Archive for June, 2010


The technical communicator’s manifesto

June 30, 2010

The delightful Sarah O’Keefe (the lady with all the chocolates at the Scriptorium booth at technical writing conferences) has put together The Tech Comm Manifesto:

I’m not sure of her impetus for doing so, but I love it! I especially love #6:

Editors improve your writing and not your ego. Deal with it.

However, I found #5 a little too close to the bone:

Act like a professional, not like the lead character in Semicolons and Subservience.

While I don’t think I’ve ever acted unprofessionally, I have been guilty of insisting on adherence to certain elements of style. “Apostrophe Nazi”, anyone? ;-)

Thanks Sarah!

[Links last checked October 2011]


Talking head or live person?

June 29, 2010

I’ve spoken at a technical writers’ conference in another Australian state a couple of times. I was approached to see if I’d like to speak again this year, but only if I was going to be in that state at the time of the conference as there was little money for bringing anyone over from the other side of the country this year. The alternative offered was whether I would do a presentation via webcam.

I’ve only ever tried webcam once — for a meeting — and it was just AWFUL.

This horrid experience made me realize how important lighting is (normal household lighting is just terrible, and a lamp aimed at your face is no better). Background is just as important — especially what’s happening in the background (other people/pets/children walking through, untidy shelves and computer cables, dark walls/shelves, etc.). And angle is vitally important too. You have to position the webcam at an angle that doesn’t make you look like something viewed through a fish-eye lens, and that’s not easy (impossible?) to do with an inbuilt webcam in a laptop.

Clothing and makeup are added issues — I was wearing my usual work-from-home clothing and had no makeup on. And finally, sound. To get good sound, you may need to wear a headset (microphones and speakers on laptops aren’t the best quality), which just adds to the ‘look’. To say I looked gray, pasty, fat, and sleepy would be an understatement. As I said, it was just an awful experience and one I wouldn’t try again.

So when I was asked if doing a presentation via webcam was an option, I replied:

… you’re right, my style of presenting doesn’t lend itself to a webcam (and just quietly, the only time I used a webcam, I looked God-awful — that’s a technical term! — so I REALLY wouldn’t to use one again, especially for a conference presentation).

Well, it seems some on the conference organizing committee ‘bristled’ at my response to their ‘great idea’. And the rhetorical question was asked about how we can then watch (and presumably learn) via TV.

My response to that was:

We learn from TV as it tells a story — even documentaries tell a story. We like narrative. And an episode of something like NCIS or CSI encapsulates a short story in just 40 mins — it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Talking heads, unless done REALLY well, don’t convey a story — there’s no other context than the talking head. In TV programs (docs, reality TV <ugh>, drama etc. even cartoons), there are many camera angles and scenes — a talking head doesn’t have that.

On a stage, a presenter can move around, gesticulate, refer to the screen, address an audience member by looking them in the eye, move their eyes across the audience scanning for responses and interaction. A talking head via a webcam has none of that, and it takes a very seasoned professional to pull it off.

I respond to an audience. If I can’t see or hear that audience, I’m ‘flat’. So I won’t do a talking head thing for a presentation. One-on-one training stuff? Maybe. But not a presentation.

I’m surprised none of [the committee] are aware that a presentation is more than just the speaker speaking. It includes a whole heap of visual and non-verbal BODY clues and cues that can’t be conveyed via just a talking head on a screen. Perhaps they’ve been bamboozled by the technologies available today, but just because there’s technology that can make it happen, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right way to do it.

So, what do you think? Given that you’re attending a conference session (that you’ve paid for and traveled to get to), would you prefer to listen to and view a talking head on a screen, or a real live person?


Designing for a good user experience (UX)

June 28, 2010

Some recent studies have found that:

  • Form labels work best above the field
  • Users focus on faces
  • Quality of design is an indicator of credibility (i.e. users do judge a book by its cover, so make a good first impression!)
  • Most users *do* scroll
  • Blue is the best color for links
  • The ideal search box is 27 characters wide
  • White space improves comprehension
  • Effective user testing doesn’t have to be extensive
  • Informative product pages help you stand out
  • Most users are blind to advertising

(All from:

Coming from a slightly different angle, a psychologist’s view of UX design came to these conclusions:

  • People don’t want to work or think more than they have to (so provide examples, give them defaults etc.)
  • People have limitations (so make it easy for them to find and scan information)
  • People make mistakes (so make it easy to recover from the error)
  • Human memory is complicated (so don’t provide too much to remember at once)
  • People are social (so give them the opportunity to be part of a group)
  • Attention (so grab attention with color or features that stand out)
  • People crave information (so give them choice and offer feedback options)
  • Unconscious processing (so use metaphors or match your conceptual model to a user’s mental model)
  • Visual system (so group like things together and make fonts large enough)


[Links last checked June 2010]


Channeling Rumsfeld in a 404 error message

June 27, 2010

Loved this!



A ‘must-read’ for every traveler

June 26, 2010

I’ve flown across Australia many times (3 to 5 hour flight), and have flown from Australia to the US (13 to 15 hour flights) almost as many times. I’ve also flown domestically in the US on everything from large jets to small commuter puddle jumpers — all of which have different sized overhead luggage bins.

So I was interested to read this set of rules for flying from a seasoned traveler:

Many of his tips made me laugh out loud, but only with the wry recognition of situations I’ve either been in or seen, particularly:

  • The guidelines are simple. Follow them. Otherwise we get to sit there patiently thinking of various ways to disembowel you while you go through the metal detector 6 or 7 times.
  • …put [your carry-on] in the overhead over YOUR seat. None of this “chuck it in the first overhead I see then saunter back to my seat in row 735” stuff. If you’re in the back, bring your bag with you. They have overheads back there too.

Some great tips!

[Link last checked June 2010]


Guest post on editing efficiently with Microsoft Word

June 25, 2010

Scott Nesbitt, one of the guys at DMN Communications in Toronto, Canada asked me to write a guest post for their blog.

I decided to write one on editing efficiently with Microsoft Word, as that’s where my work focus has been for the past year or so. My guest post was published yesterday and you can find it here:

Most of the links in my article refer back to the ‘how to’ posts I’ve written in this blog — but now you can see them in a more structured way.

Thanks, Scott!

[Links last checked June 2010]


Screen capture tools

June 24, 2010

Screen capture tools have improved outta sight since I first started using the PrintScreen key and Windows Paint! My next step was to use PaintShop Pro v4 (!) to capture and manipulate screen shots. But even with PaintShop Pro, capturing screens for display in user documentation or web pages was still a long and tedious process, especially if you wanted to apply any edge effects or similar to your screen shot, or to capture the exact window.

Years ago, various members of my tech writing discussion lists suggested several screen capture programs. I tried out a few and it was a toss up between TNT and SnagIt. I decided I like SnagIt better, but I can’t remember now why I chose it over TNT — they both had features I needed and were priced cheaply enough that if I regretted my decision, I could always invest in the other product.

Today, I’m still a very happy SnagIt user, and I willingly pay for an upgrade each time a new version comes out. It’s my tool of choice for screen captures (all screen shots in this blog are created with SnagIt). SnagIt continues to provide me with the features I need — there’d have to be a really compelling reason for me to shift to any other screen capture program. (SnagIt is available for just under US$50 from TechSmith:

That said, I find it sad that many of the (non technical) writers I work with have no idea that they can take a screen capture with anything other than the old PrintScreen trick — or the Snipping Tool in Vista. I’ve tried to use that Snipping Tool, but I find it really clunky, compared to SnagIt.

If you’re ready to move up from PrintScreen or the Snipping Tool, and are looking for a decent screen capture program, check out these resources:

Most tools have a free trial option, so it’s worth downloading a few and trying them out. If you have more than the very occasional screen shot to capture, you’ll save yourself HEAPS of time just by using the right tool for the job. Just as there’s no point using a sledge hammer or the edge of a spanner to hammer in a panel pin, there are easier ways to capture (and manipulate) screen shots that using PrintScreen or the Snipping Tool.

[Links last checked June 2010; SnagIt have not paid me to endorse their product (I wish!) — I’m just a happy user]


Browser support for HTML5 and CSS3

June 23, 2010

As HTML5 and CSS3 support grows, you might need to know which browsers support the various new features.

While there are many tables that give this information in text form (see for an example), some of you might find that a graphic explains it better.

The screen shot below is from — when you go to that website, hover over the radiating points to see which feature is support by the various browsers; the screen shot shows that none of the Internet Explorer (IE) versions support HTML5 Forms:

See also:

[Links last checked June 2010]


Word 2007: Taming multilevel list numbering

June 22, 2010

I think I’ve finally figured out how to get proper multilevel numbering happening in Word 2007!

A client called me in desperation — they had an employment contract with multilevel numbering, but somewhere along the way the numbering got screwed. Instead of 12 followed by 12.1, 12.2, 12.3 etc. they had 12 followed by 14.1, 14.2, 14.3 etc. I tried every trick I knew to get those second level numbers to reset, but I couldn’t figure it out. I sent an email to my client letting him know that Word had probably beaten me on this one, and asking him if he wanted me to persevere for a little while longer. He gave his OK, so back to Word I went, determined to master this multilevel list numbering. Ultimately, I had to set up new styles for him and reapply them to the document, but I finally got it working after about an hour or so.

Hopefully these instructions will help someone else (as well as remind me how to do it again next time I’m asked to troubleshoot multilevel lists!). (Printable PDF of these instructions)

The example I work through below creates a multilevel numbered list that looks something like this (ignore the formatting — you can sort that out later):

Warning! This is a long series of steps as I’m going to take you through setting up three list levels. Please take your time and work through the instructions one step at a time — this is not something you can do while you’re focused on something else, so turn off Twitter, email notifications etc.

Step 1: Set up a new multilevel list style

Tip: When you define a new Multilevel List style, define ALL levels in it at once. Don’t set up a new list style for each level – it won’t work.

  1. Open a new Word 2007 document.
  2. On the Home tab, go to the Paragraph group.
  3. Click the small drop-down arrow next to the Multilevel List icon.
  4. Click Define New List Style.
  5. On the Define New List Style window, give the style for the entire list a name (in this example I’ve called it Numbered List).
  6. By default, you’re working on the 1st level. Set the font, font size and font weight for the 1st level numbers. NOTE: These font settings are for the numbers ONLY, not for the paragraph style. So if you want bold numbers, set that here. Ignore everything else on this window for now.
  7. Click Format at the bottom left of this window, then click Numbering to open the Modify Multilevel List window.
  8. Click the More button at the bottom left of the Modify Multilevel List window to display all available options.
  9. Level 1  (top left) is already set, and I’m happy with the Number style… of 1, 2, 3, but I want a period after my top level number, so I need to delete the ) after 1 in the Enter formatting… field and type in a period (don’t touch the gray shaded 1).
  10. Assign a style to this level — in this example, I’ve assigned the standard Word style of List Number in the Link level to style field. I’ll modify this style using the Styles pane later.
  11. Click OK to return to the Define New List Style window. DO NOT close this window — you now need to set up the 2nd and 3rd levels for your list.
  12. Select 2nd level from the Apply formatting to drop-down list.
  13. Set the font, font size and font weight for the 2nd level numbers.
  14. Click Format at the bottom left of this window, then click Numbering to open the Modify Multilevel List window.
  15. Select 2 in the Click level to modify list.
  16. The default Number style for this level is a, b, c. Using the drop-down list, change this to 1, 2, 3.
  17. Remove the ) from after 1 in the Enter formatting… field.
  18. Place your cursor in FRONT of the grayed 1 in the Enter formatting… field.
  19. Select Level 1 from the Include level number from drop-down list. You now have two grayed 1‘s. PLEASE NOTE: This ‘Level 1’ selection you just made does NOT display in the field. You know you’ve got it right if another grayed 1 is added to the Enter formatting… field.
  20. Type a period between the two grayed 1‘s in the Enter formatting… field.
  21. Select the List Number 2 style from the drop-down list in the Link level to style field.
  22. Click OK to return to the Define New List Style window. Do not close it. You’re nearly finished… you just have to set up the 3rd list level.
  23. Select 3rd level from the Apply formatting to drop-down list.
  24. Set the font, font size and font weight for the 3rd level numbers.
  25. Click Format at the bottom left of this window, then click Numbering to open the Modify Multilevel List window.
  26. Select 3 in the Click level to modify list.
  27. The default Number style for this level is i, ii, ii. Using the drop-down list, change this to 1, 2, 3.
  28. Remove the ) from after after 1 in the Enter formatting… field.
  29. Place your cursor in FRONT of the grayed 1 in the Enter formatting… field.
  30. Select Level 1 from the Include level number from drop-down list. You now have two grayed 1‘s in the Enter formatting… field.
  31. Select Level 2 from the Include level number from drop-down list. You now have three grayed 1‘s in the Enter formatting… field. The first is the Level 1 number, the second is the Level 2 number, and the third is the Level 3 number — unfortunately, as all are 1, it’s hard to see which is which!
  32. Type a period between each of the grayed 1‘s (i.e. your numbers should look like this: 1.1.1)
  33. Select the List Number 3 style from the drop-down list in the Link level to style field.
  34. Click OK to return to the previous window where you should see your three levels listed, with the numbering styles you set up.
  35. Click OK again to close the window and return to the document, where a first level numbered item is added to your document.

Phew! You’ve finished the first (and most difficult) part of setting up your multilevel lists.

Step 2: Test your new multilevel list

  1. Open the Styles pane (click at the bottom right of the Styles group on the Home tab).
  2. Click the Manage Stylesbutton.

    Manage Styles button

  3. Go to the Recommend tab.
  4. Scroll down and select List Number, List Number 2 and List Number 3 from the list.
  5. Click Show, then click OK. The List Number, List Number 2 and List Number 3 styles should show in your Styles pane.
  6. Enter several paragraphs of text.
  7. Apply List Number, List Number 2 and List Number 3 styles to various paragraphs.

Bonus hint: Assign a different level to an existing numbered paragraph

There are several methods for assigning a different level to an existing numbered list — I’ll just describe two:

  • Method 1: Use the Styles pane and reassign the relevant List Number style to the paragraph. If the text used the List Number 3 style and you apply the List Number 2 style, then the numbering will update accordingly.
  • Method 2: Right-click anywhere in the list item, select Change List Level, then select the new level you want to apply to this item.

Changing the styles

  • Changing the formatting for the numbered paragraphs: You may want to change the settings of the List Number, List Number 2 and List Number 3 styles — for example, their indents, above/below paragraph spacing, tab positions etc. You do this the normal way, using the Styles pane and modifying each style.
  • Changing the master list style: To change any aspect of the Numbered List style (the master style with the three levels that you set up earlier): Click the Manage Styles button on the Styles pane, go to the Edit tab, select the Numbered List style, then click Modify.
  • Changing the numbering format for a single multilevel list style: Put your cursor into a multilevel list numbered paragraph, click the small drop-down arrow next to the Multilevel List icon (Home tab > Paragraph group), select Define New Multilevel List, then change the Number style for this level setting.

I have no doubt there are many more fancy things you can do with multilevel list numbering (after all, there are a slew of settings on the Define New Multilevel List Style window I didn’t even touch), but sometimes you just want a simple, multilevel numbered list! Hopefully, these instructions have given you just that.

See also:

[Links last checked January 2012]


Comprehensive guide to touch gestures

June 19, 2010

Luke Wroblewski, fabulous speaker and author about web forms and user interface design, has put together a central source of touch gesture resources on his website at

Each link either takes you directly to the web page of the source or to a page FULL of information about the operating systems and devices that use that particular set of touch gestures (e.g., where there are links to documents, websites, and even sets of visuals (such as Visio stencils) that you can use in your documentation.

If you’re doing any documentation or user assistance for a device that uses touch, Luke’s set of resources is a must.


See also:

[Links last checked July 2013]