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WritersUA: Pundit panel

The opening session with the ever-popular pundit panel was interesting. Bernard Ashwanden of Bright Path stole the show with a strip routine. Perhaps I should explain.

Bernard pointed out that life was about content, and the tools were just layers on top of the content. To illustrate the point, he took off his vendor shirt, revealing another vendor’s shirt. Then, he took off the second shirt to reveal yet another vendor’s shirt. After five shirts, he ended up with a MadCap T-shirt. I’m going to assume that this was related to shirt size and not some sort of message about who is closest to his heart. I should stress that Bernard did keep his last shirt on.

Although predictions were created independently by the various pundits, they were in substantive agreement in many cases. Everyone felt that the cliched web 2.0 will have a significant effect on technical writers. In a world where end users contribute to product information on wikis, user forums, podcasts, or videos, what is the role of the “corporate” technical writer?

Several people predicted a demise for traditional help authoring tools. They said that tools must evolve to support new media and community publishing models. I agree in part, but I don’t think this will happen in the next three years, as at least one panelist predicted.

As consultants, it’s our job to understand new technology and to be ready to implement it for our customers. But our customers are at different points on the technology adoption curve. We have:

  • Early adopters, who want the latest and greatest technology.
  • Cautious middle adopters, who want to implement proven technology.
  • Late adopters, who are the last ones to move into a new workflow.

As a result, at any given point, our active customers are:

  • Implementing the latest thing
  • Implementing the low-risk thing (which was likely the Next Big Thing five years ago)
  • Implementing the industry standard (which is robust, but not very cutting edge)

The web 2.0 technologies are still on the extreme bleeding edge. A few companies are implementing them (the Quadralay wiki comes to mind), but corporate adoption is going to take years. Furthermore, user-generated content presents enormous logistical, legal, and corporate positioning challenges, which will slow adoption for risk-averse companies (which is most of them).

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WritersUA: Overview

Attendance seemed to be up a little from last year with approximately 450 people at the show.

Great energy as usual, people were excited to be at the venue.

I got a chance to catch up with many of the Usual Suspects including Char James-Tanny, Alan Houser, Neil Perlin, Paul O’Rear, Dave Gash, Brian Walker, Tony Self, and many others. (If I left you out, it’s because my brain has turned to mush.)

Our booth was extremely busy, and we had great conversations with many attendees. In past years, we would tell people what we do (“XML blah blah structured authoring blah blah FrameMaker blah blah training consulting blah blah”), and some percentage would respond with, “Oh, I use [some help authoring tool] and I don’t need that stuff.” This year, there were two types of responses:

  • “We’re working on an XML implementation.”
  • “We’re thinking about XML.”

The percentage of attendees who do not need to care about XML was extremely low.

Our “Yellow Thingies” were very popular — in addition to chocolate (of course), we were giving away a printed, bound version of three of our white papers (with a yellow cover). You can get the white papers through our online store (free with registration), but attendees really seemed to appreciate the printed version.

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WritersUA: Rumors

From Char James-Tanny’s helpstuff blog:

Speaking of new features…RoboHelp will support both Windows Vista and Office 2007 in their next release, due out before the end of the year. I also heard today that Frame 8 will go to beta sometime in the next several months, and that a new product (kinda-sorta similar to RoboHelp for Frame) is under development. No news yet on the feature set, but that’s OK…I can wait until it’s released. (Given that I don’t use Frame, I obviously won’t be a beta tester!)

As you probably know, Scriptorium has a long-standing relationship with Adobe. We are an Adobe Authorized Training Center and have also done work for Adobe as a vendor (writing white papers and the like). As a result, we often have pre-release access to software under non-disclosure agreements.

This can make life quite difficult when people ask us about Adobe’s future plans. We aren’t allowed to say anything! You’ll notice, however, that it is possible to get information. My advice? If you want to know about upcoming features, corner the right Adobe person (don’t bug the RoboHelp guy about FrameMaker and vice versa), in private, and ask nicely.

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XML Trials and Tribulations

Last week, the STC San Diego chapter hosted Walter Hanig and myself presenting on XML Trials and Tribulations. This was a case study of the implementation at Walter’s company, which Scriptorium was involved in several years ago.

If you’re looking for a rah-rah XML presentation, this isn’t it. But if you’re interested in seeing what conditions make for a very, um, challenging implementation, take a look at the slides (PDF, 500K).

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“Perception is reality”

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a wise manager told me this in response to some whining from me. Things were happening, life was unfair, and I couldn’t understand why my wonderful contributions weren’t being appreciated.

“Perception is reality.”

The perception was wrong, and reality was irrelevant. Never mind whether I was doing a fantastic job — upper management didn’t see it that way, and their evaluations are based on their perception.

It seems that RoboHelp has a similar problem. Ellis Pratt writes on the Cherryleaf Technical Authors’ Blog: “The challenge for Adobe, I believe, is to develop a better product and to try and rebuild relationships that haven’t been nurtured properly for the past four or five years. Maybe it’s time they read ‘The Tipping Point’.”

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Driving Miss DITA

Over on the Adobe Technical Communication blog, Aseem Dokania compares DITA to transportation infrastructure:

In the XML authoring paradigm, the document is split into structure, content and style, which are analogues to Driving Rules (structure), car (content) and road network (style).
DITA is […] based on the premises that the same set of driving rules cannot be applied to all terrains (desert, mountains, city, etc.). Therefore, DITA allows each country to specialize the driving rules for its own unique requirements. In addition, DITA also has recommendations on the content (car) design – i.e. topics.

Great analogy. Perhaps unintentionally, it also provides an excellent entry point to discuss DITA’s limitations. It’s not that hard to customize cars — left-hand or right-hand drive? two doors or four? red or blue? — but what if you really need a bulldozer? Or a tank??

DITA specialization does have its limits. Before you dive into DITA, spend some time assessing whether DITA’s idea of a topic matches your requirements. How much customization/specialization will be required? If DITA is a good fit for your content, you can probably cut the cost of structure implementation. But if you attempt to shoehorn your publication workflow into a structure that Simply Does Not Fit, life could get pretty unpleasant.

For more on this, take a look at our white paper, Assessing DITA as a foundation for XML implementation. It’s free with registration through our online store.

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