Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Marketing time

Decided to listen in on the Adobe presentation, not paid a lot of attention to those in recent years. Interesting that Rick Stone and Peter Grainger, both active on the HATT list and longtime help experts are on the dais.

Talk about "cloud computing," don't need anything more than Acrobat reader to contribute. Cloud at acrobat.com, free service when you have TechComm Suite. Save from FrameMaker as "ubiquitous PDF," anyone with Reader can review and contribute. Acrobat.com does the authentication of reviewers.

Demoing several people adding comments to a PDF document, some from IE on Mac with Acrobat Reader. Comments, sticky notes, etc., all added. Then FrameMaker can add PDF comments.

Giving a quick explanation of Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime), claim 100 million downloads to-date. Flash player plus HTML rendering engine (same one as in Safari) plus PDF reader all built in.

Demo of Captivate 4 project review within AIR.

AIR-based help can update local help content from server when topic is opened without need for full software patch.

AIR-based online word processor Buzzword at http://www.adobe.com/acom/buzzword/. Heehee, Buzzword (currently in beta) doesn't use AIR for its help, but "plain" HTML.

Demoing commenting (social networking) within AIR-based help system. Cool. Users can click "Add comment" and either keep comment private or share (with Adobe ID) so that everyone who uses the product can see (as soon as it is approved by Adobe) the addition.

Visual Thinking

Am in the last session of the day, "Using Simple Pictures to Communicate Complex Ideas" by Donna Safko. Was thinking about the Adobe AIR one, but this looked more interesting--and more compelling.

What is visual thinking? Can be used by anyone. Don't have to be an artist. Don't have to be a visual learner. It's a process of using simple drawings to improve understanding.

Broken down to look, see, imagine, show, like at thebackofthenapkin.com.

Stick figures have become popular now. wizthink.com community.

4 levels of belief: nonbeliever, like to view others' drawings, use as a tool, great way to communicate.

A lot of adults associate drawings with humiliation. Usually from some single childhood experience. Socienty places higher value on skills other than art (writing, reading, math).

Academia tells you that zs you mature, you like more complex subjects and longer words. "But I believe in each of us there's a child that refuses to grow up." We're intrigued with simple drawings and few words.

"We do not pay attention to boring things." Drawings, even stick figures, are interesting. They make us feel less intimidated by the subject matter being presented.

Artists quickly recognize shapes and differences.

Drawings do not have to be more complicated that the houses you drew as a kid with squares and triangles that you drew as a kid.

User Assistance in Web Forms

Luke Wroblewski is the Sr. director of Ideation & Design at Yahoo! and has written a book about web form design.

"Forms suck," but form design matters, in commerce, in engagement, in access (membership).

People look for the first input field, and then just go straight down, and if your stray from that line, users will have trouble.

Have a clear flow. (Illuminate a clear path to completion.)

Best practice: Clear path to completion.

Top aligned labels are quick to complete. People see the label and the field in one "stop." Works better for translation. But it takes more vertical space.

Right aligned lables, also clear association between label and field. Left rag makes scanning difficult.

Left aligned labels, enables label scanning, if need to pick one or more out. People make association, but takes longer. Label length change may impair layout.

Showing eye-tracking data of different layouts. Cool stuff. Top-aligned labels 10%, 20%, faster completion.

Best practice: top aligned labels for speedy input, left aligned for unfamiliar or advanced data entry.

How about labels within fields? Make sure that assistance text goes away when people are providing answers. Problem: as soon as you start provide an answer, the label goes away, makes it hard to go back and check answers.

Required field indicators are useful when lots of field, but few required. Likewise, optional field indicators are useful when few optional fields. Not useful when all fields are required.

Best practice: tell people what is required and what is not.

Help & tips useful when asking for unfamiliar data, but too much can be overwhelming.

Best visible and adjacent to where it applies.

Automatic inline help is useful when users are unsure about how or why to answer.

On-the-fly validation is tough.

In Yahoo Answers, use inline validation to help users form good questions, so they can get good--and quick--answers.

Not all form actions are equal. Reset, Cancel, Go Back are secondary, rarely used. Save, Continue, Submit, are primary actions. Differentiate. Make primary actions primary looking.

Best practice: avoid secondary actions (if possible), align primary actions with input fields. (The clear path to completion thing again.)

When there's an error on the page, it's the most important thing on the form.

Wikis as user assistance

Listening to Paul Mueller now, talking about using wikis for user assistance.

Some interesting ideas early. Notes that not all users are online, some prefer docs or "traditional" help. Also noted that communites can be good, but kind of a "wild west" (my term), there users have to look through many posts to find answers, and responses that interate over potential solutions.

The benefit of a wiki is it's collaboration on one common solution.

Wikis can also create a collaborative environment with tech support, who would previously opy content from help and put in KBs. Then, when a new release came out, verifying that duplicated content might by bypassed because of no time. But you need a community here, both ecgternal *and* internal, including tech support and members of the engineering staff (well, in addition to you, of course, because technical communication is properly an engineering discipline too).

Paul says that our jobs will be less about delivering content, but about delivering a structure for content. Users work with us as partners to extend and enhance that knowledge.

They used the ePublisher platform, by Quadralay.

Delivering different media (help, online, etc.), so have to decide what information goes where. Wiki will be "latest and greatest" content. If you don't go to wiki, and look at local content, you have what was known at the latest release.

Wikis do have weak areas. Out of the box, wikis don't have navigation. Content appearance can be less polished. verified and "extended" content is difficult to tell apart.

Mary-Jo Foley

An interesting format: not only are there two morning keynotes this year, they are in an interview format. This morning, Matthew Ellison is interviewing Mary-Jo Foley, who wrote the book "Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era.

Foley is being really blunt in her assessments. She tells some good stories too, like the time she fisrt met Bill Gates. She had arranged to interview him at a trade show, and she was interrupted. Worried that her time was limited, she interrupted, whereupon Gates asked her if she knew who that was. When she replied no, Gates told her it was Steve Jobs.

She talks about Bill vs. Steve (Ballmer). The Bill guys were the engineers, where the Steve guys were all about marketing and sales. With Bill backing out, the Bill guys are leaving, adn there's a shift in power.

Now moving to consumer products, Microsoft believes that if someone buys an XBox 360, then they will see that Sharepoint is a Microsoft product. Foley said that she's not sure she believes that, but the theory is, she says, "win them at home and you can win them at work."

Catching up

Well, yesterday turned out to be a busy day, and I never got to blog during sessions. Going to try and resolve that today.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunday meet & greet photos

A couple of shots from the Sunday evening meet & greet. Dave Gash is immensely proud of his t-shirt, while Sue Heim is just proud.

And here...we...go...

Joe's doing his introduction. Turns out he has a sense of humor. His opening comment included the memorable quote "The theme this year is 'plenty of elbow room,'" a nod to the economy's impact on attendance.

From what I hear, however, the WritersUA conference is doing better than other, similar, events (cough, STC). The year-over-year drop here is less than 40%, from last year's 500 to this year's just over 300. While it's never good to see either an economy like this or drops in attendance at events such as this one, the amount of the drop speaks volumes about the value that this event provides.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday, aka Murphy's Law Day

I had it all planned out. Really, I did.

The plan was, go out for a little R&R after stuffing bags on Saturday, then wake up Sunday, take my car up to Steven's place, take the #5 bus back, and plunge into the conference.

But I got slightly waylaid, then started the day later than I planned. Of course, it's easy to get waylaid at Fry's. I was disappointed that they didn't have a better selection of paper, nor did they have decent prices. I settled, basically, on a fairly white 24 lb. stock. And I passed by the toner cartridges, saw that they had the ones for my printer, and on impulse, decided to grab a set--at full price. I didn't want to get stuck short.

Getting out of there late, I relaxed with a burger from Red Robin, where I read about another place I thought I'd try some poker. It turned out to be dead, but there was one $4/$8 table. I played for too long, played not up to snuff, and got back later than I planned--only to find the cordless phone over the bed not working, so my wakeup call (for 8:30am instead of 8:00am) would literally get me out of bed.

Stayed at my friend's place for a half hour to chat, rather than catch the right-way return bus, which put me at the hotel at 11:00am--when all hell broke loose.

Consider this: It's just past 10:30pm now, this is the first blog entry I'm had time to make, and I'm eating he first substantial food I've had all day (although I had planned to skip breakfast and do a good lunch), which isn't anything more than bad-for-me fast food, pretty much the only thing available to me nearby this late.

I walked in and Joe was frantically juggling. Turns out some of his friends who were flying in to help were late. He had some notebook cable locks for the Internet stations, but wasn't able to figure them out, and had other things that needed doing as well. So I jumped in, figured out the cable locks (not an easy task), and set up the notebooks--only to find another problem, with the wireless routers on that floor. I did a workaround until the routers there got fixed.

That bumped me right up into the start of the afternoon sessions. I had wanted some time to tweak my template, but now I was going to have to do that while I was taking notes.

But I ran into more problems, this time software-related. InDesign just wasn't working. Styles were not being given the fonts or the colors they were defined to use, line spacing was all over the map, it was becoming a real mess.

Finally out of frustration ,sitting in the middle of a session, I gave up. I opened Microsoft Publisher, which I had used last year, and began searching for a template. I found one. I wasn't crazy about it, but I had some criteria in mind. I wanted 4 columns, and I wanted a style that would be easy on toner.

Got that set up fairly quickly, to my relief. Didn't get quite as many notes as I wanted in the 3 sessions, but heard some interesting stuff. I stopped also at the Doc-To-Help Day session for a little bit. Not as many people in there as I would have thought--and most of those were leaders in our field (Paul Neshamkin, Char James-Tanny, Sue Heim, to name a few) who were asking the ComponentOne reps tough questions.

And then the fun really started. I got my printer set up in my workspace, got it connected, and tried to print out what I had so far to take a look-see.

And nothing printed.

The beginnings of troubleshooting didn't help. I thought it might be the print spooler, but restarting that didn't help.

I went to the HP site, downloaded the latest firmware and the printer driver. Updated the firmware. Nothing.

Reinstalled the printer driver software. Although it didn't finish the install with an error, it still didn't work.

I decided to try a drastic measure, something I had never done before: try to restore my computer from a restore point. I went back to before the first time I had installed the printer driver. It took a long time, close to an hour--only to fail.

I was feeling panicky, desperate. It was approaching 7pm now. I had been struggling with this issue for a good 2 hours with no end in sight.

Finally, I hit on an idea. I swapped out the brand spankin' new USB cable for the little short one I had been suing at home.

That did the trick.

As they used to say in the old Toyota ads, "Oh, what a feeling."

Fortunately, the editing Sue did was light, and the printer turns out to be fairly quick, putting out 200 double-sided copies in about 45 minutes. The printing finished just about 10 minutes ago, and so now I can go to bed and get ready for Monday, which will be packed. (I'll post some photos then too.)

I sent Joe the newsletter PDF, and he will probably post it on the conference site tonight or tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Trip prep

Tonight the trip prep gets into gear. I've ripped most of my CDs onto my notebook, so now it's clean out the car. And as anyone who has been my roommate in the past will attest, I'm a bit of a procrastinating packrat.

The thing is, the less weight I'm carrying, the better gas mileage I'll get. It may not be much, but every little bit counts. So out comes all the extra clothes. Clean out all the trash and papers (a shopping bag full of trash, a good 10 inch stack of old newspapers and magazines).

Tomorrow, it's prep the computer bag.

Right from work on Thursday, I'll hit the car wash, then head home for the last loads of laundry. And I'll be ready to go on Friday.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Icky weather?

Not that it should come as much of a surprise, and certainly long-range weather forecasts (and we're going out a full week plus here) are about as reliable as a CNBC talking head, but there's rain, rain, rain in the forecast for the Pacific Northwest.

Looking at the forecast for Portland (where I'll be staying Friday night) and Seattle through next Saturday, there's nothing but "cloudy, "showers," and "rain" every day (well, except for a "partly cloudy" next Thursday in Seattle). Which means, if nothing else, I'm not looking forward to a particular pleasant drive through Oregon and Washington, at least.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Will it snow?

We're just 2 weeks away from the conference now, at it was snowing in Seattle today, according to a friend of mine who lives there. That's right, snow in Seattle in mid-March, with spring right around the corner.

So what will it be like in two weeks?

Only time will tell--although it will hardly matter to some. I know that I typically stay inside nearly the whole time, from midday Sunday through to Wednesday evening, going out only to forage for food or if some emergency supply is needed.

But having lived in Seattle, I can tell you, even if it doesn't snow, it certainly won't be warm. So plan accordingly. On average, during March, the high temperature in Seattle averages a shade over 52 degrees, while the low temperature averages 38 degrees. Not a lot of range there.

But hey, the conference ends in April, right? So let's look at April. Average high, 57.5 degrees. Average low, 41.2 degrees. Not a lot of difference. And Seattle averages almost 4 inches of rain in March, with another 2.5 inches in April.

So chances are, it's gonna rain, and it's gonna be a cold rain.

But there is a silver lining in all this: You're not stuck inside with overpriced hotel food. Just a block south along 5th avenue is the Westlake Center, a fairly typical urban mall with a food court and couple of anchor restaurants.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hot deal at the Westin

If you're heading to the conference and haven't yet booked your room, there's another way to save. One of the many deals the Westin is offering is a "rejuvenate" package.

Go directly to the Seattle Westin site, click Hotel Deals, and scroll down to the "Rejuvenate this winter and enjoy rates from $159" section. As of today, it's not quite "$159," but for me, it was $177.

Hotels are desperate for business. No one is traveling, especially business travelers.

To give you an example, I'm staying in Seattle for the rest of the week for a little vacation. using the information I can get from BiddingForTravel, I bid for a hotel at Priceline and got a winning bid of $41/night (for the Wednesday through Sunday) at the Hilton at the airport. For comparison purposes, going directly through the Hilton's website, the best rate they offer is $143/night.

To be fair, using this method for the conference days itself wouldn't guarantee that I'd stay at the Weston, which is why I've not done it. (For those who want to know, the Westin is one of the top winners of reported bids for 4* hotels in downtown Seattle over the past year, but so are the Edgewater (a good 8+ block walk) and the Hotel Vintage park (6+ blocks away).

But if you haven't booked your hotel yet, or are even on the fence about going, you can reduce yoru hotel costs if you work at it.

One additional tip: If you want to try and contact the Westin directly to negotiate, try and contact a local representative. The folks on the "standard" 800 reservation line are usually less able to offer any sort of accommodation on accomodations.