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Get your motor runnin’…Head out on the [mobile] highway…

Peter-Fonda-and-Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-RiderWhen I first read the title of John Daigle’s Adobe Day presentation, “Enjoying a Smooth Ride on the Mobile Documentation Highway,” guitar riffs by Steppenwolf echoed in my mind thinking of the song, “Born to Be Wild” and scenes of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding down the information highway. OK, maybe not the information highway, but with mobile, it’s an open road right now that is waiting to be explored.

While I hadn’t heard John speak before, I was familiar with his “rock star” status due to social media–mostly through Twitter (you can find him as @hypertexas)–in my e-learning and m-learning forums.  It turns out that John is a big RoboHelp and Captivate expert, so being tied into the mobile highway scene makes sense!

JohnDaigle
John Daigle

The premise of John’s talk was that there are shifts and trends in mobile, and we need to look at organizations as early adopters, figure out the mobile landscape, and look at how user assistance is used on mobile as compared to how reference documentation is used generally. He pointed out that writing and designing for a mobile audience is very different from traditional methods (I agree!), and that he would be offering some hints on how to approach technical communications for mobile.

John pointed out that fellow speaker, panelist Joe Welinske, created the “bible” for Windows Help,  and now has created the “bible” for mobile apps, referring to Joe’s book, Developing User Assistance for Mobile Apps, which talks about the “screen wars” between the smartphones and tablets of various size. These various sizes produce a challenge for technical communicators. John went on to point out that e-readers, such as Kindle and Nook, are still alive and well and doing well as compared to other tablets such as iPads and Samsung Galaxy Tabs.  The initial conversion of print text to Kindle ePubs was a big change in electronic documentation. He also stated that at this stage of the game, Windows Surface and Windows Phone are a little late in the game, but they are catching up rapidly.

Following some of the comments of keynote speaker, Charles Corfield (the post on that talk is forthcoming!), John explained that other products including voice-activated devices, such as those found in some cars these days, are becoming more prolific. Google Glass, which is getting a lot of press right now, is a new game changer in mobile devices, and time will tell what kind of impact it will have.

John told us that as of February 2013, there were one billion smartphones and 150 million tablets worldwide–proof that mobile is becoming more widespread! Corporations are even getting more involved in mobile by buying mobile devices for employees, but many companies are also allowing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Companies are starting to embrace the idea of BYOD a little more lately.

Finance and healthcare industries are quickly adopting mobile delivery of information because of the portability of the devices. Mobile devices are being used more in industry and shop floors because they allow users access anytime, anywhere. John informed us that many of the same technical communications skills and experiences needed to write standard information apply to mobile. QR codes are gaining popularity as a  part of the movement of accessing documentation through mobile. John quoted Jakob Nielsen saying, “Killing time is the killer app of mobile.” With that in mind, John advised that technical communicators should learn to use more economic words for mobile, such as  “extra” instead of “additional.”

John also quoted John Caroll, who said, “Minimize the extent to which the systems and the information get in the way of what the user’s really interested in.” Progressive disclosure is key in writing for mobile. It allows one to gain information by revealing what’s needed when it’s needed. Ways to show this in mobile interfaces could be drop-down navigation or overlays. This allows a user to not leave the page, but he or she can still get to information quickly. In this sense, mobile can go right to the source or the heart of information needed.

So the question is, are huge documents (such as what’s in those big company binders) going mobile too? The answer is that technical writers can’t just dump desktop layouts and information onto mobile. This is where technical communicators need to work with developers to do what they do best–help “champion the end users.”

Going mobile is about flattening navigation–but not going button crazy, and getting back to context sensitive help. Technical communicators need to tap into social media to keep content current and accurate, thus becoming curators of user generated content.

It helps to prototype mobile layouts with rapid wire-framing tools, like Balsamic Mock-ups as a popular example. There are many specific tools on the market that are available to assist the developer in facilitate context-sensitive help.

However, there are several design controversies involving the need to upgrade browsers, progressive enhancement, adaptive design and responsive design. Some argue that responsive design is not the best because it makes a device’s CPU works harder, thus it becomes a virtual memory hog when resizing images as needed. Yet, responsive web design can adapt layouts to the appropriate viewing environment with fluid, proportion-based grids.

John suggested using the site, http://HTML5test.com , to help test how compatible your site is with mobile interfaces. He also pointed out that help-authoring tools can do much of the work with single source layout concepts, as different settings in authoring tools can help determine how to make user outputs work properly. Another such tool he recommended was Adobe Edge, as it helps writers to preview and inspect web designs on mobile devices directly ON the devices. For additional tools and information, John pointed us to his website, http://www.showmethedemo.com .

I particularly enjoyed John’s talk, as I’ve been following many of his posts on Twitter for more than a year now. He’s very good at explaining the power of mobile in technical communication, and I think John put this perspective well into view for the Adobe Day attendees.  As many know, I’m a big believer in the power of mobile, and the mind-set for writing for mobile isn’t that difficult if you understand the basics. So, it’s good that Adobe continues to include information about technical communications in the mobile world, as that’s where a lot of change is coming in the future. Adobe made a good choice when asking John Daigle to present information about mobile documentation.

John, if you are reading this, please feel free to add any comments or corrections in the comments! 🙂

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A true test of mobile versus…not.

MP900435893A recent event has made me discover that I will be tested in understanding how my true use of mobile technology will really be in the near future.

How did I come to that discovery?

I recently sent in a proposal to do a presentation, and I was notified over the weekend that the proposal has been accepted! I’m really thrilled for a number of reasons. First, it’s the first time I’ve actually sent in a proposal to do a presentation, so to have it accepted on the first try is pretty good. Second, this presentation will be the first real professional presentation I’ve ever done to a large group. I’ve done presentations, but not on this scale before. Third, it’s going to be for the STC’s Mid-Atlantic Technical Conference, hosted by one of my home chapters, the STCPhiladelphia Metropolitan Chapter, in early March of this year. Less than a month and a half away from this writing! So, it’s going to be nice representing my own chapter, and being able to sleep in my own bed instead of traveling too far to do this! 😉 So, for a number of reasons, you can see that I’m actually very excited and honored to be included, especially considering that I’m still a “young” professional in the technical communications field.

But in receiving this acceptance, I realized that now I have to actually put everything together for this presentation. I have the foundation for it, which is what I forwarded to the conference’s review committee, so that’s not the issue. Now the issue is pulling it all together to be a stellar presentation. I know I can do a presentation, but I need to create some sort of slideshow or PowerPoint content that can be displayed while I actually present.

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are probably thinking, “But TechCommGeekMom, you are a technical communicator. Surely you know how to do, at least, a simple PowerPoint presentation?” Indeed, I do know how to do that, and do it well. I also know some other tools to use as well. That’s not the issue or the problem either. I have a bigger problem to figure out. The problem is whether to create the slideshow in PowerPoint on my laptop, and bring my laptop with me, OR…create the presentation in Keynote on my iPad, and bring my iPad with me. There’s always the third option of creating the presentation for both, and bringing both, but I’d like to avoid doing that, if possible.

On the one hand, using my laptop is a guarantee. We know that a laptop can generally hook up to video/VGA/ HDMI cables that most conference centers use, so that’s not a problem. But I have a BIG laptop–a big 17-inch screen one. It’s a little on the heavy side. I bought it during grad school for the big stuff I had to do, and sometimes still do, with web design, writing large papers, and for the big power-lifting tasks that one needs a laptop.

On the other hand, I am the huge proponent of using mobile devices, and having a means of creating a slideshow on my iPad presents a new option that I haven’t had in the past. I could buy a cable (or two) that could hook up into a conference center‘s video system– I don’t mind the expense of getting the necessary cables to do that–but I don’t want to be left standing with an iPad and a bunch of cables that may not be compatible with the video screen system, thus no presentation other than me and my big mouth. (I could pull that off–just a speech alone, since I remember giving presentations even in my school days before computers were even present in schools, but that’s giving away my age now…) But let’s face it–pictures and words on a screen are much more entertaining than verbal words alone in this day and age. Since I don’t know what this conference center has, I have to second guess what’s there. This is my preference, but this is not guaranteed to work.

So, here’s a crowdsourcing question for anyone who’s reading this, especially if you have done professional presentations on the road. What should I do? Should I plan on bringing the laptop and create a standard PowerPoint formatted presentation? Or, should I plan on practicing what I preach about using mobile devices, namely using my iPad, and create the presentation on that? If I should use the iPad, what extra cables should I purchase? Or, should I just plan on creating it on both, and bringing both?

I especially need the help of those who do presentations on the road often. Who has used an iPad? Who has used only a laptop? What are the advantages and disadvantages in either instance? What has worked best for you?

Let me know what your suggestions are in the comments below. I really would love to get some input on this! Thanks!

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What you so afraid of? Part II – The Tech Comm Edition

torchwood_jacktorturedI’ve been reflecting a lot, lately, into what makes me continue to pursue a technical career, especially in technical communications. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been doing in the last year to stay on top of trends and issues in the technical communications field, because the last thing that a prospective employer needs is someone who is stuck in his or her own ways, never learning and never progressing. Technology is constantly changing, and both technical communications at-large as well as the e-learning world are both in the flux of a “revolution”–a revolution that reflects that these fields are in the process of changing and revitalizing in order to keep up with modern thought and technological advances. One of the reason I try to stay as active as possible in social media is to stay on top of those trends and have an understanding of the current issues and advances in these fields so that I can go into a job understanding what the needs of a company are in order to help that company move forward.

And yet, it seems like there are so many companies, from my own observation, that are terrified of change and progress. Is it too much too soon? Perhaps it is. I’ve talked about this topic before at length specifically in regard to how the m-learning revolution is trying to make headway in the e-learning field in my post, “What Are You So Afraid Of?” back in July 2012. But as my most recent experiences personally have been more tech comm related, I’m starting to think that this fear of progress extends to the tech comm world as well.

I remember a big part of what was mentioned at the Adobe Day panel was the idea that as technical communicators, we understand the value of our work better than the higher-ups in managerial positions, and it’s our duty, in many respects to make sure that these higher-ups understand that value and the ROI (return on investment) that using structured content and other tools at a technical communicator’s disposal will benefit the company in the long run.  When I’ve gone on interviews or worked at various jobs, I talk about the advances that are going on involving mobile technology and how companies need to keep up with this fast-growing technology. While the interviewers or other people I speak with are impressed with my knowledge and agree the changes need to be made, the argument made is that the higher-ups, who don’t understand this value of technical communications as well as we do, insist on sticking with old ways, and slowing down progress for the sake of comfort levels. It’s a “Don’t fix what ain’t broken”-kind of mentality. I know that sometimes budgets can limit how soon progress is made, because ever-changing technological advances can be expensive, especially if one is always trying to keep up with the latest and greatest. But I also know that spending a lot of money on ancient systems that aren’t keeping up with current technology and even supporting such ancient technology and methods that aren’t even supported today is throwing money away too. Would we even have smartphones or cell phones if we settled for landline phones only? Would microprocessing computers have even been invented if we settled for manual typewriters long ago? Settling for the old doesn’t really benefit anyone, especially global companies that want to stay ahead of the competition.

The photo above is a favorite character on one of my favorite TV series, “Torchwood,” named Captain Jack. Captain Jack is generally a fearless guy, especially since he has some sort of capability where he cannot die. In that sense, when up against some sort of danger personally, he’s got nothing to lose at all. But since he’s lived for so long, he also respects the past and understands the full impact of his actions and how they affect others. Despite having nothing to lose by his actions, he’s actually the conservative one when it comes to making decisions, basing his actions on what he knows and what he researches first. He is cautious, but he’s not against trying something new if it makes sense. If you see him with a facial expression like the one he has above, you KNOW that something REALLY bad is going on, and it has greater repercussions beyond himself.

There are times that I have that same feeling, at least in my own mind.  While I respect that certain systems work and work well, and I know I’m not the most experienced technical communicator out there, I’ve done some due diligence, and again, I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world so that I’m ready to keep up with the latest advances and thought in the field. When I hear that companies are hesitant to budge from an old way of thinking, I feel frustrated. How are these companies supposed to keep their standings as world-class, advanced companies when their communications are not cutting edge, or at least up-to-date? Again, I understand that executive managers have to look at the full picture and work within budgets, but with a world that is going mobile faster than anyone can keep up with, why aren’t big companies even attempting to keep up even a little bit? Just as I had mentioned in the last article on this topic relating to m-learning mentioned above, I see it occurring in tech comm itself as well, with companies not keeping up with the latest version of how documentation outputs have to be changed to keep up with mobile technology. There is little risk with proven methods.

As a global economy–not just in the United States–we are trying to emerge from one of the biggest financial crises in economic history. Looking back at history, it’s usually during these times of economic woe that some of the greatest leaps in technology and business have been made, using great intellect and creativity to push things forward when resources were scarce. This is a time of emergence again. There are so many companies that have taken the leap forward to help take us to the next step. Smartphone and tablet manufacturers have brought us the next means of gathering information and providing communication between us. In turn, software manufacturers, like Adobe with TCS 4 and MadCap with Flare, among others, have provided us with tools to help take the content that technical communicators write to a new level of efficiency and flexibility among all the new mobile devices in the world while still keeping up with desktop capabilities.  If any companies embrace any of the changes that are going on in the technical communications field, they can deliver bigger and better communications thus benefitting from the changes, not being hindered by them.

So, what are you so afraid of, corporate world? Help technical communicators help you. Even the smallest step forward will be step towards a better future for your company.

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Mobile as a Way of Life I Can Never Abandon–I’ll Tell You Why

It became very apparent to me in the last week that I could not live without mobile technology. You would’ve thought that I would’ve learned it during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But it hit home much more for me this past week, and I’ll tell you why.

My husband went off on a trip to visit his family in South America. He hadn’t been there since 1997–a time where we had been merely dating. He was away for nine days. Now, for those who are separated from loved ones often enough, nine days might not seem like a lot. My husband and I have been apart for two to three days at a time, but we have never been apart for as long as nine days since that last trip he made in 1997 below the equator. We also didn’t have a child to consider at the time he last went on such a long trip–a sign of times changing. I hate the idea that we were going to be separated for so long.

The other sign of the times changing was that as much as I missed him terribly, I was able to communicate with him while he was down there. Now, the last time he went down there, he and I would sometimes talk by email or by Windows Messenger, but it wasn’t frequently, just because internet connectivity was limited down south, and it was expensive even back then. I wasn’t on a cable coaxial connection back then, but rather a dial-up modem, so time was money.

Internet infrastructure and technology has improved over the last 16 years, fortunately for us. This time, while we did use email, we also texted and used Facetime. We could send photos and video to each other in real time.  How? I made sure that my husband brought his smartphone and my extra iPad on the trip, not only to help keep him entertained on the plane with digital movies, books, magazines and games, but so that we had a way to communicate easily too. My father-in-law had installed wifi at his house (it helps that my younger brother-in-law, who still lives with his father, is a computer geek), and so my husband and I could share live conversations on Facetime (he’d call up my iPhone). We’d also be texting each other when needed for quick bits of information during the day, emailing and instant messaging as well. It helped ease how much I was missing him during the trip.

What definitely convinced me that I could never live without mobile devices was the night that my husband was returning from his trip. He was at the airport which had wifi (although it was not strong and somewhat spotty), and to kill some time late at night before his flight, my husband called me on FaceTime to have a video conversation. We could talk more freely than we had during his last trip away. He was amazed at the clarity of the video communication, and there was a moment while we talked when I could see in his eyes that he missed me as much as I missed him. It happened faster than fast, but it was something that could never be communicated with words in a text, email or instant message. It might not even be communicated the same way in a digital photo or video. It was talking in real time that captured it, and it was captured in my brain forever. That’s something that can’t be done that easily with a desktop or laptop. I don’t think that moment would’ve even been possible with a laptop–it would’ve had to have been done with a smartphone or tablet to have happened.

I talk about how mobile technology is the wave of the future–or really, the wave of NOW–in e-learning. I still believe that. But the other night, hours before my husband began his journey home, I learned an important part of mobile technology.  Mobile technology is not only to be able to capture video, audio, photos or have a conversation of an event going on anyplace, anytime, but the actual impact of being present for learning in real-time during such an event is everything. It’s the next best thing to being there in person. A conversation between a person in a South American airport and another sitting on a couch in Central New Jersey using streaming video and audio wouldn’t have been possible years ago. It is now.

Criticisms of m-learning often relate to the use of social media, implying that there is a lack of real communication between people because of the presence of social media. I disagree. If anything, it’s helping to bridge the gap, so that moments like my video conversations with my husband can be possible. They don’t have to be between family members, but they can be with colleagues on a project just as easily. Yes, video conversations have been around for a long time too, but not like this. If my husband had wifi in other places he travelled while visiting his family, he could show me in real-time what was happening around him. Now, the wifi infrastructure down there isn’t even close to what we have up in the States, and even here in the States, as I have mentioned before, we could have better support and availability of wifi around the country for better communication. Just think about that for a moment. If wifi infrastructure was strengthened globally, we truly could have a better “anytime, anywhere” experience not only to talk to each other but to learn from each other.

You will never be able to take a mobile device away from me, that’s one thing I’ve learned for sure!

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My response to RJ Jacquez’s question: Will Tablets replace PCs?

Recently, due to the upcoming release of Microsoft’s Surface machine, RJ Jacquez released two blog posts promoting the idea that tablets, in time, will indeed replace the PC as we know it, and that Microsoft is going in the wrong direction with this Surface device. Between his post titled, “For the sake of ‘Mobile’ I hope Microsoft Windows 8 and the Surface Tablet fall short” and Tablets Will Replace PCs, But Not In The Way You Think, he says that he feels that Surface is not taking us forward because it embraces the idea of adapting our devices to old software, instead of moving forward with mobile devices and rethinking how to create new productivity software for these new tablets that can make users more productive.  After paraphrasing several articles that have been out in the press that claim that productivity apps such as Microsoft Office, Photoshop, and Final Cut Pro (to name a few) are items that need to be addressed by the tablet industry, he counter argues,

Personally I think that most of these articles miss the bigger point, namely the fact that most people think that Tablets replacing our PCs will require a 1:1 task-replacement approach. I don’t buy this argument….In other words, we are currently shaping our mobile tools and soon these amazing devices, along with the incredibly creative apps that accompany them, will shape us and redefine every single task we do from here on out, including learning design, image editing, web design and yes every productivity task as well.”

I understand what he’s saying. If I’m interpreting him correctly, his argument is that devices like Surface should not be adapted to run bloated “power” software that needs the extra storage and peripherals to work, thus making the devices less mobile, but rather software should be streamlined to become more efficient so it can run in a tablet like an iPad which doesn’t need extra storage because it relies on the Cloud nor does it need any other peripherals to function. Some of the other “power” apps that RJ mentioned that critics think would need PC power include Photoshop, Microsoft OneNote and Avid Studio.

Well, I do have to agree with RJ insofar as I think that mobile is the future, and it is forcing us to really look at software and its limitations, and it’s making us think about how to streamline processes and our needs. mLearning is in the midst of a huge revolution due to that mindset right now. And actually, there are tablet versions of Photoshop, MS OneNote, and Avid Studio available for tablets that cover most of what users need. So it’s not like these kinds of software can’t be adapted for most people’s uses.  The average user does not use Word or Excel or Photoshop or other apps the same way as a power user, so streamlined apps are fine.

However, I think there may be a need–at least for a little while longer–for PCs to still exist for other kinds of “power” uses. The first thing that comes to mind are apps that are not as mainstream as the ones mentioned so far. Tech comm apps like Framemaker, RoboHelp and Flare are the first ones that come to mind. Now I know that Adobe is working to put just about all of their major software products on the cloud, so that’s a move in the right direction. I have no idea if Flare or the other leading tech comm productivity software packages are moving that way as well. The same thing with e-learning software…again, Captivate is part of Adobe’s cloud-based Technical Communications Suite 4 right now, but what about Lectora or Articulate or other instructional design software packages?  These are all software programs that aren’t quite ready for tablet use yet, but for the sake of mobile productivity, it might not be a bad idea to move in that direction. But for now, staying as desktop apps is probably fine.

There’s an app called Cloud On that has the right idea. It’s an app that’s available for both iOS and Android use, and essentially it provides a means of accessing full versions of Microsoft Office on tablet devices, and then saving documents in a Dropbox, Box or Google Drive account. No short cuts here! Full functionality of the software, on the go!

So, why aren’t the all the big software companies jumping onto the bandwagon with this? Apple already has by creating tablet versions of their iWork and iLife apps, but what others? Some companies have taken baby steps, or are working on it, and others…well, I think they are not keeping up, or are in denial that having a lean version of their software is needed.

I can say, as I mentioned, that I’ve used Cloud On, but I’ve also used my iPad’s Notes app. I used the Microsoft OneNote app on my iPad heavily last year during grad school, as I would start my homework assignment on my iPad during my lunch hour, and then sync it in my SkyDrive account so I could access it from my laptop at home to finish an assignment. I recently used Photoshop Touch on my iPad when I was too lazy to power up my laptop one night to fix a photo for a friend.  When I’ve made movies or did any digital photography projects, they’ve been done more on my iPad than on my laptop due to more affordable choices that meet my basic needs for editing.

So, my answer to RJ’s question is that I feel there will still be some apps that will need a PC to do much bigger jobs. Desktops and laptops are our workhorses right now, and you wouldn’t ask a pony to do the work of a Clydesdale horse. The PC isn’t going away anytime soon, and it will remain the hub of business and other work for some time to come. But, I agree with what RJ said, that in looking forward to the future, we need to continue to think mobile and how we can make it work so that much of these workhorse products can be made more lithe and flexible to our needs.

One last thought to put the mobile/tablet point in perspective–if you are a Star Trek fan like I am, you will have noticed that everyone carries portable devices–the size of a tablet, e-book or smartphone– to access huge databases and information, and to do much of the “heavy” information lifting for anyone aboard a starship. This was depicted on the shows well as much as 25 years ago, before the advent of tablet devices and smartphones. Think about how the various characters on the show used their devices. They would tap into a main computer device on the ship–much like we would access a network or the Cloud–to obtain information and make various calculations as needed.

It would seem to me that we are getting closer to that kind of scenario in reality, but we’re not quite there yet. We’re getting close, though!