WritersUA 2010 Conference: Day 2

March 24, 2010

Expectations. They’re a funny thing. You start out reading a title, then an abstract/summary of a session, then you look at who the session’s presenter is. Then, based on the words you read and how you interpret those words (and the reputation of the speaker, if you know it), you decide whether or not that session is for you.

With that in mind, I chose  two sessions today that didn’t meet my expectations.  I don’t know if the words in the abstract were wrong, or if my interpretation of them was wrong (very possible!), or if the presenter decided to take a different tack to their original submission. Whatever. My expectations weren’t met, and so that means my summary of those sessions is perhaps a little skewed.

Think Simple — A Minimalist Approach to User Assistance

Scott Nesbitt, from DMN Communications, spoke on this topic. This session didn’t meet my expectations at all. I assumed it was about reducing the words, reducing the number of topics, pruning the Help so that only the critical stuff was left. When Scott said ‘think simple’ he emphasized that by ‘simple’ he meant minimal and streamlined. But then he went on to say that if we cut topics from our Help systems, then we shouldn’t discard those topics, but put them into another format — perhaps a wiki, a blog, a knowledge base article, audio, video — and link to them from the Help. I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. Putting content in another place isn’t minimizing it — it’s just shifting its location. If I remove furniture to give my house a minimalist look, and put that furniture into my garage, then I haven’t achieved anything — I’ve just hidden the furniture from view, I’ve made it harder to find, and I may not even remember that I have it.

He also contended that traditional expandable/collapsible tables of contents were a ‘rehearsed routine’ that we should discard and replace with categorized flat link structures. Again, I can’t see how clicking on lots of links to drill down to content is any more efficient or effective than a well-structured TOC with useful and meaningful headings.

It wasn’t until 10 minutes before the end of the session that Scott mentioned ‘writing tightly’ — which is what I expected the entire session to be on.

It may have been a lack of time (60 minutes perhaps isn’t enough for some sessions), but it was annoying to hear ‘I’ll get to that later’ in response to some good questions then find that there was no ‘later’ as the time ran out.

From Info Strategy to Info Types

Bob Boiko spoke on the need for us to be involved in the whole information strategy for our organizations — to be the leaders, not the followers. He reminded us that while getting the right information to the user (he prefers the term ‘audience’) is important, we need to remember who pays our bills.

Some of the snippets I got from Bob’s dynamic presentation included:

  • Avoid the encyclopedic manual
  • The book/manual is no longer the currency of information — everything is going online
  • Information should be as much a strategic asset to an organization as finances
  • The ‘right’ information is: understandable, responsive, comprehensive, and credible
  • Apply the editorial process judiciously — high-value information channels should get high quality editing
  • Are both the grammatical and validity passes necessary for EVERY piece of information?
  • Writing is a proxy for face-to-face communication
  • Change our focus from a cost center to a value/profit center
  • Editors make information well-formed (internal consistency); ‘metators’ tag information, giving consistency to the base of the information
  • If information is power (as we all believed),  and if information is a strategic asset to the organization (we all believed this too), then why do most organizations suck at it??

Building Your Own AIR Help Application

I’d seen Tony Self do a presentation on Adobe’s AIR at the AODC conference a couple of years ago. At the time, it looked like it might be the killer application to replace  Microsoft’s HTML Help (*.chm files), as it could package lots of files into one file and deliver that file to Windows, Mac and Linux users. Tony also demonstrated how user comments could be incorporated. I was impressed. So I was keen to see how the promise of a couple of years ago was working out. With that in mind I attended Scott Prentice’s 2-hour hands-on session on creating a Help application with AIR.

The first problem (not of Scott’s making) was the files. Lots of files have to be downloaded and installed before you can even install the AIR application (Flex files, AIR SDK files, etc.). Fortunately, the files were on thumb drives that we passed around, so we didn’t have to try to download very large files from the internet. Getting set up so we could start looking at the example files took a good 30 minutes. Some PCs were missing DLLs that had to get downloaded and registered separately, and by the time lunch came, we hadn’t made too many inroads.

Of those who returned after lunch (several dropped out), most of us came back early to try to get things happening. We could all get the absolute basic supplied files to compile. But as soon as we tried to branch out a bit, things started to come unstuck — for me, anyway. I could load in some HTML files I had on my system and get them to run inside Scott’s supplied files by making a few file path tweaks. But as soon as I tried to comment out unwanted code etc. I had trouble compiling the SWF file, which is required before you can even create the AIR application. No-one could get it to work, and I was floundering. I also couldn’t create the self-signed digital certificate (some sort of java error), which is also required before you can create the AIR package. Meantime, Scott had to continue on with his presentation and show us some of the slightly more advanced things you could do.

I came away from that session thinking that until AIR gets a decent GUI, it’s a long way from ending up in the hands of many help authors. Having to run several batch files in a particular order, from particular directories was not my idea of fun. Scott did say that Flex offered a UI that helped, but we didn’t see that in action. I’m too old to start learning command line commands or how to create batch files! So AIR Help is off the agenda for me — at least, until it gets out of the hands of those who like getting down and dirty in the command line and in hand-coding MXML and XML files.

See also:

Other stuff

A new thing tried this year was the session on topics suggested, chosen and presented by us (each 20 minutes), which was held simultaneously with an open invitation to visit several consultants, contractors, and others who were scattered in various rooms around the venue. As I was one of those who would field questions from anyone, I didn’t get to see any of the off-the cuff presentations. I had two people come and ask me questions — one wanted some in-depth advice on how to approach a Word template change process in Author-it, and the other (from Russia) wanted some advice on whether it was better to have inline related links or have them listed in a ‘see also’ list at the bottom of a topic. I went through what I thought were the pros and cons of each option, then suggested some other options, like DHTML/JavaScript show/hide snippets, tooltips, or other popups that meant the user didn’t have to navigate away from the primary topic. I referred him to Dave Gash and Dave’s recent article on the WritersUA website where he looks at the various tooltip display options.

The last official business of the day was the vendor showcase. I attended the Author-it one to see what new stuff has been added.

Next stop was the Geek Trivia Night. Dave Gash set the questions and they were NASTY. I think I only answered about three out of the 50. Our table averaged about 4/10 for each set of questions. We didn’t come last, but I suspect we weren’t far off! Most of those who attended had a bite to eat there, then, after the trivia night was done, those with the time and inclination continued on with Tony Self for the Australian Cultural Event (aka pub crawl). As one of the two Australians here, I should have been with them, but I slunk off back to the hotel to write this blog post and to get a good night’s sleep before I host the closing panel at the end of the conference tomorrow. I hope there aren’t too many sore heads tomorrow morning!


  1. On behalf of those who can’t attend the conference, your blog posts give me a great idea of what it’s really like – up close and personal. Thank you so much for posting – and about the missed ‘cultural event’ – I feel like I owe you a drink!

  2. Sorry for the troubles you had generating AIRHelp using the SDK, which is just one way of generating Help based on Adobe AIR.

    I wanted to share with you and your readers that there are easier ways of generating AIRHelp, which do not require any coding, namely using Adobe RoboHelp 8 and the built-in support for AIRHelp.

    I posted a recording on my blog, where I go over these steps in case you are interesting in investigating this new format further.

    Here’s the link to the recording: http://bit.ly/2ELWV4

    Great seeing you at the conference and I hope you arrived home safe.

    RJ Jacquez

  3. […] when conference presenters make suggestions like putting much of what was previously in the self-containe… I’m going to make a comment that assumptions about ‘always on, high-speed internet […]

  4. […] As a Help author, I was quite fascinated by AIR Help when I first saw it demonstrated at a conference a few years ago, so much so that I went along to a hands on session on it at the 2010 WritersUA Conference to learn more about it and how to create AIR Help (https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/writersua-2010-conference-day-2/). […]

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