Sunday, April 22, 2007

DocTrain UX Conference Review (April 18-21, 2007 in Vancouver BC)

I was just in lovely Vancouver BC for five days to attend the annual DocTrain UX (user's experience) conference. My experience was very positive and for my business very valuable. Let me tell you why.
First, my company provides information management and content creation primarily for the medical device manufacturing industry. Our secondary industry is documenting software applications. Currently we enter our client's work cycle just before they are ready to release and ship their product. Since they have had no support when first setting up their documentation system they are almost always writing their content in MS Word using few if any styles. ClearComm is often involved as early as their pre-beta development stage, to help with validation documents and build procedures. Many times they have not thought about their information until they need user documents. At this stage all we can do is offer to create their content or design their manual layout. After this is complete they will want the information ported to other documents for distribution like help systems, installation guides, FAQ's, training, or service manuals.
My poor editor feels like she is editing the same content over and over. Consistency is lost, cost for writing and editing is higher and the potential for error goes up. It is frustrating.
I went to this conference looking for some answers. I want to give my client's more than a simple fix to complete their project.

What did it look like?
The conference was very well organized by Eileen Savary and Scott Abel. The location was beautiful. The Marriott Pinnacle was a very hospitable hotel with excellent staff. There was continental breakfast, a wonderful lunch and coffee, lots and lots of coffee each day. There was also tea and water.
Every workshop or seminar started and ended on time, which I always appreciate. The presenters where interesting and the vendors where friendly and helpful. There was lots of opportunity to network and get to know others within our own community and there was quite a diverse community represented at this conference. There was even a cocktail reception on Wednesday evening to encourage networking and get people meeting each other. The whole event was very well thought out and orchestrated.

Who did I meet?
Day 1
I went to Alan Houser's workshop on "Task analysis and information modeling for DITA". I've had the pleasure of hearing Alan speak at our STC chapter before and I knew I was going to leave with something worth while. This was a beginner's look at the structure of DITA. Because the audience was not all beginners the questions where compelling and thought provoking. It was an excellent introduction to the conference, starting me on the path to thinking not just how content gets used but why it gets reused and the value of both.

The keynote speaker was Salim Ismail and I really enjoyed his look at "The Future of XML Publishing: Understanding Web 2.0 | Internet 3.0". Salim is a great presenter. He got me thinking about documentation in a whole new way. Content is moving towards open, available usage. He says, "ownership of data is not the key" and I believe he is right. The more we open up our content to other authors the more valuable it becomes. If the resolution of issues for our FAQ's are being written by the customers then we give back real-life solutions to our audience. His tie in with XML and its realtime searchability made these solutions seem very powerful.

The first morning session was in a question and answer format. Kit Brown, Brenda Huettner and Char James-Tanny spoke about "Keeping your Sanity While Managing Virtual Teams". There was no shortage of questions for them and their insight into working with people all over the country was valuable.

The second morning session I went to see the tool snapshots. This presentation followed a very strict timeline, each vendor got 25 minutes to demonstrate the value of their application. What an opportunity to see different companies' products side-by-side.

Robert Rose was the first presenter I saw in the afternoon of Day 2. He was probably the best presenter of the conference, and that is saying a lot since there were some very good speakers. Robert has a great sense of humour that he is able to work smoothly into his topics. His presentation, "From Chaos to Clarity: How Web 2.0 Delivers on the Promise of Content Control" was just as it promised. It helped add one more layer of clarity to the puzzle I was trying to put together. Every presentation got me closer to a solution for my clients.

I decided I wanted to hear Salim Ismail speak again. In the second afternoon presentation Salim presented "Creating Structured Content With Blogs: How to Leverage Syndication on the Web.... - He was well worth listening to a gain and I am taking his advice to heart. There is so much more I can do, but one step at a time.

The Cocktail Reception and Technology Showcase ran from 5pm - 7pm. Most people attended. It was a great networking event. After the reception one of the venders had a special dinner for their clients and those that had attended their session in the morning. It was another fabulous opportunity to get to speak to so many people working in the industry, both as software vendors and as technical writers. Although it was only 11pm when I got to bed, it felt more like 2pm Toronto time, which was the time my internal clock was still set to. It was a late night. But I was still up at 4am the next morning.

Day 3
I started the day with "Metadata, Taxonomies, and Information Architecture: Putting the Pieces Together to Create an Effective User Experience", being presented by Seth Earley. This was one of those seminars that you really need to be awake for. I was running on 3 nights of 6 hours or less and I found it very hard to concentrate on the technical nature of this topic.

Before lunch I sat in on "The XML Word Processor: Moving the Masses to Structured XML Authoring", presented by Michael Boses. Unfortunately his presentation and backup presentation where riddled with technical difficulties. It was hard to listen to and follow his distracted fumblings so I cut out on that presentation. I was interested in seeing how clean the XML was when created in Word, if it was at all... maybe next time.

At lunch I watched a presentation by FrameMaker Evangelist RJ Jacquez. RJ promised to do a short introduction to the power of FrameMaker before allowing his colleague (sorry I did not get his card) to spend most of the time discussing how to create structured and XML documents as well as DTD's. RJ got a little carried away and spent most of their allotted time discussing important but elementary FrameMaker functions which left his colleague with little more than enough time to rush through the most interesting part of the presentation. Luckily he was very quick and thorough. I got a lot out of this demonstration.

I think this is the key to how I can help my clients. They are too small to be able to afford a complete CMS / single sourcing system, but they need to begin by creating structured documents. By starting them with FrameMaker I can get them headed down the path of structured authoring, while saving them money immediately on translation costs. As they grow, the transformation of legacy documents to a fully structured XML system will be less painful than it would coming from a Word environment. Brilliant!

I had met some very wonderful people at this meeting. We had a second opportunity to spend some time together at the art gallery and get to know each other better, which was a fabulous bonus of the conference.

Day 4
Today was a half day workshop. I chose to listen to Bernard Aschwanden speak on "Demystifying DITA: An Introduction to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture". Bernard has an interesting perspective on the industry. He has a lot of experience with many of the vendors and applications. He spoke about structured writing with reference to all the applications he has used.

Bernard is very intense, filling every possible moment from 8:00am to 12:00pm with information, allowing only two very short regimented breaks. Overall an interesting perspective on applications and lots of solid information on DITA, well worth the time.

What did I take away?
I want to increase the value of my clients' companies by providing them with a system that will give them more control of the information they are sharing internally and externally, provide more accountability for their regulatory audits and save them time and money in product development and translation.

Remember I only had the opportunity of seeing 1/3 of the presenters at this meeting. There was so much to choose from it was sometimes disappointing to know you had missed something that also had value.

I give this conference a 5 out of 5.

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