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AODC 2009 - A Delegate's Perspective

By Janet Taylor

When attending a conference, I always look for a return on investment (ROI). The AODC conference invariably provides a sound ROI and this year's conference was no exception.

The conference started off with a presentation by Dave Gash and ended with a presentation by Dave Gash. In between we had a trivia night with Dave Gash. I am constantly amazed by the depth of Dave’s knowledge and ingenuity but with his first presentation, A Painless Introduction to Structured Authoring, based on moving from linear documentation to structured authoring, he failed to sell me on the idea. I’m sure I will have to change to structured authoring, but I wasn’t converted by this first presentation—I think Dave was trying to sell the unsellable.

I thought I'd be able to relax through Tony Self’s presentation, What if Readers Can’t Read?, as I’d read the article based on this presentation in the last issue of Southern Communicator. However, I thought it was excellent, with different examples and more material. I’m not sure I like Tony’s message, although there’s no doubt that he’s right, so I will pass by that one quickly.

Much as I would like feedback from my readers, I’ve never seriously considered the software on offer than enables this. Lovely idea, but I’ve too much work to do to even think about adding any more! Well, I’ve now got a different view. Matthew Ellison, another regular at this conference who always has something interesting to teach us, gave us his research into reader feedback and how we might manage it. In fact, in his first presentation, Enabling Feedback and Collaboration in Software Help, he reported that the feedback wasn’t overwhelming in volume, even though some of the messages may be a bit short and pointed—but most were helpful. This was a really practical lesson and convinced me that I could manage to add such a task to my workday.

Translation and Localisation Best Practices was an excellent presentation by Emily Cotlier, who is a senior Technical Author for Harris Stratex Networks. She explained quite clearly the difference between translation (translating content from one language to another), localisation (aligning a product with the culture of the readers) and internationalisation (designing a product so that it can be localised with relative ease). Emily provided us with some questions to ask when choosing a translation company as well as some useful checklists to use. If there are graphics to be translated, Emily reminded us that we should provide the graphics separately. She also gave one handy tip to reduce costs: instead of covering your diagrams with balloons of text, use numbers or letters as identifiers and put the descriptions in the text. The graphics may then need no change and the text is easier to translate.

Tony Self set the start of his presentation, Writing to STOP, back in the 1940s in the days of the Hughes Corporation and the development of the Spruce Goose, a plane that flew once and spent the rest of its days in mothballs. Then we jumped to the 1960s and the cold war when military spending boomed. As a result of the rapid expansion in all sorts of military equipment, there was a corresponding increase in urgently required documentation. Some authors at that time decided that a process was called for, and, from what we heard, aggressively pursued a standard which was called Sequential Thematic Organization of Publications—or STOP. After describing the features of STOP, Tony brought us to the present and pointed out how similar the standards set in those days are to today’s topic-based documentation design. By introducing us to STOP, Tony surprised us, yet again, with his diverse interests. At the same time he was showing us that the topic based style of authoring gaining popularity now, is in fact well tried and has stood the test of time. 

Mention that maybe we should use a wiki for our documentation, and my next step is to start updating my resumé! Not any more. Sarah Maddox showed how she uses a wiki for documentation and it really does seem feasible! Sarah is a technical writer with Atlassian, the company that developed the wiki, Confluence. Her very lucid description of implementing the required traditional looking user guide, made it seem very little different to developing any user guide, except that you have the obvious benefits of making changes available very quickly. We’ve asked Sarah if she will write an article about her process for the October issue of the Southern Communicator.

Pattern Language for Information Architecture was truly as described. Matthew Ellison gave us examples, using an architecture book as a base, of designing a page and sticking to the same design throughout a document. His argument is that it is easier for readers because they learn what to expect. The architecture book wasn’t such a detour either. By giving us examples of problems posed to the architect who wrote the book (A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander) and the solutions, which were really quite inventive, made me aware that I should be thinking in a more original fashion about how I describe things in my own work. The pattern can still be used; but I will think more about the aids I will use after seeing this presentation. This idea was too good to keep to ourselves, so we’ve asked Matthew if he would be kind enough to write an article on the topic for the October issue of the Southern Communicator.

The Write Words with Dave Gash managed to disguise a very serious subject (to us, at least) with humour. I doubt if anyone present will ever incorrectly mix up lose or loose or use momentarily in the wrong context again. Dave must have done a lot of research for this presentation as he had an enormous range of pictures of word misuse.

Dave set up a very spirited defence of the apostrophe and was almost beside himself with frustration at the decision of Birmingham Council (in England) to remove apostrophes from their street signs.

When Dave brought up the prevalence of “alot” instead of “a lot”, I thought he really was having us on, until he showed us example after example of the use of “alot” in the US. At least, I hope it was all in the US. (My Windows spell checker is automatically correcting my “alot” so where is this revised spelling coming from?)

There were more presentations but I’ve described the ones that resonated most with me. One of them, by Gerry Gaffney, is represented by an article in the June issue of the Southern Communicator.

Normally, at AODC conferences, I learn mostly from the presenters. This time, I learnt more from my fellow delegates. So much so that I would estimate the cost of attending has saved me an equivalent amount in testing various scenarios using trial software. I thought that with the enormous amount of information one can gain from the large number of email groups devoted to our topics of interest, that there would be less need to attend a conference. I was rather surprised to discover that a face-to-face chat covered more ground and resolved issues more quickly than any number of emails. This was partly because by talking to someone I could establish their level of knowledge without having to hurt their feelings by asking. Impromptu pencil and paper diagrams took care of quite a few potential misunderstandings.  For this reason alone, I achieved the ROI I was looking for.

The location of this conference, the Vibe Savoy Hotel, in Melbourne, was particularly interesting. It’s a beautiful building and has been restored extremely well. If you get the chance, I’d recommend a visit. 

The conference was, as usual, well planned and very worthwhile attending. And I have to say: the lunches were just wonderful!

AODC - the Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference
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