Top 10 tech comm conferences in 2014

Several worthwhile conferences that are relevant for tech comm are scheduled for next year. Here are eight I know about. Help me to round out the Top 10 by suggesting missing ones via the comments! Thanks to everybody who suggested more conferences via comments and twitter!

20-21 Feb 14, Bangalore, IN – tcworld India 2014

26-28 Feb 14, San Jose, CA – Intelligent Content

3-6 Mar 14, Palm Springs, CA – Writers UA West

10-11 Mar 14, Budapest, HU – Write the Docs

13-15 Apr 14, San Diego, CA – MadWorld
I will present sessions on pattern recognition and mental models and a lightning talk.

05-06 May 14, Portland, OR – Write the Docs

18-21 May 14, Phoenix, AZ – STC Summit
I will show how to get From Unstructured Documentation to Structured Topics.

5-6 Jun 14, Kraków, PL – UA Europe

18-20 Jun 14, Gatwick, UK – Congility 2014

Summer? Cincinnati, OH – Open Help (no details for 2014 yet)

16-18 Sep 14, venue unknown, UK – TCUK (web site not yet available)

13–15 Oct 14, Portland, OR – Lavacon (web site not yet available)

11-13 Nov 14, Stuttgart, DE – tekom/tcworld (web site not yet available)

Top 4 layers for your tech comm strategy

To show and increase the value of tech comm in your organization requires focus and priorities. That’s especially difficult in times of too many conflicting demands and not enough resources.

But you can adapt tried-and-proven business principles and tools to keep your tech comm efforts on the rails and contribute to larger business goals.

The 4 strategic layers

A solid business strategy framework has four aligned layers:

4 strategic layers: Mission, strategic goals, tactical initiatives, and operational tasks

  • Higher layers have very few abstract elements which give lasting, big-picture orientation. Aligned means they give direction and help to define lower layers.
  • Lower layers have many concrete elements which give specific instructions. Aligned means their execution contributes to achieving higher layers.

Yes, it takes some time to formulate the four layers – but I find it’s a good investment in your future: You can decide and defend what tasks you prioritize and how you do them. And you can show how tech comm add value to the organisation as a whole.

Now let’s take a look at the elements of the four layers.

The mission (statement)

The mission is the organisation’s reason for being put into practice. The mission takes several years to accomplish, and it should not be changed or abandoned lightly. The mission is guided by a vision for a future goal.

The mission statement is defined as “a written declaration of an organisation’s core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time.” The mission statement is one or two sentences that fit on a t-shirt which the people behind it can be proud to wear.

In the mission statement, the organisation explicitly or implicitly answers four questions:

  1. Why are we here? What is the unique purpose we serve, the value we provide?
  2. What do we do? What products and services do we offer to provide that value?
  3. Who do we do it for? Who are our markets and audience?
  4. How do we do it? What principles and values guide our efforts?

For example, IKEA says: Our mission is to offer “a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”

For more about mission statements for tech comm, see my earlier post Why you need a tech comm mission statement.

The vision

The vision is the organisation’s goal several years in the future. It answers the question where the organisation wants to go. It can motivate the people behind it to get out of bed in the morning. It guides the organisation’s mission through time. By pursuing the vision, the organisation can accomplish its mission and fulfill its purpose.

For example, IKEA says: “Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people.”

Strategic goals

Strategic goals describe self-contained efforts that have a distinct, measurable effect on the organisation’s business success. When reaching a strategic goal, the organisation usually can:

  • Offer more efficient or effective products and services
  • Translate the improvement directly into a customer benefit

Strategic goals are major advances towards accomplishing the mission. They take around a year to reach, or even longer.

Tactical initiatives

Tactical initiatives are measurable milestones or contributions to a strategic goal. They often take weeks or months to execute.

Operational tasks

Operational tasks are individual steps in tactical initiatives. They take days or weeks to finish. Policies and procedures, guidelines and standards guide the execution of tasks.

Paul Perrotta on change management at tekom/tcworld

Content management/strategy and the business of tech comm were my two focus areas during the tekom/tcworld conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, last week, and I will summarise some of the sessions I attended in several blog posts.

(For a general overview of what tekom is like, refer back to How German is tekom and tcworld? UK tech comm consultant Ellis Pratt and I have been commissioned to sum up this year’s event for an upcoming issue of ISTC’s Communicator magazine.)

Paul Perrotta on change management

Paul Perrotta from Juniper Networks offered two sessions on change management in tech comm. He reported on his unit’s journey from siloed, bickering, intransparent groups to a more efficient Information Experience (iX) organization.

Part of the problem is that we in tech comm are often pretty bad at saying what we do and what value we provide to the company and to customers. Instead, “docs happen” frequently in a black box. If you measure how well-regarded each unit is by their budget increases, a black box is not a good place to be in, because it won’t get you better funding. Executives don’t know (and don’t need to know) how tech comm works. But they need to know whether it’s successful and how it helps them be successful. And whether 8 dollars spent on it will increase their bottom line by 10.

So make tech comm more business-like and make managers’ worries your own: How can we increase customer satisfaction? How can we contribute to increase market share? Address these challenges to show the value tech comm contributes and how you can help the business to deflect some of the threats, such as:

  • Doing more (work) with less (resources).
  • Deferring costs to a less certain future.
  • Offshoring tech comm.

Here’s what you can do specifically:

  • Define a vision and mission for tech comm to clarify what they do – and what they don’t do. (See also “Why you need a tech comm mission statement“.)
  • Make improvements manageable by chunking them up into strategic initiatives.
  • Dissolve the documentation siloes by architecting and governing all content as a whole.
  • Improve content to make it complete, searchable and findable.
  • Connecting tech comm with marketing, sales and support to contribute to and benefit from the same content.
  • Rebrand tech comm as information experience to emphasize its contribution to the customers’ experience.
  • Focus on users and engage with them, for example, via user satisfaction surveys, feedback, social media.
  • Install an iX customer advisory board which meets regularly.
  • Seek out managers with the power and money to help you and map out your allies throughout the organization.
  • Make tech comm measurable and operationally efficient:
    • Link tech comm to development metrics where possible.
    • With proven competence, you can aim for 5% of R&D spend which is industry best practice in IT.
    • Ask how much of the product price tags the documentation is worth.
    • Show what (else) you could do with X more money.

Some of the results that Paul found:

  • Many customers are happy to offer feedback if they find they get heard, and tech comm improves as a result.
  • An ongoing discussion with users builds trust and customer loyalty.
  • Commonly governed content becomes more reliable and more easily findable for employees and customers alike.
  • Managers will support you because your success is their success of you demonstrate competence and that it’s easy for them to help you.
  • If you map your projects to executives’ objectives, you can clarify what you can and cannot do with available resources.
  • Achievements require focus to reap their full benefits – and then advertisements to make sure executives realize that you can work like a business…
  • To measure their achievements, tech comm quality metrics are not enough; you need customer engagement/experience metrics as well.
  • As a side effect, you will have to abandon an implicit ethos that treats tech comm as special, as an art that creates books.

How German is tekom and tcworld?

The world largest tech comm conference and trade show is a really a bilingual affair with two separate names. Follow me as I untangle the differences in reply to Alan Pringle’s request “Help this first-time tcworld attendee, please!” over on Scriptorium’s blog.

tekom, the conference of the German association of technical communicators of the same name, takes place every year in Wiesbaden. What goes by the shorthand name of tekom is really three separate events in the same place over three days.

There is tekom, the German-speaking conference which had 150 presentations, workshops and tutorials. (All numbers are from last year’s event.) Then there is tcworld, the English-speaking variant with another 74 sessions. About 2,400 delegates attend sessions in both languages. While session topics sometimes overlap, the same session is hardly ever offered in both languages.

The two names sometimes lead to confusion, for example, on twitter when it comes to the appropriate hashtag. The official recommendation is to use #tekom for the event and content in German and #tcworld in English.

The third event is the trade fair where you can meet 200 exhibitors who range from tool vendors, via  documentation and language service providers, to professional associations such as the STC. The trade fair is in the same venue and open to all conference delegates. It also draws an additional 1,300 visitors at a nominal entrance fee of €20, though many take advantage of vouchers that offer free admission.

Multilingual diversity

At the size it is, tekom is a unique event with logistical challenges of its own: You pretty much need to map out your schedule beforehand, lest you miss a session or vendor. Because tekom takes place at a convention centre, not at a conference hotel, you also need to plan your waterhole activities. There is no bar and not much of a lobby where you can simply hang around and meet people. Judging from after-hours tweets, though, it seems that many of the English-speaking crowd stay at the same hotel or two.

Among the rewards for hardy delegates is a unique variety of topics and delegates. Session streams include mainstays, such as professional writing, content strategies and user assistance, but also related areas, such as content management, parts catalogues and localization. tekom underscores its commitment to higher education and to graduates, with streams dedicated to young technical communicators as well as to academia and science.

Two traditions of professional presentations clash at tekom, and many sessions fall quite squarely into one of the two camps, regardless of the language they use. ‘Anglo’ presentations are sometimes heavier on business aspects, while ‘Germanic’ presentations tend to focus on technical or process details. As a result, some presentations feel a little stiffer than at conferences in the US or England, especially if the presenter is not a native speaker. But usually, there’s good substance, regardless of the language and delivery.

Just as with TCUK and the STC Summit, the largest group of delegates comes from the host country, followed by neighbouring countries. tekom especially attracts many delegates and exhibitors from Eastern Europe.

While you will get the most from tekom if you speak both English and German, you still get a full conference experience in English. There are two to four presentations and two or three workshops and tutorials in any one slot, offering five to six complete streams in English.

Making the most of tekom

My advice is to plan ahead:

  • Make and update your schedule to avoid missing out on your personal ‘must-see’ sessions and workshops.
  • Schedule free time to visit the trade fair, to wander the halls, to run into acquaintances and meet new people.
  • Bring business cards. I find I am using many more than at conferences in the UK or the US.

Wiesbaden is very conveniently located with direct commuter trains that reach Frankfurt airport in 40 minutes.

There are lots of interesting sites in close proximity: Mainz with its cathedral and the Gutenberg Museum (always a winner with the bookish crowd) is just across the river. The picturesque part of the Rhine with vineyards and medieval castles starts just a little downstream.

Note that 2013 will be the last year that tekom is held in Wiesbaden. The convention centre will be torn down in the summer of 2014. tekom14 will be held in Stuttgart.

This post is an abbreviated, slightly amended version of “How German is it?” which appeared first in ISTC’s Communicator magazine, Spring 2013, pp. 7-8.

2nd day of sessions at TCUK 13

The business and managing of tech comm was the predominant topic of my TCUK13 experience, as I reflect some more on the sessions I attended and the conversations I joined.

A. Westfold on collaborative authoring in DITA

Andrew presented a case study of McAfee over several years, from separate product teams and “artisanal”  lone writers to a larger, unified team of writers collaborating in DITA. During this time, McAfee also grew by acquisitions which meant that additional writers, methods and tools came on board. Here are the most essential stages of their journey:

  1. Improve several individual procedures for quick wins: Single sourcing reduced translation efforts. Automating the translation round-trip cut out costly manual layout efforts.
  2. Move to topic-based authoring: They chunked up content into topics and moved them into DITA to validate the topic structure. (It turned out that many task topics could not be automated and essentially had to be rewritten in valid structure.)
  3. Bring in a content management system to reap the full benefit from single sourcing and topic-based authoring. This helped to reduce the number of redundant topics and to make localization even more efficient.

While their journey is far from finished, McAfee has realized the following benefits so far:

  • Easier administration of topics than of larger content chunks before. It’s also easier to solicit reviews for smaller stand-alone chunks.
  • Faster, more consistent creation of deliverables for several product variants thanks to better use of standard templates.
  • Documentation processes align well with recently introduced agile development processes.
  • More efficient, streamlined workflow thanks to better integration between documentation and localization.

I really enjoyed Andrew’s presentation. It showed that projects to improve tech comm do work out, even if you don’t always see past the next stage, and you may have to adopt due to other changes in the company.

A. Warman on “Managing accessible mobile content”

Adrian Warman from IBM hooked up two important tech comm issues, accessibility and documentation for mobile, into a survey session.

Accessibility makes it easier for everyone to fit in, participate and contribute, irrespective of disabilities. In short, it ensures that a user’s disability does not mean a personal disadvantage. For tech comm, this means that sufficient documentation is accessible. For example, if your online help in HTML is accessible, it’s not necessary to make the same contents in PDF accessible as well – or vice versa, as the case may be. Adrian advised us to keep an eye on “EU mandate M 376″ which may soon make some level of accessibility mandatory for products traded within the EU.

Mobile (smartphones and tablets) for tech comm means not just a technology, but an expectation, a mindset. It’s more than simply fitting our output onto smaller screens. Its different dimensions of interactivity, such as progressive disclosure and user-generated content, challenges us tech writers to re-think how to best convey an idea. Which is the best taxonomy that supports both, mobile devices and accessibility?

I don’t think there was a lot of new, revolutionary content here, but since I haven’t dealt much with either topic so far, it was a welcome introduction that was concise and well presented.

E. Smyda-Homa on useless assistance

Edward reported on his twitter project @uselessassist where he “Retweets to remind organizations of the frustration and negative emotions that result from poorly prepared assistance.” He presented many examples of poor user assistance. Some people complained about insufficient instructions, whether they had not enough images or only images. Some found the instructions too long (“I know how to prepare toast!”) or too short or redundant. Some pointed out typos or bad translations.

This was a very entertaining session – and you can easily get the gist of it by simply looking up the account or following the twitter feed. It’s anecdotal evidence in real-time that users actually do read the manual – or at least try to.

While every tweet is heartfelt, I think not every one merits a change in the documentation – if only because some are contradicting each other. But I find Edward’s project very enlightening and nodded to myself in embarrassed recognition a couple of times…

- Feel free to leave comments about any of the sessions, whether you have attended them or not.

1st day of sessions at TCUK 13

On its first day of sessions, TCUK13 offered very diverse sessions. My selection of presentations – and hallway conversations – focused on cognitive science, the future of tech comm, the business side of our industry as well as managing tech comm, this year’s specialist stream.

Sarah O’Keefe on “Fame, glory and… tech comm”

Sarah’s opening keynote urged us to unleash our inner pirate and “go for the booty” of corporate resources and attention – in other words: to follow the money. We tech comm’ers need to understand the objectives and KPIs of C-level executives, develop a content strategy that supports these objectives and then profit (before marketing or other departments do, as Ellis Pratt later pointed out in his rant).

This way we can create effective tech comm which meets both business needs and user needs – as opposed to artisanal tech comm which fails business goals or cheap and merely adequate tech comm which fails users.

My session on semiotics and mental models

My own presentation Addicted to meaning: Mental models for technical communicators was attended by approximately 50 people and quite well received, I thought.

It’s essentially a brisk walk through a couple of cognitive concepts that underlie much of tech comm. After considering what meaning actually is and why we technical communicators should even care, I looked to semiotics to explain how meaning works in communication – and why it still sometimes fails in tech comm. The second concept is mental models which can explain how and why we create meaning – and how we can create meaningful documentation.

Adrian Morse on “The challenges of remote management”

Adrian drew on his experience of both working at home and managing technical communicators who work at home to explain many of the challenges of managing writers remotely. His tips applied to most teleworking scenarios, from occasional home office days to full-time teleworking by some or all of the team members.

Remote working and managing requires thought-through policies and a good reliable setup that starts with the appropriate hardware and network services and extends all the way to regulating PC administration, backup policies, etc. and complying with corresponding laws and EU regulations.

Adrian emphasized how important communication is as long as someone, anyone teleworks: You need to agree on mutual expectations in terms of hard objectives and performance, but also in terms of softer factors of answer times and availability for mail and phone contact. Just as working face-to-face, teleworking requires regular meetings, both 1-on-1 and of the team as a whole. Also make sure you have good ideas and policies for when and how you allow people to enter teleworking scenarios and when and how they will end them again!

Ray Gallon on “The Quantum Funnel”

Ray’s talk dovetailed with my own: His reference to creating scripts which explain how we behave in a restaurant was very close to my own example of how mental models determine our approaches to and perceived options in restaurants.

His premise is that today’s practice of learning is much more scattered and autonomous than it has previously been when learning was more controlled and directed. Such learning leaves more and more crucial gaps than before. To make sure that people (and users of tech comm specifically) can successfully fill their knowledge gaps, learning becomes more important than knowing.

One such approach is “connectivism” which understands learning as the process to search and connect concepts, ideas and fields. In this context, learning must not only answer the questions “what?”, “how?”, “where?” and “when?”, but also “how to be?” and “how to be with others?”. People in general and tech comm audiences in particular, increasingly learn in self-directed and creative ways by social collaboration, together with others. The role of teachers shifts to facilitator, that of technical communicator to curator.

This will emphasize both social and cognitive skills in the future, when we learn by moving through these stages:

  1. Exploring and understanding
  2. Representing
  3. Planning and executing
  4. Monitoring and reflecting

Applied to tech comm, this means our model shifts from a gatekeeper of knowledge to that of a curator and storyteller, as we avail ourselves of different types of contextual information, some of which our outside of our control:

  1. Internal documentation, such as progressive disclosure.
  2. External information, such as it is in Wikipedia.
  3. Interactive information, such as MOOCs and commenting functions support them.

- Feel free to leave comments about any of the sessions, whether you have attended them or not. I will try to answer them as well as I can.

“Bake your taxonomy” workshop at #tcuk13

Knowing your audience, their needs and use cases is key, not only when writing documentation, but also when designing its topic structure, navigation structure and taxonomies. That’s the insight  around 50 participants came to at the end of the “Bake your taxonomy” workshop which Chris Atherton and I facilitated at the first day of TCUK13 in Bristol.

The insight itself is not revolutionary, of course, but it gave attendees a chance to try out content modelling and card sorting first-hand and consider alternative designs and difficult decisions that go into structuring documentation just right.

Explaining taxonomies and content models

Chris and I started the 3-hour workshop with a 30-minute presentation:

Organically grown content often develops into a mess of good, bad and ugly content with little or no discernible structure. An information architecture that was designed by central oversight and with a guiding higher principle might resemble a cathedral – but the organically grown reality more often resembles a bazaar.

Both models have their drawbacks: The cathedral might be out of touch with what users need to do and know in their daily lives. The bazaar supplies that better – but it’s much harder to navigate, unless you know it really well.

Chris and I presenting (photo by @JK1440)

Chris and I presenting (photo by @JK1440)

Enter taxonomies, which are hierarchical classification systems. Just as children and veterinarians use different systems to distinguish and classify animals, so users and we who write for them can distinguish different topic types and structures and different ways to navigate topics according to their needs and use cases.

Exercises: “Bring out the scissors!”

Then we formed 12 groups of approx. 4 and set off on a couple of exercises:

  • Content modelling. Take a documentation set (in our example a user manual for a handheld audio recorder) and develop topic types and content models for users, their needs and use cases. Then re-chunk the manual into new topics according to topics types and users.
  • Card sorting. Take the topics and find the best sequence and hierarchy for them.  Also consider the documentation format such as print, online, etc., and topic re-use opportunities between different formats and use cases.
Workshoppers baking their own taxonomy (photo by @jk1440)

Workshoppers baking their own taxonomy (photo by @JK1440)

After the first exercise, we had a short roundup of the different approaches and results of the groups and a short break, before we embarked on the second exercise.

As it turns out, it’s really difficult to separate between content modelling (structuring within topics) and card sorting (structuring of topics). And in many cases there might be few benefits to separate those tasks. However, if you do the content model first and in isolation, you might have a more stable content model that lends itself to more than the structure you’ve used to pour it into.

To sum up, it was a very lively workshop with many good discussions – mostly within the groups of four, but also in the roundups when we collected approaches and insights. Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot about what a diverse bunch not only tech comm audiences, but also we as practitioners can be.

If you’ve attended the sessions or want if to know more about what happened and how, feel free to leave a comment.

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