WritersUA 2009 day 3

Yesterday was the third and last day of the WritersUA 2009 conference in Seattle. It was been a full and interesting day, just like the other two! Here are my notes on the sessions I attended on the last day.

These are the sessions covered below:

  • Exploring open source and alternative tools
  • iPhone design and development overview
  • Magic and mental models: Using illusion to simplify designs

Exploring open source and alternative tools

This was a joint session, present by Paul Mueller, president of UserAid, and Mike McCallister, author of openSUSE Linux Unleashed among other accomplishments. The session focused on how you can develop high-quality user assistance using open source tools.

First Paul gave us an overview of the different categories of tools available: Desk top publishers and editors; graphics editors; multimedia recorders; HATs; version control and data backup; remote access; webinars and concalls; collaboration; bug tracking; reviews; web services; email management.

For each category, he gave us a list of possible tools, including commercial and free. He also touched on the considerations when choosing a tool e.g. does the output deliver a standard file; does the output meet the company requirements; how many users need access, and so on.

Paul mentioned Google Docs as something we should follow. The US government is evaluating this option.

He gave us many tips for specific tools, and I just jotted down a few that interested me particularly.

  • Some free tools for multimedia recorders: Wink; Audacity for podcasts.
  • Free PDF generators: Acrobat.com; CutePDF
  • Free webinars: Acrobat.com (allows screensharing for up to 3 people); InstantConference.com (free for up to 150 users; allows you to record).
  • Free chat: IM with SIMP at http://www.secway.com (free and secure)
  • Coding tools: HomeSite with TopStyle is Paul’s tool of choice ($100; http://www.adobe.com)

Mike McCallister now took over to demo some of the open source tools. He did a great job of a difficult task: demoing five open source tools in a short session. All the tools that Mike demonstrated will run on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Here are my notes on some of what Mike showed us:

  • OpenOffice Writer: By default, Writer writes to ODF. Any other software should be able to read it. (Microsoft Office not yet, but promised by this autumn.) Includes a direct PDF export. List numbering works very well. “No surprises ever.”
  • OpenOffice Web gives you cleaner code than Word.
  • Scribus open source desktop publisher — You create your document in another tool then publish it with Scribus. You can do simple text in Scribus, but the rest is authored elsewhere and imported. Mike really likes it for short manuals and quick reference guides.
  • LyX is the GUI for TeX and LaTeX. Created for UNIX. WYSIWYM — “what you see is what you mean”. Has a great equation editor. Complete separation of content and presentation. The documentation is terrific too. Terminology is slightly different. A template is called a “document class”. A style is called an “environment” and is strictly enforced by your class.
  • The GIMP is a terrific raster graphics editor. It does layers, takes screenshots, and is now beginning to support the CMYK palette. You can even create styles for layers. It supports the standard scripting languages and has many useful plugins. It covers the more obscure uses for a graphic editor πŸ˜‰ The main issue is that the terminology is a bit different, which can be a problem when moving from PhotoShop to GIMP. GimpShop attempts to bridge the gap by translating the terminology, but it’s not up to date.
  • Inkscape is a vector graphics tool. Outputs standard W3C XML. Has some smart objects to help with flowcharts. Inkscape includes a built-in IM support client that sends you straight into the Inkscape support team chat room! Inkscape has its own XML editor so you can add/adjust attributes etc.

Lastly, Mike gave us a link to a resource providing a list of open source tools and downloadable files: The OpenDisc.

iPhone design and development overview

Christopher Z Garrett of ZWorkbench is an iPhone developer. He discussed the steps you should take if you’d like to start developing iPhone applications (apps) and demonstrated some apps with good and bad features.

Here are my notes from his session:

  • Many major brands are now wanting to be on the iPhone platform, such as the big social networking sites.
  • Some interesting statistics just received from Apple: 30 000 000 iPhones and iPod touches sold; 25 000 iPhone apps on the AppStore; 800 000 000 app downloads.
  • To develop for the iPhone, you need a Mac as well as an iPhone. You cannot do iPhone development on Windows.
  • Tip: Review as many apps as you can — at least 100 of them. Start learning what works and what doesn’t work, and learning the user interface.

Christopher took us through a couple of applications, without being too critical. To do this, he put a phone on an overhead projector and showed his actions in real time:

  • Amazon have released a couple of apps that are less than optimal. Christopher demonstrated the Amazon shopping app. When viewing the wish list, you cannot scroll up and down by flicking. The row of items on your wish list actually scrolls horizontally, and there is no indication that it does this. This breaks the Apple standards. The search is also non-standard, in that it overlays the current page.
  • You need to make sure you stick with the Apple mobile phone standards in your app design. Even if the Apple web site works differently from the iPhone, or if you are tempted to follow the conventions on your own company web site, you should rather follow the iPhone conventions.
  • Looking at the USA Today app: when you ask to see today’s hourly forecast, it asks if you want to launch weather.com. This will close the app and open Safari. This looks as if USA Today has just been too lazy to include the weather. Instead, they should embed web content inside the app, so that it opens in a separate window within the app.
  • Another app: Trapster (finds speed traps) requires a long and painful signup process. Most of the time, as an iPhone app, you really don’t need a signup process because there’s no need to keep track of the user in order to store settings.
  • Trapster also presents lots of text to read. Remember, you’re supposed to be using this app while driving.
  • So the message is: Read the Apple user interface guidelines and follow the conventions used in most apps.

Christopher also showed an example of good help for an iPhone app: A Tower Defense game. The help shows screenshots and very simple instructions. Very little text.

Next Christopher showed him some of his own apps:

  • The Oxford American Dictionary is one of his clients, for whom he has created an iPhone app. The dictionary on the phone contains 350 000 entries, i.e. the entire dictionary is stored on the phone. It took a lot of effort to get the app to react fast, finding the words as you type. When designing the browse interface, he imitated the way a normal dictionary (i.e. a book) works. First he looked at other dictionary apps on the iPhone, to see their mistakes.
  • Next he showed a game his sister developed. The help is very simple. It says things like “Whack me”, “Shake me”, etc and then rewards people by saying “Good job” if they get it right. Accompanied by cute pictures. This is ideal help.
  • Christopher’s favourite app is Ocarina. This app allows you to turn your phone into a musical instrument. It has a world view that is totally cool. You can listen to what other people are playing over the world. It picks people at random. You can press a heart button to send them love. The app is really simple, but the instructions are more complex because turning a phone into a musical instrument is complex. They’ve done everything they can to make the instructions simple. The help also tells you where you can see some examples. And it has a video tutorial.

So there’s absolutely a need for user assistance on a platform like the iPhone. But we don’t need lots of text. It’s a very different kind of need.

Magic and mental models: Using illusion to simplify designs

This was the last session of the conference, and it was a blast. Under the pretence of educating us about the relationship between user assistance design and magic shows, Jared Spool showed us some very convincing magic tricks and had us rolling in the aisles.

And yes, he did convincingly illustrate the relationship between magic, mental models and user assistance design!

Here’s a picture of Jared asking Joe Welinske, president of WritersUA, to gaze into the distance while the rest of us looked into the spinning disk that Jared is holding:

WritersUA 2009 day 3

WritersUA 2009 day 3

After we had gazed into the spinning disk for a count of ten, we all looked at Joe and burst out laughing. His head was expanding! Of course, poor Joe had no idea why he was suddenly the object of such mirth.

The reason for Joe’s expanding head: Your eye muscles start to fight the motion of the spinning disk. When we looked at Joe, our muscles needed to relax because his head wasn’t spinning.

Jared’s theme was perception: how people’s perceptions differ depending on circumstances, and how we can take advantage of this fact when designing user assistance material.

Here are my notes. Look out for the long-running magic trick that Jared conducted during the session πŸ™‚

  • Jared was introduced to magic when his son has become a professional magician. Jared realised that the process of putting together illusions is very similar to the things we talk about when putting together great user assistance designs.
  • A mind-reading trick: Jared tried out a trick that he’d heard about. Unfortunately, he’s missed the first part of the session where this trick was explained, but he thought it would work anyway. He picked a member of the audience (Amy) and asked her to think hard about her favourite type of food. Then he concentrated and wrote diligently on a piece of paper. When he asked Amy what she had thought of, she said pizza. He looked disappointed and crumpled up his piece of paper, saying, “I guess I should have been there at the beginning of the training session.”
  • Next he tried a card trick. He displayed a number of cards on the screen and asked us all to choose one silently. Then he displayed 5 cards, saying that they would exclude the cards we had chosen. We were all amazed that our cards weren’t there. Actually, his second display was of 5 other cards that were not in the original set at all. Reason this works: We were focused on choosing a card, not on the set of cards. Our mental model was different to his.
  • In the same way, a user’s mental model is often different to the designer’s model.
  • Good magicians make a trick interesting even to people who know how it’s done, because they think of new ways to do it or because they do it so gracefully. That’s what illusion is about: Creating two separate models and maintaining them separately.
  • Storage of files on disk, and deletion of files, is all an illusion. There are no actual files on disk, just a series of zeroes and ones.
  • Flickr URLS are not representative of how the data is actually stored. But they give the illusion that they are.
  • Back to the mind-reading trick: Now Jared asked Chris from the audience to think of his favourite colour but not say it out loud. Again Jared wrote something on a piece of paper, then asked Chris to tell us the answer: “Orange”. Jared responded, “Damn it, I really should have been there at the beginning of the session.”
  • This is where Jared did the trick with the spinning disk and Joe’s expanding head, shown in my photograph above. So, the way we perceive things is important.
  • Perception of time is especially problematic. For example, put a progress bar on a screen to show people what’s happening. Even if the progress bar actually slows down the processing, people will perceive it as faster.
  • Perceived performance time is based on success of task completion rather than on actual download time. Time goes slower when it’s painful.
  • Designers can make use of a user’s perception, e.g. by starting a task as soon as possible (e.g. video streaming) so that there’s no painful wait.
  • Proximity is really important too. Don’t disperse the information or input fields. For example on a login screen, don’t separate the username, password etc.
  • Trying his mind-reading trick again, Jared now asked another audience member, Bob, to choose a card. Bob chose the ace of hearts. Again, Jared got it wrong.
  • So we took a look at the Kano model: At some point when designing a product, you cannot keep raising user satisfaction by adding new features. But you can aim for a sense of delight. It does not even have to be anything big. Just an excitement generator.
  • Guess what, Jared’s mind-reading trick had actually worked. Towards the end of the presentation, he showed us crumpled up pieces of paper where he had actually written “pizza”, “orange” and “ace of hearts”! The trick is that he had actually written them in reverse order, starting with the ace of hearts which came from a pack of cards consisting entirely of the same card. So he wrote “ace of hearts” when pretending to read Amy’s mind, then he wrote “pizza” during Chris’s turn, and he wrote “orange” for Bob.
  • This trick produced delight in us, his audience, because he had managed it in the middle of his presentation.
  • An example of delight: In iTunes, your iPod nano will show up as an icon with the correct colour and model, reflecting your very device. Attention to detail.
  • Jared noted that in order to get the “delight” part right, you need to get the basics right first.
  • A concept that is key to design: People like to have magic in their lives.

Other people writing about the WritersUA conference

Rhonda Bracey has written some great summaries on her blog. Here’s her latest blog post. And here’s the WritersUA 2009 Conference Blog.

Happy reading about this excellent conference!


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 3 April 2009, in open standards, technical writing, WritersUA and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Can I just mention that Linux is not an acronym, so probably shouldn’t be capitalised “LINUX”. Also, LaTeX and TeX are the proper capitalisations.

    Sorry about that. πŸ˜‰

  2. Thanks for the extensive recap. You mentioned HATs as a category in the open-source tools session. Did they cite any? I know of one that is no-cost, but none that are open-source.

  3. Hallo Jeremy and Janet, great to hear from you both!

    Jeremy thank you for those corrections. Much appreciated πŸ™‚ I’ve fixed them up in the blog post.

    Janet, Paul did mention some tools which are useful for help authoring, as potential alternatives to RoboHelp, Flare etc. The two free PDF generators I mentioned above were part of the solution he discussed. In addition, he mentioned MIF2Go and WordToWeb (these two are not free); HelpMaker, and Macros & HTML Help Workshop (free). Thank you to Paul Mueller for this very useful information!

  1. Pingback:   What makes a technical writer tick? by Communications from DMN

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