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.