More than words: ASTC (NSW) Conference 2011

Sydney opera house

The following article was produced for and published in the ISTC Communicator, Winter 2011.

The ASTC (NSW) Technical Communication Conference was held in Sydney on the 28th and 29th of October with around 60 attendees.

The theme of the conference ’More than words’ was chosen to reflect the fact that although words are important, there are many other skills and tasks required for effective technical communication. The sessions across the two days reflected this theme, with everything from agile development to illustrations, and webinars to wikis.

Conference keynote

The keynote presentation on Friday morning was by Professor Pam Peters, Adjunct Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University. This session covered practice and research in a number of areas where formatting can be used in print and online materials to improve the readability and accessibility of technical and scientific writing. Areas included text formatting such as utilising different typography and styles to highlight information; how fully justified text inhibits a user’s ability to read the text, and the importance of reducing the complexity of sentences.

Other ways of communicating information were also presented such as the use of photos to tell a story, and graphs and illustrations to convey meaning across space and time. There were interesting examples of different attempts to provide context for terms and definitions, such as tree representations, concept maps, ontologies, and horizontal relationship diagrams. The idea is to provide ways of making new terms accessible to users with no knowledge of a particular field, or for whom English is a second language.

Working practices and standards

A number of the sessions focused on techniques for working in projects or with clients. In ’Keeping your customer happy’ Elizabeth Abbott provided a number of hints and tips for working with customers. Most importantly, don’t argue with the customer even if you know better!

Julie McKibbin gave a presentation on project management including a practical group exercise to plan the preparation of a roast dinner. What was surprising was the variety of different ways a roast dinner could be planned, and how many teams resorted to McDonald’s as a backup plan!

There was a strong focus on standards with the presence of Working Group 2 who scheduled their meeting alongside the conference. In addition to a Q&A panel with four of us from WG2, Annette Reilly provided some best practice from the ISO/IEC/IEE 26512: 2011 Requirements for acquirers and suppliers of user documentation International Standard in her presentation on ’Winning proposals for documentation’.

I had the first presentation to give on the Saturday morning ’Agile development – a guide for writers’ which included best practices from ISO/IEC 26515 Developing user documentation in an agile environment, in addition to my own experiences with agile, both good and bad.

A bit of everything

David Whitbread presented ’A bit of everything – multiple platforms with minimal editing’. The presentation covered a range of techniques for creating content for presentation in different formats. In his work he needs to extract information from very busy solicitors. The answer to this was to get the solicitors to quickly record the information in the form of a podcast. This podcast material could then be reused to create a transcript and other written content. Another example demonstrated was the use of interactive PDFs for presenting offline but navigable content.

James Robertson gave an inspiring presentation on ’Delivering surprise and joy to staff’ with examples of where serious companies have added joy into their employees lives through well designed, smart, collaborative, and even fun intranets.

Wikis and webinars

Steve Moss described his experiences of using both face-to-face workshops and webinars to deliver education, including the pros and cons of each approach. Steve also discussed the issues around running a webinar, such as choosing webinar software and the planning steps required to run a successful webinar. It was clear from the presentation that webinars are an excellent way to deliver education and have a number of benefits such as significantly reduced costs and the potential for global participation. It is important to have a plan B in case the technology goes wrong though!

A presentation each was given by on using Confluence by Sarah Maddox and Paul Watson including workflows for using a wiki, collaboration, and creating PDF content.

Illustrations and wordless instructions

Charles Cave presented best practices on designing illustrations to use in technical information, including styles, the use of callouts, ordering, and flow charts. He also advocated the use of video for explaining steps. Many of the issues raised by Charles were also highlighted in Richard Hodgkinson’s presentation on Wordless Instructions. Richard’s presentation covered the story of how wordless instructions were designed, developed, and tested for one of IBM’s typewriter products. The story also highlighted the pitfalls of inadequate instructions leading to damage to both the product and the users!

Death by PowerPoint

The final session by Frank ‘Choco’ Munday was guaranteed to wake anyone who had been sleeping in the conference. Choco didn’t advocate the need to throw PowerPoint away like some, but instead provided tips (well commands actually) on what not to do in a PowerPoint presentation!

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