Tag: <span>PDF</span>

This is an update to a previously published post.

Not all of the sessions are scheduled yet, so I’ll update this as and when but, if you are wanting a quick print out of the session to, for example, convince your boss to splash some cash, then hopefully this PDF will do the trick:
Technical Communications Conference 2010.

(Note: a similar PDF is also available from the conference website but I think mine is prettier :p)

What do you call your documents? What is the first thing you do when you start writing? What is the last?

All these things that you do without thinking about, the basic automation that your brain easily handles, over and over again, these things are, to you, so basic as to be forgettable. You don’t tell anyone else to do them (they must know, right?) and you probably don’t remember where you learned how to do them.

You bulid your own mental checklist and that takes care of that.

Need to provide a PDF of a document for someone? No problem, generate it this way, name it in this manner to keep it sensible and consistent and put it THERE (as you know everyone has access to it that way). And so on and so forth. All these things locked away in your head.

That mental checklist is made up of many things, from coping other people, reading books, and learned from mistakes. Without it you’d be lost, and with it you retain value as you are the person who knows how to do those things.

But that also means you are the bottleneck, the only person who knows X and Y, and can help with Z.

Better to share that information, let others learn and improve it (and they will). It allows them to do more, and lets you do other things. More power to the team, and a better service to the rest of the company, further cementing the value you bring to your organisation.

Work

Let me tell you a story. In it our hero (me) fights valiantly against two Javascript dragons called Webhelp and Google Analytics. It’s a bloody battle and at the end, when all the fighting is done, well … you’ll have to read on and find out.

Some background first.

We have a developer community website which hosts downloads of our software and all the documentation in PDF format. To make it easier for people to find information in the product documentation, we also host a Webhelp version of each and every document in one master Webhelp system so you can search across the entire thing. It works really well.

To track how the other areas of the website are used, we have a Google Analytics account and the necessary code has been added. For the Webhelp, the code is in both the index.htm and topic.htm files.

But, and this is where the story begins, it doesn’t work properly.

Google Analytics will happily track every visit to the WebHelp system, but it stops there. Any click made within the system is recorded as a click but there is no detail on WHAT topic was viewed. We had hoped to get stats on this to allow us to better focus on the areas of the product people were enquiring about but we are, essentially, blind.

It’s very annoying.

Why is this so? Well I think it’s to do with the way WebHelp is created. It uses a Javascript library called Ext JS which, amongst other things, means that every time you open a topic in the Webhelp, it’s loaded through a Javascript call so Google Analytics never ‘sees’ a new HTML page (a new topic) being loaded so doesn’t know what you are viewing.

I think. I’m not 100% sure to be honest.

I’ve logged a somewhat vague Support call with Author-it, and have enlisted the help of our own webmaster. Next step will be to beg and plead with some of the developers for some of their brain power (most of them have a fair bit to spare).

It’s hugely annoying, being so close to what we want but not able to fix it myself, but sometimes you just have to admit defeat.

Of the battle, that is. I WILL win the war!

Work

A few days ago I received an email about a new website. I’ve seen it mentioned on other blogs but think it’s worth repeating as there is some useful information there.

I am contacting you because I have just thought that maybe a post about my new web site on software documentation and user assistance could also be interesting for your readers. In addition to about 250 useful links for technical writers, the site for example provides checklists and up-to-date market surveys of more than 350 help authoring tools, screen capture tools, screencasting tools and other utilities for technical communicators. All information can also be downloaded as a PDF booklet (approx. 100 pages).

On the website you can find some basic know-how, checklists, tools and links, which will help you to create clear and concise user-friendly manuals, online help files, software demos, tutorials and other forms of user assistance. Go have a look.

Thanks to Marc Achtelig of indoition for getting in touch.

Work

Access

Yesterday we launched a new version of our developer community website. It doesn’t have many ‘community’ features as yet but that’s all to come. One thing it does now have is an HTML version of all of our product documentation, in an easily searchable format.

It’s no coincidence that it looks very much like the Author-it Knowledge Center as it too was built using Author-it (alas I can’t show you our website as it requires a login).

This new format of the product documentation is largely to move us away from PDF only documentation. At present we still have a set of PDFs but they aren’t particularly usable.

We ran a few quiet trials of the knowledge centre format and everyone who saw it liked it, particularly the fact you can search across every piece of information offered.

So I was definitely pleased when, after sending out a company-wide announcement about the new version of the website, highlighting some of the new features, one of the first pieces of feedback I received was about the knowledge centre and how good it was. For the, as the kids say, win!

The knowledge centre will be updated on a regular basis, so my next challenge is to figure out a way to embed RSS notifications for new/updated topics. But so far so good, and with Google Analytics in place in the knowledge centre, we can continue to make improvements to both the information itself and in making sure it is accessible.

It’ll be interesting to see how the knowledge centre is used, particularly if we manage to track it against the number of incoming support calls as the main reason we are adopting this format of information is because, many times, the answers are there, they just weren’t that easy to find.

Comments closed

I honestly can’t remember the last time I picked up a user manual, an honest-to-god paper book of technical documentation. Actually that’s a lie, it was just last week when i was tidying up. I picked up several user manuals and moved them to a lower shelf on my bookcase.

It’s also been a long time since I last worked for a company that produce and printed user manuals but that’s more to do with my career path than any decisions I made within those companies.

Even now whilst we have a “documentation set” comprising several different user manuals, it’s published to PDF and made available as part of the product distribution (and also online).

So why do we still maintain this view of how information should be provided?

There is a level of comfort in having a table of contents and a structure to the information available when writing technical information. It allows you to make sure all the required information is in place, but most of the research I’ve read, and most of the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard, suggests that those lovingly created table of contents are not heavily used.

The index is another area, hell it’s another profession altogether, that we spend a lot of time crafting and rightly so as it is used by many people to navigate their way through a document.

But one thing that trumps both of these methods isn’t available in printed documents but is widely available for online information. Search.

OK, so none of what I’m saying is new, or revolutionary, far from it. Those of us who have been creating online help, regardless of the format (a lot of which was before the internet was popularised), know that if there is a search option available, it will be used.

With that in mind, and this is most definitely something we will be consulting with our users about, we are toying with the idea of dumping the index and the table of contents, making sure the content has a good set of internal reference links so users (power and novice alike) can find “paths” through the information, and switching the front page to be a Google-esque search.

Luckily we can pilot this approach whilst still producing the Javahelp, PDFs and HTML (Webhelp in Author-it terms) output so we don’t completely alienate our users. It’ll be interesting to see outcome.

Work

I am a paper junkie. I’m a whore for a nice caliper of paper, not too thick as to be card, not too thin as to be unsubstantial. I love the feel of paper, the rustle and rigidity that give way with a subtle movement. I love the sound of ink being laid down, the gentle drag as my hand loops and dots across the page.

Despite all the advances of modern technology, I don’t see this changing. In fact I’m such a slave to this way of thinking that I’ll often print off an email if it contains important information that I’ll need at some point in the next day or so.

As such I walk around with a notebook (A4 size, hard bound, company branded) stuffed with ‘important’ sheets of information, with said sheets usually adorn with numerous, equally important, scribbles and notes.

And of course there in lies the problem. As of yet computers cannot match the speed nor convenience of pen/pencil and paper.

It is then a short leap and a step to full on stationery porn. Lusting over Moleskin notepads, gushing over the smooth flow of ink from a Mont Blanc. I’m not quite there yet. Yet.

But what of paper in our profession? The last time I was involved with a print house was over 10 years ago (blimey), and these days whilst we still produce user manuals, they are in the now ubiquitous PDF format. Information these days is largely thought of in electronic terms, yet everyone I know prefers reading novels in ‘old fashioned’ print format.

And I guess that is the problem, whilst the main thing we consume and produce is electronically focussed, many of us are still looking to paper as the medium. Which, if you are a paper junkie like me, is a good and a bad thing.

But mostly bad.

Work

The following are not in any particular order. Some are tips gleaned from experience, some are links to the knowledge being shared by others, all have helped us get us from a standing start to a full content conversion and production delivery in under 4 months. We started with ~2450 topics of imported content, and managed to keep pace with the development team as well as cleanup and backfill the imported content. Quite a feat!

Working with Author-it

As we were converting a LOT of content from FrameMaker to Author-it, there was a LOT of cleanup required. Being able to customise the styles toolbar, adding in the most common used paragraph styles for example, was a huge bonus. We ended up creating one under the Supervisor login, and then each team member copied that to their installation.

Apparently Prompt for unsaved changes is turned off by default. We found this out the hard way, so click the big Author-it A and check in the options to turn this on.

JavaHelp Tips

JavaHelp uses the HTML templates, so if you provide customised HTML templates it will use those.

This next one might be specific to the way our development kit works.

To get context senstive help working you need to add the agreed string to the Context String field on the Help tab of the Topic Properties dialog.

We used this on some topics that will only appear in the help system, allowing us to create ‘landing pages’ which can then direct users to the most pertinent topics for the area of the product they were using when they launched the online help.

MiniTOC

These are, by default, used in Chapter templates. To get better control of the layout of these (our issues were mainly with vertical white space, or lack thereof) we decided to not have any content in a Chapter topic. That way it is only used to hold/generate the MiniTOC and the next topic holds the first block of text for the chapter.

Terminology

To make it easier to reuse topics anywhere, we switched our terminology slightly. There is no such thing as a chapter anymore, unless you have Word/PDF specific topics. We use ‘section’ instead.

Word template

The source of many a frustration, but that’s not really the fault of Author-it.

One thing I’d suggest you do first would be to figure out what macros you need and get them into the template first. Remember to configure the Publishing engine to use them as well.

We are using the following macros, all of which are available from the Author-it Yahoo Group:

  • HyperlinkedTOC – creates links from the table of contents text, rather than just the page numbers
  • RemoveCH – Removes the CH from the SuperHeading text
  • ResizePictures – makes sure images fit the column width
  • ResizeTables – make sure tables fit the column width
  • SaveAsPDF – creates a PDF of the Word document

See how to Add an Author-it AfterPublish macro to the Word template for a simple set of instructions.

Problems with numbering? Julie Goodwin, Technical Support Team Leader at Author-it, popped up in a comment last month and pointed me at this solution.

Useful links

First place to head for information is, unsurprisingly, the Author-it Knowledge Center, it’s a replication of the entire documentation set plus some very useful Tips and Tricks and Workarounds.

After that, your next step should be the Author-it Yahoo Group. It’s active and full of hugely helpful and knowledgeable people and without their help I don’t think we’d have managed to hit our project deadline.

One member of the Yahoo Group, Rhonda Bracey, has published several excellent tips on her blog. Well worth a look.

A recent addition to Author-it, one we are currently looking at, are Variants. Hamish Blunck has an excellent overview of how Variants work, and there are more goodies to be found on his website.

And last, but not least, there is an official Author-it Blog which publishes product news, tips and tricks and other random stuff on a regular basis.