Technical Communication UK 2013

The Technical Communication UK (www.technicalcommunicationuk.com) 2013 conference was in Bristol, 24-26 September. Mike Unwalla reports on the presentations that he attended.

Fame, glory, and tech comm

Speaker: Sarah O'Keefe, Scriptorium (www.scriptorium.com)

The purpose of technical communication is to help a business to achieve its objectives.

The purpose of technical communication is not primarily about these things:

Sarah says that frequently, technical communication does not support business objectives. I agree. Sometimes, customers tell me that they need a large user manual. After I learn about their business, I think that a minimalist user guide is sufficient. Sometimes, I tell them that the alternatives to software documentation are a better option.

To make a good argument for getting equipment or training, a technical communicator must know the key performance indicators that are important to managers.

Sometimes, technical communicators are too worried about costs. For one technical publication project, the expected cost was 2 million US dollars. However, that cost was not a problem to the organization, because the saving was much larger than the cost.

To make technical communication add value to a business, make the content publicly available.

Think about the users and about the business.

Addicted to meaning: mental models for technical communicators

Speaker: Kai Weber (http://kaiweber.wordpress.com)

Meaning changes information into knowledge.

"There is no meaning but the one created by the user."

A website that has 1500 FAQs is useless. I agree. Frequently, FAQs are an excuse for bad design. Some years previously, I removed the FAQ page from the TechScribe website. 'FAQs: do better solutions exist?' explains the reasons.

We create meaning by comparing the current situation with a previous experience. Our experience is in our mental models.

Kai showed a picture of a restaurant. Kai thinks that most people in the audience know what to do in a similar restaurant.

Next, Kai showed a picture of an outdoor café. Again, most people know what to do.

Next, Kai showed a picture of a sushi bar. Plates of food were on a conveyor belt. Kai said that he does not know what to do. He has many questions:

Frequently, a designer's mental model and a user's mental model are different, although the thing that the models are about is the same.

People are addicted to meaning. If we cannot find meaning, we invent things such as conspiracy theories and mondegreens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondegreen).

Meaningful user assistance is applicable, friendly, and gives good explanations. A technical communicator must help users to 'connect the dots'. Include reasons, and give knowledge.

The challenges of remote management

Speaker: Andrew Morse, Picis (www.picis.com)

Many companies in the UK let employees work from home.

In the UK, people with children and people who are carers have a legal right to ask their employer to let them work from home (www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/595/regulation/2/made).

Some remote workers work from home all the time, and some work a few days at home and a few days at work.

Before an employee starts to work from home, an organization must prepare. For example, who is responsible for the hardware? How does an employee get technical help? What occurs if a computer has malware? What occurs if the employee becomes sick?

Ideally, an organization has policies for remote employees in the same way that it has policies for employees who work in the offices.

Health and safety is important. An employer is responsible for an employee's safety.

Communication is important. Managers must make communication as easy as possible. Meetings must be regular and include all applicable employees. Have team meetings. Also, have meetings between only the employee and the employee's manager.

Usually, a good Internet connection and a VPN are sufficient to give access to resources such as the company intranet, project documentation, source-control systems, and software that must be documented.

Data security is important. Encrypt all data. Destroy printed documents at the end of their useful life. Regularly back up data.

In an international organization, these things can affect a team of remote employees:

The organization must evaluate the employee's performance. Typically, during the first weeks of working from home, an employee is not as efficient as later. Ideally, the employee's manager has experience of working from home.

When you recruit a new employee who will work from home, make sure that the person has a good attitude to remote working. Some people work better in an office that has other people.

'Letting go' is never easy. Always have a face-to-face meeting.

When I wrote this review, I found 'Personnel security in remote working', which gives much useful information about remote working (www.cpni.gov.uk/advice/Personnel-security1/Remote-working/).

Digital accessibility: strategy, content and delivery

Speaker: Léonie Watson (http://ljwatson.co.uk)

Accessibility is important for 2 primary reasons:

In the past, accessibility was about people who had physical and cognitive disabilities. Now, the emphasis is on accessibility for all users. People use different devices. Devices have different screen sizes.

People suffer from temporary disabilities such as earache or a broken arm.

One person in the audience said that all people need accessible documents. Fighter pilots are some of the healthiest people in the world, and they need accessible documents. If the typeface in a document is too small, the pilots will damage their eyes.

The principles of accessibility are applicable to both agile methods and to waterfall methods of project management.

These guidelines help to make documents accessible:

Communicating the Bristol innovation story

Speaker: Alastair Watson, Science City Bristol

Science City Bristol exists to promote Bristol and the adjacent area to companies, investors, and academic people.

When people think about the Bristol area, they do not usually think about its technology companies. Alastair gave some facts about the Bristol area. For example, companies in the Bristol area develop the second largest number of designs in the world for silicon chips.

Although Science City Bristol uses many methods of communication, social media is the primary method of communication.

Alastair's presentation was very interesting. As an alternative to my writing a review here, I suggest that you read the website: www.sciencecitybristol.com.

Simplified Technical English: overview of ASD-STE100

Speaker: Maria MacDonald, UK Council for Electronic Business (http://www.ukceb.org)

In 1986, the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA) released the first version of the AECMA Simplified English (document PSC-85-16598).

AECMA became ASD. The adjective technical was added to the title of the specification. Simplified English became Simplified Technical English. This change of name was very important. Now, people know that Simplified Technical English is for technical information, and not for other types of writing.

The specification is ASD-STE100. The 100 is a reference to ATA Spec 100, which is a specification for the format and the content of technical manuals (https://publications.airlines.org/CommerceProductDetail.aspx?Product=33).

Simplified Technical English is a controlled language. Typically, in Simplified Technical English a term has only 1 meaning and only 1 part of speech. For example, the term check is approved as a noun, but not as a verb.The specification includes terms that are not approved, and suggests alternative approved terms.

A writer must use only words that are approved in the specification or that are Technical Names or Technical Verbs. Therefore, users must specify the approved terms that their organization has. The development of a glossary is important.

Simplified Technical English has a set of writing rules. Examples of rules are as follows:

ASD-STE100 is available from the ASD Simplified Technical English Maintenance Group (www.asd-ste100.org).

For more information, refer to 'ASD Simplified Technical English'.

Common technical data solution

Speakers: Nigel Wright, Steve Foster, Ian McGill, Rolls-Royce

The speakers are in the civil aerospace division at Rolls-Royce. They spoke about technical publications for large engines.

Old method of document production at Rolls-Royce

The primary problems with this method were as follows:

The method was slow. Typically, there were 1 or 2 revisions each year.

The team developed an interactive electronic technical manual (IETM). After 7 years, the team decreased the amount of paper to zero and increased the speed of delivery.

Don't manage: lead

Speaker: Paul Ballard, 3di Information Solutions (www.3di-info.com)

Management is about changing the behaviour of people. A manager administers, but a leader innovates. A manager maintains, but a leader develops. If you are happy with your work, then you do not need to become a leader.

To become a leader, stop managing everything and stop delivering everything. You do not have sufficient time to do everything. Do the things that give you an opportunity to lead. Delegate other tasks.

Speak with people whom you do not know. As a minimum, speak to your manager and to the people who read your documentation. Identify and speak with people who support you and with blockers.

Paul gave some useful guidelines:

Leadership is about creating the ability to deliver. Leadership lets you change a good idea into a reality.

When culture meets content

Speaker: Andrew Peck, Clearly Stated (www.clearly-stated.co.uk)

One day, Ali was sad. The doctor told Ali that Ali was not a good Muslim because he did not pray sufficiently. Andrew explained that when the doctor spoke about '5-a-day', he meant vegetables, not prayers. In many Islamic countries, the term 5-a-day makes people think about prayers. In the UK, the term 5-a-day makes people think about vegetables.

Andrew worked in Oman. He told this story to show the problems of communication between people who have different cultures.

In the UK, many people and organizations are 'culturally sensitive'. For example, "Muslims don't drink alcohol. We must not show a picture of a bottle of whisky."

Frequently, this 'cultural sensitivity' is not useful, because the people who think of the things not to do or not to show are outsiders. They know little about the real feelings and beliefs Muslims. Only negative stereotypes exist. "They don't do X, so we cannot show Y."

Cultural mistakes have the same effect as bad grammar and bad spelling.

In an experiment, Andrew used a group discussion to learn about the culture of people in Oman. Things such as family, friends, and the equal treatment of foreigners were all very important. The perspective is positive, unlike an outsider's negative perspective.

Read more about Andrew's research in his MA dissertation Images in Context: Analysing the Changes made to an EFL Coursebook in an Omani Context (http://www.linkedin.com/in/clearlyandrew).

Using social media to communicate with farmers

Speaker: Louise Manning, Royal Agricultural University (www.rau.ac.uk/the-rau/academic-staff-profiles/school-of-agriculture/louise-manning)

In the UK, farmers are isolated. Typically, they are far from other farmers. In the UK, farm workers have the largest suicide rate of all workers.

To improve the farm industry, farmers must communicate with each other. They must access new information and learn about new methods.

Statistics from DEFRA show that in 2013, 86% of farmers had access to a computer. In 2012, 29% of farmers had a smartphone, and 89% of those farmers used the smartphone for business. However, 6% of farmers use a dial-up service to access the Internet.

Social media is a good method of keeping in touch with neighbours, but social media will not replace direct communication.

Phone apps, satellite technology, and communication tools can give farmers knowledge about things such as costs, weather, and pest control. Satellite navigation systems are used for self-steering combine harvesters. Nutrient mapping let a farmer apply fertilizer only where it is necessary.

Louise suggests that "social media is the new farm gate." A problem is the lack of high-speed broadband. However, farm communities are doing things for themselves. For example, a farmer puts an antenna on a hill to let all people in the community benefit from access to broadband.

Technical writing in energy and resources: risks and opportunities

Speaker: Dr Robert Illes, Opal Flame Consultancy (www.opal-flame.com)

In an engineering project, subject-matter experts usually write the documentation. Frequently, the quality of the writing is not good. The focus is on the engineering concepts, not on the quality of the text.

If an engineering organization uses a freelance technical writer, there are both risks and opportunities for the organization and for the technical writer. For example, possible risks to the organization are as follows:

However, most risks can be decreased. Everything that is a risk is also an opportunity.

Read Robert's presentation slides on www.opal-flame.com/RI_TCUK13_slides.pdf.

Using technology to simplify export documentation

Speakers: James Monk, Business West (www.businesswest.co.uk); Penny Underwood, i2i

Each year, Bristol Chamber of Commerce supplies more than 35,000 certified export documents.

Typically, export documents have these features:

Typically, for each shipment, more than 20 export documents are necessary. An error in an export document can cause fines and delays. Sometimes, goods are not let into country.

In a survey in 2011, 50% of businesses did not have much experience of how to export. Exporters did not know where to get help. People did not know what export documents were necessary, because different export documents are necessary for different countries and for different products.

To help organizations to export, Bristol Chamber of Commerce worked with i2i to develop an online system that creates export documents. Previously, the export documents were sent to the import location before the goods. Now, export documents can be supplied electronically. Previously, to create the export documents for a shipment, 4 to 5 hours were necessary. Now, only 5 to 10 minutes are necessary.

Patterns in language for POS disambiguation in a style checker

Speaker: Mike Unwalla

My presentation slides: www.techscribe.co.uk/ta/patterns-in-language-tcuk-2013.pdf.

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