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AODC 2006 - A Delegate's Perspective

By Janet Taylor

Four days of learning about the latest online writing techniques might not be everyone's cup of tea, but for the 60 or so attendees, it was magic!


Most of the presenters were as you would expect, but one presenter, a technical writer from the Federal Police, 'Choco' Munday, certainly woke us up. Sadly, I would never be able to imitate his fierce delivery, but I'm sure no one in the police department would dare to use the words he considers as UNWORDS. Following is a small sample of his unwords, and, surprisingly, he didn't include any of mine:

Choco also gave us some concise ways to describe how to use some words, such as percent and percentage. That is:

Choco opposed the view that the US is taking over our language by pointing out the large number of Australian words now in general use. Words and phrases such as "No sweat", "Hills Hoist", "cobber", "willy-willies", "plonk". Choco mentioned many other (low brow) words and he'd actually made them into rhyming sentences!

Choco alone was reason enough for me to be glad that I attended the conference.

Windows Vista

As an online help developer, the news of most interest to me was the future of Microsoft's Vista. There were daily announcements and it was extraordinary to me that people kept a day-by-day watch of the Microsoft web site. One report was that Vista will be released in the first quarter of 2007. Given the delays so far, this was greeted with skepticism by some of the presenters who have inside sources in the Microsoft camp. Whenever it is released, the new, much publicized, help system, Vista AP Help, will not be available to us in Version 1. After a lot of lobbying by people who have a vested interest in Help (the HAT software developers) it may be released for general use in Version 2.

The Road Ahead

Mike Hamilton (of MadCap) gave us quite a lot of detail about Vista AP Help: there will be no contents list and no index. To find your way around, you will use the search facility. The help text will be displayed in a single window to the right of a screen (similar to what we see now) and it will 'squash' the contents of the application, rather than overwrite it. If you have only one help window and can have a number of applications open, then it might be difficult to determine what the displayed help is for. Currently, this can be determined by the icon in the top left of the title bar. Whether to retain this 'one window' concept is but one of the issues that Microsoft has to decide upon.

The new trend, set by Microsoft Vista, is that conceptual help will no longer be offered. This came from Tony Self's overview of the future of documentation, as forecast by some brave people at the Writers UA Conference.


Rhonda Bracey of Perth, gave an extremely interesting presentation on the subject of editing screen based content. If you're asked to do this, you should really make sure you know what it is you are expected to do: edit just the words, check the quality and suitability of the graphics, check all the links .... ? Rhonda also gave us lists of free software that we can use to help in this editing task.


I have often wondered, should I ever venture into this world, whether I should concentrate on learning about the newish kid on the block, DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), or the more mature DocBook. Tony Self gave us the answer in a clearly named presentation "DITA or DocBook". Tony listed other contenders for our attention, such as a simplified DocBook, Microsoft's AML, as well as custom built schemas.

The answer to my major question, DITA or DocBook was: For print media, DocBook was more suitable than DITA and DITA was the choice for online documentation. Of course, nothing is ever 100 percent suitable and Tony gave us a number of options to consider, should we be faced with introducing DITA into our workplace.


Kylie Weaver took me back to my dark ages with her presentation, reminding us how useful flowcharts can be.

Kylie started with a simple example: washing dishes. She compared a written description of washing dishes with the flow-charted version. The flow chart won! Try it yourself. It certainly makes a change from the "Alien making a phone call" used so often in tests of our suitability for employment as a technical writer. During her presentation, Kylie gave us a glimpse of a tool that was once on every IT person's desk, the plastic flow chart template. It reminded me of how far we've come. The same shapes are still available to us, but now we get them via Visio, Word Draw and PowerPoint (if we're desperate). Regardless of how we draw a flow chart, Kylie's main guidelines were simple and easily remembered:

Uncle Dave

As usual, Dave Gash's presentation "Creating Self-Aware Navigation Devices" was based on a very simple idea. Or is Dave's particular talent to explain something complicated in a simple way? Either way, Dave's first presentation was to provide navigation aids to online content. This was most suitable for web sites, but gave me enough inspiration to start a task I've long thought about doing, showing my online help users in which direction they will go (either up or down) when they select a "See also" link in the online help window. In my documentation, downward links provide more detail, upward ones provide less detail. However, we don't give a clue, not even by the sequence of the items in the list, which way the user will be going once they select a link. While Dave's suggestions were to use Related Topic lists, Breadcrumbs or Buttons, it was the method of delivery that was inspiring. Dave showed us how to easily create the lists as a dropdown list (that was just one format), and how the list could be put into an external file for ease of maintenance.

Dr Tom

On the face of it, the case study of Dr Tom James, who works for Salisbury District Council, looked to be of limited interest, but he soon had us enthralled with his description of collaboration between local county councils. Most of the public don’t care who provides or pays for the fire service, police service, garbage service or education, when they want information, they want it as quickly as possible. So it makes sense to combine service information from multiple councils in a single web site. Of course, each council's web site had a different look and feel, a different way of storing data, and a different idea of what data is to be presented. Making these disparate entities easy for a customer to navigate and not to be concerned that they were moving from one site to another, was the aim of the group of neighbouring councils. Tom's account of the negotiations involved made me promise never to complain again about the idiosyncratic personalities within my pool of subject matter experts.

Dr Tom's second presentation was based on a more intelligent use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). As he pointed out, if we use CSSs at all, we do so mostly to control fonts, colours and spacing. Tom's presentation showed us how we can dramatically change the arrangement of information, just by using a CSS, and how we can also provide a print only version with a totally different layout of the information. Dual purpose CCSs are easy to create and we should use them.


As usual, Gerry Gaffney made perfect sense in his "DIY Usability" presentation. Gerry's presentation showed us how we could conduct usability tests with the minimum of outside help and on a shoe-string budget. We could even go some way towards usability testing without the involvement of our users - although user involvement is always the most valuable activity. Gerry maintained that we should at least start small, with perhaps a well thought out questionnaire, rather than not start at all.
Gerry's presentation showed us how we could conduct usability tests with the minimum of outside help and on a shoe-string budget.

Collaborative Authoring

Tony Self took us on a quick tour of the various tools we now have available for collaborative authoring.

I must say that I didn't expect to hear about Wikis, Podcasts, RSS (Really Simple Syndication), and Blogs at an AODC Conference, but it left me enthusiastic about implementing some of these tools in my own workplace. Tony looked into the future with some of the new Google initiatives and the news that AuthorIT are adding web service extensions to their software with a view to future database collaboration.

The Finalé

Dr Carol Barnum tackled the subject of Indexing vs Full Text Search with some movies of people trying to find specific answers using both types of navigation. The people in the movies were encouraged to say what they were thinking as they went along, and this was quite amusing, as frustration seemed to be the principal emotion in this exercise. The result was that those with an index found the information required much more successfully than those with just the text search capability. In spite of this, the news is that

Microsoft is removing the index from their next generation of help and Apple will be re-instating it. Regardless of whether you are an Apple or Microsoft enthusiast, you can't ever have missed the claim that Apple is always the winner in the usability competition. Seems that they will continue to win in the usability stakes.

All in All

All in all, it was a very worthwhile conference. I can't say I was inspired by the location, Cairns, which I have never visited before. But perhaps Cairns just compared badly with the absolutely excellent conference and the camaraderie of my fellow technical communicators.

I just wish you could all have attended!

AODC - the Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference
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