bookmark_borderWhat 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.

bookmark_borderSo 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.

bookmark_borderTCUK 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!

bookmark_borderTCUK – 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


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.

bookmark_borderConference 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.