The Write Team

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"DITA Changes Everything"

I recently attended an XML Publishing Conference in London, at which JoAnn Hackos told her audience that "DITA changes everything". I wrote a review in which I said that she may be right. Read it on the STC UK web site or on my web site.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

World Usability Day

3rd November 2005 will be the first World Usability Day

More information is available at

There's an online discussion about setting up events for World Usability Day at

The usability expert Jakob Nielsen has a recent Alertbox article on Weblog Usability. I hope this blog hasn't committed any of the usability mistakes that Nielsen highlights in his article.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Are you an Elbonian?

The cartoonist Scott Adams frequently uses the country of Elbonia and its citizens the Elbonians in his very successful Dilbert comic strip. The Dilbert cartoons make fun of corporate life and attitudes, and the citizens of Elbonia, a fictional less-developed country, are often the intended victims of unscrupulous corporate schemings. The Elbonians, however, are pretty resilient, often by being surprising literal in the things they say and do.

Elbonia and the Elbonians are devices that Adams uses to illustrate the attitudes and behaviours he wants to make fun of, and he does this with great success.
I am a great fan of the Dilbert series, and often laugh out loud at the latest cartoon, but this week there was a strip that gave me pause for thought. In the cartoon published on 15th October 2005 an Elbonian has mistaken a software CD for a Frisbee(TM) and has complained that it doesn't fly properly. When told of his mistake the Elbonian replies "in my defense, the user's manual was poorly written".

This joke relies on the fact that everyone reading the strip knows, and seems to accept, that software user manuals are generally poorly written. That's a problem for me, as I'm a professional technical writer, and I have made a career out of writing user manuals. Why does everyone think that what I do for a living is always done badly?

The unfortunate truth is that quite often user manuals aren't very good or very useful. I believe that's because in many cases they are written by the wrong sort of people. In many software companies writing the manual is a low-status task left to one of the less experienced programmers. People who aren't professional writers may well understand the products they are describing, but what they don't understand to the same extent are the tasks that the end-users are trying to achieve with the software or the product. This means that although they may describe product features correctly, their descriptions aren't recognised by users as being in any way relevant to their jobs.

This is a great shame, as professional technical writers do aim to write the manual that the user needs, at whatever level of understanding they require. If your product's manual may fall into the stereotype highlighted by Adams's Elbonian perhaps it's time to look for a serious professional technical writer, perhaps one who belongs to a professional association such as the STC or the ISTC. Then your users may have a better chance of recognising your products and using them properly, rather than trying to flick them through the air!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

STC UK event to focus on DITA

The UK Chapter of the STC is hosting an event at Coventry University on 19th November 2005, focusing on XML and DITA.
The guest speaker will be Alan Houser, president of Group Wellesley, Inc., a firm that provides consulting, training, and application development services to support single-source publishing, electronic publishing, and XML-based publishing. Alan is an Adobe Certified Instructor in FrameMaker and Acrobat, and is a member of the OASIS DITA technical committee.
To read more and book your place visit the STC UK Chapter's web site.

Microsoft to support PDF

According to recent reports, the next version of Microsoft office will offer native support for Adobe PDF for the first time. See for example this article from ZDNet UK News.

Office 12 is due for release in late 2006.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

2005 Trans-European Technical Communication Competition

The closing date for entries for this year's Trans-European Technical Communication Competition is 14th October 2005.

The Competition is organised jointly by the STC Chapters in Europe. Full details are available from the Competitions page on the UK Chapter's Web site

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Usability Seminar in London

American usability expert Steve Krug will be giving his seminar on Web site usability "Dont make me think" in London on 7th October 2005. More details at Steve's web site.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Microsoft previews new user interface for the next release of Office

Microsoft have today released a preview of the new user interface (UI) for the next release of Office, currently code-named Office 12.

In a statement released to the press at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2005 in Los Angeles today (13th September 2005) the new UI was hailed as the "biggest, most visible change to the way the core Office applications work since the introduction of the toolbar in 1997."