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.

Creating palaces of almost forgotten things

Museum of almost forgotten things brochure

This weekend, we went to the Fabularium on London’s South Bank, where the programme highlighted The Museum of Almost Forgotten Things. It struck me that this concept could also be applied to technical communication. The impetus to write things down, to document policies and procedures and to write user documentation for software written in a Sprint, is often due to organisations worrying that important information might be soon forgotten. Technical Authors often capture and record almost forgotten things. They might, however, object to the word “museum”, because they are working with how things are today much more than how things were in the past. So perhaps “palace” could be an alternative word to use.

Ben Haggerty, the storyteller whom we saw perform, started by trying to discover who we, the audience, were. He quoted a west African saying that there are four types of people in the world:

Those that know and know that they know. These are called teachers, and should be respected.

Those that know, but don’t know that they know. These people are asleep.

Those that don’t know, and know they don’t know. These people are students.

Those that don’t know, but don’t know they don’t know. And there are 630 of them sitting in the House of Commons on the other side of the Thames.

It’s interesting to see how close this old African saying is to competency models used in training today: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

Common sense isn’t always common

Here’s some examples from Munich of what might seem to obvious and common sense to the one audience, but not to others.

Traffic lights that have four lights, with the symbols , O, I and K:

Munich traffic lights

Pedestrian crossing lights that have two people instead of one:

Munich traffic lights

The second set of lights is still comprehendible (hold the hand of the person next to you, whilst you’re waiting to cross the road 😉 ), but the first set didn’t make sense to even the (non-Bavarian) German members of our party.

The decline of the gerund in technical documentation?

Louise Downe, who works at the UK’s Government Digital Service, wrote a blog post (Good services are verbs, bad services are nouns), where she stated:

“After several rounds of user testing, the Home Office changed the name of ‘Immigration Health Surcharge’ to ‘check if you need to pay towards your health care in the UK’ – a service that allows visitors to the UK to pay for the cost of healthcare.”

Screenshot of Home office page, where  Heading uses "create"

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New training courses in technical communication are on their way

It might seem like we’ve been quiet recently, but that’s partly because we’ve been working on an academic project that we hope to be announcing towards the end of the year.

As a spin-off from this project, we’re developing new training courses in technical communication. These courses are at a more advanced level than our basic/intermediate courses, and they include more references to academic research.

If you are considering any on-site training for your technical communications team, we can now offer these topics:

  1. What is technical communication?
  2. The business case for technical communication
  3. History of technical writing standards
  4. Usability and user centred design
  5. Project planning and its effect on writing documentation
  6. Researching and scoping documentation
  7. Estimating
  8. Information design and content organisation
  9. Writing the topics – overview
  10. Presenting different types of information
  11. Index, search and metadata
  12. Single sourcing and reusing content
  13. Post writing​
  14. Researching technical communication – where to go
  15. Establishing standards
  16. Governance and maintenance
  17. What skills does a technical communicator need?
  18. Content strategy and technical communication
  19. Trends in technical communication
  20. Visual design
  21. Publishing and delivering information
  22. Managing the documentation project
  23. Metrics/Evaluating documents

We may develop online courses for some of these topics in the future as well.

What is technical communication, actually?

As a technical communicator, sometimes it can be hard to explain to others what it is you do. In the olden days, it was simpler: you could say you wrote manuals. Then, in more recent times, you could say you wrote online Help and manuals.

Today, there can be uncertainty of what is and isn’t technical communication. It can be unclear if certain deliverables should be created by a technical communicator or by someone else. For example, if content moves from a Help page to an onboarding screen, is it still technical communication? If the text moves into the interface, should the technical communicator create it? Are walkthrough videos a function of training or technical communication?
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Webinar recording of the changing nature of technical content

STC France-TCeurope has published a recording of Ellis’ webinar presentation on the changing nature of technical content. The presentation lasted 50 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of questions and answers: