UA Conference Notes

Last week, we attended, exhibited and spoke at the UA conference Europe 08. It was probably the best conference I’ve attended.

1. There were some excellent case studies from Sonia Fuga of Northgate, Rachel Potts and Brian Harris of Red-Gate Software and Matthew Ellison (concerning IBM). Northgate’s approach of using WordPress for ratings and commenting on content was ingenious.

2. Buzzwords for the conference were “faceted tables of contents” and “role encroachment”. I was pleased to hear two speakers talk about the implementation of faceted tagging (to create custom “Help portal” pages and custom tables of contents), as I talked about these in my presentation at the ISTC conference in 2006. Back then, I talked about facets to be used in conjunction with a folksonomy, but the examples shown, in fact, used them in conjunction with a taxonomy created by the documentation team themselves. “Role encroachment” means people in other departments doing technical authoring work.

3. A lot of the talks were about improving the process and adopting new Web technologies. It seemed to me that this move was at the expense of the user experience – these new approaches lose some of the usability functions that come with traditional Help.

However, I think this is a price worth paying, for the moment at least. I didn’t get the impression that new technology was being introduced for the sake of it, but because it was making things overall better for users. Perhaps it’s case of some content being better than no content,even if it’s not presented in a perfect medium for the user.

4. I was impressed with the direction of the Help Authoring Tool vendors Adobe and MadCap. They seem to be developing software that will incorporate the emerging technologies.

5. I was worried that my presentation would be “old hat”, but I was pleased my presentation seemed to be well received. I was worried that everyone know about interesting approch used to create Floss manuals, for example, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

6. The controversy of the conference was probably when usability expert (and outsider) Leise Reichelt asked if the audience wrote manuals. It seemed to be a question laden with preconceived ideas as to what technical authors do. The answer isn’t that straightforward – it’s Yes, unless there’s a better alternative for delivering user assistance.

7. The consensus of the conference was a move towards:
A single, aggregated information portal
User interaction with the content through commenting and rating

In one case study this approach indicated a $15,000-$20,000/month reduction in support call costs – impressive results.