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Preview of coming a-QUACK-ions

duckMy presentation for the STC Summit in Dallas is finally done. The session, “Managing in an XML environment,” is scheduled for Tuesday, May 4, at 4 p.m. Central time.

I hope to see you in Dallas, but if you can’t make the conference in person, I will also do a webcast version of this presentation on June 15 at 1 p.m. Eastern time. That event is free but does require registration.

I’m sure you’re wondering about the duck. In my presentation, I will be introducing a formula for measuring documentation quality. It’s based on Quality, Usability, and some other factors that spell out, you guessed it, QUACK.

And if that’s not enough to bring you to the session, I also have several other animals in my slides. Consider yourself warned.

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Conferences

WritersUA: Wireframing tools and techniques

Michael Hughes, IBM ISS Security Systems

Yay, I finally get into a session.

Wireframes can be high fidelity (rendered dialog box that looks like the real thing) or low fidelity (sketch on a bar napkin). Fidelity actually has several components: appearance, medium, and interactivity.

Low fidelity appearance is something that looks (or is) hand drawn. High fidelity looks like a finished UI. Low fidelity appearance can be advantageous because people don’t get distracted.

Low fidelity medium is paper; high fidelity medium is an actual user interface.

Low fidelity interactivity is static—a picture of the thing. Then, you have scripted interactivity, where you take people through a scripted, controlled sequence. Next is intervention…the user says what they would do and then the UX designer shows them the next result. This can be done with paper prototypes. Finally, you have functional interactivity, where the various UI components actually work.

Low fidelity advantages: Quick, easier, and cheaper to create and modify. More importantly, people are more willing to give feedback on something that looks finished. People are afraid to give feedback on something that looks polished because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but if you provide a low-fidelity wireframe, you will get much more candid feedback.

Low fidelity disadvantages: You might get detailed feedback on irrelevant details (“this button should be square and not rectangular”). Limited ability to watch users interact. Some users cannot visualize the final product from a low-fidelity version.

High fidelity advantages: The prototype is more realistic. Easier to understand and less room for misinterpretations. You can watch the users interact with the design.

Low fidelity disadvantages: More expensive to create, less encouraging of feedback, people focus on minutiae, easy for designers to become emotionally involved.

(“You might throw in lorem ipsum text and then have people correct your Latin.”)

As you move farther into development, fidelity generally needs to increase.

Higher fidelity is important when you have higher usability risks due to lots of interactivity, complex UI, new interactions and content (for dev team or users), where in user task flow does UI occur (earlier is riskier).

Tools & their best uses

Bar napkins: Good for early conceptual designs, not so good for felt tip pens and putting a wet beer glass on.

Paper prototypes: Can create the various interfaces and do some paper-based flow testing. Not so good for a sense of scale or for assessing content.

PowerPoint: Can do hyperlinks and action buttons. Create each interface on a slide and then link them with PP features. Use slide sorter and rearrange to simulate various user workflows. For web design, put a browser window on the slide master to force you to stay in the browser space. Good for sense of physical navigation, planning layout, producing paper output, presenting look and feel for interactive web pages. Not so good for complex interactions and for look and feel of applications.

Visio: Pretty good set of widgets for making realistic-looking dialog boxes. Similar pluses and minuses as PowerPoint, but also good for look and feel of applications. Can use to incorporate wireframes with flowcharts, use case diagrams, and other macro-design tools.

Balsamiq Mockup: Presenter’s favorite tool (mine, too). Extended demo. If you’re interested, try it online for free. Realistic enough to help designer imagine what the user experience will be.

Pencil (Firefox plug-in): “they have the world’s worst online help”

Axure demo: Can build tooltips. Higher fidelity than Balsamiq. Lets you take note and annotate the fields and then print as a Word file. Use to lay out business rules, alternate text, and more. Suitable for Web 2.0 interactions, which are difficult or impossible in Visio.

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Conferences

Sleepless in Seattle—our agenda at WritersUA

Simon Bate and I will be attending WritersUA this year.

I will be mainly camped in Scriptorium’s exhibit booth. Hours for that are Monday 8:00 am – 6:00 pm and Tuesday 8:00 am – 5:30 pm. Please stop by when you get a chance. Simon will be joining me, but is also presenting on XSL Techniques for XML-to-XML Transformations on Monday at 3:25. Here’s a bit of the description:

In a recent project, we used XSL to correct markup and fix conversion errors in 55,000 XML files containing 2000-year-old Greek texts. The clean-up work included correcting errors in the Greek numbering system, converting text-based markup to XML, replacing or repairing missing markup, and ensuring the accuracy of our work in such a large document set. This session uses this work to illustrate how XML-to-XML transforms differ from XML-to-output transforms. Along the way we describe some XSL techniques we created for processing XML data in which there is a close relationship between the content and the markup.

This year, we’re bringing swag in the form of free copies of The Compass, a printed compilation of Scriptorium white papers. For WritersUA, we have two new white papers, and the book is now almost 200 pages long. (Our white papers are also available, for free, in HTML and PDF format.)

If that’s not a sufficiently sweet enticement, you can also expect local chocolates. The leading contender is currently Fran’s, but I’m open to suggestions, especially from Seattle locals. (We generally pick up chocolate once we arrive rather than attempting to ship it. Ask me some about the Great Truffle Shipping Debacle.)

Simon and I are both scheduling private meetings during the event. If you are a current or prospective client of ours, or if you just want to talk, let us know and we’ll set something up.

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Conferences Opinion

Conferences versus social media

The information you can get from a conference presentation is usually available online—in blogs, webcasts, forums, and/or white papers. So why should you invest the time and the money to attend an event in person? In the end, there’s something very powerful about eating and drinking with a group of people. (And no, alcohol is not required, although it doesn’t hurt. Until the next day, when it hurts a lot.)

The value of conferences, which is not (yet) replicated online is in the “hallway track”—the discussions that happen between the formal sessions:

“[B]eing able to establish a one-to-one personal connection with other professionals in your field is critical to being a success.” (Dave Taylor in The Critical Business Value of Attending Conferences)


“I’ve found that time and again, I’ll hear speakers or audience members or participate in conversations and lie awake that night jam-packed with new ideas (some that don’t even correspond remotely to the concepts discussed that day). Conferences are a brainstorming paradise and a terrific opportunity for new ideas to come bubbling to the surface.” (Rand Fishkin, The Secret Value of Attending Conferences)

Scriptorium has quite a few social media “features”:

  • This blog, started in 2005
  • Webcasts, 2006 (recordings available for recent events)
  • Forums, this week (currently in the “awkward silence” phase. Help us out by posting, please!)
  • Twitter

But there’s something missing. I’ve attended and presented quite a few webcasts, and I can tell you that it’s actually far more difficult to deliver a compelling webcast than a compelling conference presentation. As the presenter, you lose the ability to gauge your audience’s body language. As an attendee, you have the temptation of your email and other distractions. The audio coming through your computer or phone is somehow not real—it’s easy to forget that there’s an actual person on the other end giving the presentation online. (There’s also the problem that many webcasts are sales pitches rather than useful presentations, but let’s leave that for another time.)

In my experience, it’s much easier to sustain online friendships with people that I have met in real life. Even a brief meeting at a conference means that I will remember a person as “that red-haired woman with the funky scarf” rather than as an email ID or Twitter handle. So, I think it’s important to go to conferences, meet lots of people, and then sustain those new professional relationships via social media.

In other words, conferences and social media complement each other. Over time, I think we’ll see them merge until a new interaction model. For example, we are already seeing Twitter as a real-time feedback engine at conference events. (Here’s an excellent discussion of how presenters should handle this.) Joe Welinske’s WritersUA is experimenting with a community site tied to the conference.

What are your thoughts? How important are conferences to your career?

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Conferences Webcast

Free the webcast!

In addition to our November event on localization, we are adding another webcast in December. I’ll be presenting Strategies for coping with user-generated content on December 8 at 11 a.m. Eastern time via GoToWebinar. This event is free but registration is required.

Here’s the description:

The rise of Web 2.0 technology provides a platform for user-generated content. Publishing is no longer restricted to a few technical writers—any user can now contribute information. But the information coming from users tends to be highly specific.

The two types of information can coexist and improve the overall user experience. User-generated content also offers an opportunity for technical writers to participate as “curators”—by evaluating and organizing the information provided by end users.

Remember, there’s no charge to attend, but you do need to register.

Date: December 8, 2009
Time: 11 a.m. Eastern
Topic: Strategies for coping with user-generated content
Registration: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/583647346

PS Depending on the response to this event, we are going to consider additional free events.

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Conferences Webcast

Coming attractions for October and November

October 22nd, join Simon Bate for a session on delivering multiple versions of a help set without making multiple copies of the help:

We needed to generate a help set from DITA sources that applied to multiple products. However, serious space constraints prevent us from using standard DITA conditional processing to create multiple, product-specific versions of the help; there was only room for one copy of the help. Our solution was to create a single help set in which select content would be displayed when the help was opened.
In this webcast, we’ll show you how we used the DITA Open Toolkit to create a help set with dynamic text display. The webcast introduces some minor DITA Open Toolkit modifications and several client-side JavaScript techniques that you can use to implement dynamic text display in HTML files. Minimal programming skills necessary.

Register for dynamic text display webcast

I will be visiting New Orleans for LavaCon. This event, organized by Jack Molisani, is always a highlight of the conference year. I will be offering sessions on XML and on user-generated content. You can see the complete program here. In addition to my sessions, I will be bringing along a limited number of copies of our newest publication, The Compass. Find me at the event to get your free copy while supplies last. (Otherwise, you can order online Real Soon Now for $15.95.)

Register for LavaCon (note, early registration has been extended until October 12)

And last but certainly not least, we have our much-anticipated session on translation workflows. Nick Rosenthal, Managing Director, Salford Translations Ltd., will deliver a webcast on cost-effective document design for a translation workflow on November 19 at 11 a.m . Eastern time:

In this webcast, Nick Rosenthal discusses the challenges companies face when translating their content and offers some best practices to managing your localization budget effectively, including XML-based workflows and ways to integrate localized screen shots into translated user guides or help systems.

Register for the translation workflow webcast

As always, webcasts are $20. LavaCon is just a bit more. Hope to see you at all of these events.

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Conferences

Got plans for May 2010?

After my summer of complaints and criticism of STC and its various issues, I was more than a little surprised to be asked to manage the Design, Architecture, and Publishing track for next year’s STC Summit.

Hoist on my own petard (my obsession with Wordnik continues)…what could I do but agree. Or, go into exile.

Several of the other conference organizers are people I know quite well:

  • The author of Managing Writers: A Real World Guide To Managing Technical Documentation, Richard Hamilton, is the track manager for Managing People, Projects, and Business. He knows his stuff.
  • The principal of UserAid, Paul Mueller, is track manager for three (THREE!) tracks: Education and Training, Web Technologies, and Emerging Technologies. He’s also the Deputy Chair of the conference. (private note to Paul: I take it you were not able to retrieve the goat pictures. Sorry about that.) Another excellent choice.
  • Ant Davey of the UK and Ireland chapter has the Communication and Interpersonal Skills and Professional Development tracks. I’ve worked on STC-related matters with Ant, and he’s a great choice for this track.
  • Rachel Houghton, Program Chair. She did great work on last year’s conference.
  • Alan Houser, conference manager. You may remember him as the guy who retrieved David Pogue from a poorly timed bathroom break during the opening session. I’ve known Alan for many years, and I expect another well-organized event, in which he solves the inevitable emergencies with typical aplomb.

(I’m sure that the other track managers are excellent as well, but I don’t know them personally.)

Here is the description of the Design, Architecture, and Publishing track:

Choice of appropriate design and architectures can improve the efficiency, usability, and quality of an organization’s technical publishing. This track explores issues in information design and system architectures for publishing, with particular emphasis on systems and solutions for organization-wide publishing. Suggested session topics include:

  • Visual communication, integrating text and graphics, page layout
  • Single-source publishing, for multiple delivery formats, multiple purposes, and multiple audiences
  • Methodologies and solutions for content management
  • Comparing and selecting delivery formats
  • Issues in structured authoring and publishing, including migration, design, and deployment
  • XML-based publishing
  • Using industry-standard publishing architectures, such as DITA
  • Accommodating localization workflows in the publishing process
  • Moving unstructured content to structure

And now I need your help in two areas:

  1. Submit your proposals. The quality of the conference is determined by the quality of the presentations. And that, of course, is determined by the quality of the proposals submitted. Please send in your best stuff. I suppose you can look into the other tracks if you must.
  2. Help review proposals. I need two or three people to help out in reviewing conference proposals in this track. I’ve done this in the past; it’s a relatively limited time commitment. You will be asked to read lots of proposals and evaluate them, probably in mid-October. Along with reviewers, I will eventually generate a list of recommendations for which proposals to accept. If you have significant expertise in topics in this track, and especially if you do not intend to submit a proposal of your own, please consider volunteering to help with this effort.

Some notes on this year’s process:

  • The deadline for proposal submission is October 5, 2009 at 10 a.m. Eastern time.
  • This is a direct quote from the conference page: “With the smaller number of sessions (for the most part) only one proposal per speaker will be accepted.” (You can still submit multiple proposals, but do not expect to have more than one accepted.)
  • Two speaker references are required (unless you have presented at this conference in the past four years, in which case we will review your evaluations). I personally intend to put a significant weighting on previous highly rated speaking experience.
  • In 2009, sessions were recorded. I assume this will happen again.
  • The conference is May 2-5, 2010, in Dallas, Texas.

Get started with a proposal

If you have questions, leave a comment or contact me. I look forward to seeing lots of compelling proposals.

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Conferences

DocTrain’s demise and a challenge to presenters

Unfortunate news in my inbox this morning:

I regret to announce that DocTrain DITA Indianapolis is cancelled. DocTrain/PUBSNET Inc is shutting down.

As a business owner, messages like this strike fear in my heart. If it could happen to them…gulp. (This might be a good time to mention that we are ALWAYS looking for projects, so send them on over, please.) My condolences to the principals at DocTrain.

Meanwhile, I’m also thinking about what we can do in place of the event. I had a couple of presentations scheduled for DocTrain DITA, and Simon Bate was planning a day-long workshop on DITA Open Toolkit configuration.

So, here’s the plan. We are going to offer a couple of webinars based on the sessions we were planning to do at DocTrain DITA:

Each webinar is $20. We may record the webinars and make the recordings available later, but I’m not making any promises. Registration is limited to 50 people.

Here’s the challenge part: If you were scheduled to present at DocTrain DITA (or weren’t but have something useful to say), please set up a webcast of your presentation. It would be ultra-cool if we could replicate the event online (I know that the first week in June was cleared on your schedule!), but let’s get as much of this content as possible available. If you do not have a way to offer a webinar, let me know, and I’ll work with you to host it through Scriptorium.

And here’s my challenge to those of you who like to attend conferences: Please consider supporting these online events. If $20 is truly more than you can afford, contact me.

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Conferences

Back from Atlanta, STC wrapup

The STC Summit was fun as always. My slides are below, but first some other observations.

David Pogue was an excellent keynote speaker. And he sang!

Attendance was lower than last year, but traffic at our booth (and others from what I heard) was up. I think this was a combination of a better location for exhibitors, shorter exhibit hours (Wednesday was cut), and perhaps more senior and more serious attendees.

The biggest change from previous years had to be the use of social media in general, but especially Twitter:

  • The #stc09 hashtag got a serious workout, the tweetup drew 50 or 60 people, and there was constant chatter about the conference online.
  • There was a complementary online event, #stcnotthere.
  • As we were leaving the conference in sketchy weather, #stuckinATL_stc09, created by @lisajoydyer, helped us chronicle the various airport delays and find each other at the airport. It made the delays almost bearable.
  • Rachel Hougton’s flickr feed captures the feel of the entire event, ranging from the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola to the honors banquet and lots of casual photos. (great job, Rachel, btw)
  • You can find a collaborative liveblog on scribblelive.

Interestingly, it seems as though fewer people blogged the event; instead, they were tweeting. However, Keith Soltys did put up day-by-day summaries on Core Dump, and Gryphon Mountain Journals has some reactions. I was unable to find any other live-blogging; if I missed you, please leave a comment.

Tom Johnson interviewed numerous people (including me) at the event. His interview with Ginny Redish is already available.

The tweeting and other social media augmented the actual event. There were people tweeting for lots of reasons: to solve problems (chairs needed), organize groups for dinner, provide sound bites from presentations, and more. The organizing committee put up a twitter feed on a monitor next to their booth and got lots of attention.

I get the impression that the tweets gave non-attendees a flavor of the event. If you were following #stc09 but not attending, did this make you more likely to consider attending in 2010?

Ironically, one of my presentations was actually about technical communication and Web 2.0 issues. I have a white paper on this topic, which is far more useful than the slides. (OK, if you insist, the slides are also available.)

My second presentation was presumptuously entitled “The State of Structure.” This presentation discusses the results of our industry survey on structured authoring, which was conducted in January and February 2009.

If you want more information, the survey report is $200 and available in our store.

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Conferences

Life in the desert

Last week, I attended the annual DocTrain West event, which was held this year in Palm Springs, California.

Weather in Palm Springs was spectacular as always with highs in the 80s during the day. Some of my more northerly friends seemed a bit shell-shocked by the sudden change from snow and slush to sun and sand. (North Carolina was 40 degrees when I left, so that was a nice change for me as well.)

Scott Abel did his usual fine job of organizing and somehow being omnipresent.

I promised to post my session slides. The closing keynote was mostly images and is probably not that useful without audio, so I’m going to point you to an article that covers similar ground (What do Movable Type and XML Have in Common, PDF link).

I have embedded the slides from my DITA to PDF session below.

I have also posted the InDesign template file and the XSL we built to preprocess the DITA XML into something that InDesign likes on our wiki. Note that running the XSL requires a working configuration of the DITA Open Toolkit. For more information, refer to the DITA to InDesign page on our wiki.

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Conferences

Upcoming DITA events (free, cheap, and discounted)

Free

Tomorrow (February 5) at noon Eastern time, I’m doing a webinar, DITA 101–Why the Buzz?

This is a basic introduction to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, an XML standard for technical communication content. If you’re wondering about this DITA “thing,” and want to get some basic information, this is the session for you.

Also, the price is right, as it’s free (register here). Audio will be Internet-based, so you don’t even have the expense of a phone call.

Many thanks to MadCap Software, who is organizing and sponsoring this series of free webinars. These sessions are “tool-independent” — they are not going to be pitches for MadCap products.

Cheap

I have to mention Simon Bate’s new Hacking the DITA OT white paper again. It’s crammed with useful tips and tricks on how to get started configuring DITA output to your satisfaction. It’s not free, but at $20 for an instant download, it’s pretty cheap.

Discounted

Conferences are more expensive than our $20 white paper, but they also give you the opportunity to talk with people face-to-face. My next conference event is DocTrain West (Palm Springs, CA). I have two sessions:

  • What Gutenberg Can Teach Us about XML: This session looks at movable type and explores how the changes introduced by the printing press compare to the changes introduced by XML.
  • Demystifying DITA to PDF Publishing: This session discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each approach to extracting PDF from DITA content. Includes discussion of the DITA Open Toolkit, FrameMaker, and InDesign.

You can register for the event at a $400 savings until February 17. I hope to see you there.

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Conferences

Looking Fear Straight in the Eye

Have you ever been really scared? I don’t mean just the Halloween kinda scared, but really scared. That’s how I felt at the Burlington Marriott when the hotel employee delivered the box containing the workbooks for my Introduction to XMetaL and DITA workshop. He stood in the doorway, smiled, and handed me a very beat up, bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated FedEx box.

The box looked like the driver had had a flat on Route 128 and used it to prevent the truck from rolling back while jacking up the front end. It was nice and damp too. With much trepidation, I opened the box and — to my relief — found that the materials were undamaged. Whew.

Following that, Wednesday’s all-day workshop on XMetaL and DITA was smooth sailing. OK, we had a bit of a problem with powerstrips, but the helpful DocTrain folks got that taken care of. In retrospect, many of the questions I fielded in the workshop weren’t so much about DITA or XMetaL itself. Instead many of the questions were about generating output. The fact is that unless you’re willing to spend some quality time with CSS and the DITA Open Toolkit, your output from DITA will look very generic. XMetaL has a number of hooks that ease some of the pain in generating XHTML output. But even those hooks won’t save you from FO issues if you want to generate PDF output.

In my presentation on Thursday comparing XMetaL and FrameMaker support in DITA, the questions returned once again to output. Of course, this time the focus was on using FrameMaker 8.0 as a PDF engine. In workflows where content is created and maintained in XML, but then has to be delivered in PDF (or print), FrameMaker 8.0 looks like an attractive possibility. There are a few flaws in this solution (such as translating xref elements for intra-document links into live links in PDF), but users are closer to a solution than they were six months ago.

We’ve posted PDFs of the slides from both sessions on SlideShare.

You can find the Introduction to XMetaL and DITA workshop slides at:

http://www.slideshare.net/Scriptorium/xmetal-dita-workshop-presentation

The slides for the session on DITA Support in FrameMaker and XMetaL are at:

http://www.slideshare.net/Scriptorium/dita-support-in-framemaker-and-xmetal-presentation

When you’re done browsing the slides, take a look on our site for information about how we can help you with your FrameMaker, XMetaL, OT, PDF problems.

It’s not that scary.

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Conferences

WritersUA: DITA pilot techniques

Mark Wallis of IBM ISS on how to run a successful DITA pilot. Some great information in this presentation on how to reduce risks.

He recommends selecting your pilot project based on the following items:

  • Right timeframe — don’t choose the project that has an imminent release
  • Choose a manageable documentation set size
  • Reduce risk by avoiding the strongest (or most critical) product
  • Identify a product with a known need to improve the user experience

They had one person out of a group of twelve, a “senior in name only” writer, leave because of this transition.

The ideal team for a pilot will need cross-functional and complementary skills:

  • Project management skills
  • Tools and technology strengths
  • Product knowledge and understanding
  • Architecture and design skills
  • Editor for standards and styles

Some advice on planning your content. (And it’s worth noting here that these apply to good writing and topic-oriented content rather than to DITA tools.)

  • No autopilot writing
  • Don’t just migrate existing content; you’ll get trapped in old paradigms (this assumes that existing content does not fit the DITA topic paradigm)
  • Perform use case analysis and task analysis
  • Determine the critical scenarios to document
  • Focus on tasks; backfill supporting information as needed

Some interesting discussion of “task support clusters,” which include conceptual overviews, related tasks, deep concept, and reference information. (Michael Hughes did a presentation on this earlier today, which I unfortunately was not able to attend.)

They set up a DITA War Room in a small conference room and met at least daily (1.5 to 2 hours per day. Yikes). They set weekly goals and used small tasks to build momentum.

There was also heavy use of an internal wiki to put up initial “straw man” design, then revise, comment, and discuss.

Layering deliverables
Implementation deliverables were split out into smaller tasks, such as:

  • Creating topic files, links, and navigation
  • Testing links from code and navigation
  • Creating task and reference topics
  • Validating help against the user interface
  • Creating concept topics for principles, guidelines, and best practices (“deep concept”)
  • Validating content in the expert community

For the third time, he points out that they are no longer documenting how to use a check box, so I guess I’ll mention it.

Choosing the DITA toolset

Task Modeler (free) for building and managing ditamaps, defining relationships between topics, and creating skeleton topics (stub files).

DITA-compliant editor to edit your topics.

Compiler (part of open source toolkit). Compiler? What are they compiling? HTML Help? Oh. He just referred to Ant as a compiler. Ohhhhhkay.

Proof of concept

They picked a subset of the pilot to do the proof of concept.

The presenter’s boss is quoted as saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only insufficient clothing.” I’m guessing that she’s never been to Minnesota in winter.

The objectives for the proof of concept:

  • Learn and evaluate tools
  • Address technical obstacles
  • Specify end-to-end requirements

They learned that deliverable formats matter because they must deliver several different formats.

Managing costs

Purchase toolsets only for pilot team.

After completing proof of concept (successfully!), invest in tools for the remaining writers.

Wiki

They used their wiki to capture conventions and guidelines.

Improving acceptance

They paid attention to the change management issues. He doesn’t mention it here, but I would assume that the combination of an acquisition by IBM plus the requirement to change the authoring environment could have caused significant angst. Their approach included presentations, wiki content, email discussions, and online training.

At the point of transition, DITA boot camp was offered.

They used collaborative walkthroughs, or reviews, to help standardize their content development. Interesting. This sounds as though it could be a) threatening and b) an unbelievable time sink. But just maybe it might also c) help improve the content.

Other lessons learned

Think more, write less. (Don’t document the obvious, don’t document common user interface convention, write only if you’re really adding value.)

Don’t squander your ignorance. (If something makes you stumble in the interface, that will probably also cause problems for your users, so capture it.)

The more structured your content, the easier the transition to DITA.

Documenting the obvious teaches readers to ignore your text, so don’t document the obvious.

The handouts are available here: http://www.writersua.com/ohc/suppmatl/

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tekom: Benefits for North American writers

My post about tekom generated some interesting comments, including this one, which I will address in pieces:

Thanks for this info. I’ve been lobbying my company to send me to Tekom for the last few years, unsuccessfully. I submitted 2 times for presentations but both were rejected. Our company is in Concord, Massachusetts, USA.
Could you discuss the benefits to North American writers attending such an international event. Are there things you learned there you will not learn anywhere else (business/tech stuff of course )

Interesting question.

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Conferences

TOC: Tim O’Reilly/Publishing 2.0

What do killer Internet applications have in common?

  • Information businesses (publishers??)
  • Software as a service
  • Internet as platform
  • Harnessing collective intelligence

Web 2.0: harness network effects to get better the more people use them.

  • Google: every time someone makes a web link, they contribute
  • eBay: critical mass of buyers and sellers hard for others to enter
  • amazon: 10M user reviews
  • craigslist: self-service classified ads, users do all the work
  • YouTube: viral distribution, user creation, user curation

Each of these companies is building a database whose values grows in proportion to the number of participants — a network-effective-driven data lock-in. (gulp)

Law of conversation of attractive profits

  • When attractive profits disappear at one stage the opportunity will usually emerge at an adjacent stage.
  • PCs used to be expensive. Software became expensive. Free precursor to rediscovery of value in some other form.

And thus, if digital content is becoming cheap, what’s next? What’s adjacent?

For publishers, the question is: where is value migrating to?

Asymmetric competition

  • craigslist has 18 employees, #7 site on the web (2005 numbers)
  • All others in top 10 have thousands of employees.

Curating user-generated content

  • The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think. — Edwin Schlossberg
  • The skill of programming is to create a context in which other people can share.

Collaborative authoring

What job does a book do? What is a book’s competition?

  • Harry Potter’s competitor is World of Warcraft
  • Encyclopedia Britannica — Wikipedia — Google
  • Books compete with information available online
  • Teaching/reference/edutainment

Search is most important benefit of content being online

“Piracy is progressive taxation”

  • Benefits the books at the bottom that would be lost
  • How to balance/manage a progressive taxation system
  • Gain more sales on the bottom end

DRM: “Like taking cat to a vet” (hold them very carefully and loosely!)

More options = happier users

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Conferences

TOC: Chris Anderson/Free: The economics of giving stuff away

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief, Wired Magazine

The cost of things tend to fall to zero over time.

You can build business around giving things away:

  • Free samples
  • Skype, YouTube, free unlimited storage on Yahoo
  • Ad-supported media..product is free, make it back on ads
  • Free ice cream samples
  • Give away razor, sell blades
  • Gift economy/wikipedia, craigslist: people donate expertise/time for nonmonetary — attention, reputation, expression…never before “dignified” as an economy. There is an economy, just money is not the currency.

If marginal cost of reaching the N+1 customer is approaching zero, then treat the product as free and figure out how to sell something else.

The price of a magazine like Wired is arbirary; it bears no relationship to the actual cost of the magazine. The subscription price is intended to qualify your interest. Setting the price too low “devalues the product.”

Most music is free. “Free as in speech” — DRM is going away. “Free as in beer” — bands are experimenting with giving away music to market the live performances.

Games and movies would be free if not protected. They are locked down to enforce prices. Artificial barriers tend to fall over time. Already seeing ad-supported videogames. (neopets)

The shining exception: Books! They are not asymptotically approaching free. Books make sense. They provide the optimal way to read. The physical product is better than digital product…excellent battery life, screen resolution, portable, and it even looks good on your shelf. Easy to flip through.

If “free” is “the business model of the 21st century,” how could a book be free?

(This was preceded with a disclaimer that many of these options would be “offensive” to people in the audience.)

For his next book, Anderson wants to do the following:

  • Audiobook will be free with book (mp3) (free coupon in real book)
  • Will participate in book search, include Google
  • Considering an e-book locked to a specific reader for free
  • Unlocked e-book with advertising inserted
  • Book online with ads in the margins
  • As many sample chapters as publisher will accept

How could a physical book be free?

  • Sponsored book
  • Consultants give away books
  • Book with ads
  • Free rebate
  • Free to influentials/reviewers
  • Libraries have always had free books

Why do it?

  • Free book is marketing for the non-free thing
  • Book is marketing vehicle for celebrity
  • Can’t give away time
  • If free version is inferior, you give it away to market the better product
  • Use “free” to maximize reach to new influentials

Why aren’t more people doing free content?

  • Most people are not represented by a speaker’s bureau and can’t monetize fame
  • Online sample is not a compelling example of book (maybe for cookbook, probably not for novel)
  • No natural advertiser
  • Publisher opposition — publishers not in business of selling celebrity
  • Annoys the retailers
  • Fear and timidity/fear of cannibalization

The most critical point: The interests of the author and the publisher are critically misaligned. Publishers doesn’t benefit from speaking fees of consulting fees, only from book sales.

Sounds like an argument for self-publishing to me.

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Conferences

Tools of Change for Publishing/Norwegian Monks!

As part of a brief history of publishing in the opening keynote, I’ve already seen a few friends:

  • The Norwegian Monks video — Technical support for books
  • A reference to Vannevar Bush’s “As We Might Think” article from 1945

According to Tim O’Reilly, Microsoft Encarta “fatally wounded” the Encyclopedia Britannia because of “asymmetric competition.”

A series of short, related keynotes to kick off the conference. I like this approach; in a nontechnical, high-level keynote, it can be difficult to fill a 60- or 90-minute slot.

Brian Murray, HarperCollins, Retooling HarperCollins for the Future
Consumer publishing *was* straightforward. All promotion wasdesigned to drive traffic to a retailer.

In 2005, “the earth moved.” There were search wars, community sites, user-generated content, Web 2.0. Newspapers and magazines responded with premium, branded sites online based on advertising or subscription models.

Book publishers are confused. Search engines treat digitized book content like “free” content. Rights and permissions are unclear. Books are not online — except illegally! Book archives are not digitized.

Before 2004, “book search” took place in a book store.

What is the role of the publisher in a digital world?
What is the right digital strategy?
What are the right capabilities?
“Search” provides new opportunities for publishers.
Publishers must transition from paper to digital.
How can publishers create value and not destroy it?

Some statistics:

  • 65M in the U.S. read more than 6 books a year.
  • 10M read more than 50 books a year. [ed.: waves]
  • Younger consumers read less; they spend more time online

Search is used more often than email.

HarperCollins decided to focus on connecting with customers, rather than e-commerce. Amazon and others already do e-commerce. They focused on the idea of a “digital warehouse” that is analogous to the existing physical warehouse. They want to:

  • promote and market to the digital consumer.
  • use digitized books to create a new publishing/distribution chain
  • protect author’s copyright
  • “replicate in digital world what we do in physical world”
  • got publicity, strong public response
  • no single vendor who could deliver turnkey

Improvements from digital production and workflow could fund some or all of the digital warehouse investment. Projects that were low priority “IT and production” projects become high priority. Savings were realized in typesetting/design costs, digital workflow, and digital asset management.

The digital warehouse now has 12,000 titles. (Looks as though they were scanned, which doesn’t meet *my* definition of “digital content.”)

At this point in the presentation, we began to hear a lot about “control.” Control of content, controlling distribution, and so on.

HarperCollins does not want others to replicate their 9-billion page archive in multiple locations. They want others to link into their digital warehouse. But if storage is cheap and getting cheaper, what’s in it for, say, Google?

Strategic issues for book publishers

  • Should publishers digitize, organize, and own the exclusive digital copy of their book content?
  • Should publisher control the consumer experience on the web?
  • If the cost of 1 and 2 is zero, should every publisher do them both? would they?
  • How to make money

The focus on controlling content was interesting and perhaps not unexpected. The business case based on savings in digital production was also interesting.

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WritersUA: My sessions

I delivered a session on Coping with the XML Paradigm Shift, in which I introduced my Taxonomy of Problem Writers for the first time. The slides are available in PDF format, and I welcome any and all comments. You probably won’t be surprised that the presentation is slightly over the top. It has, however, already served as a great conversation starter —
I heard people talking about Technosaurs and One-Trick Ponies.

On Tuesday afternoon, I did a double-length, hands-on Introduction to DITA session. (Many thanks to XMetaL for providing attendees with evaluation copies to use during the session.)

I arrived in the room about half an hour before the session and found a few people already moved in. (Always a good sign.) Trying to install and configure software just minutes before a session like this is a truly terrifying undertaking. And as we got closer to the session time, more
and more (and MORE) people kept coming. By my count, we had at least 35 people with laptops and five more without. (That’s about triple the number I’d normally allow in a hands-on training session.)

There were a few kinks, but we managed to get everyone up and running*, and I think the session was valuable. At the end, I polled the room on whether they were more or less likely to implement DITA and got an even split. Perfect!

We will be extending this three-hour session into a two-day Introduction to DITA class, which we expect to begin offering in mid-summer. Watch this space for more details.

* One person had a Mac, which I hadn’t anticipated. Sorry! The two people running Vista also had some issues. There were a few installation errors, but their software seemed to run OK.

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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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Conferences

VC pitch template

This week, I attended the Southeast Venture conference, held at the new Umstead Hotel in Cary, North Carolina. The conference was only about two miles from our office and the opportunity to see this brand-new, five-star aspiring hotel was too good to pass up. (Hard to justify staying there when home is less than 20 minutes away…)

The conference included a series of 10-minute pitches from various companies looking for funding.

After seeing a couple dozen of these sessions, I have put together a helpful template for anyone looking to do a demo pitch.

First, be sure to use the following phrases:

  • “addressable market is over $X billion”
  • “unique value proposition”
  • “sustainable advantage”
  • “barriers to entry”
  • “strong intellectual property assets”

Then, you’ll need two charts. The first one shows revenue and looks like this:
Revenue from 0 today to $50 million at some future date
The second one shows profits and looks like this:
Profits currently zero, drop to negative, then increase to $50 million at some future date
So. Hockey stick and check mark. It’s all very simple.

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