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How I use Twitter

In his closing presentation at the recent Technical Communications Conference, RJ Jacquez outlined how he uses Twitter as a way to communicate with the users of his product, and as a way to share ideas with, and learn from, other technical communication professionals.

There were several people at TCUK09 that used Twitter throughout the conference, sharing quotes, thoughts and ideas about various presentations and I eded up having a few conversations about why I use Twitter so I thought I’d capture my thinking here.

I have two Twitter accounts, one for personal use and one for professional use. The personal account is used for keeping up with people I know in social terms, and most of the messages are chatty, with the occasional link or photo. I find it a good way to keep up with people but I don’t rely on it so if I don’t check it for a day or so then it’s not something I lose sleep about.

My professional account is used to share my thoughts about either my current work or on various aspects of our profession, responding to things posted by other people, or tracking through the myriad of useful links that people share.

And that to me is one of the key reasons for using Twitter. It’s a filter, a filter of trusted sources, that constantly points out things I wouldn’t have found myself and where I can have discussions with my peers about things that interest me.

Our profession covers such a wide area that keeping up with the latest trends and discussions on the fringes can be nigh on impossible. Twitter offers me a way to keep in touch, to be part of the conversation about these things, and whilst it can be seen to be frivolous, the value to be gained outweighs the downsides.

However, like most social networking or social media services, you get out what you put in and when it comes to Twitter, you really need to try it to find out if you can benefit for it.

You can follow me on Twitter.

To Wiki or not to Wiki

The other day one of our genius developers (I think his official ranking is Jedi Knight) asked me why we don’t provide the product documentation on a Wiki. I answered him stating that it was because I wasn’t allowed. That’s not strictly true.

My answer should have been that, quite simply, I’ve failed to provide a good enough reason to my boss (and my bosses boss) as to why that may be a good thing.

And the reason I’ve failed to do that?

Because I’m still not 100% convinced that it is a good solution for our product.

What is more likely is that, if we do decide to embrace Wikis (we haven’t managed blogs yet, but that’s another issue) we take a split approach and offer a knowledge base style information centre (something like the Author-it Knowledge Center) and host a Wiki as a way of capturing and sharing what I refer to as ‘grey information’.

It’s this latter set of information which, whilst it has always existed, has never really had a place to live until the internet came along. These days all it takes is a quick internet search and you’ll find masses of information, all generated by the users. Some of it is useful, hints and tips, ways to workaround product limitations, and clever uses that were never thought of by the manufacturer.

To me, that user created content is where Wikis hold their true power and finding the balance between that content, and the content provided by my team is still something I’ve to get my head around. Ultimately the argument (business case) for investing in the creation, maintenance and policing of a Wiki needs to be focussed on how much value we will gain (ROI).

On that basis it shouldn’t be a hard business case to put together, the tricky bit is making it such a compelling argument that it moves to (close to) the top of the list, and that will require a lot more discussion around why embracing Wikis, and blogs, will stand us in better stead in the future.

XAMPP

In my copious spare time I have been known to design and build websites. The first website I ever built was for the first company I worked for, back in 1996, so I’ve been at it a while.

However it’s only been the past couple of years that I’ve started to get some larger clients with grander ideas, and that has meant getting a bit more organised. As such I now have a standard questionnaire that I ask all prospective clients to fill in, a standard design proposal document which I use to present back my ideas based on the answers to the questionnaire, and I have a nice little area of my PC which is dedicated to building websites.

The key part of which is XAMPP.

I discovered this marvellous application about 3 years ago, and if you are building websites, or installing and customising anything that requires MySQL and PHP then you must give it a look.

Many people know from their own experience that it’s not easy to install an Apache web server and it gets harder if you want to add MySQL, PHP and Perl.

XAMPP is an easy to install Apache distribution containing MySQL, PHP and Perl. XAMPP is really very easy to install and to use – just download, extract and start.

It really is that simple. Once you’ve downloaded it, start up the Control Panel, start Apache and MySQL, then head to http://localhost. Done!

A lot of my web design work is creating custom themes based around WordPress, sometimes it is just a look and feel but more often than not custom code is required. Now, rather than having to upload a file to a test web server somewhere, I can work locally on the php files, and just refresh the browser to see my changes. Much faster.

XAMPP is one of those applications that, after you’ve used it once you think “how the hell did I manage without this!”.

Given that a lot of technical communicators are looking towards other distribution models (blogs, Wikis and so on), then XAMPP is an easy (and free) way to get a test system setup, allowing you to run short proof of concept projects. I hope you find it as useful as I do.

Embracing Social Media

It’s safe to say that I’m fully hooked into the Web 2.0 world. I manage my email, calendar and task list online, as well as write and share the occasional document. I blog (in three places), I twitter, and I follow a wide swathe of information via RSS feeds. If the internet disappeared overnight I’d be lost, for any time I think ‘information’ I think internet, I don’t think book, or library, or even online help. I think internet.

This is even more prevalent when I’m looking for a solution, an answer to my current burning issue. At that point I’m looking for information from my peers, from other users or anyone else who has had, and solved, a similar problem, and nine times out of ten I’ll turn to the internet to search for that information.

Whilst such answers can be hard to track down, it feels productive to be searching for the specific answer to my specific issue, even if that takes some time and effort on my part. Once I’ve found an answer I’ll usually do a little bit of double checking – perhaps others have added a comment to say that it worked for them – and then I’m happy to accept that it is correct, knowing that if it’s not I can always head back to Google and start again. Caveats apply here, of course, depending on the severity of the issue I’m dealing with.

My point is that I freely trust the information I find based on some cursory checks, I am fully hooked into the Web 2.0 world and believe in the wisdom of the crowd (thankfully I have evidence of this as well, it’s not all hearsay).

Providing information and answers is a key part of our job as technical communicators but I am concerned that my view of the information world and how I use it may be tainting my thoughts. Do the people who use the information we produce really want to ‘just google’ for information? Am I projecting the way I think and work onto the people who use our documentation?

The obvious answer is to ask those people, and I’m in the fairly lucky position that I can do just that. A large portion of our documentation is used by our own staff, so I have direct access to my audience. So, obviously, I should just ask them: “How would you like to access the documentation?”

But I think that’s the wrong question.

Whilst it will be useful to hear the answers to that question, it is far too open ended and, to repeat an old adage, ‘the customer doesn’t always know what the customer wants’. Instead I need to figure out what the most common usage scenario is and work from that, before presenting a limited set of choices from which the audience can make an informed decision.

One thing is certain, the way I access information, the way I think about how information is structured and presented, from my professional background and my knowledge of some of the information design theories that are in use, is very different from the way I use information in my day to day life. The more I find myself leaning towards more ad-hoc, random and casual sources of information, the more I begin to wonder if the world of the professionally written and presented technical communications needs to change tack and find a comfortable middle ground, embracing all that is good about the web 2.0 internet.

Social media works because it is based on people and the availability of information (and metadata about that information). It seems all too obvious that the world of technical communications needs to make bigger strides in that direction. Many technical writers have started that journey, and whilst it means yet another set of skills that you’ll need to learn, ultimately it means that the technical information you produce will be more valuable in the longer term.

Designing websites

As well as my full-time job, in my spare time I also design and build websites. It’s something which fits well with my skillset as a technical communicator, and allows me an insight into the world of development as well and has mirrored my career every step of the way.

The first company I worked for sent me on a training course to learn how to create web pages and, since then (13 years ago), I’ve continued to follow the trends and techniques involved. I’ve been through using tables for layout, to the introduction of frames, the launch of Internet Explorer and the first release of CSS.

The parallels between the theories of technical communications and those of web design are very similar, the key aim is to keep the audience in mind at all times. The way you structure and present the information is also important, as is a sense of usability of the content itself.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a fairly constant stream of web design work, largely by word of mouth, and have just finished chatting with another potential client. Part of my approach is to ask to have a questionnaire filled in, largely to help me understand the requirements for the website, as well as to have something to focus the initial conversations around.

Two of those questions are:

  1. Who will be using your website? What is the intended/current audience?
  2. Does your current website meet the needs of your audience? If not, why not?

Which, as I’m sure many of you will already have realised, is exactly the kind of questions we, as technical communicators, should be asking ourselves on a regular basis.

Writer River

I try and follow as many technical writing blogs as I can but beyond the dedicated blogs there are other good sources of information and ideas out there. Finding these additional articles can be tricky as they can be found in a huge number of different sources.

To help with this Tom Johnson set up Writer River as a way to allow anyone (with an account) to post links to interesting blog posts and articles. The website has been running for a whlie now and continues to provide links to useful and topical articles.

I monitor an RSS feed of the website and whilst that is adequate it does mean that I can go a week or more without checking which can lead to a build of too many links to check. That usually means I skim the link titles rather than click through them all and the likelihood is that I’ve missed something that may have been useful.

So I’m delighted to hear that Writer River now has an auto-updating Twitter feed. Every link posted on Writer River will be pinged over to Twitter, and as I’m following Writer River on Twitter, I’ll see the links as they are added, increasing the chances of me taking a few minutes to click through to the linked website.

Time will tell but this is either a great use of social networking tools, allowing me to keep bang up to date and probably meaning I won’t skip any links, or another challenge to my time keeping, a quick check of Twitter during a context-switch* moment at work may lead to a longer break than I had intended?

We’ll see but, as ever, Tom continues to push his ideas forward to the benefit of us all.

Writer River is back!

I dropped Tom an email about Writer River last week, and he alluded to some of the issues he mentions in his post in his reply. Little did I know that Writer River was soon to be hacked!

I love the idea behind the website though, so it’s good to see Tom is still keen on pushing things forward. If you previously registered I’d urge you to go back and register on the new version of the website. The premise is the same, a website which will collate the best Technical Communications stories and blog posts.

Head over to Writer River, the more people who sign up and join in, the better it will become.