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November 8, 2010

Some thoughts on tekom

After a delightful week at the tekom/tcworld conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, I thought I’d capture a few impressions of the event.

First, it’s worth noting that tekom is really several events in one: There’s the German tekom conference, the parallel English tcworld conference, and the annual general meeting of the tekom association. If you attend U.S.-based conferences, you’ll recognize some of the presenters in the English sessions. But in addition to the Usual Suspects (and I include myself in that category), tekom provides unique additional perspectives.

This year, the event featured a track on technical communication in Asia. I attended two sessions in this track:

  • DITA in Japanese Technical Communication. Satoshi Kuroda of Information Systems Engineering, Inc. presented the results of a DITA Working Group of the Japan Technical Communicators Assocation. This was interesting both because of the subject matter and because of the use of simultaneous interpretation from Mr. Kuroda’s Japanese presentation into English. To summarize, the working group recognizes that Japanese manuals tend to be highly visual, and this is difficult to implement in DITA. Thus, there is some concern that DITA structure might not be a good fit for the requirements of the Japanese market.
  • Trends and live samples of Electronic Manuals in Japan and Korea. This was another interesting session, presented jointly by Mr. Kuroda and Yang-sook Kim of HansemEZUserGuides in South Korea. Based on the title, I expected a variety of more-or-less interactive PDF files, but it turned out to be a discussion on online content. Mr. Kuroda and Ms. Kim showed examples of online content, including a rather spiffy series of short videos created for the Galaxy S smartphone. Interestingly, the video was created in addition to and not instead of text-based documentation. The target audience was “older people, in their 40s” (groan) “who had never used a smartphone and needed some extra help.”

The interpreters did a great job of translating technical content into English. That said, there were some inconsistencies. There were actually two interpreters working in 15-minute shifts. One interpreter spelled out any references to our favorite XML standard D-I-T-A while the other one said “DITA” as a word. In Japanese, the presenter was using “DITA.” There were also repeated references to “context writing” (which also appeared on the English-language slides) as contrasted to “topic writing.” I’m still not sure exactly what this meant, although I think it was “writing with context,” which would probably be narrative writing.

Dieter Gust of ITL delivered a great session on what is required for high-quality technical content. His “three pillars” are understandability, usability, and good process. This year’s presentation focused on usability and how to make usable content. Meanwhile, Mr. Gust is working on a unified model. You can find it, in German, on page 13 of this PDF file. Usability, he argues, is determined by the following factors:

  • Document organization
  • Typography
  • Navigation support
  • Orientation support
  • Reading support
  • Learning support
  • Search and find

(Interestingly, this matches some of what I discussed in my presentation as the QUACK model: quality, usability, accuracy, completeness, conciseness. You can find more details in our white paper on managing in an XML environment.)

Audiences at tekom in the English-language sessions are typically more reserved than audiences in North America. Non-native English speakers make up the majority of the audiences, and they are perhaps more comfortable listening to a presentation than formulating a question on the fly. But I believe that there is also a cultural factor at work.

I was delighted to meet several Twitter friends face-to-face for the first time. I also renewed acquaintances with tekom regulars that I had met on previous trips. The opportunity to build and strengthen these ties is one of the primary reasons that I attend conferences.

On Saturday, I went into Mainz with a small group (mostly those of us waiting until Sunday for reduced air fares back to the U.S.) We visited the Mainz Cathedral, the market, and perhaps the most relevant possible cultural site for a group of technical communicators—the Gutenberg Museum.

The museum houses a variety of printing presses, book binding information, several Gutenberg Bibles, and numerous other early books. It is certainly worth a trip for anyone at all interested in publishing. You should be aware that some of the signage is only in German. Nonetheless, seeing a replica of Gutenberg’s letterpress at work requires no translation. The docent pointed out that it took approximately three years to hand-copy a single book before Gutenberg. Gutenberg then produced 180 bibles in a three-year time span.

After seeing a huge variety of beautiful books, with hand-illumination, inset woodcuts, drop capitals, and other lovely designs, working in DITA seems suddenly less compelling. Our theme for the day was, “oooh, pretty. Can’t do that in DITA…”

[Updated November 8, 12:35 p.m. EST to correct typos and capitalization issues.]