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AODC 2010 wrapup

A couple of weeks ago I was in Darwin – ya know, that place where evolution started. ;) It’s a bit warm up there. The insects are the size of Sydney’s birds. The spiders are the size of Sydney’s fruit bats. Crocodiles lunge out of the drains and grab your ankles. Technical writers lurk under banyans swapping tales of DITA, dragons and eggcorns.

I was attending and presenting at AODC 2010, the 13th Australasian Online Documentation and Content conference. This is the third AODC conference I’ve attended, and all have been awesome. Tony Self, the organiser, has the knack of selecting interesting topics. More than a knack, I suspect it comes down to lots of hard work. The speakers and attendees alike are knowledgeable and enthusiastic technical writers, making for a great all-round experience.

The sessions

This year’s conference spanned three days and eighteen sessions. I attended every single session, even the one that started at 8am on Thursday! I’ve written summaries of most of them, as linked below:

These were the sessions I didn’t write notes for, or where my notes are too disorganised to compile a blog post from:

  • Networking. This happened on the first day, and was a lot of fun. We divided into groups, based on random criteria devised by Tony, had a quick chat with our group then hustled to form the next groupings based on even more random criteria.
  • The Wonders of SVG, by Tony Self.
  • WinANT Echidna – The DITA Open Toolkit Made Easy, by Tony Self.
  • A Walk through Google Apps, an interactive session led by a panel of experts.
  • Creating Auto-Magic TOCs with XSLT, by Dave Gash.

Fun and networking

The conference is infused with fun and liberally sprinkled with grains of Tony’s inimitable humour. At one stage early in the proceedings, when Tony was introducing a session, a ribald and fairly loud comment came from the back of the room. Tony’s response was instant:

“For the new people: That’s Choco. Please ignore him.”

Of course, in real life Choco is a professional and dedicated technical writer and author. He’s also entrusted with the important task of presenting the final AODC session.

Here we’re looking uncharacteristically studious, waiting for one of the sessions to begin:

AODC 2010 wrapup

AODC 2010 wrapup

At one stage Tony announced, “There’s gold class seating at the back. We bring you your tea and coffee if you sit there.”  True enough! Here’s Dave in said gold class seating. I don’t think the tea or coffee ever materialised though:

AODC 2010 wrapup

AODC 2010 wrapup

On Thursday night we all trooped down to the famous Mindil Market. The market is one of Darwin’s not-to-be-missed attractions, happening every Thursday and Sunday evening during the dry season. The thing to do is to grab a meal and a smoothie from the market stalls, then mosey on down to Mindil Beach to watch the sunset. You may recognise a few AODCers in these silhouettes:

AODC 2010 wrapup

AODC 2010 wrapup

If you’d like to see more pictures and words about Mindil Market and Darwin, take a look at what the Travelling Worm has to say. He was there at AODC too, strictly under cover of course. He did valiantly stand between me and a crocodile or two.

Uncle Dave’s Trivia Night

No AODC conference is complete without it. I’ve devoted a whole blog post to Uncle Dave’s Trivia Night.

More photos on Flickr

I’ve uploaded a set of AODC photos on Flickr. If anyone has any more photos, please add a comment to this post, linking to your photos. I’d love to see them!

See you at AODC 2011

I’m looking forward to next year’s conference already!

AODC Day 3: I can’t spell Ambliance!

Last month I attended AODC 2010, the Australasian Online Documentation and Content conference. We were in Darwin, in Australia’s “Top End”. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting my summaries of the conference sessions, derived from my notes taken during the presentations. All the credit goes to the presenter. Any mistakes or omissions are my own.

Frank “Choco” Munday presented the last session of the conference. Choco is an awesome presenter. It’s something of a tradition (the AODC has a few of those) that the conference ends with a raucous laugh. Choco excels at putting that sort of finishing touch to an event!

AODC Day 3: I can't spell Ambliance!

AODC Day 3: I can't spell Ambliance!

In this presentation, we looked at some horrors that technical writers may encounter and indeed should do our utmost to avoid.

Eggcorns

“Eggcorn” is a linguistic term for the practice of replacing a complex or scientific term with a more commonly-used word, especially when people swap the unfamiliar part of a phrase with a word that occurs more often in their own dialect. An oft-quoted example is the use of “old-timers disease” instead of “Alzheimer’s disease”. Wikipedia says that the term “eggcorn” was coined by Geoffrey Pullum in 2003, based on a case where a woman used the phrase “egg corns” when she meant “acorns”.

Choco was specifically concerned with “eggcorns” as spell-as-you-speak errors.  He took us through a rollicking and somewhat scathing look at a number of eggcorns, such as:

  • “Should of” for “should have” – a frequent occurrence in Australia.
  • “At your beckoned call”.
  • “For all intensive purposes”.
  • “I think I might be lack toast and tolerant” for “lactose intolerant”.

Choco showed a number of examples from print and online media, and lambasted them thoroughly. It’s well worth getting him to run through his list with you.

Mixed metaphors

Next Choco turned his eagle eye to mixed metaphors. Politicians were worth their weight in gold here.

Choco said, “I would slip one or two into my technical documentation, just to see what happens”. (Mixed metaphors, that is, not politicians.) :)

Unwords

Unwords got some Choco love too. Choco suggests we take a look at the Unword Dictionary at unwords.com.

So I did that. Here’s an unword I like:

19. bandpulliphobia (bănd-pu’lə-fō’bē-ə)

  1. a. (n.) The fear of pulling off a band-aid; Especially when counting down from three.

Remembering that we were attending a serious technical writing conference, Choco did mention with a straight face (for a split second, anyway) that unwords are words that are not really words, so there’s a chance that people won’t understand them. We should therefore avoid them in our technical documentation. I was glad of this reminder, as I was starting to feel the temptation. ;)

My conclusion

A fittingly boisterous end to AODC. Fun, but with a serious undertone. Thank you Choco.

AODC Day 3: Help Authoring Tool Comparison

Two weeks ago I attended AODC 2010, the Australasian Online Documentation and Content conference. We were in Darwin, in Australia’s “Top End”. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting my summaries of the conference sessions, derived from my notes taken during the presentations. All the credit goes to the presenter. Any mistakes or omissions are my own.

Matthew Ellison presented a number of excellent sessions at this conference. His Friday session was called “Help Authoring Tool Comparison”. He discussed what a help authoring tool (HAT) can do for us as technical writers, then did a detailed comparison of a few popular tools.

What a HAT can do for you

HATs hide the complexity and allow you to concentrate on the content. You don’t need to worry about coding and scripting, conditional tags and other mechanics under the hood.

HATs produce some very nice output, such as browser-based help (WebHelp), PDF and many other types. On the whole, HATs produce the tri-pane output format of online help. If that’s what you need, they make it very easy to do.

They provide help-specific features such as context sensitivity, indexing, dropdowns and related topics.

You can also use HATs for single sourcing.

In summary, HATs cater to our specific needs as technical writers.

Things that may count against a HAT

HATs tend to be proprietary and non-standard. For example, a HAT that supports DITA may not use compliant DITA. This may mean you’d find it difficult to migrate to a different tool. It’s a trade-off between the ease of use and the loss of flexibility.

Compared to a full CMS with XML management, HATs offer limited facilities for content re-use and content management.

Examples of HATs

Matthew emphasised that all the HATs he discussed are excellent tools. His presentation covered the following tools, which are the most popular of the HATs available:

  • Adobe RoboHelp (also TCS2, which contains a slightly different version of RoboHelp that offers better integration with FrameMaker)
  • Author-it
  • ComponentOne Doc-To-Help
  • EC Software Help & Manual – a really nice tool.
  • MadCap Flare
  • WebWorks ePublisher – This tool has been around a long time. It’s not an authoring tool, but rather converts content from one format to another.

Matthew gave us a list of the features that almost all HATs have in common. Then he discussed some criteria for selecting a HAT, examining a number of tools and analysing the strengths and weaknesses of each tool. He covered the following aspects of each tool:

  • A short description of the tool
  • Workflow
  • UI and usability
  • Key strengths
  • Key weaknesses
  • The tool’s own help

I didn’t have time to take notes on everything covered in the presentation. Here follow the notes that I did take.

Adobe RoboHelp

RoboHelp stores its content as XHTML. You work on topics, basically one topic per file. RoboHelp publishes to a number of different formats. The output to AIR Help and WebHelp are very good indeed.

I found this point interesting: If you want a printed document, Adobe recommends that you write your documents in Microsoft Word and link them to RoboHelp as the publishing engine. When printing, print the Word document. For other output formats, publish via Robohelp. You can print directly from RoboHelp, but the output is not great.

If you have TCS2 RoboHelp, you can link FrameMaker documents in the same way as Word documents. FrameMaker gives you a much richer print capability.

The RoboHelp UI and usability are good. RoboHelp goes to some pains to retain a Word-like UI (pre-2007 Word). The UI for linking and importing is not so good.

Other notes:

  • You cannot share resources (stylesheets, icons, snippets) across multiple projects.
  • The download file is very large.
  • RoboHelp’s own help is not all that great, chiefly because it contain features that you cannot create from RoboHelp itself. The information is also not very well structured.

Author-it

Author-it stores its content in a single library in the database. You can connect to your own database: SQL Server or JET / SQL Server Express (free). On the minus side, Author-it stores the content in a proprietary rather than a standard storage format.

Author-it offers a very powerful capability for content re-use.

You can publish to a number of different output formats. All print outputs are generated via Microsoft Word. This can be seen as clumsy and a problematic dependency. It does produce excellent Word documents.

The UI is very complex, requiring a steep learning curve. It has a very modern look and feel.

Author-it has a number of capabilities, probably the longest list of all the HATs. Some of the add-ons are very powerful, such as authoring memory which tracks duplicate content. It has good support for localisation. Another feature offers web-based authoring too.

The help system is pretty good, and is recognisably generated from Author-it itself. It’s also mirrored on the web, so you can find the information via Google too.

ComponentOne Doc-To-Help

This is the original HAT. Originally the idea was to work in Word and convert to Doc-To-Help. But now you can also choose to edit in XHTML using the Doc-To-Help WYSIWYG editor.

To create styles, you actually create Word .dot files. At first use, this seems a bit odd. Doc-To-Help generates CSS from the .dot files.

It also has a database where you can store metadata.

Doc-To-Help offers a number of output formats.

The UI has improved over the years. It’s a professional-looking, ribbon-based UI.

Doc-To-Help has some cool features, such as the ability to create relationships between topics, similar to the way Author-it does.

It also integrates with Microsoft Sandcastle for documenting class libraries based on comments in the code.

Doc-To-Help’s own help is good.

EC Software Help & Manual

Help & Manual has a very nice WYSIWYG editor, where you edit in XML. It has its own DTD.

It imports content nicely. If importing from Word, save to RTF first. There’s no FrameMaker or DITA support.

The UI is very nice. Of all the tools, it’s the easiest and most comfortable to use (even though ribbon-based). The UI is driven by the table of contents. It offers a simple user experience, yet there are some good advanced features which you can find if you look for them.

One great advanced feature is the skins that you can use to achieve consistency across projects. You can also share resources, such as style sheets, across projects.

MadCap Flare

All editing in Flare is in XHTML, using the WYSIWYG editor.

Flare does a very good job of producing print and help output formats. There’s also a WebHelp Mobile output

You can input DITA, as well as other formats.

The UI is fairly easy to learn, but has some stumbling blocks. You do need to understand CSS to get the most out of it.

Flare has the most excellent help system Matthew has ever seen.

Offering your users the ability to collaborate on your help pages: As an add-on, you can buy the collaboration module so that users can comment on the topics and read each others’ comments.

WebWorks ePublisher

Note that ePublisher is not an authoring tool. There is no editor. You use it to publish content from Word, FrameMaker or DITA to a large number of output formats.

ePublisher offers a large number of mappings that you use map from your input styles to your output styles.

The UI and usability is slightly confusing. There are actually two products involved. ePublisher Express is very simple. That’s the one you use to publish the output. ePublisher Pro is where you create the mappings, and the UI is more complex.

The WebHelp output is not very pretty or professional. The TOC (table of contents) output is fixed by the TOC of the source document.

ePublisher’s own web-based help, published on a wiki, is just bad. On the other hand, the local help that you get when you install the product is much better.

Final comments from Matthew

Always test drive with real data before buying a tool. All the products discussed in this presentation are great tools!

My conclusion

This was a very thorough and in-depth analysis of the features, strengths and weaknesses of the most popular HATs around. I didn’t have time to take enough notes to do it justice. In particular, Matthew showed a useful workflow diagram for each tool. Thank you Matthew for another great presentation.

AODC Day 3: Introduction to DITA Conditional Publishing

A couple of weeks ago I attended AODC 2010, the Australasian Online Documentation and Content conference. We were in Darwin, in Australia’s “Top End”. This post is my summary of one of the sessions at the conference and is derived from my notes taken during the presentation. All the credit goes to Dave Gash, the presenter. Any mistakes or omissions are my own.

This year’s AODC included a number of useful sessions on DITA, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. I’ve already written about Tony Self’s session, an update on DITA features and tools, and about Suchi Govindarajan’s session, an introduction to DITA.

Now Dave Gash presented one of the more advanced DITA sessions, titled “Introduction to DITA Conditional Publishing”.

At the beginning of his talk, Dave made an announcement. He has presented in countries all over the world, many times, and he has never ever ever before done a presentation in shorts!

AODC Day 3: Introduction to DITA Conditional Publishing

AODC Day 3: Introduction to DITA Conditional Publishing

Introducing the session

To kick off, Dave answered the question, “Why do we care about conditional processing?” One of the tenets of DITA is re-use. You may have hundreds or even thousands of topics. In any single documentation set, you probably don’t want to publish every piece of the documentation every time.

Conditional processing is a way to determine which content is published at any one time.

Dave’s talk covered these subjects:

  • A review of DITA topics, maps and publishing flow
  • The use of metadata
  • The mechanics of conditional processing
  • Some examples

Metadata and the build process

Dave ran us through a quick review of the DITA build process and the concept of metadata. Metadata has many uses. Dave talked specifically about metadata for the control of content publication.

Metadata via attributes

There are a number of attributes available on most DITA elements. These are some of the attributes Dave discussed:

  • audience – a group of intended readers
  • product – the product name
  • platform – the target platform
  • rev – product version number
  • otherprops – you can use this for other properties

Example:

<step audience="advanced">

Using metadata for conditional processing

Basically, you use the metadata to filter the content. For example, let’s assume you are writing the installation guide for a software application. You may store all the instructions for Linux, Windows and Mac OS in one file. When publishing, you can filter the operating systems and produce separate output for each OS.

In general, you can put metadata in these 3 locations (layers):

  • maps – metadata on the <map> element. You might use metadata at this layer to build a manual from similar topics for specific versions of a product.
  • topics – metadata to select an entire topic. You might use metadata at this layer to build a documentation set for review by a specific person.
  • elements – metadata on individual XML elements inside a topic. You might use this metadata to select steps that are relevant for beginners, as opposed to intermediate or advanced users.

Dave gave us some guidelines on how to decide which of the above layers to use under given circumstances.

Defining the build conditions to control the filtering

Use the ditaval file to define the filter conditions. This file contains the conditions that we want to match on, and actions to take when they’re matched. The build file contains a reference to the ditaval file, making sure it drives the build.

Dave talked us through the <prop> element in the ditaval file, and its attributes:

  • att – attribute to be processed
  • val – value to be matched
  • action – action to take when match is found

A hint: You can use the same attribute in different layers (map, topic and element). Also, you don’t need to specify the location. The build will find the attributes, based on the <prop> element in the ditaval file.

Next we looked at the “include” and “exclude” actions. Remember, the action is one of the attributes in the <prop> element, as described above. Here’s an example of an action:

<prop att="audience" val="novice" action="exclude" />

Dave’s recommendation, very strongly put :) is:

Don’t use “include”. Stick to “exclude”.

The basic rule is: Everything not explicitly excluded is included.

Dave’s final recommendation

Go get DITA and play with it!

My conclusion

It was great to have a focus on the conditional publishing side of DITA. It’s something I haven’t had a chance to get into before. Now I know the basics, which rounds off the DITA picture for me. Thank you Dave for an entertaining and information-packed talk.

Update on DITA Features, Tools and Best Practices

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave’s Trivia Night

Over the past few days I’ve posted a number of sober, studious, serious summaries of the sessions at AODC 2010. “A three-day technical writer talk fest, yawn.” Not so! On occasion we do break out and indulge in a trivia night. ;)

Uncle Dave’s Trivia Night is an AODC tradition. It happens in the evening of the conference’s second day, usually a Thursday, and attendance is compulsory. Well, it’s as compulsory as anything at AODC. It ranks up there with the AODC rules, read out dutifully by Tony or Dave at some random time during the conference. “No swearing”, “no mobile phones” and “no hooking”. Almost all the rules are merrily ignored.

Anyway, I digress. (Digression is of course encouraged at AODC. I would win a bonus point for it at Trivia Night.)

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

The Trivia Night trophy is of incalculable value and much coveted. It’s a fully automatic, magnificently functional antique shoe shiner. You can get some idea of its value from the way Tony holds it as he shows it to us awe-struck trivia devotees:

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

Of course, the winning team gains the privilege of having their name engraved on the trophy for all eternity:

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

Dave Gash is the intrepid compiler of the questions and the hero of the night. Here he is, introducing the first round (of questions, that is, though beer was well represented too):

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

We divided into teams of four or five. (Numbers are approximate, just like quantum physics.) I was in the best team of the night. As you will see, we excelled throughout and in every way. To begin with, we chose the name “Team Rocket”. Judging from Tony’s expression when we announced our name, it was not a good choice. And so it turned out. Tony deducted a point from our score immediately, for a poor choice of name!

Tony is the judge, final arbiter and awarder of points. Scrupulously fair, benevolently strict, unfailingly impartial and completely incorruptible, the judge responds well to a free beer or any other suitable bribe.

The other teams were the “Mindel Maniacs” (boo, hiss), the “Dribbling Scribblers” and the infamous, annually-sprouting “Farkin Iceholes”.

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

The trivia quiz consists of 5 rounds, each containing 8 questions. Then there’s that final, 41st question where fortunes are gambled, lives are won or lost, and strategy is all. You can wager all or part of your total score on that single last question. If you get the answer right, the number of points you wagered is added to your score. If you get it wrong, the number is deducted from your score.

Round 1 came in with a bang. Team Rocket scored a big fat zero. We also lost a point for being slow. We did temporarily gain a point because our team name had become amusingly ironic. Alas however, in the face of our judge’s unmistakable disappointment at the original name, we had sneakily changed it to “Pocket Rockets”, so we lost another point for that deception.

To our utmost surprise and no little pleasure, Tony then awarded us a round of drinks. “Why?” came our started cry. As encouragement, was the reply. Our total score was now -3 points + 4 drinks. I think I lost count somewhere along the way.

During the proceedings, the Dribbling Scribblers lost a point for attempting to bribe the judge. The amount offered, 50c, was considered demeaning.

By the end of round 3, the Pocket Rockets (aka Team Rocket) had managed to bring our score up to the grand total of zero. In round 4, we scored 7 points (wow!) and gained a bonus point by bribing the judge with some jelly beans:

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

And now the decider! It was time for that all-important, win or lose last question. Our total score was 13-and-a-half. The Dribbling Scribblers had 16. The Mindel Maniacs (boo, hiss) had 22-and-a-half. The Farkin Iceholes (it got funnier and funnier through the evening as Tony and Dave tried to pronounce this name politely) had 24.

Strategy is all. We wagered 13 points, got the final answer wrong, and ended up with a grand score of half a point. The Mindel Maniacs (who?) were the only team who got the answer right. They won the contest with a total of 42 points.

Here’s Dave with the winning team (what was their name again?) and the magnificent trophy:

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

Here’s Team Rocket (aka the Pocket Rockets) proudly displaying our prizes for coming last. We were instructed to look disappointed, but only Matthew could pull that off:

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

Wanna know what we won? A coaster, a pen and a sweet. The sweet was an afterthought:

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

AODC 2010: Uncle Dave's Trivia Night

Dave paid us the final accolade:

You played a hell of a game!

I think he meant it sincerely. ;)

The end (but not really)

If you came here looking for the serious side of technical communication, you’re in the wrong place. Ha ha, just kidding. I’ve already posted a number of summaries from this great AODC conference and there are still a few more sessions that I want to write up, including my own. Coming up just as soon as I find the time to convert my notes into blog posts.

Uncle Dave’s Trivia Night was an experience to be remembered. Thanks to Tony and Dave and all the AODC triviaphiles.

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