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Report on TCANZ Conference 2003

by Jean Hollis Weber

I attended the TCANZ (Technical Communicators Association of New Zealand) conference in early September. I was most impressed with the organization, the speakers, the topics covered, and the number of people who attended the conference.

Compared to the last few ASTC(NSW) conferences, the TCANZ conference was considerably more expensive but had a higher attendance. The conference is held every two years; in alternate years TCANZ organizes workshops. The organizers said that attendance was well down this year, but they still attracted nearly 100 people.

The theme this year was "Focus on Users". The lineup of speakers was most impressive: two each from Australia and Canada, and three each from New Zealand and the USA. Some of the speakers were familiar names to me, though most of them I had not met before. Most of them were quite entertaining as well as informative.

Here are some highlights of the conference.

Patrick Hofmann from Canada, a technical writer turned "visual interaction designer", opened the conference with a very entertaining talk titled "Away with words! Satisfying your global users with pictures". He took us through the development of a wordless manual for technicians installing network computers, a project which required a team of writers and designers and much testing and revision. The most valuable part of this talk, for me, was the insight into the mistakes the team made (creating graphics that usability testing proved to be misleading to users) and how they recovered from those mistakes.

Carol Barnum from the USA, a professor and consultant specialising in usability, spoke next on "Focus on users with usability testing". She emphasised that you can find a lot of usability problems with a small, inexpensive test, thus overcoming the common objections of lack of time and money. One important point she made, that I use when editing, is to rank problems by their severity and focus energy on solving the most severe problems -- those that prevent completion or cause significant delay in completion of a task -- not those which have a minor effect or are in effect an enhancement.

Dave Gash, also from the USA, specialises in hypertext training and consulting for help system developers. Dave would be familiar to people who have attended other conferences including AODC (Australian Online Documentation Conference) in Queensland earlier this year. He spoke on "Creating 'smart help' with conditional content" and showed us how to use simple forms to collect user information (by asking the user a few questions like "do you want conceptual, procedural, or technical help?" and javascript to control the type of help that becomes the default for that user (with links to other types of help, and easy ways for users to change their mind). His amusing examples and lively delivery kept us entertained. I got some great ideas for ways to suggest to writers how to improve the usability of the material they produce.

Robyn Stephen of New Zealand, a project manager with Multisystems Ltd. and a lecturer with particular interest in single-sourcing, presented a session on "Managing your documentation projects." Unfortunately her talk was concurrent with Dave Gash's, so I missed it. Robyn was followed by Alison Reynolds, the principal lecturer and programme leader of Christchurch Polytechnic's online Graduate Diploma of Technical Communication, who presented the results of her research on a documentation team in a rapidly growing software company, titled "Adding value to organisations: Technical communicators as user advocates". In a concurrent session, Ron Blicq of Canada, who is President of the International Council for Technical Communication (INTECOM), spoke on "One hundred years of technical communication: a significant endeavour". RGIlearning

The second day of the conference opened with Australia-based documentation manager Bill Hall's talk on "The Role of XML in Technical Communication and Knowledge Management." The title turned out to be a bit misleading, as he didn't talk specifically about XML much at all, but it was a fascinating and informative case study of managing a huge project producing tons of documentation. Of particular interest was the revelation that the company had embraced a major XML structured-authoring project because they were forced to: they could not meet their contract obligations on time if they continued to do things the old way. The company had to spend a lot of upfront money to solve their problem, but then quickly saved far more than they had spent -- not to mention meeting their deadline!

Kim Goodwin, an interaction designer from the USA, spoke on "Personas and scenarios in interaction design". Her talk included some great examples which clarified for me some misunderstandings I'd had this topic, and reinforced my opinion that editors can introduce these concepts into a project even if no one else has thought of using them.

Dave Gash returned with "Ten things every help author should know", mainly to do with HTML and related technologies. I would say that every editor of online help needs to know these things too. Dave's session was concurrent with another presentation from Ron Blicq, "Writing independent study online technical communication courses with integrated self-evaluation".

Next was my turn. (Dave Gash sure is a hard act to follow!) I presented my paper "Break out of the grammar trap: Add value to content through substantive, technical and usability editing", which generated a short but lively discussion session. The concurrent session in that time slot was New Zealander Jane Gregg Robberds, a senior lecturer in technical communication for Christchurch Polytechnic's online Graduate Diploma in Technical Communication. She spoke on "Who is the user: Challenging the science of user analysis".

The conference also featured a small group of vendors (Author It and eHelp being the main ones) and an "Ideas Market" where people led concurrent discussion sessions focussed on various topics. I led a session on accessibility, titled "Meeting the special needs of diverse audiences", and Australian John Bradnam led "Introduction to XML" (a session I would have liked to attend). There were at least two other sessions going on, but I failed to take note of their topics.

The venue (Centra Airport Hotel, near Auckland Airport) was very good for a conference of this type, where networking is an important element. In addition to the usual conference rooms of varying sizes, the hotel had a centrally-located bar with a large lounge area providing comfortable chairs, where people could congregate after the formal sessions had ended for the day. However, if you wanted to get away for awhile, and didn't have a car, there wasn't much nearby.

All in all, a very good conference.

Some of the speakers were also presenting one-day workshops before or after the conference, thus helping to cover the cost of bringing them all to Auckland. For example, Bill Hall gave a similar talk to the NZ Knowledge Management Network and GOVIS in Wellington based on the same slides he used for TCANZ. This presentation is publicly available on the NZ KM Net site.