Sunday, September 21, 2014

Inspiration at the 14th STC India Conference (Day 1)

What better way to start this post, but with a good news and bad news scenario? The good news was that this time, STC was back in Bangalore, closer home, after a gap of over 3 years. I’ve been attending these conferences regularly since 2008, when it was held in Pune. So there was no need to worry about which new language I had to learn. The crowd in Bangalore wasn't as big as it was in 2009. Over the course of these two days, I went about furiously filling the 20 page notepad with as much information as I could.
And the bad news?
My handwriting hasn't improved since the last conference. See - Delayed Notes. It seems to have become so bad that I'm considering engaging a linguist to identify what language it is!
Day one started with what we can call an STC record for the shortest welcome note! Thanks to this, we were actually ahead of schedule for most of the day.
Sairaj Vaithilingam, Asst Vice President and Global Head of Cognizant Interactive, was the chief guest and spoke about how he’s moved up since starting his career as a Technical Writer. He spoke about how 3 things.
  • Who are we? (Dang!)
  • Change (Not the kind that jingles)
  • Innovation (He confessed that this had to be part of any presentation)
He asked the audience why technical writing existed in India. Was it because it made sense to co-locate documentation with development, or was it because technical writing is a core business function? Currently, it is the former. What did he think tech writers needed to be considered the best?
  • Strong fundamentals in technical writing concepts
  • Ability to constantly add business value
  • Consultative capability that include domain, business and product knowledge
And to be the best, every technical writer should aim at being in the top 3 percent of an organization.
How could technical communicators get there? By innovating. He cited the example of the Tata Nano. The engineers had to build the car after considering the cost of every screw. If it took 2 screws to fasten something, engineers had to think how the same task could be done using just one screw (or get screwed!). The same logic can be extended to technical writing to improve productivity, quality and presentation.
Parth Mukherjee, was not just another keynote speaker from Adobe. His presentation was both informative and delightful. It was studded with statistics and wit. If there was any marketing done, it was done very tastefully.
  • He started with 3 ways to look at the future; as a writer, reader and marketer.
  • He talked about three implications that consisted of an expanding world where people migrated to different parts of the world and 3% of the population, being born in different place from where their parents were.
  • Everyone has an ROI (unless they were a liability in the first place!)
  • We will work in groups. He talked about an interesting experiment by Penguin where 1500 writers and editors worked together to write a collaborative blog. See Million Penguins
  • See Coke’s vision of using content in Coke 2020
  • Attention spans are reducing. Keeping users engaged is becoming more difficult
  • The impact of how hand held devices are penetrating the market and the importance of adaptive content
  • Provide context and user sensitive content
  • Multimedia will replace text. He cited an interesting example of a video that talked about increasing reading speed!
  • Use global English, keep it concise and be consistent with terminology
  • I loved the way he came back full circle at the end by urging the audience to view things as a writer, reader and marketer.
Everyone has their favorite list of speakers. Some have favorite topics and still others have favorite organizations when it comes to selecting a paper. But what do you do when you can’t decide which session to attend because all of them promise value. You’ll have to pull out your hair when they are scheduled to present at the same time … in different rooms! That's why choice isn't always good! When you delve on it, you realize that you should actually be paying only 30 percent of the conference fees ;) I wish I could be at 3 places at the same time! Anyway, I chose to demystify myself on search. Here are some notes I jotted down.
  • Improving search involves optimizing your website for keywords, tags, introductory text, the home page, links and content structure
  • Search optimization efforts can be monitored using checklists and analytics
  • Topic hierarchy should follow a pyramid structure. This reduces the chances of duplication
  • Users must be able to get to any topic within 3 clicks
  • The pyramid structure has the home page at the top of the structure, followed by overviews and finally the tasks, concepts and reference topics
  • Any effort to improve search improves usability while maintaining content structure
  • It’s important for you to adapt to your user’s preferences, search terms and keywords than to teach them to learn to use what you are using
  • Discussed barriers to indexing.
  • Identify keywords users use and work them into your content
  • Establish the relative importance of each page. How far a page is from the home page determines its relative importance
  • Back links and breadcrumbs have proved to be invaluable in search. Well linked topics appear higher in the search results.
  • Do not use jargon, irrelevant keywords. Do not create a long list of keywords. The recommendation was 1 or 2 keywords per 500 word page.
  • Search engines focus more on text within special tags. This includes page titles, topic titles (H2 and H3) and Introductory text. Ensure that these are accurate, contain search terms and are descriptive enough
  • Search engines only understand text. So it’s imperative that media content is translated to text for it to be picked up by Google’s (or other search engine) spidermen!
  • Tags to be used depends on the markup being used.
  • Using the Alt and Desc tags not only ensures accessibility of your content to the differently abled, but also improves search
  • Statistics show that the introductory text is more important than the title. While 30 percent of users decide to go to a page by looking at the title, 45 percent do so by looking at the introductory text that is populated along with the title on the search result page
  • The first 25 to 30 words determine if a user is going to click the link or not. Make it count!
  • Work your keywords into these 25 to 30 words.
  • Home page could contain links to often done tasks, getting started links for new users, high level topics, tutorials, scenarios that familiarize users to your product. Could also contain links to troubleshooting topics
  • Group links into logical units. Do not cram links into a page
  • Important to link related topics. Link concepts to tasks and references.
  • Create mini table of contents instead of long TOC
  • A sitemap makes it easier to rank relative importance of pages
  • A page must contain 300-500 words. Studies show that such pages are found higher up in the 'pecking order’.
  • Ensure that there are no broken links, content is easy to navigate, non text matter contains descriptive text and no duplicates
  • Search analytics should give you search terms and phrases used by visitors, topics browsed, topics that cannot be found by the search engine
  • Submit help system URL to search engines
  • Use search engine webmaster reports to improve searchability
  • Net Insight was one of the analytic providers mentioned
  • To the question, how soon can I start to see results, the answer was that after submitting content it would take 3 to 4 days. However, you’d want to wait for at least 2 weeks before you check for results.
  • Meta tags are no longer relevant and are ignored by search engines.
The highlight of the conference, to me, was the opportunity to meet Pranav Lal, a visually impaired freelancer (can’t call him a writer, he dabbles in so many things!), from Delhi. Again! I met him during the 2010 STC conference in Delhi and was amazed at how he manages his disabilities. I’m still inspired. And the lack of sight is not his only handicap. He’s got the use of only one hand and it’s incredible what he’s done with that. He doesn’t even use a cane. I did try to warn him every time we were nearing a flight of stairs, but soon realized that I didn’t have to do so. He walked a little behind me and sensed my movements (up or down) and just followed suit. He’s incredibly creative, extremely knowledgable and articulates like a dream. Now add the sense of humor. On this trip, in addition to attending the conference, he’s working with an entrepreneur in Bangalore to build software that converts visual information to sound solution. He showed me his glasses that come equipped with a camera and earphones. Plugging this into a laptop allows him to ‘hear’ what he does not see. Images as seen by the camera are converted to sound on the laptop and then played back to him via the earphones. He's described this in a couple of blog posts you can access from his Linkedin profile above. But wow! You should see him handle his phone. He’s got an app that reads stuff out to him as he presses each button on his phone. He just holds it to his ear and thumbs a few keys. And he’s so efficient that he had already saved my number along with my name before I could even unlock my phone!
Adobe made selecting a track easy for those who seemed to have an overdose of tools. The panel discussion moderated by Francisco ran to a packed audience. Nobody knew what the topic was. But everyone believed Francisco would ask some uncomfortable questions. But he didn’t. However, he may have made some folks in the audience squirm. Lesson learned: Wait for the mike, however loud you may be. Especially when Francisco is moderating. Don’t say you are loud enough. Or you’ll end up hearing comments like “Poor husband”!
On hindsight, some of the members of the panel could have been selected with a little more care. Just like the questions. Because most of the answers were clich├ęs. And you can’t blame the moderator for that. Some of the questions discussed were
  • What skill-sets do you look for when you hire a writer
  • What advice would you give a new writer (By ‘new’ I mean still unpacked!)
  • Comments on the Job hopping trend
  • Smart work vs Hard work
  • 3 tips for managers
  • Team-players or individual contributors
It would have been an interesting exercise to crowd source questions BEFORE the event.
Chitra Udayakumar presented a session on improving end user documentation. This was focused on industrial automation.
  • The purpose of automation is to reduce human interaction and cost/li>
  • It’s widely done in precision industries that include chemicals, manufacturing, power plants, etc
  • Typical problems include inability to find specific information, difficulty finding relevant information quickly, inaccurate or missing information
  • Recommendations included conducting user behavior analysis, establish target users, efficient design, use of wikis, multimedia, documentation standards and custom support portals
  • Enabling search filters helps users get to relevant content easily
  • In addition to more visual and interactive content, augmented reality was identified as a future trend. See how BMW is using augmented reality. (Pranav mentioned that this reminded him of Google goggles.)
And then it was time for some minimalism from Indumathi :)
We looked at a definition, what it aimed to achieve, some principles and what was required for minimalism.
  • Emphasis is on doing rather than knowing
  • Provide context for information
  • Focus on problem solving
  • Ensure content is easily and quickly accessible
  • Benefits included lesser translation costs, consistent content that can be easily migrated to structured writing and less review time
  • Make use of what the user already knows
  • Use help from marketing and customer support
  • Explain the task, not the feature
  • Structure information, organize content
  • Use flow charts, images, videos
  • Define content standards and templates
  • Avoid using adjectives and adverbs. Ensure brevity
  • Use only one way to do a task, even if there were many ways.
  • (Alternate methods could be provided in troubleshooting content)
  • Ask yourself
    • Do you know the user’s objectives?
    • Can you understand what’s documented in the first reading?
    • Can you write it simpler?
    • Can you navigate to it easily?
  • Test Usability
  • It takes longer to write less (unless it has 20 pages!)
  • Focus on quality, not on quantity
Producing Role and Task based documentation was presented by IBM's Neeti Suktankar and Attaullah Syed.
  • They started with discussing why we need role and task based documentation.
  • Looked at the evolution of software and how it created today
  • From being developed in silos for a discrete set of users, it is now being integrated and used by different users who have different goals.
  • Users need documentation that addresses customer scenarios and that is role and task based
  • Place the user role at the center of documentation
  • Helps users with a starting point and is geared to learning and education, not just problem solving
  • User classification based on user goals
  • Derived from business scenarios
  • Make use of access levels and user capability
  • Map tasks to roles. Work with PM to identify roles, task flow
  • Do this as early in the development cycle
  • Each task must be separate, independent and have an owner
  • Each task must be linked to a stand alone help topic
  • At least 5 to 7 tasks are required to justify a workflow
I liked the example where users could determine what help document to see based on what certain criteria they could select. Example, to install a software, if you select the operating system, the database, etc, different documents are generated based on the selections you make.
Adriane's Thread for Content was the last session of the day. It was a well organized and presented paper by writers from Dell.
  • It started by a short animation to refresh writers about a story most of us had learned in school... and then feared dark rooms.
  • The main components of the story was then compared to different aspects of technical writing (Why they didn't compare the minotour to an SME, I'll never know)
  • The roll of thread turned out to be the style guide
  • Has the style guide evolved as fast and as frequently as the tools, process and deliverables in Technical communication?
  • One of the main challenges was that organizations followed different standards when it came to internal departments. Thus tech pubs was using a style guide that was not the same as that used by marketing or corporate communications
  • The team did a study on this and tried to get a global perspective by asking questions on Linkedin groups and to writers across the globe
  • A major disadvantage of archaic style guides was that the content became style guide centric instead of being user centric
  • On the other hand, new age style guides used consistent style across different channels and scenarios and helps maintain one brand voice
  • Emphasis on usable and brand conscious publication
  • Depending on how much time is available for a review, checklists must be prioritized.
  • It is always important to prioritize legal sanctity of a document (unless you aren't concerned about getting your ...well, let's just call it a certain part of the anatomy... sued!)
  • There are three levels of checks, integrity check, copy and style check and comprehensive check
  • Split your style guide into usable chunks for different documentation requirements
  • Maintain a glossary of accepted terms
  • Form a 'style board', on rotary ownership
  • Form a terminology review board that is separate from style board
And there was evening and there was morning - the first day.
(For the uninitiated, the last sentence is lifted directly out of the most printed book in history.)
Watch out for day 2's proceedings shortly. Especially, for news from China!

1 comment:

  1. This article, like many others in this blog was first published on TWIN. I've decided to move whatever's left of my articles so it's all in one place.

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