UA Conference Notes – Day 2

Notes and thoughts from Day 2 of the User Assistance Conference

Session 1 – Juliette Fleming – XML Tagging and Search Facets
An early start for an interesting session in which Juliette outlined how Oracle have introduced search Facets to their online help system. Essentially a facet is a tagged chunk of information or help topic, and their help system has been coded to make the most of these by using the tags to decide in which context the help topic should be used.

This allows their help system to display information, for example, for a given product version, language, product and topic type when the user clicks to get help from the application. The facets are also used to present, essentially, pre-populated searches as a starting point (or Keystone Concept, perhaps) for the context-sensitive help. A smart idea.

Session 2 – Tony Self – Implementing Collaborative Authoring with Wikis
I didn’t attend this session but heard it was a good introduction to the topic for beginners. Having presented on this topic myself I figured it was safe to take some time out.

Session 3 – Rachel Potts and Brian Harris – Delivering Help in a Support Portal
An entertaining presentation on a topic that matches some of my thoughts of where my team and I should be heading. The core problem that Red Gate had was to tie together the myriad of information sources into a cohesive whole as they figured that their users didn’t care where or how they got the information they needed, even though Red Gate offered many distinct to try and guide them to a particular type of information.

With a little effort they came up with a solution which included restyling some of the existing information, and taking a new direction for the online help, recognising that most of their users would look for Support rather than Help (acknowledging that most people don’t like to admit they need ‘help’!). Shifting to Author-it for their technical writing team, they post-process the output to provide better metadata which enables the search engine and supporting presentation framework components to offer the best information at the best time.

As we are moving to Author-it it was very interesting but I was a little disappointed to find out (when chatting to Rachel and Brian later on) that they are ditching Author-it because, when creating new versions of topics, you lose the associated metadata. I’m hoping that’s just a bug that has yet to be fixed and will be checking that with Author-it very soon.

Session 3 – Dave Gash – Introduction to XSL Transforms
Following on from his presentation the day before, Dave suggested that this would be an easy to follow session on a fairly simple topic (even though it can end up being very complex to pull together).

However, having dabbled with XSLT myself I decided to sit this one out and spent some time chatting to some of the vendors.

Session 4 – Leisa Reichelt – Practical User Research
Having been an avid reader of, where Leisa blogs on User Experience topics, and as it wasn’t directly a technical writing focussed presentation, I was looking forward to this presentation. Leisa’s style and delivery kept it interesting and informative, and seemed to be very well received.

Taking the role as a user advocate is a common one for a technical writer, and a lot of what Leisa was discussing was simply taking that a step further. She offered some suggestions on how to capture better user information as well as offering some simple reasoning that shows you can do useful research with a small set of subjects, and a simple model that shows that, without all the correct design processes in place “changing buttons on a user interface is like shuffling chairs on the titanic”.

As I’ve mentioned here on this blog, I’m a big fan of technical writers pushing (or encroaching?) into other areas. For many smaller companies without the budget to hire a dedicated usability professional it’s good to know that even a small effort in this area can make a difference, and that effort will mean a better understanding of your audience which is always a good thing.

Session 5 – Matthew Ellison – Creating Table Styles in CSS
Again, another session I skipped largely because I’m quite comfortable styling with CSS and a quick google suggests similar information is widely available online.

Session 6 – Prof. Geoffrey K Pullum – Far from the Madding Gerund
I have to admit that it was with a wary head that I took my seat for the closing session of the conference. I’ll happily admit (and lord knows there is plenty of proof right here in this blog) that whilst my writing is acceptable the finer points of grammar are occasionally ignored, so the thought of listening to a grammarian waffle on about deontic modality or ditransitive verbs didn’t exactly thrill me.

So it was with some humility and shame that I apologies to Professor Pullum as his talk was fascinating, funny and hugely enjoyable. Seating his advice in examples, and several quotes from The Importance of Being Earnest, he assured as all that our writing was perfectly acceptable and that we should ignore people who seek to enforce arcane and just plain wrong grammar rules. Split your infinitives if you must, dangling your modifiers and feel free to end that sentence with a preposition if you feel the sentence warrants it.

Ultimately, Prof. Pullum assured us, we are all professionals and the way we write is accurate for the audience. That and the fact that a lot of grammatical advice is complete nonsense.

If you get the chance to hear him speak, do so. Even if only to hear his range of accents, all of which are executed so well I have to wonder if he spends some time practising them.


  1. Couldn’t agree more about Professor Pullum’s closing session. Not only does he talk a huge amount of common sense, backed up with astonishing erudition, but he’s one of the most engaging, charismatic speakers I’ve ever heard at a conference. I could have listened to him all day long. Kudos to Matthew for inviting him to attend (and perhaps for organising the conference in his home town for that very reason!)

  2. He was good, wasn’t he. And thanks for taking the time to chat with me about your presentation. I’ve just responded to an email from Rachel (so apologies for stating you’d decided to drop Author-it if that is not really the case!!)

  3. Prof Pullum’s talk was the highlight of the conference for me. I thought he was great. Personally, as someone who could never get too worked up about supposed grammatical errors – as long as the meaning is clear, I’m not too fussed how you say it – I found his talk very heartening.

    Down with Grammar Fascism!

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