25 September 2010

TCUK 2010... it's all about engagement

I'm suffering a little from 'information overload' and am slowly recovering from an extremely stimulating three days at TCUK 2010. The specialist stream this year was e-learning, and as I've just started a course called "The eLearning Professional" with the Open University, I thought I'd focus my attention there... with the occasional diversion into cognitive psychology and the use of images in technical documentation.

Highlights for me were...

The two workshops I attended on the Tuesday (Rose Hilder and David Jones gave an good introduction to Author-IT - a product I've heard of but never used - and Mike Hamilton from MadCap told me some stuff about recording audio that I wish I'd known a couple of years ago! Both sessions were very practical, with the Author-IT session in particular providing plenty of hands-on opportunities, and with Mike demonstrating how to "clean up" sound recordings to give a professional polish to the final product.

Chris Atherton provided some more fascinating insights into the world of cognitive psychology. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk that Chris gave last year, and had been eagerly looking forward to this year's... I wasn't disappointed.

I found Martin Block's talk around the use of images in software documentation to be thought-provoking, and it linked in with Ellis Pratt's discussion of the emotional element of documentation, and with many, many others who mentioned the need to "tell a story" and engage the reader. When I first started writing user documentation – long before I knew I was a 'technical author' – I wrote user guides for software used by health care professionals in the NHS (District Nurses, Health Visitors and so on). At the time, the majority of my readers were non-technical and I used to create families – named people, who would have accidents, be discharged from hospital, have babies and so on. I would use these families throughout my documentation, building little stories. I rarely mentioned them explicitly, but the screenshots always showed something plausible, following on from an earlier section in the guide. Martin does a similar thing. He uses the fields in the dialogue boxes to support the message he is giving... simple things like making sure a mobile phone number begins with '07' so it's recognised for what it is. Although someone raised the question of the cost of translation/localisation (not only would new screenshots be required, but would someone have to translate the content into something relevant for the appropriate country?), I wonder if simplifying the process for the reader outweighs (in many cases) the cost of that translation? And is the cost of the translation necessarily more than the cost (both human and financial) of incorrectly maintained equipment because someone hasn't understood the instructions? I know as a reader, one of the things I find most confusing is when screenshots are not consistent in terms of content, or contain no information at all.

Back to e-learning, Zoe Rose's presentation means I now understand much more clearly the advantages and disadvantages of SCORM, Greg Daffern helped me to think of some other uses for some of the tools out there (which helps me to justify the cost) and Simon Bostock reminded us all that e-learning that doesn't involve the learner in some way beyond clicking to move on is no better than sitting listening to a long dull lecture...

I'm already looking forward to TCUK 2011!

04 September 2010

Learning something new...

I've got a passion for learning, as anyone who knows me can testify. I've always been interested in finding out about new things – how they work, and why is the way it is.

I've just started a new course with the Open University. I don't know that I'll follow all the way through to an MA (I might... I'll see how it goes) but I'm really looking forward to it. I'm doing a course called "The eLearning Professional" - which ties in nicely with the specialist stream at TCUK this year.

I'll let you know how I get on...

20 August 2010

E-learning: another form of technical communication

I've always considered myself to be both a technical author and a teacher/trainer, and I've also developed software simulations for well-known companies – and, to me, e-learning development uses all of those skills. I've learnt a lot over the years from people I've worked with on various projects, and am about to start one of the Open University's Online and Distance Education courses... but nothing beats talking to other enthusiastic e-learning professionals when you're not trying to meet a deadline. Technical Communication UK is an annual conference hosted by my own professional body - and I'm really looking forward to this year because.... there is a dedicated e-learning stream! See you there?

12 August 2010

A geek at heart

I'm learning how to write documentation using the DocBook format... and it's quite a learning curve, but I'm enjoying the challenge. The XML aspects are fine – I've got a fairly good grasp of that side of things – but the practicalities are proving interesting.

I've got a number of files to convert from unstructured FrameMaker files to DocBook format. That is relatively straightforward, although I think there's going to be a fair amount of manual intervention involved one way or another.

I've then got to work out how I'm going to publish the resulting book as a PDF. I can use FrameMaker to do that bit, but part of the reason for the change is to remove reliance on any one tool. There are a lot of other products out there that do the same thing, but in slightly different ways.

I'm enjoying working within the constraints of the schema, and the construction of the documents is (obviously) very logical. Watch this space and I'll let you know how I get on...

07 August 2010

Blaming the tools

A frequent debate – you might almost say lament – amongst people in the technical communication community is about the tools we use to do our jobs. Every tool in existence has those who love it – and those who hate it. Personally, I feel it's a case of “best tool for the job” – and for the most part, I don't care what I use. In fact, I quite enjoy the challenge of someone requesting something I haven't used before.

I do, though, feel quite strongly that I should understand how a tool works or I won't be working efficiently. What's worse, I could leave a project with a documentation suite that collapses like a heap of cards as soon as someone tries to make a change. But it's not all down to me. Anyone who edits a complex document has the same responsibility.

A lot of the grumbling about the various tools is because someone hasn't taken the trouble to find out how the one in question works, or what its limitations are. Imagine how a car manufacturer would respond to these complaints:
Fuel consumption is through the roof, the engine is noisy and I can't go faster than 40mph People have told me I need to change gear – but I don't see why I should have to do that. I want to stay in first gear. Your car is rubbish.
I bought a small car because it was cheap, but it can't tow my very large caravan when I go on holiday in the mountains. I should be able to tow any size caravan I want with your car – I don't care that it wasn't designed to tow anything more than a small trailer.
I don't think the person complaining would get very far – do you? But that's similar to what I see and hear all the time about the various tools out there. What do you think?

29 July 2010

I'm hooked - blog #2 underway

I'm creating a second blog to run in parallel with this one... both linked from my website. I'm going to gradually post hints and tips about Microsoft Word onto it, as I use Word all the time for some quite complex stuff...the idea being that if someone disagrees with something I say, I'll have learnt something!

I've also gained another follower on Twitter, so I'd better keep it going now I've started!

19 July 2010

Blog and website linked

It's taken me most of the weekend to sort it out – my CSS skills are a little rusty and I'd never seen the Blogger code before – but I've managed to integrate Blogger and my website... and I'm reasonably pleased with the result. I've published this blog to subdomains of clearly-stated.co.uk instead of leaving it with a blogger url. I played with Blogger to get the general look and feel as I wanted it (as much as I could with my limited knowledge), then changed the CSS of my website to correspond. It's not perfect... and some of the differences are deliberate... but I'm really pleased with the overall result. You can tell that you've left my site (the top bar gives it away!) but you also feel that the elements belong together. Overall, a success. I'm just waiting now for someone with a browser I don't have to tell me it doesn't work on their combination...

10 July 2010

Not all changes are bad... but I do wish they'd warn you!

I'm currently working on a suite of documents that were created in versions of Word ranging from Word 2000 to Word 2003. Most of the team is now using Word 2007... but that shouldn't be a problem, should it? The templates still work as expected, and the documents look fine while working on them. The problem only raised its head when I created the first press-ready PDF. What had happened to all the beautiful high-resolution diagrams? They looked awful - and there were a lot of them!

I wasted a bit of time messing about with Acrobat, making sure I hadn't accidentally changed a setting, but no - everything was still OK. A bit of searching online soon revealed what appears to be the culprit... the graphic filters in Word 2007 are different from previous versions. The .eps images have always looked a bit odd in Word - you are only seeing a low-resolution preview at that stage - but have always looked fantastic in the PDF sent to press. Now, the press-ready PDF didn't look any better than the Word document - the images were low-resolution and blocky. Fortunately opening the Word files in Word 2003 and creating the PDFs from there solved the problem... and I needed to add any new images in that format into Word 2003 as well.

Less than 24 hours before the deadline is not the time to find this out!!

09 July 2010

Where does all the time go?

You know what it's like... you start something off, have a clear idea of where you're heading (or maybe not) and think it'll all be done and dusted in a week or so. That was the "big idea" about this blog... all bar the writing, of course. It only took me a Saturday afternoon and evening to get it up and running... and most of that was waiting for the technical stuff to filter through (I wanted it to be part of my domain, not on someone else's). I wrote my first two posts over that weekend, too. Then it all ground to a halt. All I needed to do was add a link to my website, and the job was done... I've finally got there!

27 June 2010

While I'm talking about conferences....

Technical Communication UK 2010 is running from 21st to 23rd September in Oxford. It's the conference put on by my professional association (the ISTC) - and as I've been involved in selecting the speakers, I can tell you it's going to be a fantastic event... easily as good as last year. I'm going to have a real problem deciding which sessions to attend, because the specialist stream this year is a particular interest of mine... e-learning. If you're in any way connected with technical communication, or e-learning, visit the Technical Communication UK website and have a look at the programme. There are still one or two gaps as we're getting the final details approved by some of the speakers, but the majority is there now.

26 June 2010

I've attended my first online conference

I attended my first online conference this week. A professional conference, with presentations and speakers, on a serious subject. The sort of thing that traditionally would have required me to travel, possibly staying away from home.

The conference was organised by the Open University and was run on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. All I needed was my computer and a set of headphones. I could have managed without the headphones, but using them was comfortable and I could have contributed if I'd wanted to.

There is no way I could have taken two whole days out of what was a relatively busy week for me... but because of the way the conference was organised, and because I was sitting in front of my own computer, I could listen to the bits that were particularly relevant, and monitor emails and do a bit of routine background work at other times.

I have never attended an online conference like this before - and I was pleasantly surprised. I thought I'd miss the interaction with the other delegates, but not so. There were specific times set aside for question and answer sessions and break-out discussion groups, but what fascinated me was the ongoing online chat. People were asking questions, responding, discussing issues raised - all why the presentation was going on. Every so often, the presenter would spot something interesting in the chat and highlight it. You couldn't do that at a traditional conference... could you imagine the "Shhh!" you would get if you were having conversations loud enough for everyone else to hear during the talk!

I'm not suggesting that every conference should be replaced by an online version... and maybe the participants were self-selecting (anyone not comfortable with a computer wouldn't sign up in the first place). It's something worth considering, though, and the pool of delegates came from Australia, America, various parts or Europe and the Far East.