Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tickling the Brain: Sharing Ideas in Memorable Ways

Adam Rubin, from Groupon, is giving the Wednesday afternoon keynote speech.

Subtitle is "Why Amazing Matters"

Your brain trusts your eyes more than your ears.

Every so often you'll see something that's astonishing. Then you go back to your adult life.

We remember novelty, we remember drama. When something wows us, we can't wait to tell someone about it. If you can create a great idea in someone's mind, they will remember it.

How do we design amazing things? 5 categories, 5 tools, we can use: surprise, contrast, tension, rhythm, and style.

When you have limitations, when you face adversity, you become more creative.

"Wield your feather": stay curious, use your whole brain, get offline, f*** fear. The last is the biggest thing; fear is the enemy.

Part of being creative is that you're going to be frustrated most of the time.

Automated Customized Documents with DITA

This one is by one of my favorite speakers, Dave Gash.

You should have some experience with DITA for this session (uh oh), but this session will focus on conrefs and conitionalizing. This is a case study.

Problem is, client sells website software, that integrates into existing website. For each customer, client provides installation instructions document (IID). IIDs are customized for each costumer. New docs are created by hand, cut & paste, very error prone. Speedy--and accurate--IIDs are a huge advantage.

Old process, take some Word docs, info from sales, and information form a customer database, pull it into Word, and create a new document.

Goal was to create a read-only master template that works for all combinations of documents and is customizable for any customer. Also to automate the document production process. And make the proces easily usable by installation managers.

DITA excels at insertion of customer-specific information, called conrefs, pr replacing of variable data, and inclusion/exclusion of content blocks, or build conditions.

Content references (conrefs) insert dynamic data.

Tool used includes DITA Open Tookkit, XMLmind XXE Editor Personal Edition, WinANT Echidna and build GUI, and a lightweight web server. What does all this cost? $0. Able to learn if it would all work in the proof of concept by spending nothing at all on software.

Language in Software User Interfaces

Originally was going to the session about DITA, but again, it was in the room with no tables. Also saw a session on API docs, but it turns out it wasn't about creating them, but about how to use a specific too. So I wound up in this session, by Laura Bergstrom of Microsoft.

Which all meant I got in a bit late and missed the opening remarks. So I'll catch up as best I can.

The language in software interfaces is about building a story, about developing a "voice" based on branding. An end-to-end experience team works on the whole process, from high-level messaging and stories down to guidelines and catalogs of assets for messaging and design.

Some early steps include scenario-based engineering and writing, the value proposition for customers a "listening tour" with the leadership team, and looking at trends into the near future.

The goal for scenario-focused engineering is customer-focused. Planning, designing, and building is a daily iterative process. What they call "scenarios" looks very similar to personas. Scenarios are important because technology changes, but people don't. It give you understanding of users. When yo focus on what people value, it drives innovation. Also, you can predict what users will and won't do in a situation.

Use a story structure to create your scenario.

It takes more time to write something in a friendly tone than by pre-set guidelines. A good tone is friendly, empathetic, everyday language.

It's OK to use contractions. It's even encouraged. Use them when it feels natural, but dont' force it or use uncommon ones. Ask yourself "does it sound harsh" if you don't use one.

Use second voice, even in the UI. Speaking directly to the person can be very friendly.

Why have a dedicated resource for UI content? Well, a user assistance developer (writer) is trained in the subject. They understand conceptual models. They understand user empathy. Yet they also have deep experience working in an engineering environment. And taxonomy, style, and so on will be consistent. It's a good argument for not letting programmers or managers handle the task. Dedicate the proper experience to the task and your users' experience will be much, much better.

Conversational tones are harder to translate.

Tone matters because people want to scan, not read.

Interaction Design for DOOH (Digital Out Of Home) UA

Doug Bolin talks about digital signage and other digital interactions out of the home, from signs to kiosks to monitors to digital signage. I's using digital technology and content do whatever you want to do. When it works, in informs, it involves, and it entertains.

Information about the location and information about the user all combined to provide useful information.

It's gone from standalone players and signs with static content, to content that relies on servers or other media repository. Can administer it locally or remotely.

You could put a camera on top of an interactive kiosk and do usability testing 24/7, to see how people fail and succeed.

A single system to manage and publish content into all sort of venes at any time at any geography, and publish any content.

With DOOH interaction design best practices, we can offer contextual user assistance, dynamic, interactive support in public places. Some ideas: make it clear that interactivity is possible. Create an "attract state" that demonstrates interactivity when no one is using the device. People will learn over time that screens are touchable.

Make touchable things look touchable. Design for fingers. Don't cover up information or controls. Remember accessibility!

Best Practices for Embedded UA

Although I always like to hear Dave Gash speak, the physical layout of the room they gave him, with no tables, drove me away. It's just unworkable for taking notes. So instead I'm in the Embedded UA session, by Scott DeLoach--which isn't at all a bad thing.

The early points that Scott makes include the notion that the writing you do, even in a user interface, needs to persuade, motivate, and communicate. It has to anticipate the real questions users will have. For example, in a web form, it's obvious that a name and address needs to be put in the fields. But users also want to know why they would want to give that information.

It's useful to allow users to add their own content. Comments can be a very useful thing, especially when attached to specific topics created by you.

You can provide other UA options. Many web forms are cutting edge with their UA. Some sites offer a "live' chat. But some also know when chat or suport is available, and change the button or link. For example, at night, the button may be to sent email.

It's good to actively request feedback. But limit the number of questions you ask. A lot of people want to have a voice, especially when they are dissatisfied. Important to have a thick skin; 90% of the comments will be negative.

Allow users to customize your embedded content. Let them select a language, ask their own questions, reuse content, and turn off features.  Travel sites are a good example of offering content in multiple languages. Would rather see poor translation than no translation. Better 10% usable than 0% usable. Technology translation is getting better and better. Nerver be good as a person, but it is improving.

Many places are now adding links so you can post content to Twitter or Facebook. On eBay, you can turn off user assistance poop-ups. It does frustrate some people when you force help on them. Some people just don't want to admit they need help.

Turning to user learning guidelines, encourage success encourage exploration, and challenge users.

When users are new to a product, if they are successful immediately, they will be happy. They will give it a chance. But if they have trouble in the beginning, that sets their expectation of the entire experience with the product. Their first interaction is key.

Scott showed off some HTML5 techniques for embedded UA. First up, adding subtitles to instructional videos. YOu can use the contenteditable attribute on a tag to allow users to edit content. And you can use the WebStorage API to save user-edited content.

HTML5 provides many built-in assistance methods for forms. You can require input on form fields. HTML5 has some built-in validation, for email addresses and URLs. You can even spell check user input.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Making Your UA Accessible to All

The conference's first keynote session is this afternoon, presented by Shawn Henry.

Material at

If one thing could do to improve people's lives around the world, your customers, would advance your career, help your business, and if you don't do it, the opposite? Accessibility.

When we think of accessibility, we think of checklist. But it doesn't have to be dull & boring.

Accessibility not primarily about website code, evaluation tool results, conforming to local standards.

W3C defines standards for the web.

Step 1 isn't to look at standards & guidelines. Overwhelming & too much. Important to start with basics of how real people with real disabilities in real situations use your products. Accessibility is about people.

Screen readers only work when a page is structured properly.

A lot of work in accessibility is around people who are blind, but can't get caught up in the idea that blind people are the only people accessibility addresses.

Many types of disabilities: auditory, cognitive, and more. See How People with Disabilities Use the Web, on the W3C site.

Disabilities can be congenital, form disease, from illness, from accidents, from aging.  We're all aging. So accessibility isn't about "them," it's about us.

When you design for accessibility, you make things not only better for aging people, you make things better for a wide variety of people.

When we look at accessibility, we look at a broad range of people. So what's the business case? See Resources for Developing an Accessibility Business Case, by the W3C.

When you design products to be accessible, they are more usable for everyone, not just those with disabilities.

Check out the book "Just Ask," available online free here.

Suite of guidelines. Most well known is WCAG, the web content accessibility guidelines. Designed to be stable, apply to range of web technologies. Referenced in many laws. Also UAAG, or user agent accessibility guidelines, outlining assistive technologies and whet they need to do to support accessibility.  For creating content, there's ATAG, or authoring tool accessibility guidelines. From tools such as Facebook to Flikr to wikis, all used to create content for the web. Tools need to be accessible themselves, and also make the content they create accessible. Tools can support you adding accessibility information.

Accessibility isn't black & white, either bad or good. There's a huge gray area. But don't get lost in the gray area. Don't need to make accessibility perfect (unless you're an accessibility site), but make it decent & move on, maybe improve later. And make sure your'e doing the easy things, the low-hanging frui. Many accessibility things easy to do, so make sure your'e ding them. don't get stuck in the hard stuff and miss out on getting the easy stuff done.

Bottom line, accessibility is an act of enlightened self-interest.

An Introduction to Video Editing

Well, I was thinking of going to the wiki session, but (a) the room has no tables, making it difficult to take notes, and (b) one of the presentes is fromLinden Labs, makers of Second Life, and that's a product that seems to be turning into yesterday, so I came here, my second choice for the time slot. And it's conference organizer Joe Welinske presenting this one.

Important inflection point. The cost of software for working with video and the storage to host it has dropped precipitously, sometimes even free.

Video should be part of UA deliverables. It's attractive to growing number of consumers, especially younger demographic.

At AutoDesk, they are hosting their video on YouTube. It's free! Used to be video hosted on your corporate server. By hosting on YouTube, you're taking advantage of Google always indexing this information, making it easy to find. It's a great way to get users to your information.

Use many tools. Haven't found one tool that does everything. A camera is good because live action adds something to web video. Lighting is always a big issue.

One tool used is called Power Director, and it's available for less than $100. The same power a couple of decades ago would cost $10,000 and require lots and lots of expensive hardware.

One area of video editing software is a library of media elements. In a project, you bring them in from other sources. Key part to put it all together is the timeline. On he timeline are thumbnails representing media elements, which you can drag and drop and they become linked. You can create multiple tracks, such as one for music and one for narration.

Don't try and make your video capture your final place. So many people try to make the capture process perfect. Better to just let the camera run, and edit it later.  OTOH, you want to capture audio in one session, including multiple takes, so all are based on same ambient room pressure, background noise, etc.

Use an eBay lighting box kit, makes a huge difference in making the subject glow. All folds up into  little packet.

Many different video formats. They are supported in different environments, and they also affect speed, quality, and size. Formats include .avi, .mpegx, .H.264, .wmv, ,mov, and .swf. Learing all the issues with all the different formats takes some research.

The Value of UX

Kyle Soucy, of Usable Interface, is presenting this talk, again, a subject near and dear to my heart.

She started about talking about caring. If you don't care about the people, you can't build a usable product. When people interact with a product, they're interacting with you. Everything we do creates an experience for the end user.

Why care about usability? It's survival of the easiest. If you're not creating usable products, your competitors are. Sometimes you don't have the opportunity for a relaunch.

How to do it? User-centered design. Geting users involved in the design.

HOw do you do it? User research, focus groups, log file analysis, surveys, eye tracking, card sorting, usability testing, but not heuristic evaluations. The latter is a usability person's opinion, not a user opinion. This session will focus on user research, card sorting, and usability testing.

User research is NOT market research. Market research is quantitative. You need qualitative. Qualitative research is direct observation. The researcher can ask follow-up questions, probe on behavior. Really want to know why users do particular things. Focus groups just give you opinions, what people say they do often isn't what they really do.

Never use stock photography for personas. Make it real. Find a candid photo. Designers and stakeholders can't relate to stock photos.

The usability testing process starts with defining what you are testing and who you are testing. If people are to buy in to your test finding, they have to buy in to the people you tested. You can't argue with the data if they are real users. Define the tasks you are testing. Recruiting users is next, and the hardest part of usability testing. Then you prepare prototypes and conduct a dry run. If you don't. your first test is a dry run. Finally, you facilitate the test and run the analysis of the data.

Formal usability labs are not needed, and they can be a barrier to testing. You can just use a conference room and have people watch with screen sharing software.

Information architecture is organizing, labeling, and classifying content so it can be easily found. To create an effective IA, you have to understand business objective, content, user objectives, and content of use. IA methods include card sorting, free listing, and mental models.

For card sorting, put all your content on index cards, labeling content, give them all to a user and ask them to categorize them that make sense to them, then label the piles. Do this with enough people, you start to see trends on how people categorize information.

HTML5 to the Point

Scott DeLoach is talking at the first of back-to-back session on HTML5 today. (I skipped the early morning session; I didn't se a whole lot relevant, plus I wanted to take the time to get a resume critique from Jack Molisani--and I now have a boatload of work to do on that fromt.)

The HTML5 doctype is simple: <!DOCTYPE html>. It's simplified. Can use two syntaxes. Most people use the HTML and not the XHTML.

HTML5 has a number of unsupported attributes. All have HTML5 alternates. Probably the biggest thing? No framesets. Can use iframes though. So many doc tools use framesets for their HTML output. Can also use float property.

A lot of new tags/elements. Need style definition for old browsers. Set them as display:block in CSS. Then test to make sure it'll work. Might also need to create styles specifically for older browsers.

When yo say you support HTML5, you need to support all the features.

New tags to structure documents, such as header, nav, section, article, aside, and footer. Don't need to use div tags to structure documents anymore. section & article have a lot of overlap. They are similar to each other. Idea of article is something that can stand alone. A section is not really a standalone thing.

If you just save as HTML5, you won't know how tags get used. But if you plan your document structure up front, the tags gain power.

HTML5 has new elements. New audio & video tags. Canvas is another. Idea of canvas is alternative to having a graphic, a way to draw in code. Can have things animate and move around. Might be easier than using Flash. Still kind of a pian writing the code now, until tool come along. You can add captions with the figcaption tag. Forms are improved in HTML5. New things you can do with the input tag.

YOu can now make content editable with the contenteditable attribute. You can make elements draggable with the draggable attribute. You can allow users to spell check form fields with the spellcheck attribute.

innerHTML() is a method that';s now part of HTML5, instead of being proprietary. hasFocus() is an element that will be very useful for creating context-sensitive help.

HTML5 provides a long list of new events, taken from the best of the various browsers and now made standard.

Form elements have been enhanced. A required attribute make a form field required before users submit a form. HTML5 provides validation for different types of data, such as email addresses or URLs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Techniques for Embedded User Assistance

User assistance in a UI is the first layer a user sees. So understanding the many ways you can embed UA within the application is going to be very useful.

Tony Self started by defining embedded UA as content that resides within the application window.

IN the past, cue cards were a form of embedded UA. But still gotten to from the Help menu. Not really "embedded," but part of a move toward it. "Show Me" help was another form. But again, not really "embedded." What's This? help offered contextual links. ven with that, although on top of the UI, users hade to click to see it. Tooltips helps user use the applications, and definitely embedded.

Closer we get to embedded user assistance, closer it is to programmers being in charge.

Now, we find embedded UA in many places. For example, in descriptive/overview links. By restructuring menus and grouping things together, the Control Panel in Windows is an example between Classic and Standard views. "Super" tooltips, can contain hyperlinks and richer text. Easiest types is static information in the UI. Embedded wizards and embedded help are common these days.

Why do users like embedded UA? It minimizes interruption. It makes information more accessible and relevant. It reinforces perception of help as being part of the application.

Embedded UA improves usability. User don't have to ask the "right question" because the help is at hand. It's nonintrusive. Interestingly, users don't see embedded UA as "help," but as part of the application. It improves usability because users stay in their workflow, which means embedded UA must be task-specific. And it is optimized for what Alan Cooper calls "perpetual intermediates."

Bartriers to embedded UA include that it's hard(er) to implement (it needs software development time and cooperation), it's more work, updates and localization is more difficult, and there's no standard technology or approach.

An interesting thing, Tony's showing embedded content written in XMetal, in an XML file, using DITA. A table has the field name, the field name text, and the tooltip. All of that can be developed by the user assistance developer. Can make updates without needing to recompile the program. Makes it easy to translate as well, because you just have to translate the content in the XML file.

Secrets of embedded UA include keeping content independent of product, simplify integration, make content changes not impact code (and vice versa), and use mapping files and techniques.

Using Personas to Improve the Customer Experience

This is a subject that's near and dear to my heart, one that I cannot advocate enough. Here, the topic is being presented by Joan Lasselle, of Lasselle-Ramsay.

What's next in improving customer experience? How do we know what direction to take? A technique to help you make tactical decisions about what's next with your content.

Who is the customer? In today's market, customer never been more diverse and demanding. In 90s, customer experience driven from enterprise out. Now, customer experience with finding information richer & easier on the consumer side. So many people have consumer devices. That experience is driving expectation into the enterprise. How do we go from vague understanding of customer to solid idea of a set of eyes.

Metrics can be helpful, but they are abstract. Often, even technical communicators don't know the customer as well as we'd like to think. We have to understand who users are and how they do their job to make them successful in their job.

Satisfied customers buy more, buy again, tell others. You measure success with customer satisfaction. Satisfied customers will spend time with you, will give you data to make better decisions. Don't need customers in the middle, but raving or angry, to tell you what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong.

What is a persona? A composite. Personas are created from composite, from ethnographic and qualitative research. Interview 6-8 people to build persona. Included a of of behavioral data. Contains behavioral model, what motivates them to do their job, what obstacles they face in their job. Do task analysis, find what it takes to develop competency in a job.

To get 360 degree view, need to go beyond who customers are. What motivates them? What gets them up in the morning? How do they work? What do they do? What problems do they solve? Where and when do they perform tasks?

4 steps: define scope, conduct research, analyze findings, build personas.

To define scope, determine research questions, identify the target audience, determine the research approach, and build the research tools.

Determining research questions often left out. You can't do it all. Need to confer with stakeholders, find what they want to know about their customers. Doing this also gets buy-in from other areas of the organization.

Research approaches include surveys, focus groups, and more, but a useful one is a structured interview. Group questions so they align around research goals, structure the interview. Want open-ended questions, but not too open-ended. Make it more conversational. Write questions so you have a control. Richness comes form probing questions. Reflective listening is a good method to use. And limit it to an hour. Record it with a timestamp to make it easy to review.

Three things in data analysis. Profile characteristics are the rich understanding of the person. User stories tell what they do. Profile components includes demographic description, goals, needs, and anxieties, learning approaches, problem-solving approaches, motivation, personality, technical profile, and responsibilities. User stories include not only what users need to do, but why. Scenarios can be base don user stories, reflect goals and organizes tasks that reflect proficiencies, and are based in reality (a day in the life).

If you're building information that people can't get to, are you really providing a service? That's why you need to know how people work, how they do what they do, what limitations they have.

Create one-page snapshot. Give an easy-to-use name, face, voice. Not the entire report, but what would be used routinely for development. Instead of writing an administrator guide, you're writing for Dave.

Think of help not as a system, but as a service. One idea, how to make search more prominent. What happens when your site knows about your user, knows what products they have purchased, and your search can key on that knowledge. Know something about the user, build up information about the user, and use that to make them more successful. Can be richer base of information.

Use cases contain a detailed description of a process, an interaction between users and information.

Some pitfalls include not targeting the study, not target your audience, not communicating the personas, and not updating periodically. The last is probably the most important. Updating your personas should be part of your regular development process.

You can't connect with customers if you don't know who they are. Personas are powerful tools to define your customer's content requirements. Personas help you answer the "right content, right format, right time" question, should be the starting point, not the ending point, of your content strategy.

Adobe RoboHelp 9: A Fresh Look

Decided to drop in on this session, in part because of a couple of recommendations of friends suggested it would be useful in job hunting. Thing is, I've not worked at a place that used RoboHelp in years and years. So it will be interesting to see what's now.

Kevin Siegel, of IconLogic, is the presenter.

He began by showing how RoboHelp can output an ePub document. Need a TOC, otherwise, the TOC in the ePub will be skipped. Also, need a reader on your computer so you can see how it will look. Indexes are not supported in ePub.

Don't use dynamic effects in source, or comment them out, because they don't work in ePub.

When creating output, especially webhelp, definitely need to test in multiple browsers. Can test browsers from within RoboHelp, but support for Google Chrome seems to be problematic, and some metrics are suggesting Chrome is reaching 20% of web users.

User-centric help systems allow you to conditionalize content and then let users select the subset of content they want to see.

Now he's getting into how to have reviewers comment on PDF files. But in RoboHelp, a feature is to import comments from a PDF file.

If you're using the whole Technical Communication Suite, RoboHelp becomes a "bit player" in the process, which is centralized around FrameMaker.

RoboHelp 9 adds the ability to add external searches.

A Pattern Library for User Assistance

Rob Houser will focus primarily on embedded user assistance and other assistance that's around a product.

Theoretical definition: collection of solutions to common problems in a specific context. Practically, look at trends, use what you observe to find common themes. Patterns is a good way to get ideas, an idea library. Can look around and be inspired.

Why do you need a library? Less being published about user assistance. Few outlets, such as this conference (and a couple of others). Also helps to get interaction designers think about user assistance as part of the design process. We're not building a common body of knowledge that we can share. It's also useful to speed up adoption of best practices.

User interface pattern libraries define common controls or interactions.

Core categories for user assistance (UA) patterns include getting started, making decisions, and solving problems. Other possible categories can be performing tasks, working more productively, and developing expertise. Some of the categories have overlap.

Questions users ask when they are getting started include why and when would I do the task, what can I do here, what do I need to know, what do I do next, what's new. The idea of helping users to get started is to encourage them to explore.

For making decisions, users might ask questions such as what do I need to know to make a decision, what are the rules, what happens if I do this. For example, a bit of content next to a field can describe what to put in there. Examples imply what do do.

For solving problems, users might ask what the problem is, what do I do to fix the problem, what are other people doing to fix the problem.

One question is whether UA libraries should be standalone or integrated into other libraries, such as UI libraries.

Check out and, future home of UA pattern libraries.

Patterns are a good place to start, but the right combination still depends on your users and application. Patterns shouldn't limit innovation.

A Look into the Mirror

Well, the 2011 conference is officially underway. Joe's speaking now, thanking sponsors and exhibitors and taking care of conference details.

For the first time, computer lab with all sorts of installed software for attendees to experiment with, plus guided lab sessions by vendors.

This is a session of polls, many of the questions submitted in the conference online community. The poll results will be posted to the community later.

Which skills are most important in career? Of the 5 choices, the ability to learn quickly got 45%, followed by writing and interpersonal skills at 21% each. Tool knowledge had 9% and understanding IT had 5%.

Favorite way to learn a new authoring tool? Trial & error overwhelming favorite at 42%, with classroom training at 21% and eLearning at 15%.

Improving skills in what area will best prepare you for the future? Delivering information viz handheld devices was tops at 35%, with eLearing development second at 25%. Social media and usability testing had 13% and 11%.

When asked at a party what you do for a living, you respond? Tops was writer, with 42%, then technical communicator at 33% and "I work with computers" at 14%. Unemployed and user assistance pro tied for last with 6%.

Which help controls do you use? "What the hell are A links and K links?" got 66%. A l;inks got 15% and A and K links got 10%.

What;s the biggest challenge to adopting a new tool or process? Enough time got 45% with resistance from personnel second at 29%. Lack of funds was third at 15% and infrastructure complaints had 11%.

Where do you think AIR Help will be 5 years from now? "What the hell is AIR Help?" got 37% with used in isolated cases a close second with 36%. Not sure was a distant third with 19% and widespread had just 8%.

Have you considered using a wiki for SMEs to review content? Yes, but not doing it had a bit of an edge with 33%, and "no, we don't want the SMEs fooling around with our content" was second with 25% and "No, but that's worth looking into" had 25%. Using one now was 15%, and "Wha the hell is a wiki?" had just 2%.

How do you keep your users up-to-date on software changes? "Other" won going away with 56%. A newsletter/bulletin came in second with 19%, and "we can't keep up" was third with 13%. Blog (7%) and webinars (6%) trailed.

How often do you telecommute? Never had 31% and less than 1 day/week had 30%. 1-2 days a week was at 19%, and full time came in at 12%. Interesting that 40% telecommute a day or more a week.

In the past year, what has been your primary method of non-sales contact with users? No contact came in first with 30%, and other had 25%. Email was third with 23% and in-person had 13%. Tony noted that a lot of the "no contact" comes from outsourcing, when we get contracts, we don't know who our users will be.

What type of smartphone do you have? No smartphone came in first at 40%. iPhone was next with 23% and Android trailed a bit with 16%. BlackBerry had 13%,  Other had 6%, Windows Phone came it with 3% and Nokia had 0%.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Sessioning

After spending some time in the embedded user assistance session with Rob Houser (a subject very near and dear to my heart, where he was riffing on some themes that I've been advocating for for quite a while), I'm now in Saul Carliner's session on eLearing.

Saul is energetic and engaging, just the type of person you want to listen to. I entered when he was talking about the notion of completion and acceptable performance of tasks. If you're writing eLearing questions and answers, what's acceptable for task completion? It's different if the task is, say, installing a pacemaker compared to installing software.

He also talked about creating objectives. Using words such as "know" and :understand" aren't acceptable because the goal is not observable or measurable.

Prerequisites. Objective or course? If you make it a course, you can say that you took the course. If you make it an objective, then you have something measurable that they should know how to do beforehand.

Don't write course materials before you write the test.

You just need to test the main objective, not the supporting objectives. If students have learned the main objective, they have by default also learned the supporting objectives. That said, testing the supporting objectives as you go along help make surte you're on track.

The number of questions you write depends on the situation.

Finally, I'm spending a bit of time in Linda Urban;s session on topic types. Of course, I enter right in the middle of an exercise, so it'll be a few minuts before she gets back to talking about session content.

What's interesting is the notion of design patterns for topic types. Also, topics can be broken down into elements, and different types of topics use different sets of elements.

Design patterns are useful, and their development is iterative, but their usefulness can't be ascertained without adding actual content. And adding content lets you know if the design works.

"Awesome" website recommended:

Interesting notion: links are a distraction. If you want people to read your topic, dont' add links.

Job hunting

The conference introduces a new feature this year, a career rune-up morning session by ProSpring's Jack Molisani. Jack has been a long-time fixture at the WritersUA conferences, as a vendor and as a speaker.

Part of his morning session is a presentation called "Job Hunting Secrets That Might Surprise You." It focused largely on resumes and interview tactics.

"Official" definition of resume is wrong. If not a summary of what you've done & can do, what is it? It's whether you match what the reader is looking for. Includes a short account of your career and experience. But it has to help the reader find what they are looking for.

No one will read your resume. They'll scan it.

You'll never be hired because of your resume. You wil be rejected because if it. But interview because you weren't rejected.

Never rejected anyone because their resume was too short.

Recruiters automatically assume you're not qualified until you prove otherwise.

What are some of the mistakes job hunters make? Well, not following job submission directions is tops.

You can see the presentations on the ProSpring website.

Starting Sunday @ Adobe

Sunday starts early this year. Two vendors at the conference are having morning-long product presentations. I'm starting the morning in the Adobe session.

Ankur Jain, RoboHelp's product manager in India, is opening the morning talking about how he sees the direction of documentation, including that users want documentation that's more collaborative and interactive.

He describes RoboHelp 9's output as providing a wide range of user collaboration, from topic forums to the ability of add user tips.

He talked also about outputs. One of the pieces of exciting news is that RoboHelp 9 will now output EPUB output. eBooks are going to be a next wave of content output.

Rick Stone then talked about how RoboHelp enables content finadability.

The Adobe session got a good turnout too; it looks like close to two dozen folks got themselves up early on a Sunday morning for this training. (Author-IT had less than half that, and the career tune-up got about 10.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Joe's hard at work

Most of you see conference founder and president Joe Welinske on stage introducing speakers or presenting himself. But he works hard behind the scenes to make sure the conference experience is aces for everyone. And he's not above pitching in on the "grunt" work, as pictured here collating and stuffing the conference bags everyone receives when they register.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The insanity of WritersUA

Don't get me wrong, the WritersUA Conference for Software User Assistance is by far THE best industry gathering I've ever attended. (To be fair, I've not attended many non-WritersUA conferences, but I have evaluated the session lineup of others, including past STC conferences, and WritersUA easily tops the others.) But for me it is an absolutely crazy week.

For me, it begins before the conference does. Not like organizer Joe Welinske and his crew,  who have been working long hours for weeks on end to culminate in this day. But my conference week has always begun on Saturday, when I volunteer to help Joe put together the bags you all get when you register. It's tedious, labor-intensive work that can't be automated (and it was much more a chore in the heady days of the mid-90s, when the conference drew more than a thousand attendees), but it's also enjoyable in many ways. I get to catch up with Joe and Shannon and Sharon and often Joe's parents, most of whom I have not seen since the previous year. It also enables me to find out late changes, see what things Joe needs, and other odds and ends.

Saturday night, I'm prepping for Sunday. I already have picked out and designed the template for the year;s daily newsletter. I'm checking my email and making final plans for Sunday.

Ah Sunday. What used to be basically a half day has this year morphed into a full, multitasking day. It began with Jack Molisani, of ProSpring and who runs LavaCon, offering a full-morning job-seeker presentation, free for all attendees. Add to that both Adobe and Author-It offering information and training on their products, all of which I want to be in, and the morning is suddenly packed.

A few years ago, Joe began offering the Sunday Supplemental session, sessions that lasted a full Sunday afternoon where presenters could dive deep into useful topics as add-ons to the three-day conference. I usually spend a short time in all three, writing up brief summaries for the Monday newsletter. In the evening is the LaunchPad and conference orientation sessions. I don't spend time in them to get information , but just to take a few photos, again for the newsletter.

Exhibitors are also setting up their booths for Monday and Tuesday, and I spend time going around to all of them, reminding them of the newsletter, asking about any items them might have, news they might want spread, and again taking photos.

And then, once again this year, Joe has an informal mixer scheduled at the lobby bar, where I'll catch up with more old friends and take a bunch more photos. Then it's off to produce the Monday newsletter. With luck, I'll have had good chunks of it written, and it'll be about adding some more items, selecting, editing, and laying out photos, checking with Joe about last-minute changes for Monday, having it edited by Sue Heim, and printing out a couple hundred copies before I can head off to bed.

So officially, the conference hasn't even started and I have one very long day under my belt.

And one the conference sessions start, I'm once again faced with the same problem I find at WritersUA every year: Which sessions to attend.

I have found, in the nearly 20-year history of this conference, that during many, if not most, of the time periods, there are at least two sessions I want to attend. Unfortunately, cloning technology has not advanced to the point where I can be in two or three places at once, so I'm forced to make hard choices. Let me explain.

Monday morning begins with a session open to everyone. After that, the breakout sessions begin. This year, I have 2 that I want to attend: "Research-Validated Practices for Designing Effective ELearning," by Saul Carliner, and "Designing Content for Mobile Devices," by Scott DeLoach. I'm also thinking about "A Pattern Library for User Assistance," by Rob Houser.

But that's nothing compared to the afternoon. In the 12:45 and 2:05 time slots, I've found 4 sessions of interest, and in the 3:25, "only" 3.

To start with, 12:45 brings "Leveraging Social: User-Generated Content, " by Doug Bolin, "Comparison of Current Help Authoring Tools," by Matthew Ellison, "Global User Assistance Requirements and Guidelines," by Pam Noreault, and ""Trends in Usability Testing," by Kyle Soucy. The latter two probably are the ones I lean toward the most.

But then at 2:05, there's the Adobe Lab, "Crating a Strategy for Video to Attract Users and market Your Help Content," by Harry Miller, "Using Personas to Improve the Customer Experience," by Joan Lasselle, and "Developing for the Unknown - Using CSS, Other Control Files, and More," by Neil Perlin. I'm a huge personas advocate, but I'd love to get some hands-on time with the latest Adobe products, and Neil looks like he's going to have some interesting stuff.

To round out yet another busy day, at 3:25, I find "Determining the Best eLearning Design Approaches and Development Tools," by Joseph Ganci, "Techniques for Embedded User Assistance," by Tony Self, and the Madcap software lab. Again, I want to get some hands-on time with the latest tools, but Tony Self always puts on an interesting presentation.

The day ends with a networking mixer, where I'll also be taking photos, and then I'm off to produce Tuesday's newsletter. with luck, I'll be done well before midnight.

Tuesday begins earlier than Monday. Fortunately, I (currently) have just one session penciled in for the 8:30 time slot: the DITA lab. At 9:50, I found just one also: "HTML5 to the Point," by Scott DeLoach. The challenge here is going to be staying awake with the early start. I've said it before; Scott is an absolutely charming person, smart, engaging, and just plain nice, but is speaking style is, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. Oh, he knows his stuff all right. Let's just say not everyone can be a Dave Gash.

Meanwhile, at 11:10, we're back to making tough choices, once again, between four different options: "60 Minutes to an HTML5 Web Page," by Char James-Tanny, "Improving Online Help with Google Analytics, WebTrends, and SurveyMonkey," by Lisa Saunders, "The Value of UX," by Kyle Soucy, and "Using Web Analytics for Improving Content," by Robert Desprez. It's interesting that two sessions discussing similar topics, how to collect and analyze feedback about online help from various sources for improvement. And I most definitely know how valuable UX is, although I can always learn more about this topic that I'm very passionate about. But Char's presentations are always fabulous, so it'd have to be something tremendously compelling to keep me away.

After lunch, the 1:25 sessions hold two attractions for me: "Creating a Wiki-Based Help System," by C. Rand McKinney, and "How Microsoft SharePoint Gives You a Realistic Approach to Content Management," by Dan Beall. While a lot more companies are looking at CMS systems for their user assistance content, even more seem to be moving toward wikis as a documentation solution. This seems like the more useful skill to pick up, at least immediately.

Finally, the day slows down a bit. At 2:45, the only one I found for me is "Making Your UA Accessible to All," by Shawn Henry. And at 4:05, I hope to split time between the MadCap and Adobe product demos. At 6 is the Geek Trivia Quiz Show, always entertaining, always fun, and always not well enough attended. Make your plans to be there.

Finally, the past two years I've attempted to take part in the very first part of a very unofficial conference event, the Australian Cultural Evening, or ACE. I've managed to get  the Wednesday newsletter to the point the past couple of years where I can make the first stop with the gang, the dinner stop, before I head back and finish up. Whether or not I'll be in the same state this year remains to be seen. However, the Wednesday newsletter is usually the easiest. The vendors have gone, most any big news has already happened, and the issue is a bit of a roundup for the year, with more photos than text. (Not to say that selecting a few good photos from hundreds, then editing and laying them out is a quick task.)

Wednesday is no less a crazy day. Again an early day, three session make for a very difficult decision: "A Style Guide for DITA Authoring," by Tony Self, "Making 'Expando-Magic' Glossaries with XSLT," by Dave Gash, and the Help Authoring Tool Lab, hosted by several good friends and stars. Now to begin with, Tony leads the ACE, so seeing him start early the next day should be...interesting. But it's good stuff too. I never like to miss a Dave Gash presentation, and this is about as high-end techie as it gets at WritersUA, and very useful stuff. And going to either of these means I miss out on potentially useful tool information from people such as Char James-Tanny, Sue Heim, and more. A really, really tough choice to start the day.

At 9:50, the "Designing Out of Box and First-Time User Experiences to Delight Your Customers," by Catherine Moya. I am all about great user experiences, but this is the same time as the Microsoft lab, led my more friends and stars. Some might say that Microsoft long ago gave up its position at the top of the Help heap, but they still have influence in the desktop world, and they do drive a lot of leading-edge ideas.

At 10:50, we break for the peer showcase. It's often interesting to see what others are doing. For me, I'm taking a lot of photos, listening to a few short presentations, and then trying to squeeze in a quick lunch.

At 1:05, I'm again looking at three different sessions: "A Second Look at Culture and Help Usage," by Leah Guren, "What They Won't Tell You About DITA," by Alan Houser, and "Language in Software User Interfaces," by Laura Bergstrom. I'm most torn between more DITA information and more information about how to best create UI content.

Things finally slow down a bit at 2:25. While "Interaction Design for DOOH (Digital Out of Home)," by Doug Bolin, is right up my alley, I don't see how I can miss Dave Gash's second presentation of the day, "Automated Customized Documents with DITA."

The conference closes with a keynote, "Tickling the Brain: Sharing Ideas in Memorable Ways," by Adam Rubin. While we miss out again on a Jared Spool closer, Joe often finds some real diamonds in the rough for intriguing, challenging keynote topics, and this looks like one you don't want to miss because you have to catch a plane.

So there you have it. Yet another insane WritersUA schedule. It's subject to change, of course, but the decisions I'm going to have to make, all day every day, show just how important and useful this conference is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Three weeks!

Yes, it's just three weeks until the 2011 conference gets underway. Time flies, and I'm sure these three weeks will go by extremely quickly.

It's almost turned into a 4-day conference what with what's now a full Sunday of events, not only the afternoon supplemental sessions and the evening welcome, but a job hunters tuneup in the morning. The latter adds a nice tidbit to existing usefulness of the conference to those between jobs.

You see, it's a given that bringing your user assistance skills up-to-date gives you an edge in the current tough market. And the ability to network among your peers is invaluable.

All the more reason to put this event in your personal budget if you're in the hunt. It's not too late.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Joe's road trip

I'm here at the Santa Clara IHOP, less than two months from the 2011 WritersUA Conference for Software User Assistance, and conference organizer Joe Welinske is speaking at the monthly Silicon Valley STC (Society for Technical Communication) meeting. This is one stop on a road trip of STC chapter meeting across Northern California and other places talking about user assistance topics and, of course, promoting the conference. Last night he was in Sacramento and tomorrow he'll be in Long Beach. There, he'll be finishing up conference logistics and speaking Saturday at the Orange County STC chapter.

His talk tonight is on the topic "Development Techniques for User Assistance in Smartphone Applications." The topic is similar to one of the focus areas of the conference.

An interesting point, as apps on mobile platforms get more complex, the need for user assistance increases. Interestingly, Android user assistance is more complicated that iPhone (and I've dabbled in iPhone programming, which is definitely more challenging than many programming languages). For example, UI text on iPhone is in resource files that you can enter in a WYSIWYG environment, while Android UI text is in XML files. Each Android device manufacturer needs to provide its own simulator to be able to test for that device. OTOH, the Windows Phone development environment, Visual Studio Express, is a lot simpler, in many ways like the iPhone development environment.  Some of our familiar authoring tools, such as MadCap Flare, are starting to offer output that will display on mobile devices.