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 www.designcrowd.com, www.freelance.com 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 (m.parliament.uk). 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!


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 28 October 2011, in ASTC, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for sharing this, really wish I could have made it along. Think I still owe you a hot chocolate for your advice to me earlier this year so just say the word if I can lure you out to Max Brenner! 🙂

  2. Sarah – thank you for your reporting from the conference. Here is the link to my slidedeck: http://www.slideshare.net/charles_in_oz/using-illustrations-in-technical-communications

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