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]