The Getting Things Done workshop at TCUK15

At the TCUK15 conference this year, John Kearney and I gave a workshop covering some techniques for “Getting Things Done” as well as general productivity tips. All of this was aimed at helping our technical communicator peers get all the things done.

Prior to the conference, we sent out some optional homework.

  1. You can start by looking at Karen’s TCUK14 slides. Note the link on the last slide that goes to a bigger reference list on her website.
  2. That brings us to the second homework item: Reading about the science behind GTD.
  3. Think about a project (or the pile of stuff you need to do) that you can bring to the workshop. Having a real-life example to work with is ideal. You can bring it on an electronic device or in a notebook or just a few sheets of paper.
  4. Consider bringing a “GTD tool” with you to the workshop. A notebook and a pen is just fine. If you are bringing an electronic device, try downloading Evernote or OneNote. Both are free and very popular to use for organising tasks. We’ll use them to demonstrate GTD principles, but it’ll be up to you to find what tool or method works best for you. After all, you are the one getting things done! By the way, if you are already using a tool that you rather like, bring it along for a show-and-tell during the workshop.

The workshop slides are on SlideShare, which will please those of you who have asked for them. The rest of this blog post is the raw (and very long) script that we put together for structuring the workshop. It grew from our discussions and planning sessions on Skype, Google Docs, and Twitter DMs! Thank goodness for technology when two speakers live in two different countries! By the way, the script is not verbatim.

We welcome your questions in the comments.

Part 1 – Introductions

Welcome to the GTD workshop for technical communicators! Note: We use GTD as the abbreviation for getting things done, but our talk is also about general productivity, not just the David Allen stuff. It’s just easier to refer to the whole thing today as GTD.

Karen

Normally I eschew intros. Participants want substance immediately, not CVs. However, this intro tells a story. I think GTD (Getting Things Done) is a journey, a life-long path, if you will. This is the story of my journey and of John’s journey. I’ve told the story of my start on this path in my GTD presos in 2014. A chance remark from a colleague at work during a slightly hectic time with deadlines in 2013 made me realise I was losing CONTROL (remember that word) and PERSPECTIVE (remember that word). With my colleague’s help, which I fortunately had the courage to ask for, I went back to reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, and actually read it and started implementing its ideas.

I also realised that the bigger picture was about my productivity. It wasn’t just GTD tips and tricks from David Allen. It was about any and every step I could take to stay in CONTROL of my work and maintain the appropriate PERSPECTIVE on my work – past, present, and future. I became more conscious of how I did my work and learned to think more about how and where I could improve my work processes. My goal was to truly enjoy my work and not reach burnout, exhaustion. To achieve or re-gain my creative skills and have fun.

I used to brag how I could always get the job done whether I had 2 hours or 2 weeks. I’d deliver something under whatever constraints there were. I was a prof. writer, after all. Using styles and templates meant I was already a step ahead, right? I did deliver, but often by using weekends and evenings and getting drained. This began to irritate Spare-Time Karen. She wanted to read books, meet her friends, see an exhibition, but work always interrupted. Work priorities ate up spare-time priorities. And Information-Junkie Karen kept finding new things to investigate. The work/life workload was getting out of control and way out of balance.

John

So, how did I get interested in this?

I’m the kind of person who has a hyperactive mind. I like variety in my worklife, and enjoy juggling problems and commitments. The issue with that is that it’s not a very good model for working when a huge pile of work arrives on your desk, or when you volunteer for something, and so on and so forth.

Also, I could use some discipline when it comes to getting into the things that interest me. When I’m at TCUK, my brain is on fire when I think of all the new things I’m learning and all the ideas I’m having. I love it, and it keeps drawing me back.

The problem is that in the weeks that follow all my good intentions to blog about it, to Storify my tweets, to write up a report to share with my colleagues, all those cool things are just so hard to pin down. Why? Because I’m constantly moving on to the next thing that interests me.

In GTD, I saw an opportunity to learn about something that could help me harness this energy. So, when Karen and I were talking about TCUK15, I suggested tentatively that perhaps we could run a workshop on this. To my delight, she jumped at the idea, and here we are.

So from my point of view, I’m still at the “joy of discovery” stage. I know that I’m starting to have really good results with GTD, but I need to learn more. When David Allen said “We teach what we need to learn,” that really struck a chord with me. So that’s why I’m here, and I hope to learn things from this workshop too.

Part 2 – Our first exercise

[Based a lot on this TEDxAmsterdam 2014 video of David Allen.]

We want to kick off this workshop and your understanding of the Getting Things Done models with a little exercise. Please hold your questions for a little while.

David Allan talks a lot about “mind like water” in his writing and his presentations. It’s a martial arts reference, and it sounds vaguely familiar to me from other contexts. Think how water in a pond behave when you throw a pebble into it. The pebble goes plonk, ripples flow outward, and then all is still again. The same happens if you throw a big rock into the water. The water takes in the interruption and is then smooth again soon after. It’s this concept he refers to. The pebbles and rocks that approach your mind are emails, calls, plans, and much more. Can you absorb them calmly, or do you duck and run? David Allen says that having his mind in this state lets him be himself and handle whatever is thrown at him. He trusts he will be able to handle things appropriately thanks to his GTD toolkit.

We’re going to work with ways to get you to the “mind like water” stage.

Right now, think about something that is coming up in your future. Planning a party, planning a presentation, writing a new user manual, whatever. Think. Close your eyes if that helps and think what is uppermost in your mind. Maybe this thing is always on your mind, but it’s actually draining you – you continue to postpone working on it, and you haven’t yet taken any action on it. It’s just there and nagging you. That would mean it is driving you and you are not driving it! You are not “thinking about it appropriately so you can appropriately manage it”.

By writing it down, you’ll soon see that you are actually a planning machine! At least your brain is. It uses what David Allen calls the natural planning model, as you’ll soon discover.

PURPOSE: Now look at your topic, what you wrote and ask yourself: what is the main reason this exists? What is its primary PURPOSE? Write that down. You need to start out with a real purpose, a real intention that you want or need to have happen. That Christmas party needs to happen. That manual needs to be written. Why? For what purpose? Writing stuff down helps you get more ideas. You commit something to paper and free up some space in your head for more thinking. Oh, and if you wrote that your topic is writing a manual and the purpose is “because my boss told me to”, think again. We’ll get back to that. J

VISION: The step that follows PURPOSE is VISION. What is your vision of success? Write it down. What would mean success for you? How would you describe it? The Christmas party greatly improves the poor relationships between those 3 departments. That new user manual is praised by a previously negative customer as being the best user manual they have ever come across. If you said “my boss told me to” with writing a user manual, you may be hard pressed to come up with a vision. Maybe there is a message there. Maybe you know the new user manual is not what is really needed. Maybe that is why the project has been haunting you. By thinking through the steps we are taking now, you may be able to redefine a project where appropriate. Maybe the project is really “convince boss we need embedded videos in our help”, its purpose is to finally heed the many requests you have encountered for providing videos about handling the foobar because it is too darn tricky to just write in words, and thus, your vision becomes hoards of ecstatic customers heaping praise on you (or rather, your company) on Twitter. Perhaps the second vision is that you are ask to head up a department for new types of documentation deliverables.

IDEAS: Whatever you come up with, you mostly likely have a vision of a reality that definitely does not match your current reality. But your brain already realizes there is a discrepancy. The brain is trying to fix this by generating all kinds of potentially useful ideas. You are having a brain storm. J Ideas are popping up randomly. Now write down whatever pops into your mind now that could be potentially relevant to your project or topic – assuming that you actually want it to occur. Take a few moments to do this.

STRUCTURE: While ideas are popping up all over the place, another part of you starts creating a structure out of those ideas. You’ll think logically, critically, rationally. You evaluate. “I should do X before I do that idea.” “This idea is more important than that idea.” You’ll figure out what are the better ideas, the more important ideas, the first things you need to do. You’ll figure this all out based on sequences and patterns that you are probably already familiar with, or priorities that you know. Right now, just choose the 3 most important things that you need to deal with – just a simple little plan from the ideas you had in the previous step. Your tendency to begin structuring means that if you are planning a party, you are thinking about which restaurant to pick and who to invite. You begin to consider which of those two things you need to do first.

NEXT ACTION: The last step now is to figure out what the very next action should be. What must be the first step in this project? If you had to actually start this project right now, what is the very next action you need to take. It must be a physical, visible action. “Set up meeting with Bob” is not good enough. It would be “Book meeting room A in Outlook for the 25th of next month for meeting with Bob”. Write down your very next action.

This is what David Allen calls the natural planning model.

How many of you feel that you have gotten something done just now? That you have a definite next action or at least have used a few moments constructively thinking about a situation in your life?

This is often a step we skip. Few of us take time to think things through like this. We should relax and trust our brains to help us out with this natural planning model.

Unfortunately, most people do what he calls the unnatural planning model. There’s a problem at work, and the manager calls all team members together to brainstorm: who has a good idea. But that is stage 4. You don’t know what a good idea is until stage 4 and you just met! THIS is why people resist. Quite naturally. Or they “get busy” to look like they’re doing something because they don’t really know why they are doing something! There is no planning, no clarity, and trouble erupts along with pressure and stress. You end up in reactive planning mode.

David Allen says it’s not a matter of whether you do the natural mode, but when and at what cost. Do you let everything fall apart, call in a consultant out of desperation, and then the consultant says, “What’s the thing you all have to do and why?” David Allen says we “get busy” or panic because our greatest fear is the fear of being out of control. We don’t want to make mistakes or be wrong. Has anyone ever spoken up in a big business meeting and asked “I don’t understand what this is about”? Few ever do. Most people don’t trust that they know how to plan. We are afraid to jump into anything we don’t feel like we can engage with. Fear. Anxiety. Worry. Frustration. We have got to recondition ourselves. By trying this natural planning model, you should be able to get on top of anything and get a lot more creative space and remove that pressure.

Prioritising is also crucial. It does NOT create more time, but it adds more significance to what you need to do. What I can do today that will make the future better.

Having good habits in place is what helps us survive the rough spots.

Part 3 – So what is GTD?

GTD is basically about self-management, which Google calls “management of or by oneself; the taking of responsibility for one’s own behaviour and well-being.”

The keys to self-management according to David Allen are CONTROL and PERSPECTIVE.

It’s about emptying your head – freeing your mind – to do all the fun stuff – or to actually get your work done. 🙂

The concepts are for everyone, but how you apply them is up to you. Your measure of success is how YOU, not anyone else, feel each day. Today is just an intro to the concept of GTD. Your real exploration comes when you go back to your office or home.

The natural planning model is just one level of the GTD universe. To explain more about GTD, let’s zoom into the workflow David Allen developed.

It can take a day to get through all these steps the very first time you dive in. When you get into the rhythm, the workflow becomes a natural part of your daily routine taking only a few minutes or “happening automatically”.

  1. Gathering. Collect EVERYTHING to get things out of your head or off your desk where they are causing you stress. It’s all the stuff life is throwing at you all the time.
  2. Processing. This is using David Allen’s question “Is it actionable or not?”
    • No: eliminate (trash), incubate (someday/maybe), retrievable (reference)
    • Yes: Then what is the NEXT ACTION?

      1. Defer it
      2. Delegate it (good skill to learn)
      3. Do it. (Note: 2 min. tasks should be done immediately, but when first starting, many 2-min. tasks can add up to hours, defeating the purpose. First time? Just collect them.)

      As you process, skip nothing. Setting aside for later sets you up for more work.

  3. Now organise and prioritise. E.g. in the pile of customer visit information you’ve gathered and processed, what can you do first? When I did this, my next action was “Ask Frank who in sales can I speak to about finding the appropriate customer to visit”. All I needed to do was talk to Frank. When I had spoken to him, the next action popped up almost by itself.
  4. Now everything is ready for review. Review regularly! This is hard! It helps you always stay on top of things – which is the CONTROL part. The hard part comes from your brain continuing to keep a list in your head.
  5. When all is in place, you can begin to Do – and get things done. What you are doing includes the “next actions” from all of the above. Remember that next actions must be very specific. The key to getting things done is having next actions that are tangible, physical actions. You do not need major insight to do these things. That would take too much time. You need your time for the big things like what’s the meaning of life. Next actions should move you ahead. When you are not specific, you can flounder and have nagging thoughts about the incompleteness. Should I call, should I email, should I stop by the office or the desk? On and on. And if you cannot find a specific physical action, maybe that is a sign that something is wrong and you need to go back in the workflow to figure out why. It’s like a built-in QA test on your project.

Look back at this list

  • Gathering
  • Processing
  • Organising
  • Reviewing
  • Doing

and notice how CONTROL and PERSPECTIVE are present in these steps.

Your processing and prioritisation come from knowing the purpose, vision, etc. for your projects. By mastering this workflow, you gain the necessary control for following the visions of your projects.

Control is conscious, focused engagement, that makes you aware of all options at any one time and place.

Perspective is being aligned and clear about decisions, directions, and priorities. It’s also the level of your focus. Are you way up at 50,000 ft thinking about the purpose, or are you down on the ground working on next actions? Or somewhere in-between at the level of the vision, projects, etc. Perspective is how you control your tasks. If you need to get more things happening in your projects, lower the level. If you are losing perspective, elevate the level. You need the right level for your tasks.

You can work on getting the balance between control and perspective for the rest of your life, if you wish, and it doesn’t add to your “burden” of things to do. You hone and refine and learn from working on these things, and you should see improvement over time. At first, it can all seem abstract, but over time, you should find it provides a framework. This UX newsletter that I never read. Maybe I should unsubscribe because I am not working with UX right now and intend to go in this other direction? Or, I want to transition to UX because that is one of my major life projects, so perhaps I should make time for reading it regularly. And thus, you process according to your decisions.

Technical communicators need skills to be able to adapt without losing control and getting stressed or ill from the turbulence. Try these GTD skills and other productivity skills and see whether they can be the support to get you through your work more efficiently or to help you transition to new career choices. They can help you get back on the GTD wagon when you fall off.

  • Do your 2-min. tasks when they pop up
  • Do a daily and weekly review

Your energy should go to doing your actual tasks. Be careful that you don’t put too much energy into the administration of those tasks! Learn to let go of what isn’t really relevant and what is not your responsibility. Hanging on to things that are not your responsibility is what adds clutter to your mind.

David Allen summed up his general philosophy in an Atlantic article: it’s to “make as few plans as you can, capture every single thing that is potentially meaningful, and make sure you’ve got the appropriate maps (or lists) to be able to know where to focus.”

Part 4 – How does – or can – GTD apply to Techcomm?

So how does GTD apply to Techcomm? We looked at our own lives and came up with some ideas from our own experiences.

John

  1. Juggling the demands of content for two applications, with two working models. For one, the developers provide much of the content, so I’m a Tech Editor. For the other, the developers know very little about the content. And the releases coincide. I’m not currently using GTD techniques for this, but it’s starting to inform my thinking when it comes to dealing with people. I’m becoming a better and more consistent communicator because of it.
  2. Dealing with helicopter bosses: when landed with a pile of work, you may know the goal, but nothing else. Instead of being paralysed with fear, or frightened into unplanned action, you can map out a GTD list and present your requirements to your boss (and others involved).
  3. Dealing with legacy issues: As a Tech Author, you will likely have complex legacy doc issues landing in your lap. It happened with me recently, when I was asked to find the original document of a PDF sent out the customers by our Support function. I started searching in quite a haphazard way, until I remembered my GTD principles. A really knotty problem became much clearer and easier to handle once I planned things out first.

Karen

  1. Gets you respect from your boss. When you start practising your new productivity/GTD skills, you boss should notice and comment positively. Mine has at my mid-year review. He sees how we can deliver. He also sees how we have the control to speak up in time if there are delays.
  2. Gets you respect from colleagues.
    • Mentioned an improved time-saving process to a remote colleague. Ended up demoing it for 1 hour to him. He has requested a demo to his entire team. Upon hearing that, my boss wants the same demo for the rest of my department.
    • Due to our improved time-saving process (I’ll mention this later), two higher-level managers have definitely gained respect for our methods. I have seen this in their eyes. I believe it will add more weight to our input in future situations. In other words, GTD is what is helping us improve our value.
  3. Can save you from imposter syndrome. (Ensure audience knows what this is: basically, you’re not good enough or not deserving of some praise.) While listening to Riona MacNamara’s talk, “Imposter No More” at the Write The Docs conference recently in Prague, I realised that GTD can help sufferers fight their symptoms. The control you gain removes the feeling of being overwhelmed. It gives you the opportunity to prove your value – even to yourself. A whacked perspective can be what triggers your imposter syndrome, and GTD gives you that perspective back. I think this is a big deal that I am happy to discuss at any time during the remainder of the conference.
  4. If some of my earlier points haven’t made it clear, your lists and processes are your work externalised. People can see these things. You can respond quickly to requests for status info and the like. You aren’t digging for that needle in the haystack because your haystack is all ship-shape. It shows people you are in control.

So, based on what you have heard so far, and regardless of how much you know about GTD prior to this workshop, do you have ideas for how GTD can apply to techcomm?

Break for 15 minutes

Part 5 – Examples from real life from Karen & John

  1. I use colour-coding of my email along with some categories. Both are features of Outlook, but Gmail has labels and stars that are quite similar. I’ve gone from a black and white wall of meaningless text in my inbox to a mild colour variation – not a lot, but just enough so that I can process some mails more easily and much faster than before. Find out whether you can do something like this in your mail client.
  2. I add hashtags to my Outlook mails. Yes, you can actually edit subject lines for received emails. You can do the same to Gmail, but that requires you to make a reply or forward, say, to yourself. This is my taxonomy, or folksonomy, that helps me retrieve information when needed using keywords that are meaningful to me. The search facility in Outlook and in Gmail are so powerful, but the hashtags ensure your mail has the right keyword for a search.
  3. I often send my emails to OneNote (at work) or Evernote (at home). OneNote has a button for this and Evernote provides you with a unique mail address. In OneNote, I then store the message in a suitable folder. Examples are Flare tips, especially those that include .exe or .bat files. Less suitable to store in email. Better to store in OneNote where I can add info about the tool or tip. Having an easy way to send mails to your productivity tool is great. Oh, and I delete the copy in Outlook. No need for it.
  4. The big GTD tool in my life is being presented here at TCUK15 on Wednesday at 2.30 PM. My colleague, Mattias Sander, will explain how he set up Flare to not only be our authoring tool, but also our work management tool. Basically, we put our to-do list inside our authoring tool and I cannot express enough how awesome it is. I can see at a glance where I am on a particular project: writing stage, reviewing stage, editing stage, etc. And when I am done, I am done-done, as they say in Agile. Let Mattias explain it all if you are interested. Suffice it to say, we have a tool that truly helps us do our work and eliminates wasteful steps in the documentation workflow.
  5. Having the structure of GTD helps you if you have fallen off the wagon. It gives you a place to climb back on. It can also calm you during panic attacks.
  6. Prior to our software releases, I book review meetings for what we call domain managers. I do this 2 months or so in advance to ensure I can grab their time. This has worked successfully the last 3 releases. I think it adds to the respect we are gaining.
  7. GTD helped me plan for TCUK! I was delighted when I learned I’d get to present, but then I was terrified. It was Chris Atherton who helped me refocus using the GTD model when she asked me what the key takeaway of my presentation would be; what vision or idea did I want to share? I.e. what was my purpose and vision? The required tasks just fell out of the process naturally from there, relieving my anxiety, and making the entire process easier.
  8. Of course, it’s not just about work! I have a plan to take a holiday in New Zealand and Australia, based around the World Masters Games in Auckland in April 2017. Now, normally I might think of this event as being so far in the future that I don’t need to worry about it, and deal with occasional spikes of anxiety as I suddenly realised it was time to pay my entry fee, book my tickets, etc. With GTD, I can simply draw up my plan, deal with the things I need to now, and simply come back to the list on a regular basis.

Part 6 – Tools and Methods

  1. Squeeze ball for reading! Helps you focus. Also, small bean-bag ball to toss in air or back-and-forth for focus. Techniques to help you stay focused when you read.
  2. Noise-cancelling headphones. Oh.Em.Gee says I. Sensitive to sound? Worth every expensive penny. Also helps with focus.
  3. Have a tool that works for you: Evernote, OneNote, Things for Mac, Remember the Milk, Todoist, Tasks in Outlook or Gmail, Paper and Pen! Note that Evernote, OneNote, and Things support GTD directly. I don’t know about others.
  4. Set up folders in your mail client or electronic notebook, or a physical file or notebook for:
    1. Next actions
    2. Waiting for
    3. Projects
    4. Someday/Maybe
    5. Reference
  5. Scan or photograph objects, sketches, whiteboard scribbles so you can save them electronically. (I also do this with receipts, guarantees.) Advantage is that you can now tag them wherever you store them. The image itself is not searchable (image, duh!) in, say, Evernote, but you add tags like #NewManual #whiteboard #TOC #Version6, and you’re set.
  6. Record or dictate ideas, rather than jotting them down on paper or electronic paper. Walking down the street, coming out of the shower? Grab your phone and record for later transcription, or dictate with e.g. dictate feature in iPhone. It’s about emptying your head ASAP!
  7. “Clip” things from the web: links, quotes, articles, but do it consistently so you remember where to find them – and then tag them. Evernote and OneNote have clipping tools for your desktop or browser. There are others out there. It’s crucial to maintain the source of your clipping, too.
  8. Use a little paper notebook. I mention this specifically because David Allen made an interesting point in the Atlantic article that I agree with. Digital risks being out of sight and out of mind. You don’t see the pile of stuff you need to do, and you can overlook things. You need discipline to check your electronic devices for your work to ensure nothing goes bad. And it can be awfully nice to have luscious paper and a gorgeous pen to work with. Also, you don’t need to worry about batteries. 🙂
  9. Make lists to organise by context – called siloing. Some say it’s great, but it takes getting used to. These lists don’t replace project plans, but help track your next actions without the need to dig through each project to find a note to “call Frank”. Typical GTD thing to do in notebook, Evernote, OneNote, wherever. David Allen recommends these as starters:

    1. Agendas
    2. Anywhere
    3. Calls
    4. Computer
    5. Errands
    6. Home
    7. Office
    8. Waiting for
    9. Someday Maybe
    10. Projects

    Instead of putting a note on the calendar to call the plumber (which I often do), you add it to your call list. Then, when you have time to make phone calls, you call the plumber, order theater tickets, book dentist appointment in the same workflow. Add note to bring up financing your TCUK15 trip with boss to your agenda list. I find errands to be handy for those non-milk-and-eggs purchases. If you heard about a new tea shop or office supply shop, put them on the errands list and you might finally remember them next time you are out shopping. If you use this structure, use it diligently, and you will remember to check it each time you get home, get to the office, have a moment to make calls, go shopping, go to meetings.

  10. The terror of unstructured time! In my experience, one of the hardest things to do is to deal with a large amount of time when you have a long lists of tasks or jobs. You can end up cherrypicking easy tasks, or worse you can get distracted and end up leaving things until the last minute. I’ve found the twenty-minute trick to work really well here, at home and at work: I set a timer on my phone, or perhaps put on a podcast or a selection of music I know lasts around twenty minutes, and then I focus on burning through a task or small group of tasks in that time. This really focuses the mind, gives you that impending deadline feeling! And between periods, you can stretch, make a cuppa, check email, before starting again. If I do this at work, I definitely go home with a feeling of genuine accomplishment.

Part 7 – Hands-on – Go get things done

Now it’s your turn for the next 45 minutes. You don’t have the luxury of doing this where it really matters – at your desk or wherever you need to get things done. However, we hope you have a clear idea in your head of where you need to start work. If you brought material with you on a laptop, or just want to use paper and pen, great.

Think about the points we’ve made here and see what you can do to improve productivity in your life and get more things done. Call on us if you want some input. Bathroom breaks as needed during this time.

Work on your own, if you prefer, or work with others.

After 45 minutes, we’ll encourage you to share some of your ideas. You are welcome to just continue working, but if you discovered something on your own or after talking with others, we’d love to have you share your discovery with the whole group.

Part 8 – Sharing

Sharing is really crucial to learning even more about GTD. You will do your own thing, but when you share ideas, you inspire others and get inspiration for yourself.

Part 9 – What’s next?

We’ve been gathering, processing, organising, prioritising. Now we get to “do”. What are we going to do next? What is YOUR next action after this workshop?

You could practise on the conference itself:

  1. Blog about TCUK15 by a certain date.
  2. Write a single-author or multi-author article for Communicator! in one year’s time about how gaining control of your work, while maintaining your perspective has helped with a career change, job promotion, job hunt, etc.
  3. Make some new knowledge gained here at TCUK15 the focus of a project where you will apply GTD to master the skills for your job.

Or you could apply GTD to another sphere:

  1. Plan your next project.
  2. Sort your backlog of work.
  3. Plan a foreign trip!

Additional references with notes from our workshop preparation

My first UA Europe conference – but not my last!

I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to visit Krakow. A brand new city and country for me to visit. Yay! It involved attending (and speaking at) a technical communication conference. Mixing a conference and tourism is my geeky idea of a vacation.

UA Europe is a technical communication conference held in different cities around Europe each year. This year, Krakow was host to the event. I flew in the night before the conference began (like, at midnight) and stayed on for 2 days for some sightseeing. The Technical Documentation Manager from my company attended the conference, too, so we split the session between us. This blog post is a summary of the talks I attended. The notes are lightly cleaned up raw scribbles. If I had any thought bubbles to share publicly, I include them here in square brackets. If I take time to edit these raw scribbles into a better narrative, this post will be dated 2015…

Matthew Ellison welcomes us

After breakfast in the hotel and registration with the friendly faces behind UA Europe, we were ready for Matthew Ellison’s welcome speech. He introduced a cute quiz in our bags. There was a list of 17 music bands – one for each of the countries represented at UA Europe. Actually, we only had a thumbnail of the bands. We had to 1) figure out which country they represented and 2) figure out what technical communication “thing” they represented. You see, we had to fill in our areas of interest with our registration. If I wrote “MadCap Flare”, one of those thumbnails represented Flare and was on my name badge. We could look for others who had the same thumbnails and know that we had at least one area of interest in common. This was a great idea and I had fun trying to figure out what areas of interest were represented in one of the groups I was in at one point during the day. I think I had one right – and I forgot to turn in my slip for the competition. Oh well!

Who are we? A mirror for UA professionals – Welinske

Joe Welinske, WritersUA, started the show with a walk-through of his famous (in the world of technical communication) surveys and their results. (It’s worthwhile signing up for his low-volume newsletter, which will also notify you about the surveys and the results of those surveys.)

Various snippets from the presentation. Interviewing is number 2 in the list of things techcomm’ers do all day.

He used to have a question about doing indexes. Now he split the old index question into search and index. Gave 28% and 48% split as a result.

He was surprised content reuse hasn’t changed much – now 63%.

Usability testing is only 39% which he also thinks is low.

DITA now 21% and has slowly been rising.

He has been combining HTML and CSS, but will split it next year to break that down.

He sees more need for techcomm knowing programming languages and scripts. Those ranked at 10% and 7% only. [I see the problem as being time for on the job training.]

24% use HTML help which was last modified by MS in 1998!!!

In the next survey, he’ll break apart the browser-based help to get more granular.

PDF Manuals 77%. 22% do print. [I wonder if he connects it to the industry – manufacturing is probably strong here.]

Social site are increasing to 13% [wonder if those people also use it privately – any correlation?]

Wikis at 2% but many use internally and not as open forums. [I wonder about use of mobile platforms vs country and culture. He said Windows Phone is popular in Poland, so I wonder if that influences what platform products are developed on.]

Agile and DITA are growing. [I wonder if he should also have TBA listed as a variant of DITA.] Microsoft and Amazon are now starting to use DITA

[Seems he doesn’t have many respondents that have only a few years experience. [I wonder if he is just not reaching the younger audience. Ask him if he knows that Scott Abel is looking to get in touch with those under 30.]
[Mette asked about his EU salaries and perhaps getting more EU input. Maybe ISTC and Cherryleaf could help promote it more to get more data from EU.]

Responsive web design in user assistance – Self

Dr Tony Self, HyperWrite, talked about responsive vs. adaptive. Ethan (Marcotte) did responsive and Aaron (Gustafson) did adaptive. Tony says adaptive is broader in scope. Adaptive uses JavaScript and browser sniffing.

[I think there is some nervousness about browser sniffing in the screen reader community but I can’t remember the details. I know I’ve seen tweets from Jennison Ascunion and Leonie Watson about this.]

[I really need to check out media queries some more]

Progressive enhancement is the responsive way to do things.

Mobile first is more a mindset thing. [Thought of Janet Swisher’s “Mobile Matters Most” phrase.]

He says adaptive is good, but responsive is better.

Remember to base breakpoints on content.

Showed Chrome Emulation Mode Tool in Developer Tools in the Chrome browser.

You design for viewport browsers and don’t have to worry about new platform builds.

Loads of example grids in this article from Design Instruct.

Practical HTML5/CSS3 for real writers – Gash

Dave Gash, HyperTrain is a code guy, not a concepts guy. Looks at HTML5 CSS3 from techcomm angle. we focus on content and HTML5 provide elements for that.
(typable is not typing but semantic typing)

Have to discuss semantics here. Not much semantics in HTML but there is a lot in HTML5. DIVitis in HTML4 that has no semantics. Doesn’t tell you the organisation you intended.

HTML5 took HTML4 divs with ids and class and turns them into HTML5 elements. HTML5 elements are what they mean, they are semantic. Remember: HTML5 elements don’t do anything! They have to wait to be styled. (Remember separating form from content). This is the heart of structured authoring.

He’s not a fan of browser specific features in CSS3. Prefers things to work across all browsers.

[He makes me think he could do a CSS3 Zen Garden for TechComm.]

I like his link-nudging thingy.

Wanted to explain that divs with independent classes can be overdone in HTML and therefore you lose sight of your structure with div div div. Must look and read classes to understand the structure of your page.

His take on mixed case: dislikes immensely because it causes problems. You have a harder time troubleshooting.

Prefers use of dependent classes/selectors because it is safer.

Contextual or ‘descendent selectors’ (new term). Means the second element listed after a space will only get something applied only when it is inside the previous element and possibly where that previous element specifies the class. E.g.: ‘aside.navsidebar img’

Key point he had in parting:

Remember, learning new stuff is good for everyone: you, your users, your company

[I told him about using WAI-ARIA. He didn’t know about it, but was immediately curious to learn more.]

Designing transactions successfully – Atherton

Dr Chris Atherton, Equal Experts, works with a part of gov.uk. They said they had to be accessible, usable, assisted digital, mobile. Assisted digital is helping users help themselves.

She was told she had to do user research almost every other week.

Shareable pain – film people using something and then show the film clip to the powers that be. That has a lot of power to change people’s mind.

First point: How to improve readability and usability by limiting page content. People can only take in so many things at once.

Nice transition from page full of questions to a page with one question only. Then save and continue button.

Not many in the room are doing discussions about, say, how to make forms cleaner like this example.

Great slide about war crimes. Perfect for some plain language treatment. When is less more or enough.

Snowflake pattern – I’m a snowflake, I am special. Like progressive disclosure.

Get it wrong a lot early on is my best advice

Hint text – to help you decide what to answer and hint text to help you understand the question. Subtle difference.

Dislikes free form field because it is hard to parse for the admin handling the form.

Trying hard to show only what’s relevant.

Talked about the name field that is culturally challenging.

They have to ask for Titles Mr, Mrs, etc. because a backend system requires it! We shouldn’t design for the systems, but for the people!!

Use visible navigation to frame users understanding of what’s going on and just where they are.

Cool explanation about discussing patterns to find a good nav.

A case study of enhanced user assistance in the GUI – Khurana and Tiwari

Rajesh Khurana and Rajeev Kumar Tiwari, Ericsson India Global Services presented this case study.

Wanted to place an icon in the GUI that can show context sensitive video help is available. They have traditional ? as help icon, but now have video icon to open video on right of screen to describe just the context.

Have challenges with authorisations for showing videos. User with 4 specific authorisations should only see those 4 videos.

Video reuse – for 1st time users and embedded in GUI. In other words, in different channels. Have challenges in hand-held devices because there can simply be too much info at once and not enough screen real estate.

Videos can make the application heavy, but can consider streaming.

They work in agile so they are planning their videos accordingly.

Designing user assistance for mobile business apps – van Weelden

Willam van Weelden, WvanWeelden Consultancy talked about just in time and just enough with embedded in UA. UA = user experience design. BYOD = Bring your own backdoor!!

Interesting to see the bailiff app and how security is crucial here. Showed how architecture is crucial for IT to ensure that the security is OK.

Discusses IT vs End users. IT used to tech – tools are their job. End users’ tools are just that – tools. What people think – apps are simple and not more need for support/UA.

Argues that help takes you out of the app. Separate is a bad idea. We only alleviate pain but don’t take it away!

Our creating manuals today costs money and doesn’t make sales.

Shows what he calls halfway there – opening an app that has 5-6 screens with walkthrough of what you _can_ do.

We need a new paradigm: user experience design. Customer buys the entire experience.

Thinks of interface as user assistance in itself! Becomes just in time and just enough. Always up to date and helping without being intrusive.

Best is if no one ever thanks you or notices your manual. !! Then it must be integrated well. He says if they thank you and say how the manual has helped them understand and use the product then it means the product is actually crap and you saved them and something – the entire system – is not a good experience.

Took him 1.5 years to get people to listen to him in his company. Now they listen to him and they get a better product.

UX design goes beyond service design thinking he says.

Ray’s comment is that we are all designing for user experience.

Embedded Help: nuts and bolts – Gash

We’re on to Day 2 now. Dave Gash, HyperTrain, shared the actual actual “how-to” for making embedded help.

Create content in, e.g., Flare. Each page in Flare has a unique element
Content has DITA –> Output is HTML

Just identify the pieces you want to grab and show in your application.
These must be accessible to the Web app.

Web app is JS code. He wants to read, extract, assemble, and embed.

Did one run-through with HTML which was alway a bit at high-level. Now he is showing XML. Looks almost the same, but he gives a more granular help. More specific.

He says EditPlus is a good HTML/XML editor because it has useful extra features to help check tags are done well, etc.

Uses unique IDs for the content elements.

He likes the .innerHTML attribute. [Must investigate.]

His way to improve the XML help would be to load the entire XML file into a variable so that is all accessible and available already for whever he clicks and asks for help.

He has a slide with differences. He won’t say which is better. It will depend on the situation. THe last point is interesting, thought. HTML requires build process. XML doesn’t.

Getting to know users – Atherton

Dr Chris Atherton, Equal Experts, says everyone has to start somewhere. But hard to put yourself in the position of someone who doesn’t know.

Usability testing on a shoestring. You can start small.

  1. Start with 1 regular user.
  2. Focus on an easy task – what puzzles them

Novices may be shy and feel all is their fault. So, they might not say much, so you have to observe them more than anything.

Check your ego! Just listen.

Let the other person figure it out and encourage them to talk.

Remember to remind them that nothing is their fault.

Brief and debrief

Emphasise that they can help with the good development of the software – it is empowering.

You don’t even need working software.

Scale it up like a pro. After 1 person, try testing with 6-8 people.

Find participants who conform to a relevant trends. E.g. make sure they have similar backgrounds if testing financial software so you know they have a similar basis for performing tasks.

If you can write a script, it can be helpful. Gives you something to lean on.

Note down the best quotes.

Helps, too, to have someone with you because it can be hard to talk and listen to a person while also taking notes.

Quotes can be fascinating. Can be more powerful when talking to colleagues. Also helps to catalog the common problems.

Report back to your dev team. Chris’ does a This Week in UX newsletter. Not everyone has time to document all these things. Make summaries, share a few quotes – her example is 20-50 line emails. Very quick to make and not an extra burden.

Put your important points right at the top. Don’t think chronologically if there is a hot point you want to ensure that people see.

Next level is to run regular testing days. E.g. once per month, once per sprint.

Find real users. They are motivated, even if they don’t realise it. They want good working software.

Record your sessions: Silverback, Camtasia, Screenflow.

She likes the ones that show the user doing the testing so you see them peer into the screen. Says more than any text can say.

Good approach is using post-it notes. Everything you hear or see that sounds good – jot it onto post-it notes. Then do a card-sort and structure, grouping. Leave the post-its where all will see.

Show people the clips – the more painful, the better. (Video clips of users doing testing.)

No wireframe survives contact with the user!

Concrete research findings are easier to act on than guilt feelings!

Knowing your users reduces depersonalisation.

Your benefit from doing usability testing? Quality time with others will improve your mood. Contributing to making your software better helps you feel useful. This is positive feedback.

From user assistance to user guidance (+ Business Intelligence) – Graat

Jang F.M. Graat, JANG Communication, says Business Intelligence is where the money is.

User assistance – minimalism. Only add something to the equation if you absolutely have to – Occam’s Razor!! He “invented” minimalism, says Graat with a smile.

Weakest link is the mind that thinks ‘Oh, I thought…’ Eliminate that from user assistance and turn it into user guidance.

Procedure will lead the user.

Has good slide about getting big data – usability research, customer feedback, service staff reports, surveys.

Jang gave good example of an engineer coming up to an engine that needs repairs and thinking I know what to do, I don’t need to read the help, but they have, despite much experience, not worked on THIS engine before so they can make serious mistakes.

A technical writer’s role in redesigning the application UI – Tkaczyk

Agnieszka Tkaczyk, IBM, gave an excellent presentation. I hope to see and hear more of her in the future.

Tech writers are good people for usability.

She showed a great example of a long, long answer for how to disable SSL, but no one had looked at the interface. All that was needed was ‘clear the Use SSL check box’!!!!

Answers to requests to make good changes: It doesn’t have impact!

Showed how she went through and helped to re-write some UI content.

Cool. When Agnieszka was preparing for her talk and looking for examples, she found inspiration for fixing the UI!
Thanks to the conference she was able to log some errors about the UI which gave her great satisfaction because she was always getting errors logged about documentation.

She showed example of bad design of error information and how she proposed new designs to make the information more clear.

In Q&A, Rajeev said he gets his ideas registered in backlogs so he can record metrics about his worth.

Matthew Ellison, UA Europe – How long is a topic?

He collects examples of help as a hobby.

He’s seen things in help that are cool, but he’s never tried them. That realization surprised him. He wondered if we ever used them and whether it was help at the wrong time.

Evernote added a subject to the note Matthew started at UA conference in Palm Springs.

Articles should be neither too big nor too small – advice from wikipedia on size of articles.

He gives a definition of a topic:

  • 1 idea, 1 topic
  • A tpoic supports 1 task
  • An answer to a question
  • Shortest effective piece of communication

His definition: self-contained cluster of chunks of information, where each piece depends on the others for context, on a single theme with an overall narrative flow.

Topics should have a narrative flow!

The way you link stories together improves the understanding (he referred to a talk by Tom Johnson at a past UA Europe).

Funny anecdote about the related links. He used to think people loved his writing so much they wanted to see more. Now he knows they are mostly surfing and not happy with what they got and they use the links to move elsewhere.

This was a very entertaining talk, but I am not going to give you the answer to how long a topic should be! You can share your answers to the question in the comments.

Conclusion?

This is a nice size crowd with good presentations, but ample opportunity to chat with the other attendees and talk about the nitty-gritty of your daily routines – and your dreams and hopes. I know the 2015 conference – the 10th anniversary conference – will be somewhere in the south of England next year. The location doesn’t matter. I am ready to register as soon as the virtual doors open.

You can see my conference photos over on Flickr. I’ll be posting my post-conference-sightseeing-in-Krakow-area photos in a few days.

By the way, if you love mixing conferences and tourism, too, check out the soap! conference in Krakow 2-3 October 2014. I liked Krakow, and I like the idea of supporting this young technical communication conference. They have an energy that can inspire you in your own techcomm world.

Continuing to get things done – UA Europe conference follow-up

I had the good fortune to give a presentation for UA Conference Europe 6 June where I had a time slot of 45 minutes to share content for a lifetime. My next action after the presentation was to share the various articles that inspired my talk design in the early months of 2014. Not all were directly related, but they all gave me “getting things done” inspiration and got me thinking about the things that I need to or want to get done.

My talk was an introduction to the concept of getting things done. My talk was tool-agnostic, but I am using certain tools: Microsoft OneNote (I use it at work), Evernote (I am user number 640,681 out of the 100 million using the six-year-old app), and Cultured Code’s Things (Mac). Yes, it looks crazy to use three different tools, but it’s working for me so far.

The list of links

That last link has a great quote:

The problem is not that we’ve suddenly started depending on technology, but that the technology we’re depending on is poorly designed, too often focused on making money for its creators at its users’ expense.

I said my “next action” was to write and publish this blog post and yet over two weeks have gone by without me doing it. Well, the key thing was to remember to define this task and put it on my list of next actions. As I point out in my slides, GTD never does the work for you. I still had to sit in front of my computer and do the writing. Life happens. 🙂 Hey, it’s a work in progress – for the rest of my life!

Here are the slides for my presentation:

The conversation is continuing in September at TCUK14 where I will be speaking on the same topic, but with the added experience of 3 more months of getting things done.

If all this getting things done is getting to be too much, take comfort in Hyperbole-and-a-half’s explanation of why she’ll never be an adult.