Friday, February 27, 2009


A day in the life

Tom Johnson has an interesting post on Quick Reference cards that has double value. For one, it gives good advice on what to do and what to avoid. More importantly, though, it is a great snapshot of what a technical communicator's life is like. I highly recommend it to my academic friends to share with your students, especially those who have not yet started working in the profession. It's not a depressing snapshot, but it does provide a splash of reality in the face.


In the never-ending cube versus office and office versus home discussions, I often hear the argument for the need for a quiet place in which to concentrate. For a lot of my career, the people who invented the stuff I documented have worked in the chaos of common work areas with couches and foosball tables. But to document their output seems to require quiet and to edit that documentation requires greater quiet.

I have no beef with any of that, but it reminds me of an observation I have made about sports, namely that we are wildly inconsistent with our expectations of crowd noise. For example, in baseball the pitcher throws the ball ninety miles an hour at the batter and puts all kinds of curves on it, but the crowd is hysterical "Batta, batta, batta, suhwiiiing batta." In tennis, the server throws the ball to himself and we are all "Quiet, quiet, quiet, everyone, he's SERVING."

In golf the ball isn't even moving and the player is trying to put it into a hole in the ground (not very likely to be dodging around) and again, "Quiet, quiet, quiet, everyone, he's PUTTING." But a quarterback has to hit a moving target while monster-size opponents try to give him a concussion and again, the crowd is screaming.

No point here, just a pithy, Friday morning observation. Life is good these days.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Conferences and such

OK, I just got my last set of slides off to Joe Welinske for the WritersUA conference, which is on March 29 to April 1. The presentation is "Architecting UA Topics for Reuse" and I'm pleased with how the it came out. After attending the Atlanta STC chapter meeting last week, I realize that there is still a lot of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) around single sourcing. My presentation uses DITA examples, but I think the principles will be useful regardless of what tool someone uses.

One of the examples I use is a recipe for a cheese grits casserole that I made this weekend and used as a base for my crawfish etouffe. Oh my! It's worth coming to the conference just to get that recipe!

STC conference is in Atlanta in May. STC has extended the early bird rate to help with the economy. I'm doing a presentation on use cases with my boss. Hope I don't screw up.

I went to a 20 year anniversary celebration for the TCOM program at Southern Polytechnic State University. I am an alumnus of that program, a former faculty, former member of their advisory board, and still an occasional adjunct. There was a "here's what they looked like" slide show going in the background, and here are a couple from my academic days:

Doing part of my doctoral studies at the University of Manchester, England

Professor Mike in his office

And this one from the anniversary party itself:

It's Good to Be a Tech Writer

Monday, February 09, 2009

It's not me, it's you

I'm speaking at WritersUA conference in Seattle (March 29-April 1). One of my topics is "Managing UA Projects with Spreadsheets" in which I explain why I broke off my long-time relationship with MS Project to go with Excel as my tool of choice for managing user assistance projects. It includes a full tutorial that will put attendees in an exclusive club: folks who can do pivot tables in Excel. Hope to see some of you there!

It's not me, it's you

Friday, February 06, 2009

Scavenger Hunt

The more I look at the Atlanta Summit host city web site the more impressed I am with Brian Snead and Al Hood for a job well done. Among that, the cookbook, and the host chapter reception, I'm so proud of how we will be showing our Southern hospitality. Still some things to do, Atlanta STC members, you'll be getting an e-blast soon.

Just to make things interesting, I'll give away a free copy of our chapter Summit commemorative cookbook, Fixin to Eat: Some South for your Mouth from the Atlanta STC to the first commenter who finds where Phylise Banner and Andrea Ames are mentioned on our host city web site. (Council members who contribute to the web site are disqualified.)

Happy hunting!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Atlanta Host City Website

Check it out!
The Atlanta STC chapter has posted its host city Web site for the STC Summit. We are starting to get geard up and revved up. We are in the final stages of editing a cookbook of our favorite Southern technical writer recipes, e.g., Cut and Pasta Garden Salad, to share with our visitors. It will include extra tidbits such as tips on speaking Southern. The following in an excerpt:

Bless your heart
This is the most delicious of Southern phrases. When said in a kind way it means that you are doing the best you can in a tough situation. Example: “They’ve got you doing the Help with ForeHelp 1.2? Bless your heart!”
When said in a mean way, it means you’re just too stupid to know better. Example: “You sent the VP an e-mail demanding that the technical writers’ platforms get upgraded before the developers’? Bless your heart!”

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bless their hearts award #09-3

This award goes to my ubiquitous user, me, who demonstrates that sometimes the user really is stupid, no really!

I signed up for Skype, the VoIP application, so Tom Johnson could do an interview with me. I had heard about it but had never used it, so I was sort of insufferably pleased with myself over being with it. I told my wife that she was "like so yesterday" and that I had grown. She told me to pick my socks up off the bathroom floor. (Thirty-six years of marriage fosters this kind of crystal clarity in a couple's communications.)

At any rate, this week I started noticing that lots of Web sites had Skype-friendly phone numbers. Example:

As the week went on, I found I was noticing these more and more. I thought, "Funny, once you become aware of something, it seems like you start noticing it everywhere." After several days it dawned on me: I was noticing it everywhere. Part of installing Skype means that it causes your browser to display phone numbers this way. Can I say business model?

Lesson learned
Sometimes the user makes stupid mistakes or stupid assumptions, and there is nothing in your design or your user assistance that can stop that. It's OK. Your application doesn't have to be fool proof, just try to make it so fools don't hurt themselves. Keep the error messages friendly and maybe take a lesson from my wife:

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bless their hearts award #09-2

I needed to change my e-mail client password for the 16th time and for the 16th time could not figure out where to do it. So I went to Help. I searched on "password" and clicked the first topic in the list, named "Change Password." My expectations were high. I got this:

There is not a lot to changing a password, and the Change Password screen in this application is very well designed and easy to use. (It even tells me the rules for an acceptable password.) The only reason I can think of someone going to Help for "Change Password" is exactly the scenario I was in, namely, where do I do it?

Lesson learned
Three good rules for user assistance:
  • Don't document the screen.
  • Don't document the task.
  • Do document the probable information gap(s) that could stop a user.

Monday, February 02, 2009


I did a podcast for Tom Johnnson who blogs at I'd Rather Be Writing. It was a lot of fun chatting with Tom--I'm a big fan of his blog.

Tom posted his own notes on what he got from the podcast.