Top 3 reasons TCUK12 is a unique conference

TCUK is one of my favorite tech comm conferences thanks to its unique blend of varied, yet relevant progamming and a diverse crowd in a small, personable conference.

Logo of the TCUK conferenceTCUK in Newcastle from 2 to 4 October will be the third time I attend the conference, and if anything I’m looking forward to it even more than in previous years. Here are 3 reasons for my anticipation.

1. Interdisciplinary sessions

All tech comm conferences, including TCUK, manage to put on a diverse mix of interesting and applicable sessions. TCUK excels in reaching out into other disciplines.

In previous years, presentations covered fields such as statistics, public speaking, user experience design, and cognitive science. Not only were those sessions engaging, they also took care to show how they’re relevant and applicable to technical communications. (Full disclosure: I was co-presenter at one of those sessions.)

2. Diverse crowd

While larger conferences like the STC Summit and tekom/tcworld can be a bit overwhelming and anonymous, I find TCUK has a very good size: Large enough to draw a diverse crowd of interesting people, yet small enough that I never felt I was lost and still looking at strangers’ faces on the third day.

3. Personable vibe

The organizers from ISTC manage to create a professional, communal vibe that all but eliminates the differences between speakers, seasoned attendees and newbies. As far as I know, the organizers want speakers to attend the full conference, if at all possible, to encourage networking.

If you know other reasons that make TCUK unique or if you’re wondering just how good it is, feel free to leave a comment.

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Welcome to summer reruns, episode 2

My blog and I are taking it a little easier for a couple of weeks.

I’ve had a wonderful time with this blog so far, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, lurking or commenting. I’ve learned a lot from your comments, and I appreciate your support! It’s been a walk on the beach… 🙂

As I’m gearing up for the new season, here are some reruns from the 10 most popular posts.

Improve documentation with quality metrics

… in which I argue that quality metrics for technical communication are difficult, but necessary and effective (complete with a picture of the seal of quality!).

How and why to estimate writing efforts

… in which I explain why, what and how to estimate efforts and deadlines in technical communications.

Top 10 reasons for tech writers and trainers to collaborate

… in which I give eight reasons why technical communicators can and should collaborate with trainers – and two why they cannot afford not to do it.

Welcome to summer reruns, episode 1

My blog and I are taking it a little easier for a couple of weeks.

I really enjoy writing posts, hearing from you and keeping in touch with other tech comm’ers from far and near. And I thank every one who’s stopped by to chime in or just to read! I keep learning from your comments, and I appreciate your support! It’s been a warm summer’s breeze… 🙂

As I’m gearing up for the new season, here are some reruns from the 10 most popular posts on my blog.

Top 10 things that users want to do in a help system

… in which I draw parallels between a help system, a department store and a library to illustrate how customers want to navigate each one.

Top 3 success factors in online help systems

… in which I apply some of Cameron Chapman’s “10 Usability Tips Based on Research Studies” to online documentation and come up with factors that can make or break help systems.

Top 4 benefits of writing a tech comm blog

… in which I celebrated my blog’s first anniversary, reminiscing about the various ways it’s been good to me – and continues to be!  🙂

Last call: Pattern recognition webinar tomorrow!

Final reminder that you can still register for my live webinar “Pattern Recognition for Techical Communicators” tomorrow, Wednesday, 8 August at 1 pm EDT / 7 pm CEST.

Learn what pattern recognition is and how it works, what pattern recognition strategies you may already be employing without even knowing it, and how you can employe those strategies to efficiently acquire information, structure documentation, and support users to:

  • Make sense of new subject matter
  • Start to build new documentation
  • Design and structure documentation
  • Support users efficiently

You can sign up for the webinar at the STC web site.

Top 4 steps from manuals to topics

A little bit of planning ensures you get clean, manageable topics from your conversion of user manuals.

While most help authoring tools support importing Word documents, there’s more to getting re-usable topics out of user manuals, as I’ve found out. I’ve spent the last few weeks converting 3 related Word manuals of 360 pages into 400 topics in Madcap Flare – though I believe that the process below applies to other tools as well.

The aim was to merge the contents from separate Word-to-PDF manuals with the online help topics into a single sourcing repository from which we can create both online help and manuals.

My two key lessons of the conversion are:

  • Plan first, execute second – several hundred topics are too many for trial & error and picking up the pieces later.
  • Do each task as early as possible – some Word idiosyncrasies are hard to clean up after the conversion.

And here’s how I did it in 4 steps:

 

1. Start with plans

The whole conversion exercise benefitted much from a couple of designs that I followed:

  • An information model
  • A folder structure for my topics

The information model defines the 4 topic types we have and what each type contains internally. It’s basically “DITA, without the boring parts” about which I blogged previously.

The folder structure divides my one Flare project into several sub-folders, so I don’t have 400 topics in one heap. Instead, I now have 13 sub-folders which divide up my topics by topic type (concept, task or reference) and even by task type (initial setup or daily workflow). That makes it easier to manage the topic files.

2. Prepare for the import

Once I had the basic structure to organize topics and their insides, I prepared my Word manuals, so I didn’t have to deal with a GIGO situation, where I get Garbage In, Garbage Out.

First, I edited the documents into topics, so each section could become either a concept, task or reference topic – or an auxiliary topic which ensures that the chunks still flow nicely when you read them in the future manual output. I also ensured that section headings indicate topic contents and type:

  • Concept topics use noun phrases as headings
  • Task topics start with an imperative

Then, I cleaned up the documents. You can convert unstructured Word with layout applied in styles, modified styles and manual formatting into topics just fine, but it will give you unmanageable content and endless grief. So do your future self a favor and dissolve all modified styles and manual formatting.

3. Import

Thus prepared, I’ve found that Flare’s built-in Word import is very good, consistent and reliable if you throw well-structured Word documents at it. Only tables didn’t import well (or I couldn’t figure out how to do it), so I re-styled them in Flare.

If you’re a stickler for clean topics, you can go ahead in Flare and clean out unnecessary remnants:

  • Remove Word’s reference tags in cross references by replacing *.htm#_Ref1234567″ with *.htm”
  • Remove Word’s Toc tags in Flare’s table of contents by replacing *.htm#_Toc1234567″ with *.htm”
  • Remove Word’s Toc anchors in topics by deleting <a name=”_Toc*”></a>

4. Adding value to topics

At this point, I had a pile of 400 clean topics, but no added value from the conversion yet. That came from additional tasks:

  • Dividing up topic files into the folder structure, which makes hundreds of topic files manageable.
  • Assigning a topic type to topic files (Flare lets you do that for several files at once, so this was very fast), which makes the content intelligent, because topics “know” what they are.
  • Assigning in-topic elements (as div tags) to topic paragraphs according to the information model, which allows you to identify and reuse even parts of topics, for example, instruction sections or example sections.
  • Creating relationship tables for cross-references into relationship tables where feasible, which ensures that links are easier to manage and to keep up to date.

Your turn

Have you done a similar conversion? What were your experiences? Did you do it yourself or with an outside consultant? Feel free to leave a comment.