Press "Enter" to skip to content

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 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.


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.