Archive for September, 2009


HTML tooltips: The easy way

September 30, 2009

Dave Gash, a great friend of mine and a terrific conference presenter on user assistance, has written an article on how to add fading tooltips to HTML links — the sort of thing that’s ideal for presenting little snippets of help (aka user assistance) to users as they are filling in a web form, for example.

His step-by-step article is here:


[Dave has been a technical writer and online Help author for years, but originally comes from the world of programming (though we don’t that against him!). So he’s really good on all the ‘techie’ stuff and has a knack for explaining it to novices so they understand. Dave’s currently available for hire — you can contact him at]

[Links last checked September 2009]


Convert to/from various Wikis

September 29, 2009

Sarah Maddox, a technical writer at Atlassian (creators of the Confluence wiki) and a terrific person, had put together a great list of tools and plug-ins that convert from various document formats into various wikis, and from various wikis into various document formats. Her focus is mainly on tools for Confluence and Mediawiki.

It’s a terrific resource and you can find it on Sarah’s blog:

[Links last checked September 2009]


Dipping into the flat ocean of information

September 28, 2009

Alan Porter has written an insightful article on how he watched his teenage daughter research a school assignment, and questions whether the book model/paradigm we’ve been using — even online — for generations, will continue to apply to the latest generations. I found these paragraphs of his summed his ‘Aha!’ moment well:

For kids raised as part of the “digital generation,” where the first place they go to find out information is the internet and social networks, is the book an irrelevant model?

Yes, the information they access still needs some sort of markup and tagging so the search engines can find it. It still needs metadata to enable user tagging. But instead of strictly enforced hierarchies, what is being built and accessed is more of a flat ocean of information that users search rather than navigate and then dip into to find the components they need to build their own solutions.

Alan’s full article — which is well worth reading in its entirety — is here:

[Links last checked September 2009]


Before the coffee kicks in: 404 error

September 26, 2009

From the pen/stylus of Brad Colbow:

404 coffee


Everything you wanted to know about Twitter

September 25, 2009

Well, perhaps not everything, but a lot!

If you’re still new to Twitter or are thinking about setting up a Twitter account but aren’t sure what to do, why you would use it, how to use it, etc. then take a look at the various articles — arranged by chapters — pulled together by the people over at Mashable into The Twitter Guide Book.


And the Twitter people have also put out a ‘Twitter 101’ for businesses:

[Link last checked July 2009]


Testing designs on mobile devices

September 24, 2009

In addition to testing web designs, web applications etc. on various browsers, mobile devices are now part of the mix. And of course, like browsers and screens, none are the same size or apply standards the same way. Which means that testing on them just adds further complexity to an already complex task. You can’t possibly purchase all possible devices out there, so you need to use tools to emulate them. But where to find them?

Jennifer Farley has written an article for SitePoint where she does brief reviews of six tools, including:

  • Device Anywhere
  • MobiReady
  • Opera Mini (emulates the Opera browser)
  • W3C Mobile OK Checker (checks if your site is mobile-friendly)
  • dotMobi Emulator
  • iPhoney (specific to iPhones)

Her full article is here: Six Tools for Testing Designs on Mobile Devices. Some of the comments offer further suggestions, so don’t forget to check them out too.

[Links last checked July 2009]


Read-aloud PDFs

September 23, 2009

Are you aware that PDF documents are readable by your computer? You can listen to any PDF instead of reading it!

In Adobe Reader, go to the View menu, select Read Out Loud > Activate Read Out Loud. Once it’s activated you can go to the same menu and select what you want read (entire document or just this page).

The read out loud option works best with PDFs that have been tagged. According to Adobe Acrobat’s Help:

In tagged PDFs, content is read in the order in which it appears in the document’s logical structure tree. In untagged documents, the reading order is inferred, unless a reading order has been specified in the Reading preferences.

Read Out Loud uses the available voices installed on your system.

If you can’t hear a voice, check your audio settings: Control Panel > Sound and Audio Devices > Audio tab — make sure what you’re listening with (e.g. a headset) is selected as the Default device for Sound playback. And check that you haven’t muted or lowered the volume!: Control Panel > Sound and Audio Devices > Volume tab.

If you don’t like the voice or its speed, you can change it here:  Control Panel > Speech > Text to Speech tab. However, the default voices in Windows are pretty horrible — if you really want to get into ‘text to speech’ listening, consider purchasing some better voices.

See also:

[Links last checked July 2009; prices correct as at July 2009]


Cost of not checking the documentation

September 22, 2009


Back in July it was reported that Volkswagon had to do a vehicle recall for nearly 20,000 vehicles sold in the US, which had been sold with an owner’s manual that did not contain some required information.

According to in the words of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

The owner’s manual was printed without the required information explaining that no objects should be placed over the or near the airbag on the instrument panel. Any such objects could cause injury to the vehicle’s occupants in the event of a crash severe enough to cause the airbag to inflate.

The fix is (I’ve removed the almost unreadable all upper case in the original [Aside: Why are these legal notices always in upper case, the most unreadable of all cases?]):

Dealers will send an owner’s manual insert containing the required air bag information for owner installation or dealers will install in the event the owner prefers assistance from the dealer.

What did this little slip-up cost VW? Possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, I expect, including these time and costs (I’m sure there are more):

  • notify or respond to the relevant authorities (with all the internal legal department frenzy and crisis meetings when the issue was first identified)
  • write and edit the press release and get it checked by Legal and the relevant authorities
  • write and edit the insert and get it checked by Legal and the relevant authorities
  • print the insert
  • write a cover letter to all dealers
  • mail out the insert to dealers
  • assigning someone to take the calls from angry and confused dealers.

At the dealer end, there are these costs as a minimum:

  • identify which customers purchased that vehicle model
  • notify these customers
  • mailing out the insert (or ‘installing’ it for them!)
  • following up to make sure everyone who purchased one of these vehicles has been dealt with, and chasing up those who haven’t responded or been contacted
  • assigning someone to take the calls from angry and confused customers.

So, how could have VW prevented this loss of time and money in the first place? By having a technical documentation department that had writers’ checklists of all information required for a vehicle model’s manual, and editors in that department who made sure all required information was included, long before the documentation was ‘signed off’. Someone at VW had to sign off the documentation — this information was missed at all steps of the process. (They do *have* a tech doc department don’t they? or have they laid off staff as a result of the current economic situation? False economy…)

If it was caught at the beginning — in the writing and editing stage — there would have been no need for VW to spend all this money on fixing it. The salary of a competent tech writer/editor is a lot less than the cost of vehicle recall.

[Links last checked July 2009]


Podcasts: User Experience

September 21, 2009

All Gerry Gaffney’s user experience podcasts and interviews are now available from his website:

As at August 2009 when I wrote this post, there were close to 50 available, ranging from 3 to 30 or so minutes in length.

[Link last checked August 2009]


Cute 404 error!

September 20, 2009


[Thanks to Jason Jordan at PC Guru for this — it was included in the PC Guru Weekly Newsletter for 17 September 2009]