WritersUA in Historic Charleston

As far as professional conferences go these days, WritersUA does a great job of getting experienced professionals together in a comfortable setting. This past week’s conference in Charleston, SC, was a perfect example of how Joe Welinske can attract some great writing talent and then let us have some fun and share what we know. His approach of smaller-is-better proved successful. But how can you go wrong with a conference in historic Charleston with its southern hospitality and beautiful weather? Even the name of his conference, WritersUA, puts writers first and adds the suffix UA to describe why we write – for user assistance. You wouldn’t think that this would be a motivating topic to attract people, but there is a band of dedicated professionals who heard the call and came for the two days of sessions. A few of us came for the workshop the day before as well. Here’s my summary of what I learned.

WritersUA: The Conference for Software User Assistance - banner and my badge

Accepting Hospitality
I know that southern hospitality is a cliche; having lived in North Carolina for over 20 years, I know what it’s all about. At least I thought I knew. Charleston overall is a great city to visit – everywhere we went, people were patient and nice. The service at the resort, the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, was wonderful and made the conference that much nicer. You couldn’t help but be nice to others when you are so well treated. In Charleston, hospitality isn’t just a feature of being in the south – it is a defining characteristic of the place.

WritersUA conference collage of attendees

Touting Tools
What is it about our fascination with software tools that gets us talking about them at every conference. While we know our skills and our emphasis on communication are our most valuable professional assets, we can’t help but expressing excitement about a toolset that will help make the routine parts of our job that much easier or that will add a wow-factor to the outputs we generate. This week’s conference was no exception with a few presentations on Adobe RoboHelp, Adobe Captivate, and MadCap Flare, as well as demonstrations of responsive design and roundtables on these tools.

John Daigle does a great job of methodically showing some of the key features of these tools as well as leading discussions about where people need the most assistance. Anita Horsley’s more energetic presentations add excitement to some of the minutia of getting the tools to perform some pretty powerful stuff. (See her Crazy about Captivate blog).

I didn’t get to Scott DeLoach’s or Tom Tregner’s presentations on MadCap Flare but I’m sure they were great. You can bet I’ll be checking out their presentations online. These tools seem to be growing in capability both in terms of what outputs they can generate as well as how quickly you can get started from scratch on a project. I realized that the tools I’ve got are a few versions back, so I’ll be pitching to my management the need for upgrades – even going with the subscription model to stay current.

Neil Perlin, Anita Horsley, John Daigle, Bill Albing, Joe Welinske

Getting Organized!
There was a common theme to several of the other presentations that really struck home; in our profession it is a constant challenge to keep all the information organized. Whether it is content we are developing or information flowing within an organization or deliverables we package, there is a need to stay organized. Larry Kunz gave a very sensible argument for having a “Doc Plan” – perhaps named using words from a previous generation, but an idea that is more relevant today than ever. What Larry was showing us was a way to stay organized when thinking about a project; a way to communicate with all the stakeholders by setting expectations clearly and getting everyone on the same page at the beginning of the project. Whatever it’s called, the process of thinking it through and getting it written down for all to see is valuable.

Mirhonda Studevant talked about the value of a Content Map, to keep straight which customers would receive which deliverables. This was in her overall analogy of a cultivated garden – adding the resources you need, and getting rid of the weeds and pests that inevitably appear. Kristen James Eberlein presented an overview of DITA and information types as a way to keep our content organized using XML-like structures. Neil Perlin talked about structured authoring for online help, but I missed his presentation. Also, John Daigle talked about Content Categories. So much of our job is just staying organized!

Exploring Frontiers
A conference wouldn’t be complete without some discussion of cutting-edge topics. Nikki Tremann and Bryna Gleich presented their approach to making and sharing videos for user assistance. Many of their videos were creative, many of the techniques were cool, and at the same time, many of the logistical problems of maintaining and delivering videos were brought up.

Joe Welinske, of course, brought up many of the challenges with mobile user assistance. This is such a new platform that it may be too early for conventions – about how user assistance is accessed, about terminology, about what behaviors to expect. His workshop the day before the conference really gave us a chance to get into this topic. Despite the chaotic frontier atmosphere of the mobile technology market, he is leading the charge for well-thought out, appropriately scoped user assistance. See his book Developing User Assistance for Mobile Apps.

Shane Taylor shared his experience with developing content for user assistance in Agile teams. While Agile has been around for years, user assistance professionals are still adjusting and fitting in – since communication is such a key part of Agile, we play a very valuable role.

[For anyone interested in seeing the slides from my presentation, you can find them on SlideShare.]

Conclusion
I apologize to anyone whose name I didn’t mention – I didn’t attend all the sessions. I also missed Joe’s closing remarks and predictions for the future because I had to leave early. The thoughts expressed in this blog are my own and may be completely different from what Joe or others had intended. (They are welcome to leave comments or mention their opinions in their own blog.) The conference helped me by connecting me again with a community of dedicated professionals and reminding me that while technology is changing rapidly, we can keep up with it and help others understand it more fully.
Charleston Harbor Resort at sunrise from dock

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