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!

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