I recently attended the Glastonbury Festival and, despite the mud and mayhem around me, found myself pondering an issue that we have in our documentation set.

Throughout the week I was at the festival I spent a lot of time consulting a map of the festival site, trying to figure out both where I was and where I should go next. It wasn’t always easy and I got it wrong several times causing us to have to stop at the nearest beer tent, you know, just to make sure we weren’t completely lost.

The signposts around the festival site weren’t always clear, nor particularly abundant) and whilst we coped, it is definitely something they could improve. Being lost is never fun, and at some point over that week I realised this was similar to an issue we have with our documentation.

It was very much one of those thoughts that had probably been percolating at the back of my brain (a dark and dusty place, if truth be told) for a few days. Somewhere in those dark recesses, prompted by frequently being lost at the festival, my brain dragged up a quote from a blogpost I’ve mentioned in this months ISTC newsletter (you don’t have to be a member to receive the newsletter, anyone can sign up and anyone can view the archives).

The quote that had, seemingly, lodged in my head was “every page is page one”; the blog post it’s taken from is well worth a read (it’s linked in the newsletter).

Like many of you, we have a LOT of content, particularly when it’s broken down into topics. Whilst we take care to plan out what content we will be adding to make sure the structure makes sense, we realise it’s not always easily findable. One of the main reasons is that, by and large, most people will find their way into the content via the search results.

Taking the maxim that “every page is page one” makes sense for our situation, but how do we best signpost where the user has landed?

Have you tackled this issue? Do you have a solution? I’d love to hear your suggestions on this.

bookmark_borderA new view

A few years ago, having bought my first digital camera, I realised there was much more to taking a photograph than just “point and shoot” and I started to consider the machinations of photography a bit more seriously,

I read up on things like exposure, aperture, f-stops and other things with odd names to make sure I had a good grasp of the basics. Then I bought a semi-SLR camera with the aim of practicing with that so when I “upgraded” to a full SLR I’d be getting the most of all the capabilities. Well that and the semi-SLR camera was much cheaper.

So, armed with my Canon Powershot S3 I started taking photos “properly”. I was mindful of the lessons I had learned, and spent a lot of time experimenting to better understand all the capabilities my camera had. I took a lot of photos, I mean A LOT of photos, and I reckon I was happy with about 5% of them which was fine as that was all part of learning how to take better photographs.

Composition is, it seems, my strength. I have a good eye for what should be in a shot to get the best image. The rest of the techniques and technological faffing is where I start to lose my way a little and that’s largely due to a lack of understanding of the basics, no matter how many ways I tried to learn them (how DO you make the water tumbling over rocks in a waterfall look all blurry?). And the more I had to try and learn, the less fun it got and the less interested I became.

I tried a few ways to counter this, buying new lens for the camera to give me something to experiment with, but ultimately it seems to be doomed.

Yup, in fitting with every profiling technique I’ve ever tried, I stay true to one aspect of my personality.

I’m quickly bored and easily distracted.

[insert “ohhh shiny” joke here]

For a while I really enjoyed wandering around with my camera, finding hidden alleyways and forgotten spaces, taking photos of odd things and capturing tiny fragments of beauty as I came upon them. Unfortunately I started to realise that I enjoyed the wandering but not the “which feckin’ setting would be best for this” bit when it came to actually taking the photos and so, slowly, I stopped doing such things.

It’s also not easy to carry around a ‘big’ camera all the time and, invariably whenever I needed it (that is, I spotted something that I thought would make a good/interesting photo) I didn’t have it with me.

So I bought a second camera, a Ricoh Caplio R7, just so I had something smaller for ‘snapshots’ and random photo opportunities. I don’t carry it with me all the time though, but I do use it far more than I did my ‘big’ camera.

Add in the constant march of technology and it’s time for me to revisit WHY I take photos and match the equipment to my approach. It’s telling that, since finding a couple of iPhone apps that do a good job of processing photos on the handset directly, I’m far more likely to use it as my ‘snapshot’ camera these days and given it’s only a 2MB camera, that in itself suggests I’m more interested in the content of the photo than any of the things the purists would worry about.

The upshot of all this is that I’m selling my Canon Powershot S3 and the accompanying lens. The Ricoh (which was used for the photo in the post below) is good enough for my needs at the moment, and I’m happy to rely on my iPhone for the occasional snapshot.

This should free me to get back to enjoying photography, back to letting my eye wander and capturing those instants and scenes that stick in my mind.

Some of which I post here.

bookmark_borderWhy I am a Technical Writer

Having been in a bit of a lull, I recently asked those who follow me on Twitter what I should blog about. This post is in response to a suggestion from Peter Anghelides who replied: “Blog about why you became a technical author?

Which is a good a topic as any as, like many people in this industry, I certainly didn’t set out to be a Technical Writer, far from it.

For me Technical Writing combines two of my early interests, words and technology. Growing up I read a lot, and was lucky enough that my Dad used to bring a computer home at the weekend. BBC (Acorn) Micro, and later the first Mac Plus. I’ll happily admit to crafting documents (leaflets and the like) in every single available font on one page!

When it came time to leave school, Physics was my main interest area, and looking to add a technology slant I chose a course in Electronic and Electrical Engineering. In hindsight that was a mistake but it’s not something I regret. A few years later, with University behind me, I had converted my part-time job in McDonalds to a full-time job as I cast about for a ‘real’ job!

It was my Mum who spotted an advert in the local paper from a company looking to hire a “Technical Administrator”. The role was a mixed bag of tasks, largely supporting the small development team (all 12 of them) and after successfully negotiating a short writing test about how to use a flatbed scanner, I was soon put to work, writing documentation for their application. With little or no instruction or guidance I looked to those big clunky manuals that I had sitting on my desk, and it’s no small coincidence that the documentation I produced bore a striking similarity in style and layout to that of the Adobe FrameMaker 4.5 manual.

Towards the end of my time there, in 1995 if I recall correctly, I was sent on a two-day training course on how to create HTML pages with a view of setting up a company website. And so my journey on the internet began.

Having been made redundant I moved to England to Dr.Solomons where I gained a LOT of knowledge in a short space of time, working in a well organised, well run team. Some of the lessons learned there I now find myself echoing to my current team. A brief stint running the team also made me realise that I was capable of taking that step up.

The next role relied on my web expertise (a large part of my time at Dr.Solomons was focussed around web delivery of information) and also took me into another large company (was Tetra, now owned by Sage). A different working environment, and yet more to learn.

It was during those early years of my career that I realised that I’d fallen into a wonderful world where I could, if I so wished, dip my finger into a manner of different discussions and be involved with a large variety of people in different areas of a company. I’d speak with the QA engineers about issues with the product, talk to the Product Marketing team about how the product was being sold and who was buying it, the translation team were at the next set of desks and I’ve been lucky that most of the developers I’ve worked with have all been smart, friendly and helpful individuals. Even the grumpy ones.

My first step into team management was taken with some trepididation, but I’ve always trusted my own ability to learn quickly and with a little guidance (and one awful mistake) I think I’ve a good handle on how to get the best from a team of technical writers (for the most part, let them get on with it, they are more than capable without me!) and in the past couple of years I’ve learned a lot about selling our role to the company.

I’ve been lucky, both in the decisions made about my career (not all of which I’ve had a say in with two job changes brought about through redundancy) and especially in terms of the people I’ve worked with. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, mentors and managers that I do sometimes wonder quite how I got where I am today.

And that’s why I’m happy to say that I’m a Technical Writer*, that I work in the field of Technical Communications and I don’t see either of those things changing any time soon.

* not that I do a lot of writing these days, my official title is Technical Information Manager, read into that what you will

bookmark_borderBest Post

For a while now I’ve been meaning to update the About page of this blog. Ideally I’d like to put a short list of the ‘best’ posts from this blog.

Trouble is, whilst I’m quite happy to choose the list myself, it’s sort of tricky to find them, I mean seriously, there is a LOT of crap in here.

I would use the number of comments as an indicator but, having only switched to WordPress a couple of years ago and deciding then (foolishly) that I wouldn’t bother migrating all the old comments over, I’m a bit stuck.

Dare I ask my readers to help out?

Would any of them be able to list one ‘best’ post, let alone three??

Only one way to find out I guess.

I’m away all of next week so don’t worry, you don’t have to rush, but if any of you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear what you, dear reader, consider to be the top posts on this here blog.

bookmark_borderPsychological Music

I have a LOT of music. I buy a lot, borrow some, obtain others (hey, would you pass up a 4GB download of every “Now” album.. yeah I know, I should’ve too). The one thing I’ve always had a problem with is tracking my short-term listening habits.

I tend to buy music in spurts. I’ll purchase several albums at one time and listen to them when I get a chance, which is where my problem begins. Because I don’t ever sit down to listen to music, it’s always on in the background) then it can take a while for an album to wheedle it’s way into my affections.

I guess I should learn my lesson and cut back on my musical purchases but there is still that part of me that wonders if I’m about to miss the next big thing (when, in reality, I ALWAYS miss it.. ).

Anyway, what usually happens is that one or two albums instantly take root in my brain and remain there for some time. I generally have 5 or 6 albums on rotation but even then some albums slip through the cracks and fall into the depths of my music library (I AM trying to cut back though, I know that 106GB of music isn’t really practical to manage… ahem).

However, having recently purchased a 250GB external hard drive (a Western Digital passport) and backing up all my music there I decided to take it into work as I had a quiet couple of days ahead. Rather than copy the music to my PC, I left it on there and decided to create a new iTunes library. It took about 20 mins to scan it all and then I had a pristine library to browse.

And you know what? All of a sudden I’m actually browsing it rather than relying on various smart lists to filter the new from the old. Without any metadata bogging me down I’m suddenly free to go and find whatever music I stumble across. Yes, I know I could’ve done that before but I guess not having any way to manipulate the tracks, or at least not having my usual methods available to me (smartlists for recently added and recently played) I’ve ended up just randomly scrolling through the library and picking whatever takes my fancy.

It’s been hugely liberating. So much so I’m almost considering doing the same at home.



And just like that, I’m back at work…

My family came over on Friday night and off we headed to a local hotel (Avonbridge) for a birthday dinner for Louise. Great food, shockingly bad service. We didn’t even bother staying for dessert, instead grabbing some Equi’s on the way home (Equi’s is a local ice cream parlour who make THE most delicious double cream ice cream… if you are ever in the area give it a try).

Saturday and with Louise off out visiting babies, I did some work, caught up on some of the Glastonbury acts, did a little painting (still finishing off the hall, with everything taking at least one more coat than we thought), did a little shopping and generally pottered around, drinking far too many cups of coffee. An excellent Saturday.

I picked up the new White Stripes album and, partly through word of mouth, impulse bought Justice’s album Cross. Both are ace for entirely different reasons. The latter is.. ohhh probably called Electro-dance-pop or somesuch and is hugely catchy, the former a return to form for Meg and Jack White (a recent article in one of the Sunday papers hinted at such). I’ve still to listen, in any depth, to Alison Krausse and Calvin Harris.

I also installed the Firebug extension for Firefox without which I wouldn’t have been able to finish for.. eh… Bob. But I did, and I’m glad that he likes it.

Sunday and my original plans of lazing about doing feck all were altered slightly and I spent most of my day, either precariously balanced on a slightly wobbly set of ladders, my head about 13ft from the stairs on which they were perched, or walking out along a plank of wood perched between the top stair and a rung on said wobbly set of ladders, whilst painting a stairwell ceiling and walls. I’m not a big fan of heights (or more accurately, not a big fan of possibly falling from said height) so it was more than a little stressful. Being tall has downsides.

And the real kicker is that it wasn’t even our house! We were helping out my sister-in-law who has just had the inside of her entire house remodelled. Her living room is bigger, she’s had a downstairs loo installed (sorry “cloakroom”), the bathroom upstairs is now twice the size, new stairs, and every wall in the living room and stairwell was replastered. Needless to say there was a LOT of painting needing done and it’s times like these when family really count. We arrived about 10.30am, and by 6.30pm we’d completed the whole place, two coats on most walls, three on the ceilings.

We left completely and utterly knackered but with a healthy glow of satisfaction beaming from our faces… or perhaps that was just the fine spray of ‘amber dusk’ from the roller.

How was your weekend?