WritersUA Conference 2012

April 17, 2012

Better late than never… Here are my notes from the 2012 WritersUA Conference I attended from March 11 to 15 in Memphis, Tennessee. I’ve been snowed under with work since I got back and just didn’t have time to blog about the conference until now.

Day 1

Opening session (Joe Welinske and panel)

As he’s done for the past few years, Joe opened the conference with an interactive Q&A session, gauging the pulse of the room from the answers we submitted via a wireless clicker to questions that he and the panel asked about our use of technology, user assistance, etc.

As someone who works from home, I was most interested in the responses to the question about telecommuting. However, the results were pretty much the same as the previous two years, when 12% said they telecommuted full-time; this year that figure increased marginally to 13%, but the figure for telecommuting part of the work week seems to have increased so maybe more employers are realizing that you don’t have to watch someone like a hawk to get good productivity from them.

Other interesting snippets from my notes:

  • Most attendees used an iPhone, but Android’s share is increasing, while those who admitted to using a Windows Phone were negligible.
  • Interestingly, after HTML Help’s dominance in software for many years, 90% of attendees reported that they no longer produce it; 63% reported high or moderate usage of browser-based Help; 68% reported high or moderate usage of PDF; 60% reported high or moderate usage of multimedia; and 76% reported minimal or no usage of printed documentation (excluding PDF).

Embedding User Experience in the Product Development Life Cycle (Michael Hughes)

Mike Hughes’ presentation focused on how user experience (UX) can positively influence the various development phases in the product life cycle (requirements definition, design and validation, development and testing, and deployment and support). He gave examples of opportunities where UX professionals can offer value. Some takeaways:

  • Requirements are a terrible way to communicate about a product — they tend to be manager-driven and focus on design and ‘how to’, whereas they should focus on what the user needs to accomplish. At Mike’s organization they replaced requirements docs with scenario/solution docs.
  • Will the customer find value in ‘the new thing’? If you have a new product idea, check first if customers want to pay for it (and how much they are prepared to pay) AND if it can be built.
  • UX people have a role as ‘interpreters of the law’ (i.e. standards, compliance)
  • User data — nice to talk about, but very hard to get
  • As users, we typically assume we’re stupid because someone made it easier for us to do it wrong than do it right.

CSS Current techniques and the Promise of CSS3 (Mike Hamilton)

Mike Hamilton outlined some of the things that were available now in CSS that we may not be aware of, and some of the new things promised in CSS3. While some browsers support CSS3 already, others don’t, or only some features so far.

Highlights of current CSS:

  • Multiple list level styles for nested lists
  • Simple explanation of the box model (TIP: make the borders visible before adjusting margins or padding — you can always make them invisible later)
  • Indent control
  • The power of DIVs
  • Captions
  • Keep with next (e.g. use page-break-inside: avoid; in a DIV class called nobreak)
  • Positioned content and the float attribute (e.g. for a non-scrolling region)

Coming in CSS3 (some already available, but use with care as not universal browser support):

  • Curved borders
  • Text handling — word-wrap and text-overflow
  • Fonts — using @font-face

HTML5 and CSS3 to the Point (Scott DeLoach)

Tying in nicely with Mike Hamilton’s presentation was Scott’s. He started with a list of elements in HTML5 and CSS3 that are supported in the various browsers, with examples of syntax for many of them. He also covered mobile- and print-specific styles, and other goodies.

The Very Cool Adobe Captivate Effects Feature (Joe Ganci)

Joe discussed and demonstrated the new Effects feature that is available in Captivate 5 and later versions. He demonstrated:

  • Slide transitions
  • Object and object path effects (tints, colors, motion paths, etc.).

Day 2

I only attended two sessions today as there was little in the afternoon sessions that appealed to me — instead, my friend Char and I played hooky and went to Graceland and did the historical walking tour of The Peabody. Both were awesome!

eBook Production Workflows (Joshua Tallent)

I didn’t expect this session to focus on InDesign as much as it did, so I was a bit disappointed with the direction and content of much of it (I don’t use InDesign). That said, Joshua knows his stuff! Some takeaways:

  • Most HTML5 and CSS3 features are not possible in eBooks — EPUB2 and EPUB3 specifications have not adopted them
  • InDesign is was designed for print, not eBook production, so there are a lot of tweaks you need to make either before or after eBook processing. InDesign CS5.5 is better at eBook production.
  • Lot of steps to convert EPUB to Kindle format; same for authoring in XML first. Joshua detailed these steps.

Adding Gusto to Glossaries (Leah Guren)

Even though she was likely very jet-lagged (she’d arrived in the US only hours before the conference started), Leah’s enthusiasm and energy shone through in her presentation on glossaries. And we even got a chance to create our own definitions, which was harder than it seems. Leah discussed:

  • what should terms should go into a glossary (product and feature terms, workflow concepts [including task terms, action verbs with special use, audience/user group names], domain concepts [technical terms, concepts, acronyms]
  • what should go into an effective definition (classification [what sort of thing the thing is], right length [not too broad/narrow nor self-referential], an example/analogy).

Day 3

ePub: Pulling it all together (Scott Prentice)

Scott opened his session with some EPUB basics, talked about popular reader applications and dedicated reader devices, then got into the meat of his session looking at the structure of an EPUB file, how to create one, major EPUB authoring and conversion tools, etc. Most of the rest of his session was on tweaking the EPUB file and best practices. The final part of his very informative session looked at packaging and validating the EPUB before publishing/distributing it.

Like Joshua on Day 2, Scott advised us to create in EPUB2 format as support for EPUB3 by the authoring tools and reader devices is patchy at best.

Minimalist Writing to Improve Writing and Translation Workflows (Bernard Aschwanden)

I hadn’t been to one of Bernard’s sessions before, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was a dynamic and energetic speaker who knew his stuff.

This first session I attended was subtitled ‘Reduce Content to Reduce Documentation and Training Cost’ and that’s exactly what he focused on. He gave us some best practice advice, then showed lots of examples of minimalist writing, using a large healthcare organization for his case study. He then translated the reduction in words into monetary terms, particularly the huge savings in translation costs and reuse into training materials, but also the unquantifiable benefit of clearer, simpler instructions.

Metrics to Document the Costs of Documentation (Bernard Aschwanden

Bernard’s second session was on measuring documentation (time, costs, resources, productivity, quality, efficiency, customer satisfaction, etc.). He focused on getting a baseline of ‘what is’ so that later comparisons can be done to see whether improvements have been made.

He warned us against using any sort of ‘per page’ model as it is fraught with all sorts of exceptions (different page/font sizes, layouts, illustrations etc.). Likewise, he cautioned against a ‘per topic’ model for measurement as some topics are more complex than others, and may be written by authors with various skills.

He then looked at methods of identifying critical costs, determining what information units you will apply costs against and how you will apply these, then showed us an comprehensive Excel spreadsheet of costs for a particular organization.

Other conference factors

Conference sessions are the prime reason for attending a ‘face-to-face’ conference, but plenty of other less tangible benefits accrue from attending. There’s the social networking, the catching up with old friends and making new ones, and the sense of belonging to a group of people who actually understand what you’re talking about! It helps that this conference provides breakfast and lunch each day, as there is a lot of opportunity for making the most of those less tangible benefits. While the sessions go from around 8:30 am to after 4 pm, I was typically out of my room from 8 am and was rarely in bed before 11 pm.

Full kudos and congratulations must go to Joe Welinske and his lovely wife Shannon, who together organized this conference down to the last detail. This was Joe’s 20th year and he’s got the process down to a fine art. That said, something can always go wrong, but if it did, none of us who were attending were aware of it.

Joe and Shannon are also to be congratulated on the inspired choice of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis as the conference venue. The WritersUA conference is usually held somewhere on or near the west coast of the US (Las Vegas is the furthest inland I can recall in recent years), so to hold it in Tennessee was stepping out of their comfort zone. The Peabody was a wonderful venue, made even more special by the renowned southern hospitality of its staff.

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