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Conferences News

tcworld China recap

The tcworld China event took place in Shanghai April 18 and 19. I was there to present on content strategy and advanced DITA (yes, I hear your gasp of surprise), but for me, the most interesting part of the trip was getting a chance to connect with the technical communication community in China.

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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 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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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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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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Upcoming DITA events (free, cheap, and discounted)


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.


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.


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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