Call for proposals for TCUK13, 24-26 September

You have 10 days, until Friday 5 April, to submit a proposal (or two) to speak at Technical Communication UK (TCUK) . TCUK 13 takes place in Bristol from 24th to 26th September 2013. It is the UK’s leading technical communication event, and without a doubt the friendliest professional conference you can find.

TCUK 2013 logo and banner

As well as three days of workshops and presentations, TCUK is your opportunity to meet and network with other technical communicators from across the UK and many other countries. We have planned social activities including receptions and a Gala Dinner (where we present the ISTC’s annual technical communication awards). In previous years delegates have organised a number of popular conference fringe events, from quiz events and late-night salsa dancing to early morning runs, and there are sure to be similar activities this year.

The call for proposals is open but closes on 5th April, so if you want to have a chance to speak at TCUK make sure you submit your ideas on time. Regardless of whether you want to present for the first time or you are a seasoned conference speaker, we want to hear from you. We don’t mind if you are new to technical communication or if you have worked in this field for ever, if you have something to say to other technical communicators then TCUK 2013 is your chance to say it.

As well as topics relating to our specialist stream The Management of Technical Communication, you may submit proposals on any topic that you feel will be of interest to technical communication professionals. Have a look at the list of suggested topics and use that as a jumping off point for your imagination. What do you think would be of interest to other technical communicators? We’re waiting to hear from you.

– If you’ve ever considered speaking at a tech comm conference, I want to encourage you personally to submit a talk: TCUK was my first speaking experience in 2010, and it was immensely positive and rewarding! For more reasons, see my Top 6 reasons to consider speaking at TCUK 2013 and Why TCUK is such a cool conference.

Sweet or savoury? TCUK12 revisited

Technical Communication UK 2012 brought engaging presentations, discussions and sophistication. (This is a shorter version of an article I wrote for Communicator, the quarterly journal of the ISTC, Winter 2012, pp. 14-16.)

‘Sweet or savoury?’ The question arises out of soft murmurs of conversation, is repeated over and over, until it is my turn to decide. A stewardess will hand me one of two different snacks, if I just say which. Sweet or savoury, that’s like asking me to decide between design and software. I’m interested in both, that’s why I’m in technical communication! That’s why I’m flying from Frankfurt to Newcastle upon Tyne in early October to attend Technical Communication UK 2012.

The annual conference had come to north-east England this year, where around 200 technical communicators met for three days of workshops and sessions. Nearly a third of the programme was dedicated to accessibility and usability for this year’s specialist stream. Apart from the ‘savoury’ programme, the conference offered plenty of opportunities for ‘sweet’ networking in session breaks or after hours at the hotel bar.

Hands-on instructive workshops

The conference kicked off on Tuesday with hands-on workshops of two and a half hours. Robert Hempsall’s session ‘Information Design 101’ used an application form to vote in elections by post as an example to show the process of designing a form to maximise clarity and usability.

Rowan Shaw’s workshop ‘Quality Across Borders: Practical Measures to Ensure Best-Value Documentation in Global Technology Businesses’ focused on creating documentation with authors and for users who use English as a second language (ESL).

Both workshops succeeded, thanks to a flexible agenda that accommodated the diverse skills and interests of attendees. The workshops presented a very useful survey of a toolbox. However, they were less ‘tight’ and rigorous than in previous years, where I felt I had taken away applicable processes. Workshops were half an hour shorter than in previous years, which may have contributed to my impression.

Impassioned keynote addresses

Three keynote presentations on Wednesday morning and Wednesday and Thursday afternoons firmly anchored the conference as they set and sustained a lively vibe throughout the conference. The keynotes were relevant, interesting, and passionate, so they not only brought everyone together in the same room, but also ‘onto the same page’.

Leah Guren presented instructive metaphorical lessons from the animal world in her opening keynote ‘A Fish Tale: Improve your Career by Watching Fish!’ For example, technical communicators can take a cue from the mackerel, and ‘stay in school’ to improve their chances for survival. This doesn’t mean travelling in packs, but to keep honing one’s skills by attending conferences or webinars and subscribing to newsletters, forums or blogs.

Scott Abel delivered his keynote ‘It’s All About Structure! Why Structured Content is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity, Not An Option’ in his usual style: provocative, fun, and fast-paced, but also very relevant. Some of the attendees might not have needed convincing, but if their managers do, Scott’s reasons work for them as well: structure formalizes content and enhances its usability, and so makes writers and readers more efficient. It supports single-sourcing for efficient publishing via several channels. Structured content that can be delivered and styled automatically can also be personalised to suit context, such as time and location.

Karen Mardahl’s closing keynote ‘Adaptability: The True Key to Accessibility and Usability’ was an impassioned argument that accessibility does not just affect groups of minorities. It affects all of us, more or less, now or later. Using common examples, such as Twitter and screen readers, Karen showed how easy it is support accessibility, if we remember to include it in the initial design.

Consistently interesting sessions

For the third year in a row, TCUK organisers’ have had a knack of creating a diverse programme with consistently interesting, often very good presentations!

The specialist stream presented a wide range of topics that show how usability and accessibility cannot just be an afterthought to technical communication. Instead, user-friendly technical communication that is available to all is the result of an inclusive approach that starts with the design of products and documentation alike.

Collaborative best practices was a common theme of several sessions. They underscored the importance of breaking down siloes of both content and corporate departments to ensure that technical communicators work closely with technical support teams and editors, but also with customers and their user community at large, to ensure that they create useful content that adds value. Lee Mullin answered ‘What do Technical Support want from Technical Communicators?’ David Farbey had practical advice in his ‘Letters From the Editor’ where he suggested three classes of edits.

New and recent technical trends in technical communication were subject of several sessions. Tony Self helped delegates with his session ‘A Style Guide for DITA Authoring’ to actually write DITA topics efficiently and with confidence. Because DITA content is not only modular, but also highly structured and separating content and formatting, it requires a mind-set that can be challenging to writers who are used to composing content in books.

Maxwell Hoffmann from Adobe showed how tablet and other mobile devices require content optimised for smaller screens. Ellis Pratt reimagined technical communication on the iPad 3. Because the device is haptic and location-aware, you can offer more interactive and personalised user assistance.

Diverse, international speakers

The diverse roster of speakers contributes a great deal to TCUK’s success as a whole. They make this a truly international conference: Leah is from Israel. Scott, Maxwell, and Janet are from the USA. Karen is from the USA via Denmark. Tony came all the way from Australia.

Charlotte Claussen from Denmark related usability to functional design in ‘Function, Affordance and the ‘How to”. Diego Schiavon from Italy via the Netherlands spoke on ‘Social Media and Documentation: What Could Go Wrong?’ Both, Diego and Charlotte are relative newcomers to technical communication and they prove that the ISTC continues its commitment to promoting newcomers and giving them a first opportunity at speaking at conferences. (The ISTC gave me my first chance to present at a conference two years ago, and it has been immensely beneficial!)

Supportive sponsors and the ‘hallway social’

The solution and service providers who sponsored the conference had set up in the hallways in front of the session rooms, which ensured them good exposure. Their support contributes significantly to the success of the conference, from printed matter to food, drinks and the Gala Dinner Entertainment. Without them, TCUK would not be as good a deal as it is for attendees!

The hallway was where most of the mingling and networking took place between sessions. This is where the ‘sweet’ opportunities come in after all the ‘savoury’ options in the workshops and presentations. TCUK is large enough to meet acquaintances from years past and to meet new friends for three days, yet small enough to be intimate and not intimidating.

Networking at TCUK extends well beyond generating new leads or finding employment. It can be as fast and easy as talking to ‘your’ vendor about a snag in the product you’re using to inquire about a workaround. Or to have a suspicion confirmed: I talked to documentation managers who are wary of hiring subject matter experts as technical communicators, because many of them just want a foot in the door, but are not committed to stay in technical communication.

Other contacts inspire new directions a career can take, whether it’s moving from an employed situation to a consulting role or vice versa, or breaking into teaching, for example. And some conversations are plain fun: you might just meet a film buff who knows all the same obscure movies as you do!

Engaged sophistication

What makes TCUK unique among the technical communication conferences I have experienced is the communal atmosphere of engaged sophistication. It’s the shared spirit of taking joint responsibility for moving our profession forward. Granted other conferences do that too, but I see much less ‘sit-back consumerism’ at TCUK than elsewhere.

You don’t have to get involved, but presenters and audience alike are curious to share their experiences and to learn from each other. It shows in the workshops and in the Q&A sessions that conclude most presentations. It is the hallmark of a professional scene that is very much alive and looking at an exciting, if challenging future with confidence.

On the flight home, I asked for a savoury snack and a sweet one. As TCUK proved, technical communicators can have it both ways!

Optimize MadCap Flare for large projects

MadCap Flare can be slow with large projects and choke sometimes, but there are a few tweaks that can help you to optimize your editing experience and to keep your sanity. By large projects, I mean more than 20,000 topics and snippets, that’s when it gets hairy for me. By contrast, I also work a lot in a project with close to 1,000 topics and snippets and that size is not critical at all for my PC’s performance or my sanity.

All these tips work with Flare 9, and I believe they work with Flare 8, too, but I haven’t checked.

Tweaking performance

There are a few settings which have a big influence on Flare’s performance, especially in large projects. However, consider each one carefully – after all, you may actually need that function…

  • To improve performance in text editing:
    • Uncheck the File > Options > XML Editor > Text Rendering options
    • Disable File > Options > Auto Suggestions
  • To improve performance in file handling:
    • Hide conditional indicators in Content Explorer
    • Apply restrictive filters in the File List, as opposed to displaying most of the files
  • To improve performance of Analyzer:
    • Uncheck the File > Options > Analyzer > Advanced Scan options
    • Set File > Options > Analyzer > Search Limits to 100

Keeping Flare’s “desktop” tidy

Flare’s “desktop” area with its tabs is seductive, because you never notice how many toipcs you have open until you hunt down one. To keep your contents safe and your Flare “desktop” tidy, use these options in File > Options > General:

  • If you don’t need Flare to reopen the same files as in your last session, uncheck Auto-Reload Documents.
  • To minimise potential loss of content, set up Auto-Save Documents. (I think the peace of mind outweighs the performance cost…)
  • To keep your “desktop” clean, allow Flare to close topics you don’t need by setting Close others when opening new document. I like the option Close others with same extension and no changes, which keeps open the File List and Analyzer reports, but closes all the topics that I poked around in without working in them. You might prefer a different setting, though…

If you have other tips up your sleeve to improve Flare’s performance, please share them in the comments.

Top 5 things I like about Flare 9

MadCap Software has released a new major version of Flare, the help authoring tool I use, with much fanfare. I focus on enhancements that are most useful to me in my daily work. They are minor compared to, say, the new support of right-to-left languages, but I appreciate them because they make my work easier! For the major enhancements, visit the Flare product website.

5. WebHelp can search for partial words

The search in our standard WebHelp output can be enhanced to find partial words. (Note that performance may hurt since this option increases the size of the output, specifically of the search database.)

4. New “Condition” option in right-click menu

I can now select text or paragraphs in a topic and apply a condition by using the right-click menu. Previously, I needed to use a ribbon option (or maybe a keyboard shortcut?). While this is merely another way to add a condition, I find it convenient and supporting the way I work.

3. “Add File” dialog uses current location

Flare 9 behaves differently when I add a file, such as a topic, an image or a snippet! The “Add File” dialog now uses the current location, not some default location as before. So the new file will go “wherever I am” in the Content Explorer!

I like this for two reasons:

  • I almost never add topics to the default folder, so I had to change the file location just about every time.
  • And conversely, I won’t accidentally drop topics into the Main folder anymore where I don’t expect them…

2. Styling a table cell no longer trashes the table code

A bug would break the XML when I tried to apply a span tag to the complete content in a table cell. As a workaround, I could apply an extra unstyled space – or fix the code in the code view.

It’s a small bug fix to be sure, but it annoyed me enough that I (along with other users) submitted a bug report – and today I heard back in an email that they had actually fixed it. So this one is nice also for showing MadCap reacts to user requests!

1. Synced split-view of topic and XML code

This featured enhancement is a big help to me: I really like the “open everything” approach of Flare where I can access content and even settings files as ASCII text files and monkey around in the code, if I’m so inclined. Sometimes, I find it’s easier and faster to fix a table or a nested list in the code rather than the editor. And Flare is cool for letting me do that.

But: So far, it could be tedious to move from the regular editor to the code view and locate the place I want to fix. The new synced split-level view makes my geeky way of editing much faster as I can seamlessly move back and forth between topic view and code view!

– If you use MadCap Flare 9, what enhancements or bug fixes do you like?