Technical Communication UK 2009

The Technical Communication UK ( 2009 conference was in Derby, 22-24 September. Mike Unwalla reports on the presentations that he attended.

Topic-based authoring: getting your feet wet

On Tuesday, Greg Urban and Linda Urban gave a two-part workshop about topic-based authoring. Both parts were excellent. In the morning, the presenters discussed topic-based authoring.

Topic-based authoring is not new. For example, in 1998, Linda learnt about topic-based authoring at HP. Information Mapping is a type of topic-based authoring.

Frequently, topic-based authoring is structured writing. However, structured writing does not need to be topic-based. For example, DocBook is designed for structured writing, but the structure is for a book. Structured writing conforms to a pattern.

'Modular content' means that content can be used more than one time. Modules can be large or small, for example, chapters, or sentences.

Topic-based authoring is important to DITA, but it is not equal to DITA. You can write topic-based documents without DITA.

Topics can have different 'types'. For example, typical topic types in DITA are concept, procedure, and reference. A particular topic type can contain more than one information type.

In the afternoon, many practical exercises helped me to improve my skills with topic-based authoring. I enjoyed the day very much.

Keynote address: Smart authoring for a smarter planet

More than 1000 people work as information developers at IBM ( Peter Anghelides ( spoke about IBM's documentation. The documentation has 4 features:

Peter thinks that in the future, technical authors will create less documentation for consumers, and more documentation for technical people.

Pattern language for information architecture

According to Wikipedia (, a pattern language is "a structured method of describing good design practices, within a field of expertise."

Matthew Ellison ( explained that the concept of 'pattern language' started in architecture (A pattern language, Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein). Alexander explains that each pattern identifies a problem that occurs many times, and gives an answer.

For example, think about an area in which to wait. The problem is that the process of waiting has some conflicts. The answer is to create a situation that makes waiting a good thing. Give people other things to do during the waiting time. For example, supply newspapers or coffee.

Matthew gave examples of how patterns can be applied to the design of user interfaces:

You cannot design the patterns. You find a good pattern by monitoring what gives good results and what gives bad results. You can specify the patterns in different ways. For example, you can use pattern statements, or a style guide.

If you can write an article, you can write anything

Kim Schrantz-Berquist explained 5 different methods that help to make text clear and interesting (

Migrating to XML: from legacy content conversion to authoring

Autodata ( has approximately 150 employees in 7 countries. In 2008, sales were £13 million.

Gabriele Ostermaier said that in the past, Autodata used different markup methods to create repair manuals. The limits of markup are as follows:

To improve the production process, the technical authoring team wanted to use XML. The team had 2 options:

The technical authoring team decided to create the documentation in-house, instead of outsourcing the task. However, the schema design was outsourced.

The technical authoring team used 8 temporary technical authors who were trained on the job. The temporary technical authors changed legacy documentation to XML. Some of the conversion was done with VB scripts, but the technical authors had to make sure that the output was correct.

The technical authors changed more than 136,000 files in 16 languages.

The conversion was a start for continuous development. The primary lesson that the team learnt was that they did not use sufficient metadata.

Visual attention: a psychologist's perspective

Chris Atherton's presentation was one of my favourite presentations. Chris is interested in how the brain is related to thinking, perception, attention, and memory. She says, "Your brain is lazy."

Most technical communicators think that many lines of text on a presentation slide is not good. Chris explained the reason.

Chris discussed some principles of Gestalt grouping. She showed the following picture.

Three rows of three dots are arranged into a nine dot square.

Chris asked us to solve the following problem. Put a pen on one dot. Without removing the pen from the paper, draw 4 straight lines that go through the dots. A dot can have only one line through it. A line can go across another line.

I did not find the answer, but the answer is simple.

Cognitive load is the amount of work that is necessary to learn something. The 'intrinsic cognitive load' is dependent on the topic. The 'extraneous cognitive load' is the additional work that is caused by the learning environment. Good instructional design decreases the extraneous cognitive load.

In practice, to decrease the extraneous cognitive load, give different parts of the brain different jobs at the same time. Written language and spoken language are processed in one part of the brain. Pictures are processed in a different part of the brain. Therefore, when you speak and use presentation slides, make sure that each presentation slide has only a small amount of text, or a small amount of text and a picture.

To learn more about how to give a good presentation, see 'Finite Attention Span' (

Authors don't do publishing

Steve Cripps spoke about one publishing company, in which approximately 30 technical authors used a mix of FrameMaker, InDesign, Microsoft Word, and PageMaker. Management wanted to use structured writing. Some technical authors did not want to use structured writing.

Steve explained how the company did a 6-month trial. Two technical authors and the support team used a small CMS and Arbortext Editor. The technical authors were not responsible for the appearance of the documentation. Therefore, the technical authors did not need a WYSIWYG editor.

The results of the trial were good:

Sustainable energy — without the hot air

Niall Mansfield spoke about the development of the book, Sustainable energy — without the hot air ( by David J.C. MacKay. Niall is David's editor.

David wrote the book because when people speak about climate change, they usually give only opinions. People do not give numbers to support their opinions. David was tired of hearing that turning off a mobile phone charger can make a practical difference to climate change.

The primary decisions about the design of the book are as follows:

The book is published with a Creative Commons ( copyright. Surprisingly, forged paper copies appeared for sale.

The book is attractive, and colour is used well in both the graphics and the text.

How text formatting can enhance the readability and persuasiveness of text

Kath Straub explained that the location of a line break has an effect on the readability of text.

When we speak, we pause to make ideas clear. Kath gave the following example: "The horse raced past the barn fell." Without a pause, the sentence is very difficult to understand. Most people in the room did not understand the sentence. With a pause, the sentence is clearer: "The horse [pause] raced past the barn [pause] fell." Most people understood the sentence. (One person struggled to understand. Kath agreed that the sentence is 'clunky', but it is a good example.)

With text, the equivalent of a pause is a comma. However, sometimes a comma is not possible. The sentence, "the chauffeur annoyed the man with the cigar" can mean two things:

In speech, we can pause to make the meaning clear. For example, we can say, "The chauffeur annoyed [pause] the man with the cigar". However, if we write the sentence, we cannot use a comma. (Ideally, we write clear text. Kath gave the example to show that text is not the same as speech.)

ReadSmart is a method that makes text clearer than standard text:

In a study, direct mail was sent to 390,000 people. The response rate was 22% higher for the people who got the ReadSmart version of the advertisement.

Except for the ragged right margin, people cannot see the difference between standard text and ReadSmart text.

Why your XML projects keep failing

Bret Freeman said that according to Gartner, in the average organization, 80% of content is not structured. 90% of unstructured information is not managed.

Unstructured content causes problems. For example, there is no control, no consistency, too much repeated work, and a high risk of error.

'Intelligent content management' can solve the problems. Content is controlled, traceable, versioned, consistent, searchable, and reusable. The result is increased sales, and decreased costs.

Bret spoke about where to start with intelligent content management:

Seven ways to lower costs and raise quality in your documentation

Spencer Garlick said that many organizations invest in 'lean' methods, but they do not do that for their documents. He gave 7 methods that help to increase the quality of documentation.

1, 2, 3. Frequently, the same content is related to more than one product. To decrease the amount of documentation, modularize the content (write in 'chunks'). Use conditional publishing to put the applicable content in a document.

4. Control the technical terms. For the metadata, include information about the status of the term, the validity period, and the source. Make sure that you know about all the alternatives to each preferred term.

5. Control the language. Write simply and consistently. Many languages have only a small number of words. For example, Taki-Taki is a creole that has approximately 750 words. However, a problem with controlled English is that sometimes, controlled English sounds 'choppy'.

6. Do not include 'accidental content'. For example, if you give people an instruction about how to turn off a machine, you can write the instruction in many different ways. Make sure that the text is proofread and reviewed. To decrease the variety of text, use authoring memory.

7. Use single-sourcing.

Rapid advances: the evolution of e-learning development

Andrew Jackson said that in the past, the development of e-learning by an external organization was very expensive.

Now, e-learning is changing. Organizations use a mix of development methods.

By means of an analogy, Andrew showed the problems of e-learning. In the past, people used overhead projectors to show information. Now, we use PowerPoint, but the quality can be very bad. Technology gives people the ability to create bad-quality information.

Some possible trends in e-learning are as follows.

Possible trends in e-learning
The term 'e-learning' will disappearThe emphasis will be on knowledge transfer
Customized development Individuals will create content
The job of 'instructional designer' will change Instructional designers will become coaches and mentors

Therefore, the new problem is how to prevent the e-learning equivalent of bad PowerPoint slides. One option is to use a method such as Information Mapping to get good modular content.

Software to support the development of e-learning needs the following features:

The future vision for technical communicators: are we delivering content or captivating audiences?

R J Jacquez is Senior Product Evangelist for Adobe ( He said that technical communicators need to use social media to engage readers.

Engagement is important for the following reasons:

For radio to have 50 million listeners, 38 years were necessary. For the Internet to have 50 million users, 4 years were necessary. For Facebook ( to have 50 million users, 2 years were necessary.

In a survey of 300 high-level executives, 86% said that engagement is important. One third said that insufficient engagement caused their companies to lose business.

According to Jacquez, an engaging experience is accessible, collaborative, compelling, easy to use, personalised, and responsive.

Jacquez spoke about Erik Qualman's Socialnomics (, and gave some interesting facts from the book:

To end, Jacquez repeated what he wrote on Twitter (, hasthtag #TCUK09), "I see technical communicators as 'information facilitators' for their customers via social media platforms like Twitter."

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