27 October 2011

Winning a documentation award

I’ve been a member of the ISTC for quite a few years now, and have been ‘aware’ of the award scheme but had never managed to enter it before (for various reasons).

I was absolutely delighted this year to find that I’d won the Instructional Class at my first attempt. Yippeee!

26 October 2011

tcworld at Wiesbaden - October 2011

I arrived back home after midnight on Thursday night/Friday morning after an exhausting – but very enjoyable – three days manning a stand at tcworld in Wiesbaden, Germany. I was there, with a colleague, representing my own professional organisation (the ISTC) among associations from many other countries.

We were busy – so much so that I only managed to attend one session (and now know a little more about HTML5 as a result). We (the ISTC) don’t attend every year, so it was interesting to see what had had changed since our last visit in 2009.

As always, the size of the exhibition at the event was huge – filling three large halls. I recognised some from TCUK (Technical Communication UK), the conference hosted by the ISTC. Many, though, were completely new to me. As you would expect in a location in the heart of Europe, surrounded by countries speaking other languages, translation and localisation companies made up a significant proportion of them.

The gratifying change was that our association is becoming recognised – mainly as a result of our success with our conference and through our flagship publication, Communicator.

The sheer numbers meant that the sense of community didn’t seem as strong as at our own more intimate conference, but I did meet – and have some meaningful conversations with – some very interesting people. A signifcant number of the presentations (about a third) were in English, and I believe that is normal for this conference. If you are able to attend, even for just one day, it would be worth it.

Sometimes I feel I’m very much in a minority profession; attending an event like this makes me realise just how many technical communicators there are.

25 October 2011

Technical Communication UK 2011 (Day 3)

I spent most of the final day in the ‘Anything but text’ stream, with the only exception being the first session of the day.

I began the final day of the conference by attending Zsuzsa Nagy's session (‘The ups and downs for using a wiki for tech pubs guidelines’) as I had suggested a wiki to a current client to meet their requirements for content that was centrally stored and easily updated... and I had promised to investigate further at the conference. Zsuzsa’s session answered the majority of my questions, and I found some of the hints and tips she gave for keeping the content up to date very useful.

Zsuzsa’s company uses twiki, an open source wiki that is easily customisable. They add a few bits of information to every page: the owner of the page (so someone had responsibility for ensuring the content was current) and the date when the content was last reviewed. Last reviewed was felt to be more useful than last changed, as a review may result in no changes to the content if it is still accurate – but it was felt people were more confident to use the content if they could see it had been checked relatively recently.

I followed Zsuzsa’s session with one given by someone who feels like an old friend. Ron Blicq ran a short workshop at the very first ISTC conference I attended, and I remember sitting with him at lunchtime on that day and feeling very much at ease. Ron’s presentation this time was particularly inspiring for me, as he had used his communication skills to reach a very special audience: people with learning difficulties and their parents. I was impressed both with the way Ron had approached the task, presenting the information as a series of short plays, and the way in which the scripts were so true to life. I believe Ron is writing an article about this project for the Winter 2011 edition of Communicator – and even though I was at the presentation, I will read it with great interest.

Staying with the non-text theme, Matt Pierce from TechSmith gave us some ideas on screen captures using Snag-It (a favourite tool of mine) – and in return, I mentioned to him some of the little niggles I have with the program.

Afer lunch, Matthew Ellison’s session (‘Speak out! Narrate your way to success’) helped those of us who occasionally have to provide audio to accompany our software simulations to do so with more confidence. One piece of information from Matthew really stuck in my mind – and was useful just a few days later. He said to try to record as much audio as you could in one go, and if you needed to have a second (or third) session to try to do the recording at the same time of day. I had noticed that I sometimes sounded different when playing back audio to tidy it up, but hadn’t realised until Matthew said that the time of day (and how much I had been using my voice) was one of the things causing the difference.

The popular questions and rants session from the previous year was repeated, with a number of participants each being allocated three minutes to have their say. I had a question/rant myself... why do Adobe products (Captivate and FrameMaker are the two that mainly affect me) make it impossible to make changes to a file created in an older version without upgrading the format to the new version?

The closing keynote was given by Ellis Pratt – thank you, Ellis, for stepping in at virtually the last minute. A very interesting talk, which rounded the three days off nicely, giving us plenty to think about as we found our way home.

17 October 2011

Technical Communication UK 2011 (Day 2)

I know there’s been a bit of a gap between Day 1 and this post – but I’ve been playing catch-up for a while. Writing down what I did and what I learnt is useful for me anyway, so I’m going to get on with it before I forget.

There was so much choice that I struggled to decide what to attend. I’m a lone technical author and although I could end up working in a very structured-authoring way, I haven’t been in that environment since going freelance nearly 7 years ago. (Maybe my contracting colleagues who work full-time on projects for a number of months have more exposure, but my work tends to be shorter, more discrete pieces of work.) Based on this – and as I am extremely interested in the layout and appearance of documentation to help understanding – I found myself concentrating on the the specialist stream: ‘Anything But Text’.

The day started with a thought-provoking keynote from Patrick Hofmann, entitled Make icons make sense: solving symbols for global audineces. I’d attended his workshop the day before, and so did wonder if it would be ‘more of the same’. It was and it wasn’t. The day before we had looked at providing visual information for a very defined group of people, who shared a lot of characteristics (culture, language, previous exposure to the subject). Today we looked at how people you might on the surface consider to be fairly homogenous could actually be wildly different. This fitted in nicely with a lot of things I’ve been thinking and reading about lately. As technical communicators, we often have strong ideas of how different ‘cultures’ view different things. These ideas may even be based on research – which is great. But do we take into account how those ‘cultures’ are evolving? Is the culture of young people in a country the same as that of the older people? What about city dwellers compared to those in a rural environment? It seems to me sometimes that there’s a lot of guesswork going on... and that in trying to accommodate, we sometimes (unintentionally) confuse. For example, I know that Chinese family names are traditionally first, then the personal name. I’m not familiar with all Chinese names, though, so don’t recognise from the sound which is which – and have before been told a name that has been reversed because the speaker knows that in my culture we put the personal name first.

Next, I went to the colour workshop with Greg Urban (Rules of thumb for using color in your content). That was absolutely fascinating, and Greg handed out colour wheels that we could use to follow the theory. Unfortunately, I took mine out of my bag to show to someone and lost it... I will have to see if I can get another, as it was extremely useful.

Forms are another of my pet annoyances (see a much earlier posting in this blog). Perversely, I quite enjoy filling out forms – well-designed ones, that is. I hate forms that don’t have enough room. I hate forms where I don’t know what they want me to do ("Do they mean have I ever done this before, or are they only interested if this is the reason I’m contacting them?"). I hate forms that look as if they’ve been designed by someone on their first day of a ‘Let’s learn Word’ course. So, with this baggage, I decided that Robert Hempsall and Caroline Jarrett may have some insights I could use in their session: Who enjoys filling out an application for a driving licence. One of the most interactive sessions of the conference, we all got the opportunity to start filling in an application form for a UK driving licence – and critique it. One of the big things I took away was from a stupid mistake I made... one of the questions asked for my address when the previous licence was issued. As soon as I saw the blank look on Caroline’s face, I realised I’d interpreted the question wrongly – or at least, got my terminology wrong. A licence is ‘issued’ every time you change address – it isn’t when you move from one category of driving level to another (provisional to car to car + motorbike) which is what my brain had decided it was. I had interpreted the first time I got my full licence as that being an ‘issue’, and subsequent ones being ‘copies’ or ‘replacements’. Hmm.... daft mistake, yes. But maybe I’m not the only one to misread a form?

After lunch I went to see Andrew Lightheart. Andrew had been sat by me for dinner the previous evening, and I’d already decided he was someone I must go to listen to. Easy to talk to, and to listen to, I just had a good feeling about it. Nothing ground-breaking for me, but a few good hints and tips that I have since used – mainly around not letting the audience’s questions side-track me away from the main point of the presentation I’m giving. Kai Weber has written a great summary on his blog.

I switched streams mid-afternoon and went to see what I could learn about eBooks, as I have a client who is considering moving their publications in that direction. In fairness, the title did include the words ‘in technical communication’, and my client’s publications aren’t in that field, but even so I came away feeling disappointed that I hadn’t learnt anything I could apply.

Finally we closed with another keynote, this time from Ikea. Love or hate the instructions, you have to admire how much they have achieved when you realise just how many languages they have to deal with, and how many different national regulations on the inclusion of instructions they have to comply with. Of particular interest was an instance where a national regulation – designed to help – actually hindered. The documentation people at Ikea had what I thought was a very good idea. They recognised that many countries have large communities that speak other languages to that country’s national language. They thought it would be a good idea to be able to ask the individual customer which language they would like the instructions in, and to print a copy there and then. Fantastic! But it couldn’t be done. Why? Because the regulations stated that the instructions had to be IN the box with everything else... and although printing in anyone of 50+ languages (can’t remember the number – may be more, may be less) on demand is one thing, printing 50+ copies per box is something else.

05 October 2011

Customer service? When will they ever learn...

I recently tried a service, offered by someone who knocked on my door one day, that meant my wheelie bin was disinfected after it had been emptied. The basic job was OK, but the fact I had to up-end it to drain the fluid left inside meant I ended up with more work, not less. What has this got to do with technical communication, you say?

Well, the reply I got to my (if I say so myself) polite message expaining that I no longer needed their services was rude, to say the least. Not only rude, it was full of spelling and grammatical errors – not that a perfect command of written English is a required skill for wheelie bin cleaning, I admit. The errors I could ignore...but the tone I couldn’t.

I have no idea whether the man replying to me intended to be as offensive as he was – although a subsequent message leaves me to believe he did – but that was certainly his effect.

Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not. It depends how many people read the review I’ve posted on Yell before engaging his services. It depends on whether he decides to advertise on the local directory services, which also provide the facility to leave reviews. It depends on whether any of my neighbours who were also approached about the service but declined ask us how we found it.

He could have said the same things in a much more pleasant way. A way that would have encouraged me to refer him on to someone else – something I try to do, especially if I can’t use someone’s service myself.

It’s something my mother used to say to me when I was a child: “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”

We all need to learn from this – the tone of your communication is every bit as important as the content. Although this is an extreme example, the concept affects every communicator, technical or not.

His parting shot was that he did not want customers like me (paraphrased here) – with a bit of luck, having annoyed me enough for me to put finger to keyboard and write said reviews, he won’t get too many!