Reflections on the TCUK15 conference

I was one of the presenters at last week’s Technical Communication UK 2015 (TCUK) conference. TCUK is the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators’ (ISTC’s) annual conference for everyone involved in writing, editing, illustrating, delivering and publishing technical information. It’s an opportunity for Technical Communicators from the UK and mainland Europe to meet up and mingle, learn and present.

auditorium at tcuk 15 conference

Here are my reflections on the event.

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The ContentHug interviews

I was asked to take part in the ContentHug series of interviews on technical communication and content strategy.

It was fun and challenging, going through the questions.

ContentHug’s Vinish Garg is interviewing a number of consultants involved in technical communication and content strategy, and asking them essentially the same questions. By reading the interviews, you can see where there are areas of agreement and where there are a variety of opinions. In general, there is a fair bit of consensus. They are worth reading.

Stack Overflow is moving into documentation (get the popcorn)

Stack Overflow, a collaboratively edited question and answer site for programmers, has announced its plans to add documentation to the site:

“Lately we’ve been asking ourselves “what else could we do to improve developers’ lives on the internet?”. Jeff’s original announcement of Stack Overflow said this:

There’s far too much great programming information trapped in forums, buried in online help, or hidden away in books that nobody buys any more. We’d like to unlock all that. Let’s create something that makes it easy to participate, and put it online in a form that is trivially easy to find.

Stack Overflow has made all of that a lot better, but there’s one area that is still hanging around: Documentation. Just like Q&A in 2008, Documentation in 2015 is something every developer needs regularly, and something that by most appearances stopped improving in 1996. We think, together, we can make it a lot better….

…We’re hoping we can improve documentation, not just move it under the domain.”

It will be fascinating to see how this project progresses – what issues they encounter, how they tackle these, and if the solutions work.

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Our roadmap for technical communication training

We’ve been quieter than normal when it comes posting content to this blog. The reason for that has partly been down to us working on new training modules. We’re now at a point where we can share our current “roadmap” for training course in technical communication.

Earlier in the year, we were involved in a project to develop a Masters course in technical communication. Although that course was postponed, we’ve been continuing the development of some of the training modules, with the view of offering training modules on the management and planning of technical documentation projects.

The roadmap

Our plan is to offer a range of training courses:

  • The fundamentals of technical writing

This is mainly for new technical communicators. This already exists as our online Technical Author/technical writing online training course

  • Advanced technical writing techniques

This is for experienced technical communicators who want to know about the current trends and ideas. This also already exists as our classroom-based Advanced technical writing techniques course.

  • Planning and managing documentation projects

This is the new course we have been developing. It is for documentation and project managers responsible for managing and planning online or paper-based documentation. The course covers project planning, Information Design, estimating, managing the actual project, metrics, establishing standards, governance and maintenance.

We are thinking about offering this as a live course delivered over the internet. We have run a number of courses this way for clients over the summer months, so it is possible to offer training in this way. The alternatives would be to offer it as a public classroom course, held in at our training centre in central London.

  • DITA training

This is for people both new to DITA and already using DITA. This also already exists as our online DITA fundamentals and our classroom-based advanced DITA course. The online course could be included in the planning and managing documentation projects course.

  • Single sourcing training

This course is for people who want to re-use, re-publish and re-purpose more content, and need to understand single sourcing and plan a single sourcing migration project. They need the basic skills in single sourcing and writing content for reuse. This also already exists as our online single sourcing and content reuse training course. This course could also be included in the planning and managing documentation projects course.

  • Embedded Help writing strategies training course

This course helps UX developers and technical communicators better understand how to create and write in an embedded Help environment. This course could also be included in the planning and managing documentation projects course. See Embedded Help writing strategies training course.

  • Content strategy training

This is for people planning and implementing a content strategy project. This can be for a website as well as for technical documentation. This exists as our online Introduction to Content Strategy course.

  • Policies and procedures writing training

This is for organisations needing to train their staff in how to create clear and effective policies and procedures information. We have been running this course as an onsite classroom training course for a while. We plan to also make this course available as a public classroom course in the next few months. See Policies and procedures writing courses – beginner and advanced.

  • Training in authoring tools

Because many of the vendors offer training in the authoring tool themselves, we’re unlikely to focus so much on this area.

Share your thoughts

Are we missing anything? Do let us know.

Ellis will be speaking at MadWorld 2016

MadWorld conference

Cherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt will be speaking again at MadCap Software’s conference on technical communication and content strategy conference. MadWorld 2016 will be held between the 10th and 12th April 2016 at the Hilton San Diego Resort and Spa, in San Diego, California.

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Software companies are not selling boxes anymore

Wistia’s Chris Savage has written an article on how the company focuses on articulating its company vision to differentiate itself in a competitive marketplace.

In the article, he states:

“To buy software back in the day, you’d go to the store, buy a box, and bring it home. Inside of the box would be a shiny CD, which had your new program on it.

You’d install the program on your computer, and then you’d use it for a few years. When the next version came out, maybe you’d get a discount because you bought the previous version. If it had some good upgrades, you’d consider making a purchase.

That’s all changed.

Now when you’re buying software, you’re not getting a static product. You’re buying something that’s continually evolving and changing. At Wistia, like most SaaS companies today, we deploy fixes and improvements multiple times per day.

When we buy software today, we’re not just buying into the current benefits, features, and price. Instead, we’re making a bet on the product’s future.”

Customers expect a continuing relationship with companies. They expect the product to grow, to see an ecosystem to evolve. Interwoven into this, is the support they receive. They expect high quality information when they want to explore how to get more out of the product, or troubleshoot any issues. This means User Assistance, the online Help, must become part of the initial design, and part of the user experience. It can no longer be an afterthought bolted on once the product has been developed.

Squares v circles on screenshots?

We were asked:

“Do you know whether it is better to use squares or circles to indicate something on a screen shot? I use circles with thin border & compliment with an arrow. My colleague uses squares & the Subject Matter Expert prefers circles. I was  just wondering whether there is a best practice for this or not.”

It’s a good question.

Gestalt theory states:

“Elements with a point of interest, emphasis or difference will capture and hold the viewer’s attention.”

This indicates the reader’s attention will be drawn towards contrast, which means the element that is different from others in some way. So there is an argument for having a different shape if that element doesn’t stand out. However, shadows, colour and thick borders can also create contrast effectively.

We would say if you are highlighting a button, or some area that is roughly square or rectangular (such as a window or a field), use a square or rectangle. You can add emphasis by making the surrounding area darker (so the key area is in a spotlight) or perhaps an arrow.

You could use a circle if you wanted to point to a spot or an area that is small in size. Circles require less space, so they are good where you need to have a number of elements highlighted within the same screenshot.

Arrows are often affordances, something that affords the opportunity for that object to perform an action. They are good for highlighting an action. They can also work to help the user focus on an area of a screen, and are often used for that purpose.

It also depends on the graphics tool you are using. If it’s easier to create circles than squares, you’re more likely to use circles. If it’s easy to add an arrow, you’re more likely to use arrows.

What do you prefer: squares or circles? Do you have standards for which to use, and when?