Blog Archives

Invitation to a webinar about doc sprints tomorrow

Along with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) I’ll be presenting a webinar tomorrow, about doc sprints. It would be great if you can join us!

The webinar is titled Doc Sprints: The Ultimate in Collaborative Document Development. It’s full of information about planning and running a doc sprint, and how doc sprints are useful in developing the documentation our readers need.

As well as information gleaned when running doc sprints at Atlassian, I’ve included stories and tips from doc sprinters around the world: Anne Gentle, Swapnil Ogale, Ellis Pratt, Katya Stepalina, Andreas Spall, Jay Meissner, and Peter Lubbers. The stories are what make a good doc sprint awesome.

How to sign up for the webinar

Dates, times, and registration details are on the STC site: Doc Sprints: The Ultimate in Collaborative Doc Development.

Invitation to a webinar about doc sprints tomorrow

Oh, just so you know, it will be 6am here in Sydney. I’ll watch the sun come up while presenting the session. 🙂

STC Summit 2013 wrapup #stc13

Today is the last day of  STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. All the sessions are finished, and I’m wrapping up my blogging before getting on a plane. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Kudos and a big vote of thanks to Paul Mueller, Chris Hester and the STC conference committee for organising such a great event. From my point of view, the organisation was flawless. I had fun, learned a lot, met great people, and spoke my piece to my satisfaction too. All of those are thanks to the hard work of the organisers.

There were 80+ education sessions, spread over 7 tracks, as well as various workshops, demos, trade expositions, training sessions and social events. I’ve blogged about the sessions I attended. Please take the posting dates with a pinch of salt. My WordPress site is set to Australian time.

Because there were many sessions running concurrently, it’s not possible to attend them all. I also attended a progression (a sequence of short talks within the space of an hour) where the pace was too fast for me to take notes.

More sources of information

Kai Weber has published some posts about the conference. Knowing him, he’ll come up with more once he’s made the long trip back to Germany. See posts tagged “stc13” on Kai’s blog.

Twitter is very active at the moment. You can catch the tweets on the #stc hash tag. That feed will fade in a few days, when the Twitter search API times the entries out.

You’ll find a full list of sessions, along with information about the speakers and related links for each session, at the STC Summit 2013 site on

I’m sure the STC will publish a summary and more links soon. And there are other bloggers around too. Stay tuned!

For a touch of light relief: A report from the intrepid band of STC ghost busters.


At the opening session and keynote presentation on Sunday. The stage before the action starts:

STC Summit 2013 wrapup

The audience getting ready for the big event:

STC Summit 2013 wrapup

The keynote speaker was David Pogue, technology columnist for the New York Times and creator of the Missing Manuals series. At this Summit, David was awarded honorary membership of the STC. Here’s Alan Houser, outgoing STC president, with David Pogue:

STC Summit 2013 wrapup

David in full swing:

STC Summit 2013 wrapup

Intrepid ghost hunters on the Atlanta Ghost Tour:

STC Summit 2013 wrapup

Nope, not really convinced there’s a ghost around here, but we’re having fun anyway:

STC Summit 2013 wrapup

Thanks again everyone at stc13!

Data visualisation at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

This is the last session of the conference! It’s called Data Visualization: Seeing through the Numbers, presented by Phylise Banner. Phylise will also present some material from Rob Mitchell.

The most important map in the world

Phylise showed us a map of the Soho area of London. For the work we do as technical communicators, this is the most important map in the world.

John Snow, who lived in England in the 1800s. During the great cholera outbreak, he plotted the homes of the people who were dying. From this map, he was able to trace the source of the disease to the water source. The notion of relational data telling a story. As a result, the city owners took the handle off the Broad Street pump, and the outbreak stopped.

Ten questions we need to ask

  1. What story are you trying to tell?
  2. What actions do you expect people to take? Are you creating visualisations for a decision maker, an explorer, or whatever, and what actions will they take based on your data?
  3. What route will you take? Explore the data further. There are places where you can get data and explore it. Until you see what is there, you don’t know what you’re looking for.
  4. What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative data? You need to know the difference. Quantitative is numbers and values. Qualitative is descriptive data. Some data is both.
  5. Where does the data come from and what are the sources? Site your sources, and link to it if you want. Make sure it’s real, secure and correct. This may not be an easy task. Think about where else you can get it from.
  6. What tools are available? There are some really interesting and good tools available:
    • ManyEyes, from IBM. This is an online open tool, one of the best out there. Explore the data sets available here, as well as the visualisations. Be aware, if you put your data up here it will be visible to the world. Playing with this tool is a great way of learning. Read the section on data format and style.
    • Tableau Public is a free version of Tableau. A great free tool.
  7. What are the best practices? Best practices for working with data are different from those for working with visualisations. It’s not about being a mathematician or statistician, but it is about getting to know the field.
    • Read Stephen Few and Tufte.
    • Avoid pie charts. (This has come up in all three of the data visualisation sessions I’ve attended at this conference.)
  8. What to do with the data?
    • As an exercise, try comparing and contrasting the nutrition facts from difference restaurants. Phylise showed us three PDF files from various restaurants. How can you process a PDF file? You could try an OCR. But the first step is to decide the story you want to tell, then extract the relevant data. Type it into Excel so you can work with it.
    • Phylise showed us an Excel file where a single column contained 1 to 3 values, and occasionally text. This is the kind of mess you often get. So, you’ll need to clean the data before you can use it. This often takes up a large part of the task.
    • Learn regular expressions and Excel’s find/replace syntax, including wild cards. See
    • Code dichotomous variables to 1 and 0.
    • Pay attention to case. In qualitative data, a difference in case is a different variable.
    • Watch for invisible baddies! For example, spaces at the beginning and end of column. This expression is your friend: ltrim(rtrim(Field))
    • Watch out for ampersands. Use the word “and” instead.
    • Remember that 1.0 is not the same as 1. Check your character types,and watch your floats versus integers. When rounding, make sure you have a standard policy.
    • Watch for outliers – data points that don’t fit in with the data. You can decide to take these out, if they’re not important to your data. But think about what it means. The outlier may be what tells your story.
    • Beware of the acceptable leading zero. For example, there are zip codes that begin with zero. Make sure the data type is text, if relevant.
    • If you’re using comma-separated values, use quotes. Otherwise you’ll run into trouble when the data itself contains commas.
    • Write macros to clean your data, if you get the same data regularly. This is where technical communicators have the skill sets required.
    • Figure out what the data is saying. For example, in qualitative data, you may need to know how many times certain words come up.
    • Decide on the best way of representing the data. For example, to create a word cloud, you may need a document containing all the words, repeated the relevant number of times. Phylise showed us a case where it took her more than a week to clean the data, then 30 seconds to generate the word cloud.
  9. What is the context? What is around the data, and what do you want to say in the specific environment?
  10. What comes next? What other stories can you tell, and what new data can come from the data you have. You’ll never know this until you know the context of the data you have.

Some data to play with

Phylise shows us a list of data sources. They will be available on SlideShare. Here are a few I had time to note down:


Some I noted:

In summary

There’s data behind every visualisation. Unless you get to know the data, you’re just creating another picture. You can become incredibly valuable if you go for what it means to work with the data.

ManyEyes is a wonderful way to start.

A marketing communications career at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

I’m attending a session titled A Marketing Communications Career: Making the Transition. The presenters are Barbara Giammona, Vici Koster-Lenhardt, Rich Maggiani, and Eric Koup.

Summary of how marketing looks from the tech comm side

How does a technical writer move into marketing? Someone comes and asks you to write content for the website, or a proposal, or a document to solve a crisis.

Some technical writers aren’t comfortable with writing marketing content. We’re comfortable writing something we can touch and test.

Another way to come into marketing: Perhaps your manager offers to change your title to be tech writer / marketing communication. Or you move fully into marketing.

What’s different about the role: The messaging, advertising, understanding the corporate and internal communications messaging.

For the rest of the session, the panel answered a number of pre-set questions. These are my notes from the resulting discussions. I haven’t tried to put people’s names next to each reply, but rather just summarised the whole picture.

Key differences in attitude

Typically, technical writers focus on details. They may struggle with structuring and presenting something from a different strategic point of view. The ability to evaluate what’s important is key.

The skills of a tech writer can come into play, being able to simplify the language into just what you need.

Is marketing lying? To many of us, it does seem so. So we should think about the transition path, if we want to move into marketing. Choose what’s closest to what we want to do.

The target market changes from users to buyers, and the content therefore becomes much more strategical. As soon as you start on the marketing path, you become more visible.

The requirements from management are not as clear-cut in marketing as in technical communication. You need to know the wider goals of the organisation. This requires less time in front of the screen and more time in trying to understand the aim. This takes collaboration.

Personality types

Looking at the Myers Briggs personality types, what is the difference between a tech writer and a marketing communicator?

A marketing person will have more contact with humans. Take this into account, especially if you are more of an introvert.

A marketing person tends to be intuitive, and are more of a feeling person than a thinking person. Perception is a strong gift for marketing. If you’re too rigid, the transition would be difficult.

Even if you’re a strong introvert, you can still play the extrovert, and make sure there are times in between when you can recharge. If you’re an extrovert, you may want to go into management.


How would you go about taking the next step to getting into marketing?

You could be extreme, go back to school and get a degree, such as an MBA of marketing. Alternatively, do some certificate courses. Analyse your existing skills and see what more you need.

Volunteer for any project you can. If someone needs a newsletter, be the person who writes it.Newsletters may give you the opportunity to talk to higher management, and network with people you wouldn’t normally meet.

Look for volunteering opportunities outside the workplace too.

Set a clear goal of where you want your career to go. Then fill in the needs as you move along the path. Remember that your route to the goal may change along the way. Take it step by step.

Pros and cons, perks and challenges

Marketing is “way more fun” and “way cooler”!

Planning parties, making posters, organisational, project management… you’ll use all your skills. You’ll also work on more concurrent projects than you would as a tech writer. Emergencies happen, so you need to be fluid and juggle changes and concurrent projects.

It’s harder to plan vacation. Your work cycles are not based on the product release cycles.

You feel more part of the strategic plans of the company. You leap into a different track. You have a higher visibility to management. So you need to be sure you know what you’re doing.

Perks include travel. And you’ll make more money.

And you still get to write!

On the other hand, if you’re into tools, you’ll find that marketing is not about tools. It’s about communication rather than tools. Often the marketer asks someone else to do the design.

How do you break in?

The panel recommends the International Association of Business Communicators. They have the same kind of resources as STC, in terms of publications, knowledge banks, and job listings. They’re also very extrovert and welcoming. is a job aggregator that will give you a feed of jobs available.

An organisation called Melcrum focuses on the employee and internal communication, useful if you’re in internal marketing.

Networking inside your own company will find you opportunities. Network outside your company too, as you never know where the opportunity will come from. Talk to your neighbour, volunteer organisations, and so on.

Do some volunteering inside your organisation. Managers don’t have time, and hate, to do the marketing for the projects they’re working on. Network with your sales force (customer care). Ask them if they need help, say “I can write that”. Take people to lunch. There is tons of marketing communication coming from HR. Find out who is writing the newsletter in your company. There may be a great opportunity to improve it.

Questions from the floor

These are the notes I took during the question-and-answer part of this session:

  • When talking to designers and other people who produce the deliverables, have a vision of what you want. You don’t need to know how to use the tools. You just need to know what you want.
  • What about recent college graduates looking to break into marketing communications? College doesn’t prepare you for some realities in the working world. One is the iterative nature – you do things again and again. The review process, and the number of stakeholders who have a say on your work, can also be a surprise. It’s very collaborative. Every day at work is a group project. If you’re just coming out of college, find a place that offers an internship. Many places offer great interships, and there’s a variety of them.

Thanks to the panel

This was a good insight into what marketers do, and some different types of marketing roles. Thanks Vici, Barbara, Rich and Eric.

Engaging infographics at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Michael Opsteegh is about to present a session called Planning and Creating Engaging Infographics. I’m delighted to be here, having survived the Atlanta Ghost Tour last night and just two hours’ sleep.


Michael started by discussing the graph on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning. Like most of us, he looked at the chart but didn’t read the article. So the only information he got was from the infographic on the side of the page.

Infographics are a powerful way of making information accessible and showing the relationships between pieces of information. You can weave a story consisting of graphs, images and more.

This presentation will focus mostly on the presentation of data, rather than the maths. The focus is on planning and building charts, graphs and larger infographics.

Examples of infographics

We saw a number of examples, and Michael talked us through the plus and minus points.

Infographics can be very persuasive, and can convey a lot of information.A graph, for example, is easier to digest and remember than a lot of text.

Sometimes they are overused. As a result, some people don’t like them. Still, they’re overall very popular.

Infographics can also be fun. Michael showed us one based on a batman theme.

There’s also a lot of room for misrepresentation.

Uses other than selling products and services

You could use an infographic for your resume. A website called will produce an infographic based on your LinkedIn profile. But Michael recommends that you do the infographic yourself, rather than ending up with one based on a template.

There’s an infographic showing the wealth gap in America. It incorporates videos and charts, showing what people think the income difference is versus the actual situation. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to see who created the infographic. If someone isn’t prepared to acknowledge they created an infographic, then it may be difficult to trust it.

Skills required to create infographics

The creation of an infographic involves several disciplines. Michael has combined them into three areas:

  • Liberal arts: Your infographic needs to tell a story, and it needs to be interesting. Companies are looking more and more to creative people to differentiate their products and services.
  • Social sciences: You need some knowledge of human behaviour and cognitive sciences. How your infographic will be received and how to convey the information.
  • Mathematics. You need to recognise if you’ve misrepresented your data, and understand the basics.

What about graphic design? If you have the skills, that’s great. Otherwise, hire someone to do the design. You give them the information and the specification for what the chart should look like.


You need to be able to record your thoughts and ideas, and also questions you have. Michael finds Evernote very useful, because he can jot down notes wherever he is. Evernote syncs the notes from his phone, tablet, PC. You can also include photos, links, videos.

Excel is ubiquitous and powerful. Use it to sort your data and produce preliminary graphs, to help see what your information will look like. Use pivot tables to sort and filter data. Michael demonstrated how you can drill down into data via pivot tables, then generate a graph.

Illustrator or PhotoShop are useful, if you are going to design your own infographic. Michael recommends Illustrator, because it’s great for vector tools and also includes a graph tool.

Visualising data

Bar charts, which can be vertical or horizontal. These are good for comparing figures side by side.

Pie charts are OK for representing data as a whole, and the different percentages within them. But research shows that people aren’t capable of seeing the distinctions well. A doughnut chart is just like a pie chart, with the centre missing. This is even less useful than a pie chart, because you lose the angles at the centre. Bar charts are usually better.

Scatter charts are good for finding patterns in the data.

Line graphs are a little like scatter charts, except that you’re dropping the points at regular intervals.

An area chart is basically a line graph filled in. Good for demonstrating changes over time. The Wall Street Journal chart this morning is an example.

Venn diagrams show relationships between discrete objects. The overlap shows the shared parts.

Flow charts (pedigree charts) show hierarchy or workflows.

Pictograms or iconographs show set numbers. Michael showed a page with a number of figures of people. Each figure might represent 1 million, for example.

There are many other types, like radial charts and maps. See the Wall Street Journal’s guide to designing infographics. Also the Napkin Sketch Workbook by Don Moyer.


This is a critical stage. You need reliable and accurate data before you can move forward.

Identify your sources: must be current, reliable, non-biased.

Get permission to use the data. If a company conducted the research, for example.


This is where you decide what story you’re going to tell, and how you will tell it. Be aware, as you’re editing, that people will call you out if they find an anomaly or if they want to view it in a different way. So, play with different ways of viewing the data. See if there’s another way to tell your story.

Look for outliers in your data, and see how they affect the message.

What about rounding your numbers? Make sure you round at the end, after you’ve plotted the data. If you do it before, it will skew the graph.

If you’re going to place charts side by side, make sure you’re not comparing apples and pears. Make sure you’re using the right figures to illustrate a point. For bar charts, always start the axis at zero. For other graphs, if you need to start elsewhere make it very clear.

If you’re missing data, you may still be able to create the infographic. If you’re missing more than 2 points out of 10, then your infographic will not be reliable. Look at the data that’s missing and decide if it affects the perception of your story.


This is the most fun part. The point where you actually draw the infographic.

Make sure you’re staying true to the data. Remain aware of the maths involved.

If you’re plotting several graphs for the same infographic, you’ll need to wireframe them. A wireframe is basically a set of boxes or circles (in Illustrator) to represent where the bits of data will go. The advantage is that you can move the sections around, before actually drawing them. Look at where the infographic will appear, to decide whether it needs to be tall and thin, or wide and short. Make sure your dimensions are correct.


Make sure your infographic visually represents the data that it ought to. Get a couple of colleagues to take a look and give you feedback. Ask them if there’s anything that worries them.

Ethical considerations

Throughout the process, make sure you don’t misrepresent the data.

Remember: Correlation is not causation. Michael showed us to line graphs that could show that ice cream consumption leads to murder.

Make sure the story you are trying to tell needs telling, and that it will benefit the audience.


There was a lively discussion around accessibility. Michael recommends you put a textual description on the page, near the infographic. An alternative is the new “longdesc” attribute. Don’t use the “alt” attribute, as it’s intended for a short description.

Thanks Michael

Thank you for an informative introduction to infographics. I’m keen to get my hands dirty creating one!

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