WritersUA Conference: Day 2: 8 March 2013

March 9, 2013

The second and final day of the WritersUA conference started with breakfast at 8:00am and the first of nine sessions at 8:30am. As for yesterday, I’ll summarize MY opinions on the talks I heard today.

Controlling the formatting of EPUB files

Robert Desprez’ session was my first of the day. He confirmed that EPUB creation was much easier today than it was only two years ago. Recent versions of Help Authoring Tools (HATs), such as RoboHelp 10, can do the whole process. One of the disadvantages of EPUBs is that the consumer has to have eReader software of some sort installed on their device, and different eReader software renders the file differently.

There are two ways to revise an EPUB file: do it in the HAT used to create it, or use the HAT to create, then unzip the package and modify CSS files etc. directly. He opts for the second options as HATs only go so far in modifying files.

The anatomy of an EPUB file: Mimetype file (don’t touch); META-INF folder (XML container file; don’t touch); OEPBS folder (this is where most of the stuff is and where you may want to modify settings; e.g. CSS, OPF, manifest; _TOC_NCX, etc.).

Text reflow is based on the device, and can be odd; however, there are things you can do in the CSS etc. post-processing that can alleviate some of the odd reflow behavior and make the EPUB display as you want it to display. The areas he focused on were:

  • Embedding fonts: Download fonts to a folder in the EPUB directory, declare the font in the CSS, change the contents of the OPF file to add the font.
  • Aligning text: Can use CSS, but eReader may not recognize this setting (e.g. iPad default setting will override CSS); possible solutions: tell users to change the default iPad setting, or author can add <span> tags.
  • Controlling page breaks: Do in CSS. Can control page breaks for tables too, but not useful for long tables, only short ones to avoid splitting table onto a new page.
  • Controlling widows and orphans: CSS setting works in some eReaders, but not all. Cannot do in the HAT. CSS: p{widows:2;}, p{orphans:2;} where ‘2’ in the number of lines at least.
  • Adding images: Do in the HAT if you can, and change % sizing in the HAT in preference to CSS.
  • Tables: Effective width of entire table is 530px for decent display.
  • Fixed layout EPUBs: Can give you exact control over presentation (e.g. instructions one side, image on the other); not aware of any HAT that does this out of the box; Lynda.com has good videos on fixed layout EPUBs.

After finish modifying, sequence for rezipping files is important otherwise it can all go pear-shaped:

  1. Create empty zip file.
  2. Drag folders/files into empty zip file.
  3. Change the zip file’s extension to EPUB.

Validate the EPUB file — various tools for doing this; e.g. Google’s EPUB checker, Robohelp.

Preview the EPUB file: Robert’s website/blog has details on doing this on the iPad (see http://www.robertdesprez.com/).

This was a really comprehensive overview in 35 minutes, and I got a lot out of his talk. Hamish — this is for you! ;-)

Effective techniques for supporting customers with video tutorials

Andrea Perry from TechSmith was next. My notes:

  • Video can provide an alternative to text, with content that is fun and engaging.
  • “Vision trumps all the other senses” (sorry, I didn’t catch the author of the quote).
  • Visuals include screenshots, screen casts, and sketches.
  • Content is NOT synonymous with text, or with visuals, or anything else: Content is IDEAS.
  • Document/demo the experience/tell the story, not the feature.
  • Use video to share the experience.

Best practices:

  • Audience: attention span 2 to 5.5 minutes; internet connection speed; quality of video/audio; viewing device; end goal; if for a wide audience, then make it more formal and use better equipment
  • Size: It’s safer to make the video larger (min 720px) than smaller, as a large video will rescale to a small device, but a small one won’t rescale well to a large device
  • Script and storyboard the video first.
  • Don’t be afraid of your own voice.
  • Start on a low-stakes project.
  • Users like continuity — keep the same narrator and consistent branding to build trust.

Voice Help

Joe Welinske talked about voice commands and voice activation and their possible application in Help:

  • New interactions require new technique and processes.
  • Proprietary interactions (e.g. Siri, automotive manufacturers) make software development hard.
  • We need APIs: Android Google Voice, iOS Siri, Windows Phone API.
  • Automotive companies may lead with voice-activated audio systems and controls as these are happening now, but these are very proprietary and customized to the manufacturer.
  • Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone 8 (free) — API is available to all developers; there’s no API for Siri, and thus Siri only works with a few applications.
  • Voice Command Definition file in Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone 8 is an XML file and this is the file most likely to be used by tech communicators in detailing the voice commands and responses, phrases, keywords to listen for etc.
  • Accents aren’t an area that can be easily dealt with yet.

Projecting the user’s cost benefit analysis

David Farkas gave a great talk on how to do a cost benefit analysis with both team members and users to find out what means of delivering user assistance cost the least yet give the best return. I have very few notes from this session as quite a bit of it was example matrices etc.

CSS3 for Help authors

Tony Self listed some of the things that are/were wrong with CSS2 (most were minor shortcomings) and outlined the main changes and the swag of additions in CSS3. The problem is that no browsers support all elements of CSS3, most support very little at this stage (though Tony predicts that will be very different within two years); he also advises that you check matrices of feature support before deciding to implement a CSS3 feature or not. And he advised us to check W3Schools, which has a great CSS reference area.

Areas that he summarized are:

  • More precise selectors
  • Box properties
  • Transitions and animations (animation properties are all new)
  • Namespaces/prefixes (e.g. -webkit [Safari, Chrome, Kindle, Android], -moz [Firefox], -ms [Internet Explorer), which add vendor-specific instructions for specific browsers
  • Conditions
  • Border properties
  • Font stuff (e.g. embedded fonts… sort of…)
  • Columns
  • Template layouts
  • Page media for very sophisticated print output
  • Transforms
  • Speech.

What’s ahead? Tony’s final words and advice were to not change for change’s sake; the personal computing and web is changing to support smaller and larger devices; related technologies are changing. For those involved in user assistance: wait until these things are integrated into the HATs (just as DHTML ultimately was integrated into HATs), and continue to separate form from content.

Modern assistance for Windows Store Apps

Paul O’Rear spoke about how assistance can be integrated with Window Store Apps (there is no Help API, so it’s pretty much ‘roll your own’). Much of this was a bit techie for me, but what I did take away was that Microsoft will no longer be developing any new Help technologies (no surprises there — it’s just taken a long time to hear it ‘officially’), and that HTML Help/CHMs will continue to work with Windows 8.

Smart ways to re-use content

Matthew Ellison’s presentation started with a discussion of the types of scenarios that suit single-sourcing: variations on a product (pro vs lite version); different target audience; different countries/locations; variations in platforms.

Successful information re-use tips:

  • Don’t measure success by the amount of re-use.
  • Focus on the primary output type.
  • Use context-agnostic output types.
  • Only re-use self-contained chunks of information.
  • If you’re using conditions, keep it simple!

Leveraging UA content for corporate deliverables

Beth Gerber demonstrated how her team had leveraged the Help content for a large organization to provide training materials for both leaders and participants. They used RoboHelp’s conditional build tags to separate out the information for each group, content filters for the employees, and embedded training videos (with scoring capabilities) into the Help.

Trends in mobile user assistance

The final session of the conference was a plenary session where Joe Welinske summarized many of the discussions and sessions held over the past two days relating to mobile devices.


Then it was all over for another year.

Some final comments from me:

  • Thanks to Joe and his team for another great conference.
  • I appreciated the 35 minute time slots for sessions — it kept the presentations focused on the key points.
  • A note to presenters: PLEASE DO NOT use lime green and white in your slides if white is your background color. It just doesn’t work and is really hard to read. Same goes for light gray font on white, and for small fonts. Bump up the font size to at least 20 pts in PowerPoint and make sure your slides have great contrast — black and white is GOOD.
  • Thanks also to the banquet team at Hyatt at Olive8 in Seattle for some great meals and good service.

Food etc.

  • Breakfast: Scrambled Eggs with Roasted Peppers & Spinach; Sliced Fruit; The Day’s Pastry; Diced Potatoes
  • Lunch: Herb Roasted Chicken Breast with Garlic Jus; Hearty Mashed Potatoes; Steamed Green Beans; Lemon Tarts
  • Closing Session Snack: Local Treats: Chukar Cherries; Kukuruza Popcorn; Sahale Snacks; Dry Sodas


  1. […] WritersUA Conference: Day 2: 8 March 2013 […]

  2. Hallo Rhonda

    Thanks again for these very useful notes. It sounds like a great conference. Congrats to Joe!

    Wow, Tony and Robert packed a lot of technical info into 30 minutes.

    Matthew’s presentation on content reuse sounds very interesting too. You mentioned that he says: “Don’t measure success by the amount of re-use.” That sounds eminently sensible. Did he give any ideas on how to measure the success of your content reuse strategy? It’s something we think about often. One way would be to see how thankful you are for your existing content reuse when some “minor” change in the product affects the entire documentation suite, but you can make the change by fixing just one file. And how dismayed you would have been if you had no content reuse in place. :)

    It’s interesting to hear about the short 35-minute sessions. It sure does pack a lot into a day.


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