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.


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.


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.


  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.


  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

Musings on accessibility and usability – my TCUK12 keynote

I had the pleasure and the honor of giving the closing keynote at the recent TCUK conference in Newcastle for the ISTC. I called it “Adaptability: The True Key to Accessibility and Usability?”. This is a short write up to accompany the slides that I have posted from my presentation. For several months, I scribbled notes and dictated ideas into my iPhone. I went to Wikimedia for Creative Commons images (I recommend that). When it came time to do the presentation, I let the photos lead the way and spoke from my heart. I felt I was in the flow, so I really don’t remember all the details of what I said! This is a from-memory text to accompany the text photos for my slides (link at the end of this blog post). It may also be slightly altered from what I said last week. There will be audio at some point. Then we’ll know the truth!

An apology

I apologize for not posting a text version at the same time that I posted the slides. I feel I must practice what I preach and provide all versions at once. No one should have to wait their turn. I partially blame SlideShare. I’m frustrated at their not showing notes in the transcripts. They only pluck out text from the slides and not from the notes where you can have much more substance. Not everyone downloads slides, and that means not everyone can see the notes. I omitted notes from this set, which meant I had more work in preparing this transcript. Not smart. I wish SlideShare would fix this issue.

This is my transcript

Whenever technical communicators gather in a restaurant, menu editing ensues. The night before TCUK12 began was no exception. The menu offered Roast Guinea F o u l. Of course, we were all amused. We technical communicators cannot help editing every single word we see. It’s in our nature. We see writing mistakes everywhere. I feel the same way about accessibility and usability. I see accessibility and usability issues everywhere.

Across the street from where I live, there is, to me, the most annoying walkway. There are decorative cement strips laid across an asphalt base. These strips are raised, so there are curb cuts in some places. I feel there is little smooth transition between the asphalt and the cement, so there are plenty of places to trip for anyone who is not walking carefully or who uses a cane or walker. I am surprised this was approved by the Danish disability society. At least, I was told they approved it. In the winter, it is even worse. The snowplow is not accurate, as shown in my fourth slide, where the plow crossed part of the curb cut and part of the raised cement. The path is not smooth for a wheelchair, a walker, or a baby carriage. This galls me. And it is just one example of how I see accessibility and usability issues in my environment. I want to talk about that and encourage you to do the same.

I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants as I speak to you today. I thought the photo of the Giant’s Causeway illustrated that nicely. I have learned so much about accessibility from people on Twitter in the four years I have been there.

In fact, I have learned that disability is a universal human experience. That is what it says in the WHO quote. If we are all disabled at one point or another in our lives, why don’t we make our world – the physical and the virtual – accessible? I found a series of slides to illustrate how this can be done.

I found a picture of a picnic table where the table extends beyond the length of the benches. This is perfect for a family outing where one person uses a wheelchair. The wheelchair can fit against the table quite nicely so the person using the wheelchair can sit close to the table like everyone else.

The picture of a wheelchair with inflated tires illustrates how someone with a disability can also come out and romp in the snow with friends.

Engineering for Change from MIT has designed a wheelchair that is better suited to places with a rough terrain, such as rural areas.

I love this picture of a young boy doing his homework just like any other young child does today. The chemistry book on his desk indicates the material can be demanding. This boy is able to do his homework because he has a refreshable Braille display so that he can perceive what is on his computer and prepare the required homework. He is realizing his potential regardless of the quality of his eyesight.

The Yahoo! accessibility laboratory displays assistive technology. A monitor shows very large text which is a necessity for some people with certain levels of low vision. A large red button can be used to send commands to the computer by someone who does not have the motor skills to manipulate a mouse.

The photo of @Jennison, a well-known person in the accessibility community on Twitter, shows him listening to something on his laptop. However, the laptop is partially closed. How can that be? He is blind and is using a screen reader. He is listening to the screen reader commands through his earphones. I think this could be a smart trick in a meeting where you can “read” an article with a screen reader when the meeting gets too dull! I think Jennison looks like he is ready to smile, so he is probably up to some similar trick!

All of the slides have shown examples of inclusion where technology has been used as an enabler. It is possible to design from the beginning so that the experience is well done in every way. It should never be slapped on as an afterthought as this ramp seems to be. Someone has ripped up part of some steps and poured cement for a ramp. I think it looks dangerous and would not want to be pushed up the ramp. Sure, it looks accessible, but I don’t trust it.

How would you feel if you did not have access and were excluded from whatever you wanted to do? It’s like coming to payphones in pre-mobile days and finding the telephone ripped off. The device is completely useless. That is what lack of accessibility can mean.

That is when I bring out this favorite quote from Lisa Herrod. “When universal design processes fail to include, consult with, and listen to the people we are actually designing for, we also fail to design effectively.” Design is something we all do – designers, technical communicators, developers. All of us.

That seems to be what happened with the original It was simply not accessible. However, one person voluntarily set out to make an accessible Twitter client. This person, Dennis Lembrée, created And guess what? A tool that is accessible for people who are blind turns out to be usable by everyone. I find the site is far less cluttered and more pleasant to use. The site is totally keyboard accessible, which is something I pointed out in my workshop on Tuesday. It does not require a mouse. Oh, for anyone who dislikes and the endless page, note that EasyChirp has the newer and older page controls. Give it a try even though you are not blind.

Another person who set out to fix something that was broken is Dana Chisnell. She spearheaded a Kickstarter project for making ballot instructions understandable by all. I think is a fantastic project, and I encourage you to visit the field guides site. One lovely example from the field guide illustrates the point “write short sentences”. You see a block of text as the Before, followed by a short sentence that is the After. Cutting away the excess words!

W3C. WAI. WCAG. UAAG. ATAG. There are lots of guidelines out there to teach you and guide you in making accessible material. Some of it can be overwhelming. WCAG 2.0 is supposed to be the equivalent of 800 printed pages! Because it can be overwhelming to some, it may never be read by those who actually need it.

That is why some people in the UK have worked on the British Standard BS8878 to provide guidelines, or a framework that is easier to comprehend and implement. Professor Jonathan Hassell, one of the lead authors behind BS8878, gave a workshop on Tuesday that illustrated how it could be applied in a workplace.

When more people start incorporating accessibility into their work, great things can happen. A picture of a smiling high school graduate turns out to be the beginning of an illustrious career for a multiple award-winning technical communicator who became blind and deaf around the age of twelve. Thanks to the technology made available at her workplace in the space and defense industry, she produced deliverables just like any other technical communicator (the award-winning kind, that is!)

Most people here should know about Dame Evelyn Glennie, who recently performed during the Olympics opening ceremony. By insisting that she could learn music despite her deafness and gaining a place in a music school, she opened the doors for anyone to come and learn, regardless of any disability.

A young deaf man receiving his doctorate was able to appreciate the ceremony in his honor because a sign language interpreter was present. All of these people were gaining access to knowledge thanks to technology and awareness of the need for inclusion.

And this is not all for serious, hard work. A poetry performance has one person reading poetry into the microphone while another person interprets the poem using sign. For me, sign becomes art and is a thing of beauty.

And that brings me to a lovely quote from Lao Tzu that I heard at an AccessU presentation by Molly Holzschlag this past May. “The reason why the universe is eternal is that it does not live for itself; it gives life to others as it transforms.” This is about the web. It is a vehicle. It gives life to the possibility of communication.

So how do we engage people in making the world a more inclusive place? I like these Attitude Adjusters from Australia. These are cards similar to many cards used for brainstorming that can be used for teaching and implementing accessibility.

Because all this makes a difference.

I wanted a starfish photo at this point, and I went looking for pretty starfish photos. I fell for this photo of a starfish on its back and covered in sand. It looks awful, but the note made it the ideal candidate. You see, the AccessAbility SIG of STC has a tale about a starfish. A man walks along a beach strewn with starfish and meets a little girl who is picking them up and throwing them back in the ocean. “What are you doing?”, the man asks. “I’m saving the starfish,” the little girl replies. “With so many, your efforts cannot make a difference”, said the man. “It makes a difference to that one”, said the little girl as she threw another starfish back into the sea. And the description of this photo said that the photographer threw this dead-looking starfish back in the sea where it soon revived…

Making a difference – but what does it cost? I show a diagram of the cost of adding accessibility from Day 1 of planning a project or adding it after the product is completed. The cost is nil at the beginning and very high at the end. Whitney Quesenbery has the numbers. 1 unit (say, 1 dollar) in the definition stage and 60 to 100 units (say, 100 dollars) after release!

So… we need to get out there and make things accessible. I had to share a photo of a tireless advocate for accessibility who is no longer with us, William Loughborough. But oh to be like him, agitating about accessibility well into his eighties and all the way up to his death. What a role model.

We need to get out there and stop the absurdity. Lisa Herrod’s photo got a big laugh. How can anyone post a notice at the bottom of the stairs stating that those with accessibility needs can get help at the top of the stairs. It’s absurd.

Karl Groves has a great quote about how to tackle this job. Focus on the quality. “So long as a web-based system is inaccessible, it suffers from quality problems and we should focus on quality.” The focus on quality may be an easier-to-understand approach to some.

You see, some balk at the terminology. Some don’t even know what it is. This is where I get to use my favorite term, cognitive scaffolding, and show a photo of scaffolding! It’s about mentoring and education. We who are somewhat in the know, need to continuously develop our skills. Then, we must turn around and mentor others – spreading the knowledge and raising awareness. We can learn from each other. I learned the real story about cognitive scaffolding from a tip from Linda Urban, a popular past presenter at TCUK. She recommended the technical report from January 1987 called Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics (opens a PDF). Now I recommend it.

Perhaps another difficulty is that we learn at different levels and have different needs. The concept of this talk is very inspired by a 2009 paper called “From Web Accessibility to Web Adaptability”. [A tl;dr summary of the Web Adaptability paper can be found on Brian Kelly’s blog.] This is also an inspiring read of how we can make accessibility for the web become a reality so that we can provide so many more opportunities for everyone to participate in the Web. I think we can work together to adapt nicely like the chameleon – with all of us blending together maintaining our uniqueness and yet making one beautiful picture.

The slides

You can view the slides here or on SlideShare.