Beef up tech comm skills with free webinars

If one of your new year’s resolutions has been to improve your tech comm skills, here’s your chance. Industry experts offer several webinars in upcoming weeks to start you off. Many of them are free, so you really have no excuse! 🙂

Scriptorium

Scriptorium’s free webinars cover industry trends and technologies, such as:

  • Content strategy in technical communication
  • Trends in technical communication, 2012
  • HTML5 and its impact on technical communication

I’ve attended many Scriptorium webinars and have learned a lot from them. They are substantial and presented well. If you’ve missed one, you can catch up on the canned recordings.

Oh, and Sarah O’Keefe, who does most of them, has just taken #2 on MindTouch’s list of the Most Influential in #Techcomm and #ContentStrategy.

Comtech Services

JoAnn Hackos’ free webinars (announced on the DITA Writer blog) are dedicated to moving towards DITA in a 3-part series of “Crossing the Chasm with DITA”.

Hyper/Word

Neil Perlin’s free webinars are usually more tool-oriented, so they’re hands-on training sessions on topics such as:

  • MadCap Flare Mediums
  • Using Help Authoring Tools as CMSs
  • GUI Mobile App Authoring Tools
  • Creating Mobile Apps with Viziapps
  • Mobile documentation in Flare and RoboHelp

STC

STC’s webinars bring together the widest roster of industry experts, but they’re not free. They offer up to 3 webinars per week. Here are just the next six through the end of January:

  • Mental Model Diagrams: Supportive Content for Specific Folks
  • The Art of the Demo
  • Getting Yourself Into Print
  • Introduction to the Mobile Ecology
  • Designing Quick Reference Guides
  • Successful Strategies for Continuous Improvement

If you’re an STC member, sign up until January 31 and get $20 off on each webinar.

MadCap

MadCap’s free webinars are strong on tools and processes. Currently they only have one on offer about migration to Flare. But you can always check out the recordings for free. The tool-agnostic ones are quite valuable, even if you don’t use MadCap’s products.

Adobe

Adobe’s free webinars also mix tool-specific training with general topics. You do need an “Adobe Account” to register. Coming in January are:

  • Key Trends in Software User Assistance: An Expert’s Perspective – Part 1
  • Top 10 key trends shaping the Technical Communication industry of tomorrow: An industry research
  • Why upgrade from older versions of RoboHelp (X5, 6, 7 or 8) to RoboHelp 9? What is the value proposition for your business?
  • How to optimally leverage a Content Management System as a Technical Communicator
  • What is the future of indexing for technical documentation?

If you know of additional tech comm webinars, feel free to leave a comment.

Tech comm trends 2012, mashed up and commented

2012 is the year when tech comm’ers need to understand business processes and align documentation with new technologies, say tech comm pundits – and yours truly.

What I expect for 2012

Tech comm’ers need to understand business processes.

Okay, so this trend is not exactly new, but I expect it will gain traction this year. Scott Abel thinks so, too. Business processes are crucial for us tech writers in more ways than we might think. Ideally, we understand them in three domains:

  • In tech comm, we need to understand business processes to do our job efficiently, to improve how we work and to measure if (or prove when) we are understaffed.
  • In our employer’s business (or whoever has ordered the documentation we provide), we need to understand processes to contribute to the bottom line and to get out of the cost center corner.
  • In our customer’s business (or whoever uses the documentation we provide), we need to understand processes to ensure these customers or users are efficient and happy with both, the product we describe and the documentation we create.

In a nutshell: We need to know business processes, so we know which are the right things to do, whether it’s moving our documentation to a CMS, aligning our deliverables with the corporate content strategy, or updating our personas. At the same time, we need to hang on to our tech comm skills, so we know how to do things right.

What others expect for 2012

Here are two trends predicted by Sarah O’Keefe and Connie Giordano that resonated with me. (And I recommend you follow the links to get the experts’ predictions first hand!)

Creating documentation moves to the cloud.

Documentation will follow other content production to the cloud, such as collaborative Google Docs, blogs, and wikis. With this trend, I’m wondering:

  • Compelling event? Will cloud-based tech comm creation take off now – or do we need a more compelling event than ubiquitous access and the (alleged) lower operational costs?
  • Whose market? Will conventional HAT vendors be the major players, so their customers can keep their sources and move them to the cloud – or will HAT vendors (and tech comm’ers sources) be disrupted by other providers?

Documentation design aligns with mobile UX.

Tri-pane web sites are too large for effective user assistance on mobile devices which require new, condensed documentation designs. These will in turn feed back into other documentation formats. Here, I’m wondering:

  • Turf wars? Will tech comm’ers and UX designers engage in turf wars – or pool their skills and resources for better user assistance?
  • Innovation? Will the reduced real estate lead to genuinely new ways of presenting user assistance – or to a resurgence of minimalism?

What no one expects for 2012

The survival of the classical tech comm job profile

Virtually all tech comm predictions and trends for 2012 are driven by external forces of change: The cloud, mobile devices, or new social media habits which expect collaborative documentation and user-generated content.

At the same time, the trends and predictions I’ve seen show little initiative to define or advance technical communications as a profession around a set of skills and tools, methods and processes. The classical tech comm job profile (as described in the Occupational Outlook Handbook by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example) that is centered around deliverables and tools, formats and styles seems to wane.

In many sectors, technical communications has instead become a function that contributes to corporate assets and the bottom line. Technical communicators provide it, as do content strategists, information architects or UX designers. And whoever pays them doesn’t necessarily care who does it – or even know the difference.

In a way, this is the other side of the coin of the trends above. Scott Abel points out:

The real value we provide is not our mastery of the style guide. Rather, it’s our ability to impact the customer experience in positive ways.

And Connie Giordano calls for the evolution of “integrated technical communications” to coordinate and integrate

all technical communication processes, tools, functions, and sources within an organization to convey information and knowledge relevant to optimizing the users’ product experience.

So I believe technical communications is here to stay – but we may have to look for news ways of selling what we do and deliver.

What do you expect for 2012?

Will you follow the trends above? Are there others in your future? Please join the discussion, leave a comment.

Content strategy day at tcworld11/tekom11

Scott Abel hosted a full day of content strategy talks with many big shots of the industry at tcworld11 (the international half of tekom11). Strategies and case studies by Joe Gollner, Ann Rockley & Charles Cooper, Aaron Fulkerson (of MindTouch), Rahel Ann Bailie & Geoff Roberts, and Noz Urbina were followed by a panel discussion for which Ray Gallon joined them.

The content strategy panel, left to right: Scott, Joe, Rahel, Ray, Ann, Noz, Charles. Photo by @umpff, used with permission.

The content strategy panel, left to right: Scott, Joe, Rahel, Ray, Ann, Noz, Charles. Click to enlarge. Photo by @umpff, used with permission.

Highlights of the sessions

Joe Gollner on intelligent content strategies

Intelligent content, said Joe, is actionable information that exposes itself to people and machines. Such content (think tool-independent XML) is shareable, portable, resuable, findable and hence manageable. This makes content a strategic asset that can be leveraged to achieve business goals.

An integrated content solution requires 7 steps:

  1. Define the content strategy as a goal-oriented action plan
  2. Analyse what content you need
  3. Design how you put your content together
  4. Explore and learn about your content
  5. Transform your content to make it intelligent (and loop back to 4.)
  6. Validate your content to confirm it’s intelligent
  7. Deploy and use it (and loop back to 1.)

Aaron Fulkerson on help 2.0 strategy

Documentation should live up to marketing’s promise, said Aaron, but instead it’s too often a crappy pamphlet in the shiny box. A better, a 2.0 version of help lifts customers over Kathy Sierra’s passion threshold in a social help center.

Aaron presenting benefits and key features of the Social Help Center. Click to enlarge.

A social help center turns documentation into a social learning experience, and it doubles as your customer relationship management center. Supply the documentation basis and empower your existing client base to augment it: Enable peer-to-peer learning for all the unique search terms on the documentation long tail that your documentation does not or cannot cover. Once you install success metrics, you can even use documentation to find what customers use and need to drive sales.

For an example of a social help center (built using MindTouch), visit http://wikihelp.autodesk.com/.

To read more about Aaron’s argument, see his Forbes’ article “The Evolution Of User Manuals“.

Two dimensions of content strategy

I came away with a extended take on content strategy. I still believe that content strategy means to break down silos between different producers of content within an organization, for more efficient and effective communication with consumers, whether they are customers or colleagues.

But now I think there are two dimensions of content strategy, with different scope:

  • Breaking down content silos among content stakeholders is a daunting task for a technical communicator: You need to get product management and marketing, training and customer service, along with your colleagues, all in the same boat. But depending on your corporate culture, this might still be something that can be driven from inside tech comm, with enthusiasm and a clear mission.
  • Larger corporate content strategies, as Joe and Noz presented them, essentially change the way an organization works. You still need all stakeholders on board, but you also need a mandate from management, a budget, and most likely some consulting help.

I asked the panel whether such a corporate content strategy could be taken on from within the organization, for example, by the tech comm team. They replied:

  • Better not. You only get one shot, so you can’t afford to blow it. Better get the help of an experienced consultant who speaks management’s language.
  • Most of it. Because consultants don’t do the actual work, they teach and enable technical communicators.

In the end, I think I saw the vanguard of content strategy and learned as much about this exciting field in a day as possible. I may well have seen one future of technical communications and will benefit from knowing its principles and objectives.

But a mismatch between the message and the audience remains: Much of what I learned seemed directed at managers, but not something I could apply in my current job as technical communicator.

So for now, I’ll stick with breaking down the silos which is more within my reach. For a more applicable example, check my post on Ray Gallon’s webinar about “Content Strategy for Software Development”.

But I’ll watch out for the corporate content strategy, so I don’t miss the boat when it sails… 🙂

Your turn

How do you think content strategy applies to technical communicators? Feel free to leave a comment.

tekom11 & tcworld11: Two worlds under one roof

My first visit to tekom/tcworld, the world’s largest tech comm conference in Wiesbaden near Frankfurt, left me inspired and overwhelmed.

Two floors of tekom, photo by @donormal, used with permission

Impressive numbers

I’ve been attending the trade fair part of tekom for several years, but this was my first time attending the conference. 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the conference with impressive numbers:

  • 200 presentations, workshops and tutorials (78 in English)
  • 15 topical streams, ranging from content strategy and mobile documentation to localization, open standards and technical authoring
  • 2,500 expected delegates at the conference plus another 1,000 at the trade fair
  • 200 product vendors, service providers and associations exhibiting at the fair

Two worlds

The crowds mixed well, and I saw many Germans in English sessions (including my own). I talked to several people, and we all noticed that English and German sessions “felt” different, illustrating cultural habits I often find in documentation as well:

  • Corporate visions and innovations often drive English-speaking sessions which often seek to engage delegates with easy to digest images and charts. Some German-speaking attendees are skeptical of such entertaining fluff.
  • Methodology and processes often inform German-speaking sessions that seek to inform delegates of the right – or at least the best – way of doing things. Some English-speaking attendees find this staid or academic.

Axel Regnet also has a good analysis of this cultural rift in his German blog post.

My personal highlights

Understanding the Help 2.0 Revolution

Scott Abel’s keynote opened the first day. He presented a case study of ifixit, the socially-enabled “free repair manual that you can edit”. Their crowd-sourced documentation rewards authors with reputation, attention and a feeling of generosity. It drives sales of hardware parts and even allows to calculate ROI by product, manual, and author! There’s also a standard initiative of omanual.org, backed by guys behind ifixit.com and O’Reilly.

Scott Abel's keynote at tekom, photo by @donormal, used with permission

After some smaller or more theoretical examples of user-generated contents, it impressed me to see a working example on this scale. But then again, it’s like the cry from that vanguard to my own industry just got a little farther. More applicable to my own situation were a few insights from the next panel:

Have a question about TC? Ask the experts

Nicky Bleiel organized a panel discussion with Mark Clifford, Sarah O’Keefe and Scott Prentice. I had submitted a question that echoed Roger Hart‘s rant at TCUK:

Will technical communicators own content strategy or will they be overtaken by content strategists, information architects, UX designers who simply market themselves better? In other words, will influence (and jobs) follow skills or clout?

Some answers (to this and other related questions) were fairly obvious but, of course, valid:

  • Tech writers need to continue to hone their skills and to widen their turf lest they be pushed aside.
  • Tech writers must understand and argue their tasks and expertise in terms of the business.

Some arguments offered me a new perspective:

  • Follow the content: Technical communication, content strategy, information architecture, knowledge management all offer different paths and different approaches to ultimately overlapping or identical content. And we tech writers need to contribute to that content in a productive way.
  • Follow the role: Regardless of what the actual function is called in an organisation, we tech writers need to make sure we contribute to the efforts of the Chief Information Officer – or whatever that role is called.
  • The competition is fierce: Many tech writers are essentially up against everybody else, and their contents need to beat Google’s results.
  • The big disconnect is closing, as the distinction between retail and corporate information and user experiences disappears.

Content strategy day

Scott Abel brought eight content strategy experts to tekom for a full day of presentations and discussions, see the separate review.

Auditing your documentation

Kit Brown-Hoekstra presented a dense 2-hour workshop on the why and how to audit your documentation and processes, see another separate review.

Your turn

Whether you’ve attended tekom/tcworld or not: Feel free to leave a comment if you see things differently or to ask if you’re curious about a detail.

Why TCUK is such a cool conference

Technical Communication UK (TCUK) has established itself as a leading tech comm conference in Europe, because it combines expected features with more quirky, informal elements of “unconferences”.

Pivotal programming

Part of the success comes thanks to a well-balanced mix of sessions. This is the “meat and potatoes” that covers the usual suspects of methods, tools, and technologies. It also excels by reaching out into neighboring disciplines. This year a whole stream of sessions was dedicated to “anything but text”. These presentations (and a couple of keynotes) went all visual and covered icon design at Google Maps, IKEA’s textless communication, technical illustrations, colour usage, video in user assistance, and more.

TCUK audience, photo by @FireheadLtd, used with permission

Fascinating fringe

Unconference features, such as lightning talks, a rants session, and a fringe program, make up the rich dessert buffet. They inspire and foster an accessible sense of community among delegates who want to carry ideas and conversations into less formal contexts. Fringe events ranged from meetups of user groups or regional ISTC groups to a film screening, from informal social get togethers to the latest instalment of the legendary annual salsa class.

Committed community

That sense of community is what makes TCUK unique to me: Beyond getting the logistics right of putting on a conference, these worthy folks hit the sweet spot by establishing a framework within which stuff can happen. The amiable atmosphere draws delegates together, whether they’re there as repeat speakers or just for one day. I’ve met someone determined to make the most of his one day, and he was hooking up with people left and right everytime I saw him between sessions.

Three-and-a-half takeways

What did I take away from TCUK 11?

  • A feel for where the tech comm industry is at. Technical communication is as dynamic a field as ever and there’s no better place to take a temperature than conferences such as TCUK.
  • Learn to think and act outside the box. Thanks to the good programming, I got a lot of insights and inspiration. This goes for tech comm topics, such as personas and minimalism. And it extends into other applicable areas, such as being a riveting speaker and interpreting and visualising statistical data.
  • A long-term perspective. Perennially repeated discussions are such as “What do we call ourselves and why?” are legitimate and important. But we also need to think in terms of progress, how we tech comm’ers want to the industry develop and in which direction(s). Fittingly, the final sessions did a good job whether it was Ellis Pratt’s closing keynote or Roger Hart’s compact 3 minute rant that content strategists have little on us, but still might do us in.
  • Tech writers will be tech writers. You can’t stop a bunch of tech writers from editing a dinner menu. You just can’t…

Your turn

If you’ve attended TCUK 11, what were your impressions? You probably took something else away… Feel free to leave a comment!

Keeping your documentation stakeholders happy

Don’t forget your stakeholders and their practices as you improve and change documentation. – That was the humbling lesson I learned (once again) as I presented our revamped documentation to non-tech comm colleagues.

Reporting on progress

The company I work for currently moves its documentation towards more structured writing and topic-based authoring. We’ve already rolled out redefined processes and several topic-based user manuals, so it was an opportunity to present to  non-tech comm colleagues what we’d done already, why and how we did it, and what else was in store. I talked about topic-based authoring and how it’s chunked, task-oriented, reusable, and independent of delivery format. Then I talked about the benefits and challenges:

  • For users, topic-based help can be updated more frequently, it is easier and faster to use online, though it breaks the narrative flow
  • For everyone working on our module, it means easier contributions
  • For the company, it allows to leverage* content after one-time migration efforts

* I know “leverage” is not a verb, but there were managers present who love the word… 🙂

I thought I was pretty clever for presenting how cool the new documentation was not primarily for writers, but for users, my colleagues and the company as a whole. And it did go over well on the whole. But there was…

The thing about trains

Person reading by a track in a railroad station

The most contentious issue turned out to be an unexpected use of the documentation: Current user manuals sometimes contain flowing prose walk-throughs of sample setups with many screenshots. When they are written well, they are nice to read. And allegedly users like to print out the PDF files and read them on the commuter train.

The problem of prose

There are several problems with the narrative manuals for users:

  • They are hard to use and search in, unless you want to know exactly the one thing they are describing.
  • Any sample setup is bound to miss what they need by a little or even a lot, because our product is highly configurable (you can even customize field names in windows).

There are problems for writers as well:

  • The prose is really hard to update when functions or processes change because the narrative flow may require small or large changes in several places.
  • The screenshots take longer to update and localize than mere text.

I gave these reasons, invited colleagues to check out the manuals done in the new fashion and cited survey findings that most of our users consult the documentation when they have a specific problem, though very few actually read manuals end-to-end.

But the ultimate lesson for me was that I could focus on our mission all I want, I also need to address the change with my stakeholders not only in rational terms, but also in terms of their habits and expectations.

Your turn

Do you think the customer is always right, even if he asks for documentation that is harder to maintain and harder to use in most cases? How can you promote change among stakeholders which you are sure will benefit everyone in the long run? Please leave a comment.

Top 5 things I like about WritersUA

WritersUA is a very stimulating and inspiring conference! This year’s 19th annual conference draws 360 attendees (speakers included) which makes it the largest tech comm conference I’ve attended so far. Kudos and compliments to Joe Welinske and his whole team who simply “get it right”.

Here are the top 5 things I like about WritersUA:

1. Great program, good pace

An online community on the conference web site allows attendees to connect as much or as little before the conference as they like. The program is paced very well: At 60 minutes, sessions are long enough to be thorough and leave time for questions and discussions. 20-minute breaks between sessions allow for several contacts with attendees and/or exhibitors.

2. Proceedings are available before hand

At first, I was overwhelmed by the package I received at registration, but it makes sense: Looking through the slides allows you to make the best possible decision which session to attend. Even if several presenters have edited their slides after submitting them for print, but the earlier versions are always a good, reliable indication. Initially, I had selected sessions by my general interest in the topics. After reviewing the slides, I changed my schedule for Monday completely. One session looked more basic than I had expected, and the slides are so comprehensive I couldn’t imagine I would miss much (and from what I heard from attendees I didn’t).

3. Sessions that are worth attending – in person

I got the most out of sessions that offered constructive discussions in addition to mere presentations:

  • Rob Houser presented a “community-works-in-progress”, a Pattern Library for User Assistance, where we discussed whether this was something worth having, whether we could imagine contributing to it and how to best go about it. (For more information, follow the link above, see Chuck Martin’s write-up or watch this space for a more elaborate review.)
  • Linda Urban described and analyzed her experiences with Opportunities for Reuse Between User Assistance and Training and invited a discussion which was very enlightening: Even between two such closely related domains, different cultures, organization, budgets and deliverables make it difficult to break down the silos and to collaborate successfully.

4. Comprehensive look at help authoring tools

WritersUA offers a unique combination of first- and second-hand experiences to compare tools in depth.

The exhibition area at WritersUA

  • In the exhibition area, most of the relevant vendors are present among the 14 exhibitors and more than willing to present their products in the best possible light.
  • In a lab, attendees have access to most of the relevant tools at workstations. You can just play around with them or visit at a time when a vendor is at hand to ask questions (though these are not presentations).
  • And during the meals and breaks, you can ask other attendees about their experiences with the tools.

5. Great gathering of passionate, fun tech writers

As early as Saturday afternoon, I met friends from previous conferences and people who’s writing, blogs or tweets I’ve seen online. The various networking opportunities make it easy and fun to strike up a conversation, trade travel stories, share frustrations about clueless managers or absurd processes or quote obscure Doors’ songs.

– So far, WritersUA has been a great example of my Top 5 reasons to attend a tech comm conference. If you’re attending WritersUA or have attended a tech comm conference in the past, feel free to share what you liked best about them in the comments.