Category Archives: ASTC

A report from ASTC (NSW) 2011 day 2 afternoon

I’m at the 2011 conference of the Australian Society for  Technical Communication (ASTC), New South Wales branch. Over the last couple of days I’ve been blogging about the conference sessions. Here are my notes from the afternoon of day 2. I hope you enjoy them.

Project Management – Plan, Do, Check, Act, by Julie McKibbin

In this session, Julie McKibbin took a look at the project management life cycle and the critical path. Then she examined why it is important to technical writers. Julie was inventive in her use of materials. She used presentation slides, a flip chart and a whiteboard, all at once. It was also a very interactive session, with lots of audience participation. We did an exercise on planning the preparation of a roast dinner, including listing the ingredients, defining the critical path and creating a flow chart. One of the teams (from the back of the room, of course) had an amusing flow chart with multiple contingency plans that involved meals at Mackers and going hunting.

IT accessibility, by Richard Hodgkinson

Richard Hodgkinson talked about accessibility for ICT, and why it’s important in technical communication. He discussed the needs of elderly people or disabled people in what is fast becoming an eSociety. The eSociety assumes that we all have access to electronic services. This is not always the case. Remembering and managing multiple passwords is difficult.

It is possible to design for these needs. A good example is the Sagem VS3 mobile phone brought out by Vodaphone a few years ago. It was simple, with clear displays and only the basic functionality as required in a phone.

Richard walked us through the existing standards and guidelines for accessibility design, of which there are a number.

Documentation is important in this arena. Think of the setup guides for various household appliances. Keep it simple, provide only the information that is needed, use media that have accessbility features. Document the accessibility aspects of the documentation too. Widget and Makaton are symbol languages that are available for use in instructions for multilingual and accessible requirements.

Death by PowerPoint, by Frank Munday

Frank “Choco” Munday presented the final session of the day. He was introduced with the words, “be prepared to have your socks knocked off!” Choco’s session was all about how to design PowerPoint presentations so that they are not a cause of death. He delivered the presentation in typical exuberant style. Just the ticket for a closing session.

Til next time

See you at ASTC (NSW) 2012!

A report from ASTC (NSW) 2011 day 2 morning

I’m at the 2011 conference of the Australian Society for  Technical Communication (ASTC), New South Wales branch. It’s great to get together with other technical writers, greet old friends and meet new people. It’s also great to talk about the things that matter to us as technical communication professionals. Here are my notes from the morning of day 2.

The morning passed in a flurry of activity, because my colleague Paul Watson and I both presented our sessions. We were busy setting up the PC and the wiki, then giving the presentations, then recovering. If you’re anything like me, you’re non compos mentis for an hour or so on either side of giving a presentation. :) For that reason, I didn’t take notes.

The morning started with an excellent presentation on Agile development – a guide for writers, by Cerys Willoughby. I was next up, giving a practical demonstration of doing technical documentation on a wiki. Next came a Q&A session about documentation standards Richard Hodgkinson kicked it off with an overview of existing and developing standards, then a panel of experts answered questions.

Paul Watson was up next, with an engaging and expert discussion of PDF documents, wiki documents, the confluence of wikis and PDFs. He finished up with a demonstration of how to produce customised PDF documents from Confluence, and touched on the things the wiki can do and the things that are still missing.

The last session of the day was an amusing and informative look at wordless instructions by Richard Hodgkinson. These wordless instructions were conveyed via drawings showing people how to assemble a product, in this case a typewriter. Richard drew from his personal experience as part of the team that designed the packaging for the IBM Selectric “Golfball” typewriter. He gave us recommendations based on the lessons learned.

Now it’s lunch time. I will take more detailed notes on this afternoon’s sessions!

A report from ASTC (NSW) 2011 day 1 afternoon

I’m at the 2011 conference of the Australian Society for  Technical Communication (ASTC), New South Wales branch. It’s great to get together with other technical writers, greet old friends and meet new people. It’s also great to talk about the things that matter to us as technical communication professionals. Following on from my post about this morning, here are my notes from the afternoon of day 1.

Using illustrations in technical documentation, by Charles Cave

Charles Cave’s talk covered a variety of types of illustration that we can use in technical documentation. His aim was to discuss how to choose the types that are suitable, and how to make the illustrations. He started by taking us on a tour of illustrations, to show the diversity available. He showed photographs of food in cookbooks, showing the finished product and showing the steps involved in a process, and discussed how we can produce photographs of the required quality ourselves with a small digital camera.

Charles went on to discuss callouts, and the conventions to follow if we want to be sure our readers can interpret the diagram quickly and easily. YouTube has become a popular channel for “how to” videos. Charles discussed the pros and cons of video as an instructional medium. Drawings can be better than photographs in some cases, because a drawing can emphasize key features. As good examples, we looked at a field guide to birds, and some instructions for a coffee machine. We also had a look at flowcharts and swim lanes.

Charles discussed the advantage of icon libraries, such as provided by Cisco, in that they are clearly documented. This means that people will be able to find out exactly what an icon means. A take away is that we can consider creating such an icon library for our own product or organization.

We had a look at PowerPoint as a useful tool for creating diagrams, especially the Smart Art tool in PowerPoint. Visio is a popular tool, and includes a number of useful image libraries.

Wrapping up, Charles gave us some tips on how to develop our visual skills. Draw something every day. Buy a book, such as The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Try creating story boards. Carry a camera around with you at all times. Learn to use various types of drawing software, such as PowerPoint, Visio, Dia (on Linux), Open Office and Inkscape. Make friends with a graphic designer! You can find a graphic designer on the web at, and other sites.

Winning proposals for documentation – beyond the words, by Annette Reilly

Annette Reilly is a proposal developer at Lockheed Martin and is editor of four ISO standards. The focus of her presentation is the new ISO standard for suppliers and acquirers of user documentation: 26512. She also gave a good explanation of why we would write a proposal, and why we need a standard. It’s a way of looking at it from the point of view of the acquirer’s point of view, of reducing risk and of differentiating ourselves from the competition.

26512 is part of a suite of user documentation standards, many of which will be covered in a presentation tomorrow. All these standards are independent of media and tools, focusing instead on the product: the documentation, printed or online. This standard is aimed at user documentation, but is useful when we are preparing a proposal for many different sorts of documentation.

Annette discussed the responsibilities of the acquirer, in preparing the request for proposals (RFP) and providing all the information that people will need to prepare and submit their proposals. Next, we looked in detail at how to design the proposal, and the structure and components of the proposal to match the elements in the RFP. The most interesting part, Annette says, is in deciding how you and the customer can look at your proposal together, so that he sees your solution as the one to solve his problem.

Annette gave us some useful tips. One was that her company makes a practice of always delivering the proposal a day early. This makes a good impression, and gives some leeway in case things go wrong with the delivery. Another tip was to use graphics on at least every other page of the proposal, to illustrate people, process and tools. Use persuasive captions too.

Delivering surprise and joy to staff, by James Robertson

James Robertson is managing director of Step Two Designs and has written a couple of books about intranet design. He started by thanking tech writers for teaching him everything that’s important in life.Then he said that intranets are those things with lots and lots of words on them. But the theme of the conference is “beyond words”. So he wanted to talk about just four words: intranets that are:

  • Joyful. James showed us pictures of intranet pages that were wacky, yet focused on the customer. An intranet should be emotionally engaging.
  • Smart. This takes a lot of good design. Plain language. Logical grouping. Easy to find stuff. Alerts that pop up telling people when there is a policy change that is relevant to the activity they are doing.
  • Collaborative. For example, a wiki that front-line staff can keep up to date. James briefly discussed the fact that our role as content professionals may change due to the rise of collaborative and social tools. The unmanaged spread of collaborative mini-sites is anti-collaborative. Our role as content people is to prevent the fragmentation of information. Perhaps it’s to help the people rather than write the content.
  • Mobile. The mobile equivalent of the intranet should be very cut down, providing just the key things that people need when they are away from their desks. James showed us the mobile app used by the UK parliament ( Another example is QUT Virtual (Queensland University of Technology). The restrictions of the mobile platform enforce simplicity. So why do things have to be so complex on the desktop version of the intranet?

James summed it up by saying we should be setting our goals beyond making words less painful. Instead, we should be making things joyful, surprising them with things that genuinely help them in their job.

More tomorrow

That’s the conference for today. See you tomorrow!

A report from ASTC (NSW) 2011 day 1 morning

I’m at the 2011 conference of the Australian Society for  Technical Communication (ASTC), New South Wales branch. It’s great to get together with other technical writers, greet old friends and meet new people. It’s also great to talk about the things that matter to us as technical communication professionals. Here are my notes from the morning of day 1.

President’s welcome, by Bede Sunter

Bede Sunter, president of the ASTC, opened the conference by with a concise description of the role of technical communicators: Supplying information of value. He briefly discussed the role of technical communicators and its relationship with the Plain Language movement. After welcoming everyone, he handed over to Pam Peters

Beyond words, by Pam Peters

The key note presentation was by Pam Peters, adjunct professor in linguistics at Macquarie University. Pam has contributed to a number of dictionaries and written style guides such as The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage. She introduced herself saying that she was here as a linguist who is increasingly interested in visual communication, and the visual dimensions of language as used for communication purposes.

Pam’s presentation discussed contrastive typography, its decorative uses, and most relevantly  its functional uses as a resource for communication. One example was the use of visuals to clarify architectural terms. These visuals may be as simple as a picture. Or they may be diagrams for showing the relationships between different terms. She showed us a tree structure to represent the classification of windows by their shape. Shape is just one of the ways in which we can describe windows. This was part of the “term bank” that Pam and her team are developing. Another example was a concept map, similar to a mind map or a data relationship diagram, showing the relationships between facets of sustainable architecture.

Pam discussed the benefits of tabular information: It is both wide band (a lot of information) and gives the reader control. The reader can decide what to focus on. She illustrated this with a table that Tufte had created for a criminal trial, showing the types of crimes committed by witnesses in the trial. Evidently this table had a big effect on the outcome of the trial. Other graphs showed the causes of death over a given timeline. Again, the graphs were created by Tufte.

Pam closed by saying that the visual elements are parallel methods of communication to the words and numbers. If you can use these elements meaningfully and strategically, you can become a multimodal communicator. This is the way everyone wants to go.

Keeping your customer happy – it takes more than words, by Elizabeth Abbott

Elizabeth Abbott is director of TechWriter Placement and Services. She mentioned that she gets lots and lots of feedback about the way her company’s contractors interact with clients. She stressed that this is a very important part of our job, for people who have permanent roles as well as contractors. The focus of Elizabeth’s talk was on understanding non-verbal cues: Listening to the customers, giving and receiving feedback, and body language. A good question to ask yourself, when dealing with a customer, is: “What can I do to make this person successful?”

Elizabeth’s talk was very informative, and given by someone who obviously has a lot of experience in this field and has thought about it and formulated her guidelines with skill and care.

A bit of everything – multiple platforms with minimal editing, by David Whitbread

Author of The Design Manual, David Whitbread presented a session on “a bit of everything”. This is something that most of us are doing these days. A big concern is versioning. By that, David means which version of the information are we delivering. How can we come up with one definitive version, or one definitive document, and then feed it out to the various media? This was the subtext of David’s talk, including metadata tagging and visual media.

David started with the capture and curation of content. Curation is a new term, but it is really what authors have always done. He talked about using podcasts as a way of quickly capturing information from subject matter experts. Within ten minutes, he has a good chunk of content. The lawyers with whom he’s been using this technique are very happy with this process, because it’s much faster than text capture and it gives the lawyers control over the content. Transcripts then provide the textual element. A similar process is used to reuse the presentations given by the lawyers at conferences.

Navigation and labelling are essential for helping people fin dthe information they need. Headings must signpost the information. Semantic tagging is useful for gathering related information and pushing it out in a different way. For example, you could label all headings as heading1, heading2 etc. You could also label all quotations as such. This is the metadata that is useful for sending out summaries, or content targeted at specific audiences, and so on.

David says that design is going to get easier, because now we’re designing the pieces of the document. How they will finally appear is determined by a number of factors, including the users’ choices, the output medium, the browser, the device, and more. Technology plays a big part in how design will become simpler. See the example of The Guardian mobile app. The source  files for the Guardian pages are scanned by the software, and it works out how to display the article for the app. The designers just go in and add the final touches. David recommends that we look at the reviews of The Guardian app, in CreativeReview and other locations. (Here is one that I found:

We want our messages to gracefully reflow to suit the technology of the user. The Guardian app is a great example of this.

David’s talk also skimmed over findability and accessibility, branding and marketing, websites and social media, and film and sound.

Workshops to webinars – the future of training for technical communicators? By Steve Moss

Steve Moss is president of the Technical Communicators Association, New Zealand (TCANZ). His session covered the strengths and weaknesses of webinars and workshops as training tools. The notes that Steve gave us in the conference workbook are very comprehensive indeed, and will be very useful for anyone intending to run such a training session. TCANZ has run over 60 workshops and webinars over the last few years. The presentation contained the tips and techniques that Steve and his team have learned about the process of organising and running workshops and webinars, with a focus on webinars. They have run five webinars since 2010, including sessions with presenters in the UK, US and New Zealand.

This was a very informative talk, covering all you need to know about planning and holding a webinar or workshop.

Off to lunch

It’s lunch time. More news from ASTC (NSW) 2011 in my next post.

Sydney technical communicators meeting at Atlassian on Friday 7 October

The next meeting of the Sydney CBD technical communicators group is on Friday 7 October. This month it will happen at the Atlassian offices and it’s all about agile methodologies. Can you come? Lunch is on the house!

Thank you to Bede Sunter for all his hard work in arranging these great monthly meetings. This month’s meeting will start with a short presentation, following on to an interactive story-telling session.

  • I will give a short presentation – a brief introduction to agile methodologies.
  • Giles Gaskell, another Atlassian technical writer, will host a Q&A session where people can talk about their own encounters with agile methodologies. The Atlassian technical writers will tell short stories about how we work with our agile development teams. Anyone else can share their experiences too.

Come prepared, if you’d like to tell us a tale of something that went well or not so well, share a technique, describe a sprint or just ask a question.

Date and time: Friday 7 October, 12:30 to 1:30pm.
Place: Atlassian offices, 173-185 Sussex Street, Sydney. (Google maps.) Come up the stairs to the boardroom.
Lunch: Free. Thank you Atlassian!
Who can come: Anyone interested in technical communication.
RSVP: Drop a comment on this blog post, and I’ll email you. (Your email address will not be published.)

Possum in the daylight

A rare sight: A possum out in the daylight. Spotted a few days ago.


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