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.

Tech comm MOOC by STC not happening apparently

The STC’s MOOC which I announced last month is apparently not happening. It was supposed to let participants explore the field of technical communications, and I was scheduled to teach the introductory module starting 30 September.

My assumption that the MOOC is not happening is based on the facts I have at this point:

  • There has been no announcement by the STC beyond an introductory one-page article in the July/August issue of the STC’s intercom magazine.
  • There is no place to sign up for the MOOC and to get specific information.
  • There is no content in the MOOC’s staging area.

I’m really sorry that it’s not happening.

I think we’ve lost a great opportunity to let people know what a varied and vibrant profession technical communication is. That we are mainly about improving relationships with customers and users where people meet products and services – not about spelling and serial commas.

At a time when professions and job requirements develop rapidly around us, it is important to prove that technical communicators do add value and play important roles in defining and implementing content strategies and user experiences – and this MOOC would have been a great chance to do just that.

Top 5 reasons I look forward to TCUK13

TCUK13 kicks off in Bristol next week, and here are my reasons why I’m very excited about it!

Intimate, professional conference

Of all the conferences I know, TCUK is the most intimate, almost cozy conference, attended by professional, engaged tech comm’ers. There’s none of the stimulation overload or anonymity that can mar larger events. This will be my fourth year in a row, and in past years, I’ve loved every minute – and cursed my travel schedule which made me miss the occasional closing session…

Versatile programme of presentations

For “only” three streams of presentations I think TCUK managed to schedule very versatile sessions. The conference website lists all subject areas, but these are my personal favorites:

… and I’m proud to contribute to the versatility with my own presentation “Addicted to meaning: Mental models for technical communicators“! :-)

Practical, applicable advice

Nothing impresses my managers and colleagues more than bringing back directly applicable advice from a conference! TCUK has several sessions dedicated to specific Tools & Techniques. Also, for you Flare folks out there, TCUK will see the launch of the youngest ISTC special interest group: The MadCap UK & Europe user group, will hold its inaugural meeting as a TCUK fringe event on Wednesday, September 25 at 5 pm in the Terrace Bar of the conference hotel.

A fully booked workshop!

Chris Atherton from TCUK10 and TCUK11 fame and I will run a workshop “Bake your own taxonomy” about developing a documentation structure, with the emphasis on doing justice to existing, unstructured content – and with a week to go, the workshop is already fully booked. Chris and I are wowed by the overwhelming interest – not to mention spending an extra hour or two to make it worth everybody’s while! (If you had planned on attending, but didn’t register with the good folks at ISTC yet, we might have a couple of seats in case of no-shows, but we can’t promise you a spot at this time…)

Bristol!

One of my regrets at last year’s TCUK was that I spent no time at all visiting Newcastle – and envying those who did. So this year, I’m hoping to take some time to visit Bristol. The conference website has some initial tips for those of us who do.

If you’re a European tech comm’er, especially if you’re a European MadCap Flare user, I hope to see you in Bristol next week!

UK MadCap user group launches with two events

MadSIG, the MadCap UK & Europe user group, launches with two events in the UK in September. We are a handful of MadCap users who network to share expertise and support. Most of us are based in the UK, though I’m the Europe outlier who’s based in Germany (and sometimes Denmark).

MadSIG offers occasional meet-ups and also a LinkedIn group for feedback, ideas and resources. If you are a sole technical author, become part of a more personal group – in your own virtual home town rather than in the big city of the online forums!

MadSIG is a special interest group under the ISTC‘s umbrella – while you don’t need to be an ISTC member to join and participate, it’s certainly a good idea to take advantage of the society’s many benefits.

Meet with MadCap’s Mike Hamilton in Staines on 19 Sep

Mike Hamilton from MadCap is going to be at the Swan Hotel and Pub, The Hythe, Staines TW18 3JB, on Thursday 19th September from 7pm onwards. He’s generously offered to spend the evening talking MadCap with anyone who uses Flare and the other MadCap products, or is interested in finding out more about them.

If you would like to come, please let us know by email to MadSIG@ISTC.org.uk with your contact details, so we can update you if anything changes last minute. If you’ve got any specific topics you’d like to talk about, feel free to let us know, too.

Mike Hamilton has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the MadCap products, so bring your questions and, if you like, your projects, and get to know some other Flare fanatics from the South of England at the same time.

Inaugural MadSIG meeting at TCUK on 25 Sep

MadSIG holds its inaugural meeting at TCUK 2013. If you’re at TCUK anyway, this is your easiest chance to meet other MadCap users. We’ll meet at the Terrace Bar of the Marriott conference hotel on Wednesday, 25 Sep at 5 pm.

This meeting is a TCUK fringe event – that is, it is organised by us delegates, not by the conference itself. We are grateful that TCUK provides space and publicity.

The best KPIs support your tech comm strategy

The best Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in tech comm are aligned to measure the success of your documentation strategy.

That’s some advance insight I got from Rachel Potts who will run a workshop about “Developing KPIs” for tech comm at TCUK in Bristol in a few weeks.

Measuring performance

KPIs are “a type of performance measurement to evaluate success… often success is simply the repeated, periodic achievement of some level of operational goal (e.g. zero defects, 10/10 customer satisfaction, etc.). Accordingly, choosing the right KPIs relies upon a good understanding of what is important to the organization.” (Wikipedia, “Performance indicator“)

But KPIs can be tricky! Says Business Administration professor H. Thomas Johnson: “Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.” (Quoted and explained in a Lean Thinker blog post)

KPIs in tech comm

Some KPIs in tech comm are also deceptive. To pick a glaring example, measuring grammatical and spelling errors per page is comparatively easy and will probably help to reduce that figure. But one very fast way to improve this KPI is by changing the page layout, so there’s less text per page. Fewer words and more pages lead to fewer mistakes per page – without correcting a single word. Also, the measure won’t improve documentation that’s out of date or incomplete or incomprehensible.

Rachel advised me: “It depends on strategy and purpose: What’s right for one team is completely wrong for another. Measuring errors on the page is only a valuable KPI if the number of errors on a page relates closely to the purpose of your documentation. If there is a close relationship, then that’s a useful KPI!”

Strategic KPIs

So what would be alternative KPIs, depending on particular tech comm strategies?

If your strategy is to make customer support more cost-effective, you can measure (expensive) support calls against (cheaper, self-service) documentation traffic, while trying to align your documentation topics, so they can effectively answer support questions.

If your strategy is to improve your net promoter score and customer retention, you can measure users’ search terms for documentation, number of clicks and visit time per page, while trying to optimize content for findability and relevance to users’ search terms.

If your strategy is to improve content reuse and topic maintenance, you can measure redundant content to drive down the number of topics that have mixed topic-type content:

  • As long as you still have abundant conceptual information in task topics, you probably have redundant content. (Though a couple of sentences for context can be acceptable and helpful!)
  • As long as you have window and field help reference information in task or concept topics, you propbably have redundant content.

What do you think? What KPIS are helpful? Which are you using, if any?

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