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.

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