AODC – trends, tools, technologies in online documentation

This week I’m attending the Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. Yesterday afternoon, Joe Welinske presented a session entitled “Trends, tools, technologies in online documentation”.

Joe is the president of Seattle-based WritersUA. Yesterday’s session gave us some good insights and discussion points based on the results of the WritersUA Skills and Technologies Survey. I’d recommend a quick look at the results on the linked web page.

General points

Here are some points from Joe’s talk which I found particularly interesting.

  • Looking at the user assistance skill set, a list of things we technical writers do — it’s a long list, though it does fit on one slide 😉 Joe asked us whether we had all done most of the things listed. I have, and I think most people had too, in the course of their careers in technical documentation.
  • Tools — Adobe controls 60% of the tools we use. Madcap Flare’s market share keeps growing.
  • Skills we need for online documentation — include technical geeky things like XML, XSL, XHTML, DITA as well as the core skills like HTML, CSS, graphics etc.
  • How we get training in these skills — 64% from on-the-job training. 22% by learning on your own. This confirms my own experience.
  • Publication media — More than half of the respondents said that they preferred printed manuals! Also, 83% indicated Adobe Acrobat, which is close to printed manuals. Embedded user assistance is on the rise.
  • IBM is working towards replacing Eclipse Help with DITA Help.

Analysis of help in Microsoft Vista

Joe walked us through a very interesting analysis of user assistance in Vista, as a method of divining Microsoft’s direction for the future of help in Windows and their idea of best practice.

HTML Help was first released in 1996, and updated in 1998. Since then it has kind of stagnated. Yet it’s still Microsoft’s recommendation for online help development.

The online help in Vista:

  • Presents in a single window — no separate panel for navigation bar / table of contents.
  • Has no index.
  • Uses search as the main navigational component. This may work if the search is good, but is tiresome if you get too many hits.
  • Includes a lot of rich information. Microsoft is not going for minimalism in their documentation.

Also, Vista embeds a lot of traditional help content right on the UI, as text on the screens. The goal is to make help unnecessary wherever feasible. This means that technical writers must be involved in the UI design. We must be able to put ourselves forward at design time and say, “This is something I’m really good at.”

Other developments technical writers must be aware of

Technical writers and communicators need to keep in touch with new developments and philosophies, such as:

  • Mashups — integrated, unrelated applications, which will need online documentation of some form or other.
  • Web-based API documentation — growing demand. Google is a big employer of technical writers in this area.
  • Custom devices — OLPC (One Laptop per Child), PDAs, phones, other mobile platforms. How can we deliver documentation that works on these platforms?
  • Structured authoring — affects a growing number of technical writers. Joe sees this as the most important concept for us to learn about. It affects our roles and production process. The author works in a form-based environment, putting the content into pre-determined pigeonholes. Presentation is separate and automated.
  • Web 2.0 — collaboration and the ability of our readers to interact with the content. We need to wrap our heads around what this means for documentation.

My conclusions

Thank you Joe for a great overview. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Joe in the next few days of the conference.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 14 May 2008, in AODC, online help, technical writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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