Archive for March, 2009


WritersUA 2009: Day 1

March 31, 2009

Day 1 of WritersUA 2009 started out rainy and cold in Seattle, so we were all very pleased to be inside a warm and cosy conference venue like The Westin.

I attended these sessions:

  • Opening Session: Joe Welinske interviewed Scott McCloud, the cartoonist who did the manual for the Google Chrome browser in comic book form (see for details)
  • Contextual awareness: Responding to user actions and behavior (Bogo Vatavec) Bogo spoke about how he saw user assistance (UA) moving in the future, with Help and other UA being delivered according to your role, your location, or other attributes that personalized the content for you and your needs (e.g. Amazon). He took the paradigm further and delved into topics such as adaptive user interfaces and artifical intelligence, probability theory and machine learning, modeling, and scenario development.
  • Microsoft Technologies: Sandcastle Documentation Compiler (Anand Raman), and Help 3 (April Reagan): Anand gave an overview of the Sandcastle developments, followed by April who told us about Help3 which is ‘coming soon’. Unfortunately, April wasn’t able to demonstrate any of the work done so far as it seems there was a major shift in design the previous Friday! It was disappointing that there was no demo, or even screen shots of prototypes as I’m sure many of us came just to see what it was going to look like and how it would behave.

and I spoke in the final session on Techniques for Reviewing a User Interface, a repeat of the session I did at WritersUA 2008.

My other conference links:

Related links:

[Links last checked April 2009]


I joined Twitter

March 31, 2009

I’m not sure why, and I sure don’t know how it all works yet, but everyone at the conference seems to be using it for all sorts of things, so I figured I should join and see what the fuss is all about. I can always delete the account if I find it’s just a bright shiny thing to distract me away from my normal day….

Thanks Char for helping me through some of the initial learning curve.

Oh, my Twitter username is @cybertext.

Update August 2009: Well, 5 months later and I’m still on Twitter! Fortunately I wasn’t exposed to too much “I’m brushing my teeth now” stuff otherwise I think I would have given it away. I’m really enjoying the conversations I’m having with other tech writers around the world whom I usually only see once a year (maybe) at a conference. And I get links to sites I wouldn’t normally come across. In fact, my experience pretty much parallels that of Mike Hughes here: This old dog now gets it too! ;-)

[Link last checked August 2009]


WritersUA 2009: Registration Day: Sunday 29 March

March 30, 2009

Tweets for WritersUA are #writersua ( No, I’m not into Twitter (yet!), but I was told that this is where the Twitterers (?) hang out!


I spent part of this morning at the Pike Place Markets after having a late breakfast/brunch with Char at the 5th Avenue Cafe. Char went back to work on a document while I went to the markets. Coming back into the hotel, I saw Bonni who was about to catch a bus to go catch the ferry to Bainbridge Island — I had to drop stuff back in the room first, but said if she was still there when I got down (i.e. if the bus hadn’t already come), I’d join her. There’s a real problem being 40+ floors up — it takes a long time for the elevator to get to the floor and after dropping off the stuff etc. it took even longer to get down, especially with about 8 stops along the way, so by the time I raced back to the street and the bus stop, Bonni had gone :-( Sorry Bonni!

I went down to the registration desk around 2pm, got my conference goodies, and, as there was no-one hanging around except the lovely WUA staff, I said my hellos and then went back to the room to go through the stuff in the conference bag. There’s rarely any time at all during the conference to go through the bag, so the Sunday afternoon is always good! I also went through my presentation again as I’m on tomorrow afternoon.

There’s a meetup at the bar this evening (I think it’s around 7:00pm), then I have a dinner to go to.

All systems go for the start of the conference tomorrow morning. There are lots of exciting presentations on and already I’ve identified several time slots where I can’t decide which one to go to. This year we get an extra bonus — in addition to all the presentation slides being reproduced in black and white in the conference books, we also get a CD with the slides for all presentations in full colour. Thanks Joe — that’s a nice touch.


Decision making technique

March 29, 2009

Sometimes it’s really hard to get agreement on an issue. For example, let’s say you work in a division in an organization and your division wants to change an existing policy. The organization’s rules state that you need to get agreement to the change from other division leaders, but you know they probably don’t care too much about what your division does or how it does it. This scenario may be familiar to those who work in government departments!

So, how do you get the stakeholders to agree? Well, you could have meeting after meeting, but really, you may not need any meetings for this. You just need their agreement.

One of the best ways to do this is agreement by ‘omission’ (I call it this — or ‘decision making by stealth’ — but I don’t know what the official ‘management speak’ term is for this process).

So how does it work?

  1. The team documents the changes they want to implement.
  2. A cover memo/email is attached that clearly states when written responses are due by.
  3. The team/project leader presents this document to the stakeholders (preferably by email, or as a ‘not for discussion’ item on a routine meeting’s agenda).
  4. At the time of presenting the document, the team leader emphasizes that written feedback is required by a due date. And states very clearly that if a response is NOT received, then permission to make the change is ASSUMED to be given.
Up until the due date for comments, interested stakeholders can discuss the issue either verbally or in writing, but at all times it should be made clear that only written responses will be considered and that they MUST be submitted by the due date.

What I’ve seen happen many times is that the change is implemented because most people are too busy/disinterested/lazy to read the suggested change and write a response by the due date.


If sufficient conflicting responses are received, THEN a meeting may need to be held to discuss the suggested change.

While this seems a sneaky way to get a decision made, it works well in large organizations that have interminable meetings — like government departments…  This method ensures that you don’t get all tied up in trying to get consensus from everyone whether the change affects them or not, and you’re not looking for everyone to have their say in a meeting.

By providing stakeholders with a document with a due date for comments, all those who are interested have the opportunity to have their say, while those who are happy (or not concerned) with what’s been presented don’t have to bother making their voice heard.


Ten funny ‘out of office’ email responses

March 28, 2009

A humorous take on ‘out of office’ auto response email messages. Thanks to Ada G for sharing.

  1. I am currently out of the office at a job interview and will reply to you if I fail to get the position…. Please be prepared for my mood.
  2. You are receiving this automatic notification because I am out of the office. If I was in, chances are you wouldn’t have received anything at all.
  3. Sorry to have missed you, but I’m at the doctor’s having my brain and heart removed so I can be promoted to our management team.
  4. I will be unable to delete all the emails you send me until I return
    from vacation. Please be patient, and your mail will be deleted in the order it was received.
  5. Thank you for your email. Your credit card has been charged $5.99 for the first 10 words and $1.99 for each additional word in your message.
  6. The email server is unable to verify your server connection. Your
    message has not been delivered. Please restart your computer and try sending again. (The beauty of this is that when you return, you can see who did this over and over and over….)
  7. Thank you for your message, which has been added to a queuing system. You are currently in 352nd  place, and can expect to receive a reply in approximately 19 weeks.
  8. Hi, I’m thinking about what you’ve just sent me. Please wait by your PC for my response.
  9. I’ve run away to join a different circus.
  10. I will be out of the office for the next two weeks for medical reasons. When I return, please refer to me as ‘Lucille’ instead of Steve.

Some people are crying out for good Help

March 27, 2009

Despite all claims to the contrary, there are many people actually requesting decent Help for a product. I’ve been doing some voluntary keying of records for the World Archives Project, and they recently released a non-beta version of the keying tool. The blog comments related to the release are revealing. Here are a few:

Now the tool has been shaped and refined lets all work toward improving project-specific examples and field help.

Much more work needs to be done on the project specific help fields. I think that the linked ‘HELP’ fields should be updated regularly with all the problems/answered questions that keyers or arbitrators bring up. … If the help fields were regularly updated with more specific and detailed information it would not be necessary for established keyers or new keyers to have to keep reading all the ‘advice’ given in the information boards. … PLEASE, PLEASE update the help field with all the relevant instructions.

You need to do more than just update the help field. You need have something like your start help pop-ups to let people know that the help field has been changed.

I agree as well re the field helps. This is the one big weakness. You can be entering information accurately according to the field help but not realise the instructions have changed int he message boards. … Try to find the information in the message boards can be a nightmare as there are so many posting and if you search on keywords in the title you don’t find everything depending on what has been selected. … People will lose patience if they don’t get clear easy to follow instructions that don’t change every 5 minutes. I know there has been times when I want to give up cos I have got frustrated with the fact the information on the message boards contradicts the field help information.

EVERY project needs clarification on help issues and devoting the time to set it up before releasing the project will cause better and more consistent data and less headaches for everyone!


They have made some great improvements in the on-screen user assistance in the keying tool in this new version. By default, Getting Started Help is provided for all areas — no doubt regular keyers will turn this off fairly quickly, but when you start on a new Project type, it should be useful. Here’s an example:

User assistance for World Archives Project keying tool

User assistance for World Archives Project keying tool


Clean up your writing

March 26, 2009

Pamela Slim, over at Escape from Cubicle Nation, offers some great tips for cleaning up your writing — no matter what type of writing you do, from blogs, to emails, to presentations, etc.

For example, for presentations she says to trust your instincts and, using real world examples, she advises you to:

  • Use clear language
  • Focus your topic
  • Mix words and graphics

She has similar clear advice for other forms of written communication.

You can read it all at Pamela’s blog post here:


Word: Cross-reference goes onto next page

March 24, 2009

Here’s a curly one! My client had a problem: a cross-reference to a bookmark for an Appendix was adding a page break within the body text. I’ve had these before — quite often just recreating the cross-reference will solve it. But not this time. So it was time to do some investigating…

First, I turned on the ‘show bookmarks’ option so I could see them all:

  • Word 2003: Tools > Options > View tab, Show group, Bookmarks check box.
  • Word 2007: Office button Office button,  click Word Options then Advanced on the left. Scroll down to the Show document content section, and select the Show bookmarks check box.
Bookmarks check box

Bookmarks check box in Word 2003

Show Bookmarks in Word 2007

Show Bookmarks check box in Word 2007

Next, I hunted down the bookmark for the Appendix that had its cross-reference going haywire.

This is what I expected to see — notice how the bookmarked text is surrounded by gray square brackets; this is how it should be:

How a Bookmark should look

How a Bookmark should look

However, that’s not what I saw. Instead I saw this:

Bookmark spanning a page break

Bookmark spanning a page break

Notice how the start of the bookmarked text (1) is just before the forced page break, and the end (2) is where it should be.

No wonder the page break was being dumped into the body of the document whenever a cross-reference for this appendix was inserted! It was being picked up with the text as Word (logically) understood it to be part of the text.

The solution was to select the correct text (i.e. WITHOUT the page break) and re-assign the AppendixD bookmark to it. Once I’d updated the document fields (Ctrl+A, then F9), everything worked fine!


For those who don’t get Twitter

March 23, 2009

I confess — I have never used Twitter. And I haven’t seen any compelling reason — business or social — to do so. Many people with whom I have personal/professional/collegiate relationships live in North America or Europe and are asleep when I’m awake and vice versa.

My real-life and similar time zone friends and work colleagues either aren’t on Twitter, or aren’t online every moment of the day, or we communicate in other ways — phone/Skype, IM (instant messaging), or email… or even in person (imagine that!). So I really don’t get the point of Twitter.

This Next week, I leave Australia to speak at the WritersUA Conference in Seattle, and while I’m there my good friend and fellow speaker, Char, has four days to convince me of the value of Twitter! That’s her challenge! ;-)

Meantime, Sue G on one of my oh-so-ancient email discussion lists posted a link to a great little four minute cartoon/video that pretty much sums up how I think about Twitter right now:

We’ll see if I still feel the same after the conference…

Oh, and to add another perspective, plenty of people have written positively about Twitter. Here are a few:

And Rich Maggiani just published a one-page paper on the generational differences in responses to social media ( I guess I fit squarely into the Baby Boomers…


‘My computer is dead’

March 22, 2009


  • Computer won’t power up at all. No noises, no lights, no hums. Nothing.

Possible causes:

  • Power switch at the back of the computer has been turned off or the power lead from the back of the computer has become loose or been removed (it happens — especially if the back of the computer is exposed. I’ve heard of instances where cleaners have removed a cord to plug in a vacuum cleaner…)
  • Power overload has caused a trip at the electrical meter board for the house/office
  • Power outage
  • UPS that the computer is connected to is turned off or has no power coming in to it
  • Power supply in your computer has failed.

Checks to determine cause:

  • Is the power switch at the back of the computer turned on? (the I part should be down and the O part should be up)
  • Is the power lead from the back of the computer pushed in and seated snugly, and is the other end plugged in to the power outlet/UPS? It’s worthwhile removing the lead and putting it back in, just in case.
  • Do other appliances still work? If so, it’s not a power outage to the home/office.
  • Do other appliances work from the same power outlet that the computer uses? If so, it’s not the outlet. If not, check the trip switch on the meter board.
  • Do other appliances/peripherals on the UPS still work? If so, it’s likely not the UPS.
  • Can you get any response if you plug the computer directly into a power outlet you know works with other appliances? If you get no response, it’s likely the power supply has failed. Your local computer supply/service store should have replacements and be able to fit a new one. They’re relatively cheap (typically less than US$50) but without a working power supply, you effectively have no computer.