WritersUA Conference: Day 1: 7 March 2013

March 8, 2013

This year’s WritersUA Conference is only for two days instead of the usual three; there are two streams of sessions instead of up to five; and all sessions are just over 30 minutes long. Day 1 had eight sessions (plus the welcome session and the evening ‘networking mixer’) so I’ll only summarize each session I attended very briefly. Remember, these comments are my opinion ONLY.

Life after PDF

Bob Boiko asserted that PDF’s day is over as it isn’t the right sort of deliverable for chunked and structured content, and is a hangover from a pervasive ‘print’ attitude. It may be suitable for narrative documents, but that’s about all. With the introduction of the internet and chunked/linked/re-used content, PDF should have disappeared. He suggested that we should either destroy the document or redefine it. Destroying the document paradigm is what component content management is all about, but he suggested that redefining the document is a better way to go. Bob used the Bible as an example of chunked AND narrative content.

I really wasn’t sure of the point he was trying to make about the destroy/redefine paradigm.

Evaluating the ROI of user assistance assets

I really felt for Tom Woolums — by his own admission he wasn’t used to public speaking and didn’t like it, and then about 5 minutes into his presentation, the audio system started playing up. I’ve been there, and it’s not easy to keep on going and not fall apart. Eventually the audio got sorted and he could continue.

Tom gave a LOT of information on his slides about treating our documentation as a business asset with value propositions, KPIs, ROI etc. and showed us some examples of how to calculate these and communicate the results to our teams and managers. I wasn’t quite sure what the point of the links to various support websites (including Microsoft’s and Java’s) were all about, except to make us aware that many of these support pages were actually directing us to buy more products.

Engaging users with attractive and inviting Help deliverables

I’d seen Steve Stegelin speak a couple of days earlier and had difficulty in hearing/understanding him then. I thought it was the audio system, but I think it was his speaking style. I had as much trouble understanding his presentation this time too, which was a shame as I was quite interested in what they were doing in his company to use various visual styles to make the Help more attractive and engaging, especially as he stated that 60% of the population are visual learners.

Applying a customer experience focus to user assistance

Michelle Despres is obviously passionate about her role in the company she works for, and it shows. She gave a very engaging presentation on how she has taken a focus on customer experience in providing user assistance and support to her company’s clients. The customer experience (CX) is what your customers think about you, and it should be the same for every interaction your customer has with your company (e.g. sales, support, etc.). The ideal CX progression is from a consistently satisfied customer to a confident one, to a loyal one, to one who recommends your company, to an unpaid evangelist for your company. You need to identify the journey a customer takes with your company, and for each part of that journey, identify how customers interact with you. Identify the pain points in those interactions and address those first. Create listening posts to hear what customers are saying.

Explanatory animation

Nancy Wirsig McClure showed us how motion graphics can be applied to simple diagrams, charts etc. ‘Explanatory animation’ is really just a mashup of infographics and motion graphics (as used in animations). The essence of motion graphics is ‘change over time’.

Only add animation where it tells the story better than just the words or a static image. Options for animation include sound, pacing, branching, and user controls. Technologies include Flash (not suitable for iOS), video, and even animated GIFs. Be aware of file sizes and whether the output is shareable online. Development tools that Nancy uses include Adobe Illustrator,  Photoshop, and After Effects (for applying timelines, key frames, and interpolation to the illustration and graphic assets). The authoring phases are: think, write and draw, prepare the digital assets, produce ‘the show’, and test with users. I thought that Nancy explained the Adobe After Effects really well and very simply — with graphics of course!

Embedding instructional content into the software UI

Sandra Chinoporus is a Content Strategist with eBay, and the focus of her team is on eBay small business sellers. Her talk was about how they have approached writing for their users using a friendly, informal, conversational style and how that builds trust in the small business seller community. Her talk was interesting and delivered well, but her slides were impossible to read from the back of the room (small gray text), as were her screenshot examples.

Balancing structured needs with ‘unstructured’ authors

Maxwell Hoffmann is a fast-talking, funny, self-deprecating speaker, who got through a LOT of content in a short amount of time. I wasn’t quite sure what this session would be about based on the title; it was about the current version of FrameMaker and how there are various viewing modes in FM that can hide the XML code and/or structural views from authors who don’t want to see them. I’ve never used FM, so I didn’t know whether I’d get much out of this session; however, Maxwell also showed us how to import Word content (using Smart Paste), which preserves the structure of the Word document, including tables, graphics, etc. — that was pretty neat!

His advice for dealing with a reluctant team was to cleanse the content first; start with a small project; use FM as a container; make use of custom DITA workspaces, authoring view and WYSWYG view to create a rewarding experience; and customize FM structapps to apply as much automatic insertion as possible.

Moving to specialized roles in UA development

The last speaker of the sessions I attended today was Mysti Berry from Salesforce. When a team gets large, implementing specialized roles may be a way to keep focused on issues that span groups, releases, and attention spans. Some example specialized roles include: knowledge manager, content strategist, information architect, tools developers and QA, UA specialist, video specialist, as well as informal specializations (e.g. Bob knows DITA, Shirley knows grammar, etc.). Changing to incorporate specialized roles can be both challenging and rewarding. Specialized roles will need help to succeed — training, realistic expectations (failure may be needed before success can occur). Recipes for success include: job descriptions, clear priorities, 30/60/90 day plans, keep the new role in the information loop, use goal-based reporting and frequent check-ins, give people a path back if the role doesn’t fit but don’t let them give up too early.

Mysti finished early, which was a nice bonus!

Food and drink

  • Breakfast: Scrambled Eggs with Mushrooms and Carmelized Onions; Sliced Fruit; The Day’s Pastry; Home Fries
  • Lunch: Roasted Marinated Flat Iron Steak over bed of arugula salad, marinated tomatoes, black olives, and red onions; Choice of Balsamic Dressing or Blue Cheese; Malted Brownies
  • Networking Mixer at the Elephant & Castle Pub: Bangers in a Blanket; Veggie Spring Rolls; Potato Skins; Fresh Vegetable Platter; Bruschetta


  1. Thanks for the reports of the ConveyUX and WritersUA conferences Rhonda. They certainly help those of us who can’t be there to keep up with what is going on.

    Just one question if I may. I know you don’t use FrameMaker but the session where Maxwell demonstrated how to get output from Word to FrameMaker was interesting to me also. I use an older version (9) which does not have this facility. I assume Maxwell was using the latest version (11). Did he mention that this was only available in that version? I’m pretty sure it isn’t in FM10 either.

  2. He didn’t mention the version explicitly, Colum, though I suspect as he was so enthusiastic about it that it was the current (v11?) version.

  3. At dinner Wednesday he mentioned that as a new feature.

  4. It’s nice to get précis of some of the presentations.
    And it’s refreshing to hear someone say they didn’t fully understand something.
    Thank you.

  5. Thanks for the nice summary of my talk on explanatory animation. It shows that you really know how to use words to summarize! I may be a visual communicator, but I’ve had a great 2 days with tech writers!

  6. Colum: I confirmed the version with Maxwell at breakfast — it’s definitely in v11, not v10 or earlier.

  7. […] WritersUA Conference: Day 1: 7 March 2013 […]

  8. Hallo Rhonda

    Thanks so much for writing up the ConveyUX and WritersUA conferences. Such a great resource for those of us who couldn’t make it this time.

    Cheers, Sarah

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