Friday, February 27, 2009

4 weeks and counting, new event, Westin deals

4 weeks from today I'll be on the road, headed north, toward what is likely to be a wet week in Seattle. To say that I'm looking forward to it is an understatement.

I just got a tweet that ComponentOne is adding an event on Sunday, what they are calling "Doc-To-Help Day 2009." It looks like it is basically a half-day seminar on Doc-To-Help. It's free for conference attendees (another reason to come), and $250 if you want to attend just this alone.

Not sure how Joe feels about this. I'd guess on one hand he's happy that ComponentOne is stepping up like this, on the other hand, I'd wonder if this event risks cribbing potential attendees from the official conference half-day seminars. But WritersUA is a partner in this, and I think the positive thought that this could bring more people in overall is a good one to hang my hat on.

Here's the link.

Meanwhile, Can you get a better deal at the Westin that the "official" conference rate? Yes, you can.

I was originally reluctant to publicize this because I worried that WritersUA gets credit for only the people who register through the conference site, but I'm told that no matter where you book your room, if you stay at the Westin and tell them that you're there for the conference, WritersUA will get credit.

Why is this important. Well, I'm not sure I understand all the details, but what little I do understand goes something like this. conferences such as this at business-class hotels typically commit to a certain number of room-nights (one occupied room for one night). In return, they get discounts on rack rates for conference attendees and sometimes other concessions (such as, perhaps, discounts on the rental fee for meeting rooms).

If you click through the link on the conference site to the Westin, you'll find what seems to be a "reasonable" $189/night. (Personally, I don't think that's "reasonable" at all, but then, my purpose for a hotel is typically a place to sleep, shower, store my stuff, and get on the Internet, and as long as it's clean comfortable, quiet, and everything works, I'm happy. I have simple needs.) Business-class hotels typically charge well into the $200s for weeknight stays, so at the time this arrangement was made, last year sometime, this was a break.

And then the economy tanked. People were laid off. People who weren't laid off reduced drastically their travel for business. And the laws of economics kicked in.

I went directly to the Seattle Westin site a few days ago and found that I could book a room directly for a bit more than $150/night. It has gone up since, but is still a few dollars less than the $189/night.

In addition, Westin is offering, through their main site, a buy-one-get-one-half-off promotion for anyone arriving Thursday through Saturday. There's a kicker though. If you take advantage of this promotion, the base rate you'll start with is not what the local hotel is offering at the moment (in the $180s), but the standard rack rate for the room of $220.

Still, if you're arriving on Saturday and leaving on Wednesday, that means you would be eligible to get 2 of your nights at $110/night. That $660 for 4 nights (plus all the taxes and local fees), for a $165/night average.

In this economy, economy is a good thing, and every little bit helps.

I should add that while as a technical writer, I seldom have need to travel on business, but when I do, I have always treated my company's money as if it were my own. I don't mean being an utter cheapskate, but I do mean being frugal. No expensive meals on the company dime. If I can find a hotel for half a block or two away, I'll grab it. I'm always amazed and astonished when I meet people traveling on business who are not of this mindset. I actually find it moderately appalling, the cavalierness with which some people treat their company's money.

Anyway, I really hope that these items might tip you into making the decision to go. And if so, we'll see you in Seattle.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Newsletter ready

The good news is that I got my copy of Adobe InDesign CS4. The bad news is that it ships with 4, yes 4, newsletter templates, and they tend to be designed with large swaths of color and graphics, not good for two reasons.

One, While I do publish as many photos as space permits, it's photos, not color blocks from a "look." Two, the more of that stuff, the more toner that gets used up in the printing.

Fortunately, a newspaper template gave me a nice look. It was laid out at 11 x 17, but it didn't take much to reposition the elements I wanted to keep for an 8.5 x 11 page. And I think I've figured out how to differentiate between the days.

Huh, you may ask. Well, back in the day, before we went to full color, I chose a different pastel paper for each day's newsletter. But when we went to color, every day gets printed on just white paper. It looks much better, of course, but there's no quick and easy differentiation.

Well, I can do it this year based on the design. What will it look like? You'll have to come to Seattle to find out. And there's only one more day to get a $100 discount on registration.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Looking ahead

It's the time of year when I really start planning for the conference. I start researching travel. I contact conference vendors for newsletter items. I start working on the newsletter design (I like to create something location-specific). And I start planning my own conference schedule.

I plan to drive up. As it stands now, I'm planning to leave about mid-morning on Friday. I'll head over to I-5 and then turn north, staying Friday night somewhere in Oregon, likely somewhere between Eugene and Portland, wherever I can get the best price on a decent room. (I always start my research at, a great resource.)

Saturday, I'll make the rest of the trip, arriving in Seattle sometime in the late morning or early afternoon--when I'll be put right to work. Among the "traditions," of mine is that I pitch in and help stuff bags. Joe and Sharon are there, and even Joe, Sr., and Estelle (Joe's mom and dad) pitch in, as well as usually a few other folks. It's great to work and chat and catch up.

Saturday evening, if I've gotten my newsletter planning done, I actually have free. Whether I go see an old friend or two, catch up with anyone who may have arrived early, or head out for a bit of R&R (I know that a couple of good places to play poker are nearby) will be totally up in the air.

Sunday is when the camera begins to get real work. By the time Wednesday evening arrives, I will have taken hundreds of shots. A few will hit the newsletter. Others I'll post here. One thing I hope to do better this year is figure out white balance settings so that I get better color tones.

The biggest problem I have with the WritersUA conference--and it's an annual issue--is that in so many time slots, there are at least two sessions that I want to attend. Sometimes even 3 or 4. It's why getting books that contain all the presentations come in handy, but they are still no substitute for being there.

So, in looking at the current schedule, here's what I'm planning.


Sunday is when the half-day supplemental sessions occur. It's a challenge for me because I like to hit all of them so I can offer capsule summaries for Monday's newsletter. This year, there are two "Introduction" sessions, one on DITA and one on Captivate. Neither one are hot on my radar, so I'll pop into both briefly, and then settle in to Mary Deaton's "Five Ways to Test User Assistance Usability," a session with a topic near and dear to my heart with a speaker who has long been one of my favorites.


The opening session on "The Google Chrome Comic & visual communication" could be very interesting. Once done, the "meat" of the conference begins.

10:45am to 12:00pm

While the "double-scoop" case study session on web-based help could be interesting (and useful), and while the session "Contextual Awareness: Responding to User Actions and Behavior" looks very interesting (although Bogo Vatovec isn't my favorite speaker), I simply don't miss any of Dave Gash's sessions. And this one, "A Painless Introduction to Structured Authoring," could be interesting. (I know it will be fun.)

1:15 to 2:45pm

The double-length, hands-on sessions at WritersUA are really great, but I don't see a need right now do do it for Captivate. I'm leaning right now toward the "double-scoop" case study session on "Agile Development," although I may change my mind when I preview the slides for "Real-World XML design and Development" and "Architecting UA Topics for Reuse."

3:30 to 4:45pm

I didn't think so from just the title, but the description of Char's "Topic-Based Authoring" looks quite interesting, and Char's always a good speaker to boot. My alternative might be Rhonda Bracey's "Techniques for Reviewing a User Interface" to fill any gaps in my existing knowledge in that area.

The Networking Mixer from 4:45 to 6:00pm means a little bit of schmoozing and a lot of picture taking. The Tuesday newsletter production is usually one of the toughest, in part because it's covering all of Monday's events, and in part because Tuesday is usually the fullest day. Monday night is also often a night when vendors do private functions for key developers, and I sometimes get invited, which means newsletter production begins even later.


Tuesday is the longest day of the conference, and it starts the earliest. And I am not a morning person. Plus, it's when the conference goes to 6 sessions per time period, instead of Monday's 5 per time period.


This year is a slight change. Instead of breakout sessions, another keynote is offered. this one should be interesting, a look, by someone from ZDNet, at Microsoft after Bill Gates.

10:15 to 11:30am

This is interesting. None of these sessions really catch my eye. I suppose if I had to choose one, I'd lean toward "Ten Tips Toward Improvement and Success with Your eLearning."

1:00 to 2:15pm

While I'm curious about Microsoft Surface, the just-in-time help for web applications and AJAX are among what will be covered in "User Assistance in Web Forms," so that's where I'll be.

2:45 to 4:00pm

Despite the fact that Scott DeLoach, tremendously nice and smart guy that he is, isn't the most ebullient or dynamic of presenters, his "Best practices for Embedded UA" is at the top of my list for this time slot. "Adobe Integrated Runtime "AIR" and AIR Help" and "Using Simple Pictures to Communicate Complex Idea" are also in the running, the latter especially because of the cognitive approach it looks like this session is taking.

The product demos from 4:15 to 5:15 are always a great opportunity to get more good photos. Unlike previous years, it looks like there's no mixer tonight. (that could change, stay tuned.) Tuesday night is also the very unofficial Australian Cultural Evening. I went for the first time last year in Portland, where the first place the group went I enjoyed a great burger, and then I left, returning to work on the newsletter. The limited participation made production go late, so i don't think I'll be doing that again, as good as the company always is.

But Wednesday's newsletter is also a bit of a challenge. There's usually less news, as most announcements come out in the first day or so, and in recent years, I've looked for pictorial themes. One year I did a collage of the fun tags that people stick to their badges. Another year a did a montage of close-up faces. It's a challenge to come up with something new and interesting along those lines.


8:30 to 9:45am

I am almost tempted to go to the "Content Development with DITA and Xmetal" double hands-on session, if only to get one of those under my belt this year, even though I'm not a DITA fan nor practitioner and it's not something I anticipate using at work. But "Conducting Usability Tests 'In the Wild'" is right up my alley. Problem is, so is the double-scoop case study session on "Editing." I'm also interested in "Succeeding with RSS Feeds, Blogs, and WebCasts" and "Automating Acrobat with JavaScript." Yikes! 4 sessions I want to go to. And even the "Lessons Learned from Research on 'Help'" session looks interesting. What a way to start the day.

10:00 to 11:15am

Oh boy, another time slot with multiple choices. First on the list is "Personalizing and Customizing the User Assistance Experience," but it is certainly not the last. "Better Knowledge-Base Articles for Complex Troubleshooting" would be useful for some where I work, but it's not where I want to put my focus, as I like to get user assistance farther "up the chain," closer to the actual point of need. But the double-scoop case study on "Web 2.0" is definitely on my radar, as is "What If the Reader Can't Read?"

1:30 to 2:45pm

Definitely ">iPhone Design and Development Overview." Problem is, I'm also interested in "Developing More Successful Personas" and "Lessons Learned in Corporate Blogging," as well as I'd have to miss "Creating "Auto-Magic" TOCs With XSLT," presented by Dave Gash, if I go to any one of these other ones. Because Dave Gash is not to be missed.

3:0pm to 4:15pm

Speaking of not to be missed, Jared Spool returns as the closing speaker. The concept here is simple: Do not make your travel plans so you have to leave early and miss this session. This time, the subject is "Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs." And of course, it's always fun to see what Jared does when he sees a camera pointed in his direction. Thank goodness for very fast, long zoom lenses.

And then it's over. With luck, we'll have a post-conference gathering of friends over a relaxing dinner, as we were able to do in San Diego.

I'll be staying in Seattle the rest of the week, visiting the UW campus and my old department, visiting old friends, and doing a bit of shopping (although likely not as much as in past trips, the economy, you know, but hopefully I'll find some new Husky stuff that's on sale or not too expensive).

Sunday, it's up extra early and out the door for the drive home. last year, I think I was heading out at about 8:00am, and drove into home at around 11:00pm.