in the months after the conference, and in continued discussions by email and on Twitter, I realised there was a different way to discuss social media and how it could fit into the technical communications world.

The kitten picture is simply because I included one last year and it was probably the most commented aspect of my presentation, “ohhh the one with the kitten!”.

Slides 5 & 6

So why am I qualified to talk about social media? Well, because I’m a self-confessed social media addict. I’ve been using it, in various forms, for over 10 years and still sign up to the last, greatest application just to see what it does. I am not an expert. Just a passionate user.

Slides 7 & 8

The company I work for is starting to embrace social media, both at a company level (we now have a company blog, to which I contribute), and a product level. Our newest product, Ciboodle Crowd, gives our customers the ability to have a social media aspect to the customer relationship management offering. This is in recognition that, increasingly, people use forums, and blog s and other such things to talk about products, both in terms of usage and troubleshooting, and general gripes.

Slide 9

Why do we need to bother about social media?

I read a blog post recently that nicely encapsulated my thoughts on the matter. In his post “A new minimalist principle that John M Carroll didn’t think of“, Shannon Greywalker posits that the main reason is

*Increase acquisition speed* – most of us long-experienced technical communicators come from a generation that was trained to be comfortable with absorbing information at a much slower pace, and in a much more passive format, than people even one decade younger than us would tolerate. And the folks in their 20s and younger now? Forget it. The typical “best practices” that most technical writers still adhere to are completely out of touch with the sheer speed at which 20-somethings and younger expect to be able to absorb information.

Which, if we distil the message down to the basics, suggests that there are only two things that matter, the content and the people who use it (and how they want to use that content).

Slide 10

First things first, like any new project, or product, you will need to do figure out what you and your audience wants. The best way to frame this in terms of social media is to try and understand which model of interaction is best. This makes it easier for your audience to understand both what, and why, you are proposing to do something new.

With that in mind, I’m proposing that, broadly speaking, you can break down most types of social media interaction into four models of behaviour.

Slides 11 to 14 – Publish & Respond

This model is the closest to the traditional technical writing format. You create some information and publish it. Add in the ability for your audience to comment on, or discuss, the content and you have a simple, open-ended conversation.

Regardless of the output format you currently produce, be it the written word, graphics, or videos, this model is easily adopted into your current production processes. There is an initial overhead in setting up the location (which can be from minutes to weeks, depending on whether you use a hosted, or self-built solution) and you need to plan in time to respond to, and join in with, any discussions. That will help keep things active and keep your audience coming back for more. You also need to plan to publish regularly to make sure your audience has a reason to visit.

With your audience able to discuss what you publish, you’ll soon be able to hone in on the information they really need, allowing you to tailor your production (and planning) to best suit your audience. The initial overhead of this part of the publish/respond model starts to diminish the more feedback you get as you are better equipped to plan and prioritise the information you produce.

Advantages
Quick feedback loop – no waiting for the next software cycle to issue updates
Direct access to audience – conversations with the people who use the content
Easy fit to traditional publishing model.- provide a different output and enable some way of commenting

Disadvantages
Initial overhead of maintaining output
Being part of the conversations (drops over time as you better focus your content)

Technology
WordPress, Blogger, YouTube, Flickr, Forums, mailing lists (either traditional or online Groups such as those by Yahoo or Google), Slideshare.

All the solutions listed above have similar constituent parts. They contain posts or uploads, each of which can be considered an individual topic. Each topic has a title and will know the author, the date it was published and is published to a specific category, allowing a level of taxonomy.

Slides 15 to 18 – Publish & Collaborate

The ability to collaborate on content is a major benefit of this model, and with the right consideration and demarcation of “community produced content”, you can bolster and enhance the information you supply with corrections, amendments and even new topics written by your audience.

Publishing with a view that your content will be open to edits by the userbase opens new opportunities and several challenges.

It shortens the lifespan of content, anything that is wrong or out of date will be corrected by users much faster than you may be able to manage. Specific scenarios may also be documented which you may not normally have done.

Advantages
Ability to host and deliver user-generated content (real-life usage)
Increases the reach of your content (expands on the verified content technical writers provided)
A level of control (either through moderation or community self-correcting edits)

Disadvantages
Non-validated information – Potential for misinterpreting information written by another user
Who owns the information? User generated content needs to be clearly marked, cannot be supported as part of the product. Can it?

Technology
Two types of Wiki – traditional, markup driven, open structured like MediaWiki, or more structured, more content centric and aimed at content production like Atlassian Confluence

A Wiki is a publish/edit style format, allowing many people to collaborate on content (see Wikipedia)

Slides 19 to 22 – Collate and Share

One new area which social media has relies heavily on, the collation of content from numerous sources, presenting them as a collection of useful information for your users.

Increasingly, offering a collated set of information alongside formal documentation will be deemed to be a must have, pointers out to other content which may be of use. For many software products this is an easy extension, with a lot of useful information available by simply pointing to underlying platform documentation/topics or useful articles on usage and configuration, for example.

Advantages
Simple to set up and use
Spreads the reach of the content

Disadvantages
Non-validated information – Potential for misinterpreting information written by another user
No control over externally linked content – may change or disappear

Technology
There are many social bookmarking services, such as del.icio.us, and increasingly the sharing of collated content is available through RSS readers such as Google Reader. I’ve discussed this area in a little more detail already.

Slides 23 to 26 – Broadcast

The simplest of the models and very much “does exactly what it says on the tin”. You can use social media to broadcast updates and announcements to your users, and provide those snippets of content in ways that they want them.

Advantages
Simple to set up
Easily distributed by others (“Hey, have you seen this?”)

Disadvantages
Challenging to write (need to be as short as possible)
Can be seen as noise by some, so allowing opt-in to these messages is key

Technology
Twitter is main application in this area.
Twitter is a special case here, it is a specific tool built with broadcast in mind but which could be used in both Publish/Respond models, as well.

Slides 27 to 29 – Mashup

And now we get to the truth of the matter, there aren’t four models at all. There aren’t 10, or 10,000. This is a key point.

The manual is dead, and the future is flows of related content where the central commonality is the user. Not the product. After all, no-one uses just one product, there are a myriad of other sources of information that people want and need. The 20-somethings of today are growing up with this model, this open system of mashed up content, and will increasingly shun any company who don’t help them access content in the way they want it.

An example would be Tumblr. It’s a mix of blog, collation and broadcast tool. With a simple click I can add content (text, image, or video) to a stream of information that I, and only I, am interested in. I can share that stream if I choose, and other people can repost the content that I’ve added (with attribution to the original source). Whilst I’ve not yet seen a professional application that mimics Tumblr, it does speak to this future view of how people want to access and manipulate content.

There are many many tools available and the landscape is still changing, still evolving. Of all the applications shown in slide 29, around 20% of them didn’t exist last year, and 20% of them won’t exist in a few years time. As people develop how they USE content, so the tools are still being developed.

Slide 30 – The important bit.

There are only two things we are concerned about, content and the users of that content. Social media has given people the tools to take the content, and use it, strip it apart, and re-use it in whatever manner they want. The key thing here is that we need to provide the provision for this kind of re-use, even though we don’t actually know what it may be when we create the content.

The manual is dead, and the future is flows of related content where the central commonality is the user. Not the product. After all, no-one uses just one product, there are a myriad of other sources of information that people want and need. The 20-somethings of today are growing up with this model, this open system of mashed up content, and will increasingly shun any company who don’t help them access content in the way they want it.

Questions

How do you get this going? How do I get buy-in from management?
It’s always tricky to get these things going, and I was asked how to get management buy-in for this type of thing. My usual response is “if you don’t do this, and your users are passionate enough (and it only takes a smaller number of them) they’ll start using your information in these ways regardless of what you do. They’ll setup their own forums and communities to discuss, not always in glowing terms, your product. It’s better for you to be involved in those things, and if setup and promoted correctly they could become valuable assets to your company.

But what if these things are already in place and your company still doesn’t see the value? This was the case in hand, the users had already setup an online community of their own but still the management team didn’t see the need to be involved. In that situation, all I can suggest is that you contact whoever has organised it and politely ask if you can join. State that it’s a personal interest in your product, and could you get involved. You’d need to state that you work for the company, obviously, but if done in a ‘quiet’ manner you could at least have a view of what is being said, and with that insight.

In a seperate discussion the next day, I was asked a similar question and suggested that it may be best, when starting out, to start small. Pull out topics of information and ‘promote’ them to a blog. You don’t need to open up all of your content at the outset, test the water with a pilot, get some enthusiasm going within your organisation and if possible your customer base.

Thoughts on TCUK10

Flying back on Thursday evening I pondered the sessions I’d attended, the things I’d learned and the lessons and ideas I was taking home with me and one thing was missing. A central theme.

Now, admittedly by accident, the 2009 conference appeared to be centred around “conversation”. Whether it was a direct with the users, our part in the wider conversation happening in the emerging space of social media, or in rethinking the traditional role in terms of how users were expecting to access information.

I’d love to say that content strategy was the major theme but it didn’t seem to be, although I did attend two excellent presentations on that topic (thank you Roger and David), and as ever at this conference there were many presentations aimed at ideas and theories than tool based demonstrations. Well, that’s the impression I got from the sessions I attended.

And that’s one reason I like this conference. If you want, you can immerse yourself in some “BIG TOPIC” thinking, or learn more about a particular application you already use. Add in the conversations with fellow professionals, and the chance to talk directly to most of the main vendors in our industry, and there really is no good reason why you WOULDN’T want to attend the conference.

I especially like the fact that this year the format was a little different (nice idea on the “on the hour” starting times!) and that it has retained it’s friendly and open feeling. It’s not a dreary, dull, formal industry event, it’s a vibrant, energetic, well organised and thought provoking few days.

There was even a magician!

It’s hard to say what my main take home lesson was, other than that our profession continues to straddle many disciplines and that if you want to get to the cutting edge in terms of both technology and thought, then there are many many ways you can do so.

It’s a great conference, and it was interesting to see a higher number of people commenting about it on Twitter this year.

I’m still writing up my notes from my presentation, but should have them ready soon. I will post them along with a copy of the slides for those that are interested. I’ll also cover off a question that was asked at the end that I didn’t answer very well at the time but which I have a more considered response to now.

See you all next year, right?

Conference bound

There are three of us travelling down to the Technical Communications conference in Oxford. We fly down tonight, back on Thursday evening and I must admit I’m really looking forward to it.

And yes, I’ve still to finish my presentation (just a couple of rehearsals left though).

For those of you who can’t make it, but want a quick view of what’s going on, keep an eye on Twitter. Specifically the #TCUK10 hashtag.

And for those of you who CAN make it, I’ll see you there (I’ll be the loud Scottish bloke near the bar).

See you in September?

Are you in the UK? Are you attending the Technical Communication conference in September? If not, you really should, it’s looking like it will be an excellent conference.

The conference website is starting to gear up as well, and has posted some short interviews with some of the speakers, including yours truly. They should give you a flavour of what to expect at the sessions, many of which I’m hoping to be able to attend as well.

I’d imagine planning the sessions is one of the harder jobs when organising a conference, making sure there isn’t too much overlap and the programme this year seems to have a good balance. Certainly I think there is only one overlap with a session I would like to see that I can’t attend, but that’s because I’m presenting at the same time.

Hope to see many of you there, and remember, and this is the most important thing of all.

Mine’s a Guinness!