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Are technical communicators the “fall guys”?

Sometimes, I think being a stunt person would be easier than being a technical communicator.
Sometimes, I think being a stunt person would be easier than being a technical communicator.

While plugging away at the big project I’m doing for work, a problem arose from how some features worked, and developers cluttered up the CMS architecture of the site I’m working on. When I tried to clean it up, the developers rolled out more content that either created duplicates, triplicates, and overwrote pages without my knowledge. This mucked up the whole thing even more, making it worse.

I ended up having a call with my manager explaining the situation, and showed him what happened. He was aware of some of it, and he knew I was trying to fix things, but he was unaware that the latest roll-out complicated the situation. After a good discussion, he came to the same conclusion that I did–it’d be easier to start from scratch with this section of the website than to try to clean it up. I took responsibility for my part of the mess, and was more than willing to put the time in that’s needed to get it right again.

In order to do this, we’ve had to work with the people in the global corporate office to help us wipe the slate clean on that section and resend the new information. Well, this turns out to be easier said than done, due to system issues and communication issues (we’re not sure, even with images demonstrating the issue, if we are explaining what we need correctly to non-native English speaking people, and we are having some trouble understanding their replys). It’s turning into a sordid mess that I didn’t mean to happen. Some of this is my fault, doing some things unknowingly, but it’s also Corporate’s fault for not staying organized with the information rolled out on the various servers and not informing me of these changes in a timely manner, as that’s what is complicating matters. My hands have not touched that section of the website for 2 days because I’m afraid of mucking up things even worse, and so I’m patiently waiting for the correct content to be rolled out so I can move forward.

In this type of instance, my experience has been that no matter what part I played, even a minor one, I needed to take the blame for the whole thing. I needed to fall on the knife for what’s happened, even if I’m actually the victim in this instance. I’m fortunate that my manager hasn’t viewed this as something that I needed to take the fall for, and he’s been incredibly supportive through this small ordeal. I am grateful to have him as a manager and it provides me with some relief. But in past positions, even if I was correct in the midst of something that had gone wrong, I’d have to take full responsibility even if full responsibility was not mine. I’m willing to take responsibility if it is truly and completely my fault. Yet, I’ve had many instances where it wasn’t my fault at all, or I played a minor role, and I’d still be blamed entirely. And it would be one thing if I was a manager taking the blame for someone under me, but I’m always the gal at the bottom of the totem pole! If I stood up for myself in the past, I’d be severely reprimanded, even though I was justified in standing up for myself. So, you can understand why I’ve developed a bit of a complex and learned to take the role of the scapegoat in these instances unwillingly yet necessarily.

It got me to thinking about technical communication and where technical communicators will be given the blame for something that’s gone wrong.  Sometimes the blame is justified, and sometimes it isn’t.  If a manual has incorrect information, is it the fault of the tech writer, or the SME who didn’t provide accurate information, or the editor? In my case, the developers were being sloppy. I was the one being responsible enough to realize there was a problem and clean it up, initially following their directions for the fix, and they made it more difficult adding a fix to my fix without communicating that they were going to make a fix on their part. So why am I feeling like I need to take responsibility for the problem I didn’t cause instead of taking responsibility for realizing the solution? Is that just me and the conditioning I’ve been put through over the years, or is that a common problem?

In my current situation, like I said, my manager has fully supported me, and he’s about to leave on vacation confident that everything will be fine, leaving it up to me to take care of things. This is a reversal of most experiences I’ve had, and it definitely bolsters my confidence that I do know what I’m doing, and I appreciate that I’m recognized for that.

Technical communications is not for the weak or faint of heart, for sure. There is no question about that. However, technical communicators are being encouraged, as a field, to assert themselves more to show that we do have the solutions and know what we are doing, and to play a greater role in communications. I’m sure you’ve heard the “Break down the silos!” battle cry by now. If that’s the case, how do we do that if we have introverts like me who have been pounded down enough times that they are fearful of losing their jobs for asserting themselves? Is that just me, or do others feel this, too?

Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Adobe Day@STC Summit 2014 – We Went Back to The Future

We definitely didn't hear this panel say to any of us, "I'm afraid you're just too darn loud!"
We definitely didn’t hear this panel say to any of us, “I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud!”

I apologize for my blog coverage of the 2014 STC Summit edition of Adobe Day being delayed–it’s been a busy month! But hopefully, you’ll feel it’s been worth the wait, and you had a chance to see my live Twitter feed as it happened.

The STC’14 Adobe Day felt a little bit different this year. One of the things I noticed was that as much as Adobe says that these Adobe Day events are Adobe-product free, lately, they haven’t been. HOWEVER, they are still not one big, in-person infomercial either. Adobe products are not brought up much, but if they are, it’s to show that they can be tools to use to create solutions to common tech comm issues. So, it might be an inadvertant infomercial in that respect, but it’s not done in a blatant way that screams, “YOU NEED TO BUY ME!!!!!! PLEASE BUY OUR PRODUCTS!!!” Adobe continues to do a good job in showing what tech comm issues are out there, and as leaders in the software field, they are tuned into these issues and are creating products that benefit the technical communicator. I think that’s fair enough. The talks, overall, were broader topics that in some instances used Adobe Tech Comm Suite tools to provide solutions. And you have to remember, while these talks are aimed to be product-free for the most part, it’d probably look pretty bad if you had someone declaring all the glories of a competitive product when Adobe is hosting the event. Y’know?

With that out of the way, I observed some other things that made this a little bit different. First, there were fewer speakers this year. I felt that was a good thing, because in the past with more speakers, each speaker would be racing to get his/her presentation completed in a very short amount of time, and there would be little time for questions or discussion. Since there were fewer speakers this year, each one could elaborate more on their topic, which allowed for more time for questions and discussion. More networking time during the breaks was also a benefit from having less speakers.

The other difference I saw dealt with the speakers themselves. While they were all familiar, established voices in the tech comm world, it wasn’t the same crowd that one usually sees at Adobe Day events. All of them have participated in Adobe events or other tech comm events before, but in the past, it usually is most of the same speakers up on the podium. While I like all the “usual suspects” very much, and consider them my mentors and have become friends with several of them, seeing these new “players” was actually refreshing to me. I hope that Adobe continues to change up the speaker lineups with future Adobe Days, as all the speakers I’ve heard have a clear voice that’s worth listening to, and hearing as many of those voices as possible provides both variety and fresh perspectives going forward. As I go through each presentation in forthcoming blog posts, hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

But as tradition in this blog dictates, I always start with the panel that capped off the Adobe Day event. I find that these panel talks bring an umbrella perspective to where we are as a profession through several points of view, and seeing where there are agreements and disagreements in the issues at hand.

This year, the panel was moderated by Matt Sullivan, who has been an Adobe Day speaker in the past. He did a great job, as this was the first time I’d seen him as the moderator of an Adobe Day panel. The panel consisted of Adobe Day speakers Marcia Riefer Johnston, Bernard Aschwanden, Kevin Siegel, and past Adobe Day speaker, Joe Welinske. The theme for the panel was looking ahead to the future of where tech comm seems to be going.

The Adobe Day Panel L to R: Matt Sullivan, Bernard Aschwanden, Joe Welinske, Marcia Riefer Johnston, and Kevin Siegel
The Adobe Day Panel
L to R: Matt Sullivan, Bernard Aschwanden, Joe Welinske, Marcia Riefer Johnston, and Kevin Siegel

Matt started with the point that tech comm is more than tech writing now, so what do we need to improve short-term and long-term? Kevin responded first, saying that we need to do more with less on smaller displays and adapting the content appropriately for mobile. Marcia added to that, saying that using less can mean writing tighter as well. (She has a technique she taught during the STC Summit, in fact!) Joe agreed with Marcia, adding that technical communicators need to put in the time to make concise content meaningful, and to look at simplified English as part of that objective. Bernard felt that attending workshops and demonstrations were important, because technical communicators need to continually learn and adapt in this industry! He added that SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) should contribute to content, but technical communicators should control it. Kevin also agreed with Bernard, saying that SMEs are writing content more often now, so teaching them to write tighter will help. Marcia chimed in that many people are now being required to write, but don’t have the skills. We need to help with that.

Moving onto topics about how technology affects technical communication, Kevin said that new technology, like Google Glass and other wearables, is emerging, and we need to understand how these work. Joe pointed out that the Pebble watch now is starting to have user docs now, and more will be emerging. Bernard added that gesture based technology similar to the Xbox Kinect will need documentation.

Matt then asked, “What should we look forward to in the next five years?” Bernard felt that less specialization will be needed so that the right people write the right content, such as an engineer who can write. Specialized writing will be very important. Joe added that we need to agree on taxonomy and terminology, and use style sheets more often for consistency. Marcia believed that topic-based writing will be emerging more as a growth area. Kevin explained that in e-learning, there is a need to develop learning for new devices that responds to user displays, thus accomodating multiple screens.

The next question asked about how to help educate and help with adapting certain generations adjust between print and digital writing/designing. The consenus was that we just need to adapt. The panel encouraged the audience to get to know your UX/UI people, as they will help you learn to adapt, especially if you aren’t as tech-adaptive.

The last question centered on customers customizing their content–is this a trend? Bernard leapt into a response with, “GOOD! DO IT!” He encouraged us to help customers to start doing personalized help, or personalizing any information, for that matter! Moderator Matt closed by saying that rich media that engages users is going to be about content strategy, but it will also be about content marketing. The group agreed that personalized, concise information going forward will be best!

"I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet--but your kids are going to love it!"
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet–but your kids are going to love it!”

And that was it! The session went by quickly, but as you can see, there was a lot of great information that many technical communicators can take and use going forward in their own work.  While it might take some time to adapt, sure enough, it will bring the field forward as technology and the way we access it moves ahead.

Coming soon: The individual presentations at Adobe Day #STC14 Edition!

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A New Year–A New Adobe Technical Communication Suite – PREVIEW

TCS5-Ball-Drop
The Times Square New Year’s ball drop has landed…it’s a new Adobe Technical Communication Suite!

As of TODAY, Adobe is releasing five new tools for technical communication professionals everywhere! Technical Communication Suite 5.0 (TCS5), FrameMaker 12 (FM12), FrameMaker XML Author 12 (FMXA 12) and RoboHelp 11 (RH11), and FrameMaker Publishing Server 12 (FMPS12) are now available. It’s been about eighteen months or so since the last big Adobe tech comm release, so you can imagine there are some new and enhanced features included.

I was privileged to be among a group of tech comm professionals who were invited to get a preview of the products before their release, and I have to say, there were so many new and improved features that it was difficult to squeeze all the information into one press conference! But I’m going to give you the highlights, and I’m sure you’re going to find that there’s something new for you.

In the last release of TCS, namely TCS4, there were several big overhauls of the product, namely that the Technical Communications Suite concentrated on providing tools that supported structured authoring, integrated interactive content, and could support the creation of content for mobile devices while providing searchable, personalized, socially enabled content in a way that would yield bigger results with less resources. It was a major step to enhance these tools, especially in regards to adding mobile and interactive abilities to content. Adobe has continued to build on those major changes with the new features in version 5.0.

The foundation of the Tech Comm Suite has always been FrameMaker and RoboHelp. With the release of TCS5, FrameMaker 12 and RoboHelp 11 have been released with big enhancements that appear to concentrate on making these tools more user-friendly and efficient for the technical writers using them.

FM12_boxshot_2014
Image courtesy of Adobe.

For FM12, the first obvious enhancement is the interface. Adobe has improved the user interface to include colored icons and larger icons that look cleaner and sharper in HD. If you like things “old school” in the original smaller, monochromatic colors, that choice is still available as well. There is also more flexibility in customizing your interface. A new “pod” allows the user to access all the currently opened files in one place, from which you can save and close multiple files at one time, while still viewing the unsaved files. There are also enhanced abilities to drag-and-drop to empty areas of the interface, close pods or panels more easily, double-click on empty areas to minimize or expand pods, and searching capabilities have been expanded. These seem like minor details, but when using a product as often as many technical writers use FrameMaker, these finer details can make a big difference! FM12 includes three samples of unstructured content and one DITA-based content sample with the product.

FM12 is not all about a new façade. Adobe has enriched the authoring process with new capabilities. The first thing that caught my attention is that FM12 can generate QR codes now! They can be created for URLs, SMS texts, emails, or to initiate phone calls. QR codes are taking over these days, so it’s great that these can be both created and integrated into FM documentation. Background color enhancements allow uniform height background color and options to specify paragraph boxes. The addition of a new customer-requested feature is the support regular expression coding.

Single-sourcing has been a hot topic in the last few years, and this has been addressed with new enhancements. FM12 gives users a new way to work with conditional text, by using a new conditional tag pod which provides check-box mechanisms with multiple conditions to allow the user to do more complex filtering with conditional text enhancements. It truly simplifies the entire process, that even a newbie should be able to figure it out easily.

Productivity enhancements have also been included in FM12. A searchable smart catalog function allows the user to filter choices based on the valid choices available and phrase typed by the user, while the user can continue to use the keyboard shortcuts as before. There is also a new capability to open all files from the user’s last session in one click, including the last documents and pages in focus, workspaces such as pods, panels and palettes, among others.

Adobe has also taken care to add great collaboration enhancements in FrameMaker. Native connections to any webdev content management system (CMS), such as Documentum, SharePoint, and Adobe CQ are available. Users can now view entire CMS tree layouts, and can access several key CMS functions, such as checking out documents, editing documents, and searching within document, all from FM12.  PDF review commenting has been made more flexible. The most proactive steps towards subject matter expert (SME) reviews is that reviews can be done on PDF reader apps on mobile devices, and can also be used on those same devices using cloud technology such as Dropbox for both internal and external reviewers. As mobile devices become more commonplace replacing desktops and laptops, this is a great step forward!

Image courtesy of Adobe
Image courtesy of Adobe

Publishing abilities have gotten a boost on FrameMaker as well. It used to be that if you wanted to create certain types of digital output, such a ePUBs, for FrameMaker content, you would have to export it to RoboHelp, and have RoboHelp publish the document.  Now, that step is no longer needed for PDFs, Webhelp, ePUBs, Kindle docs, Microsoft HTML Help, responsive HTML5, or Web help! That’s a big deal, as it allows FM12 to be more efficient by skipping that step of exporting and publishing in RoboHelp. Publishing can also be done through the Web now, too, for multiple users using a FrameMaker server, allowing multiple users to publish simultaneously and automatically to multiple channels and devices. That’s a practical efficiency improvement right there!

FMXA12_boxshot_2014
Image courtesy of Adobe

With this release, Adobe is introducing a new FrameMaker product for those who don’t need the full version of FM12, but are mostly concerned in having a tool to do structured XML authoring. FrameMaker XML Author is a tool that has been created especially for the structured XML market.  Those wanting to use unstructured content will still need to use the full FM12 version.  The XML Author is fully standards-compliant for content creation, and supports the most popular XML technology for single-sourcing. It is not FM12 “lite”, but it is a streamlined, easy-to-use version that supports structured authoring without the bulk of the FM12 features that aren’t needed for structured content, yet still integrate-able with the full version of FM12 and available at a lower price. I’m sure that having this tool will be highly beneficial to many companies who are looking for a way to cut costs (it is priced at 40% the price of FM12 “full”) while still reaping the benefits of having a powerful XML authoring tool.

Another customer request that has been granted by Adobe is the integration of MathML, to allow MathML equations to be imported, created, edited, and published with FrameMaker. Adobe is even including 30-day trials of MathFlow (MathML editor from Design Science) with the shipment of FM12 for those who are interested in trying it out. There are several other features that are also included, along with 55 bug fixes, improved performance and launch time for FrameMaker, but I’d end up writing a book at this point!

Of course, with all these big changes to FrameMaker, we can’t forget RoboHelp 11, which also has had a big overhaul.

Image courtesy of Adobe
Image courtesy of Adobe

RH11, like FM12, has a new UI look as well. Based on customer feedback, RH11 has a new color scheme and a more modern interface that looks more pleasing to the eye. It’s a step in the right direction. Adobe has said that further UI improvements are in the works, but this current new UI is the first step in a long overdue makeover for the interface.

The more important feature enhancements with this new release of RoboHelp include advances with HTML5 publishing, printed document enhancements, and collaboration and single-sourcing enhancements.

The HTML5 publishing enhancements are from the perspective that mobile publishing is central, so new single responsive layouts for all devices are available “right out of the box” when downloading RH11. This new single layout feature will work seamlessly across all devices, can be easily customized, will allow for real-time previewing based on the browser size, and can be published with one click.  There is a new wizard-based layout editor available to help with this process that shows the added responsive HTML5 output options. You can also preview layouts, and the customization is great because no coding in CSS needs to be done, as you can use the editor instead.  To me, this is true single-sourcing creation at its best while simplifying the process! This is a big deal!

Printed documents have not been ignored. Users can now customize headers and footers of printed documents by defining them in the master pages. Headers and footers can also be imported from Word. There is also the ability to specify different headers and footers for the cover, and even and odd pages for different sections of a document. This is great for consistency within branded documentation.

In terms of collaboration and single-source improvements, cloud integration and topic sharing for SMEs has now been included.  RH11 now includes a Resource Manager tool that synchronizes folders using Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft SkyDrive as shared locations, and includes filtering for specific folders. This allows the user to manage linked resources within files used in real time across projects and geography.

Image courtesy of Adobe
Image courtesy of Adobe

The Technical Communication Suite 5.0 includes FrameMaker 12 and RoboHelp 11, but it also includes the updated products of Acrobat Pro XI, Captivate 7, and Presenter 9 to complete the Suite. You will notice that Illustrator, which was included in the TCS4 version, is not included. This was a step, Adobe said, to help lower the price. Additionally, from the way I see it, it makes sense, because both Illustrator and Photoshop–another product that used to be included in prior TCS versions–are now affordably available as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. I know that I personally have a CC subscription, and I’m guessing that many active technical communicators do too, so this saves us from spending twice for the same product, which makes a lot of sense. TCS5, FM12, RH11, FM XML Author, and the FMPS12 will also be available both as a subscription and through perpetual license as well. There is separate pricing for the FM XML Author and FM Publishing Server software.

The updates made to FrameMaker and RoboHelp are extensive, as there are many more features, but I think you get the idea. Adobe is taking steps to try to stay on top of technological changes that have taken root in the past couple of years, such as mobile and cloud technology, and is working to continue to make a more robust and user-friendly products for technical communicators.

My recommendation is that if you are looking to try TCS5 or any of the TC products out, or are interested in upgrading your current TCS package or individual products, click on the Adobe advertisement in the upper right corner of this page, or visit Adobe’s TCS product page for more information.

I hope you find this helpful!