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!

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