Todoist: Focus on tasks based on your location

My Todoist workflow

It’s the start of a new year, and I’ve taken a few days leave. So what better time to evaluate my Todoist workflows. Todoist is my go to productivity tool. It keeps me productive, by reminding me of exactly what I should be doing at a particular part of the day.

However one of the issues I had with the way I’d set it up, was my need to perform tasks relating to both work and home life. The real problem though is that life is never as neat and tidy as you may want. For example, if I need to arrange a plumber to come and fix a dripping tap at home, I have to do this during office hours.

So how do I focus on work or home tasks in Todoist without making it a cluttered mess?

The key for me is the use of labels and filters. All my tasks use a label called “home” or “work”, and have a due date. Using these I’ve setup filters to focus to tasks due to be performed today, but also focusing on each label. This allows me to focus on work tasks when at work, and home tasks when at home. However I can also use the default “Today” view if I need to view all tasks side by side. Handy for calling that plumber.

Writing useful release notes

Writing about technical subject matter isn’t as easy as you may think. Writing to users about changes in a technical product, with the aim of informing them about exactly what has changed and how it affects them, is downright difficult.

Take the following example:

“Synchronisation has been improved. “

This only goes part way to telling users what has changed in the product, but leaves so many questions unanswered. Like:

  • Exactly what has been improved? Is there a better response time? If so, what is it now?
  • Has a bug been fixed? If so, what is it, and what has been changed to fix it?
  • Has new functionality been added? If so, where is it located, and where is more information on it?

The example above was from a set of release notes I recently came across, and clearly wasn’t written or proof read by a Technical Writer. If it was, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Better examples would be something like:

Synchronisation performance has been improved by up to 20%, after changing the FILENAME.JAR file to make less API calls.

File names containing a ? character no longer cause synchronisation to fail. See support ticket 123456 for further details.

Support has been added to synchronize with Product X. See the “Synchronising with Product X” page in the online help file for further details.

Armed with the above information, users can:

  • Decide whether to upgrade to the latest version, if it’s not automatically deployed.
  • Identify the risk to their organisation of deploying the change.
  • Develop a test plan before deploying across their organisation.

What is content?

It’s a question I frequently find asking myself and others at the start of a project.

Take one recent example when I was asked to input to a kick off meeting involving content inside our applications. With little by way of detail before the meeting, it was my first question. Getting an answer to this, involved lots of supplementary questions like:

  • What was the audience?
  • What level of detail they required?
  • When did they need it?
  • Why did they need it?
  • Where did we need to place it?

Armed with the answers, I could start to give meaningful suggestions on the content strategy moving forward. Without them, I’d be suggesting solutions without fully understanding why they were necessary. The end result would almost certainly be (at best) a solution that only partially met the objective.

This project highlighted the need for two distinct content types:

  • A more marketing / educational deliverable designed to make users aware of something (e.g. a new feature the first time they go into that area of the UI).
  • Specific problem solving content (e.g. how do I ensure the machine separates the blue widgets from the red widgets).

The project also means auditing the existing content to see what is already there, to highlight any gaps that need filling. It also enables us as a team to identify what content is out there that we weren’t previously aware of. Marketing may have material to address the first use case. Our Technical Trainers may have handouts and video tutorials also. Our online knowledge base should address the second use case, albeit in a generic fashion. If there are specific customer specific questions, we may need to look into how best to meet that need.

Wouldn’t it be powerful if once we’ve identified what’s out there, if we all took it upon ourselves to utilise it rather than reinventing the wheel. It encourages collaboration, and prevents that scourge of content providers everywhere: content silos.

So the easy part I’d over. The talking has finished and the content strategy is carved in stone. Now all we need to do is deliver it!

eWriter HTML to EXE File Review

EC Software GmbH, the Austrian company behind authoring tool Help+Manual, recently announced a free converter called eWriter. According to it’s own publicity:

“It allows you to package a complete HTML application (along with all included files like HTML, CSS, JavaScript, image, etc.) into an independent and executable Windows application.”

Originally designed as a solution to all those Compiled HTML (CHM) files that no longer worked on Windows machines, it uses a lot of the same functionality of CHM files. It also supports Unicode characters, HTML 5 and CSS3.

ewriter

Test Results

Matthew Ellison of UA Europe mentioned recently that he’d tried it out using WebHelp output from Madcap Flare. It worked well for him, so I thought I’d try the same using WebHelp output from Adobe RoboHelp.

There’s a good introductory video on their website should you need it, but no help file. Thankfully the software is easy to use. It is pretty much just specifying the source and output directories, and your desired output format (.EXE or EBOOK). There are configuration options that control the size of the window and what actions users can perform, and there’s a useful option of saving the configuration to a file should you need to repeat the process.

The Adobe RoboHelp project I used had DHTML elements, embedded multimedia files, as well as customised Javascript. It also had the output from 14 other merged WebHelp projects. So it was a pretty good test.

I used the .EXE output option. The generation was surprisingly quick considering the number of files involved. Once the .EXE file was launched, the output was displayed is a browser type window, but looks exactly like the WebHelp output would. All navigational elements worked as expected. Even our heavily customised search tool worked well.

Limitations

On the face of it, this seems like a useful tool in certain scenarios. However it does have some drawbacks:

  • Whilst it is possible to run some .EXE files on non-Windows machines, it isn’t something most users want to do. Therefore eWriter isn’t a viable solution if your users have an iOS device.
  • .EXE files themselves are problematic to distribute. Firewalls almost certainly flag them as suspicious, and maybe even reject them.
  • To get around the .EXE file problem, an option is available to output just the data to an .EBOOK file. This makes it easier to distribute, but users must have the appropriate reader application on their machines to open the file.

Conclusions

eWriter works well to package up any files in a directory into a single file. That in itself makes it very easy to distribute. It also displays the output in much the same way as the original output format.

However the limitations make this a nice to know solution. To most of us, it could prove useful at some point in the future, but isn’t right now. It’s one to place in your memory banks for when it does.

Technical Communication UK Conference 2018

The Technical Communication UK (TCUK) Conference took place in Daventry, UK last week. Run by the ISTC, it is the biggest conference in the UK for anyone involved in technical communication.

As someone whose attended (and in the past help organize) these conferences, is the changing role of Technical Communicators. It is almost as if the profession is trying to find where it fits best. Are we writers, illustrators, e-learning producers, or just editors. That is perfectly demonstrated by the array of subject matter on display in the conference’s agenda.

The Conference Agenda

The agenda saw presentations on how our profession can improve the marketing and user experience (UX). It also covered more technical topics like using Github and designing a Chatbot. There was also the perennial favorite topics like DITA and videos. All in all it has something to appeal to most of us.

So why didn’t I attend? After all, I had the budget for our team to attend.

Part of the reason is our workload. Our team has two major deliverables due the week after the conference. That said with some careful planning, we could have shoehorned in a couple of days away in Daventry. It would have been pretty full on, but we’d have coped.

No. My major reason for not going was the potential information on offer. As an industry, we seem stuck in a rut, unable to answer the question of identity I posed at the start of this post. This results in a conference agenda that covers a lot of subjects, but is of little practical use to my team.

There is the argument that covering topics that are irrelevant now, gives you knowledge that may prove useful later. That’s certainly true, but only if those topics are likely to be used in the very near future. If they’re not, it’s likely that the information will be out of date when you need it.

Hashtags and all that stuff

Another problem I had with the conference this year was the lack of good social media coverage. In the past there was reasonably good use of Twitter and subsequent blog posts. This year there seems to be near radio silence. even the tweets that did appear on the #tcuk18 hashtag didn’t offer a lot, as I pointed out in an effort to change things.

There were one of two people tweeting, but most of the tweets were short snapshots of words and phrases with little or no background information. We were left in the dark as to which presentation or even subject they related to. The result was more a summary for those that attended the conference, but no use at all if you weren’t there. A basic technical communication error!

Maybe it was the poor wi-fi that some reported on day one of the conference. If so, that should have been sorted. If it wasn’t, I hope the ISTC doesn’t return to the same venue until it is. Having a good internet connection at a conference is high on the list of “must haves” in my opinion.

So what next?

Personally I doubt I’ll be attending a TCUK conference anytime soon. It has always attracted a high proportion of self employed writers. It’s a great place to network with peers and potential employers. It also has a number of professionals in full time roles, often as a solitary Technical Communicator, but who crave meeting like minded folk.

That’s all cool, but for me it just doesn’t fit well with what I want. At the moment I’m looking into how my team will cope with:

  • An impending Salesforce integration, and whether we’ll use it or just deliver to it.
  • If we just deliver to Salesforce, what changes in technology are required.
  • Changes in the Engineering Department that affects how my team works.

Another priority for me is developing the Technical Communicator team. They are fairly young. They’re keen to learn, and have done a great job to date, but I want them to see what else the industry is doing. They would almost certainly have got more out of the TCUK Conference than me, but most of it would have been fairly useless to them going forward.

The long and the short of it is, if we’re going to invest £1000 for a delegate to attend, it has to deliver more than just nice to know information.

My Adobe FrameMaker journey

As a former Adobe Community Professional (ACP), I used  to post tips and tricks on various Adobe technical communication products. Mostly Adobe RoboHelp and Adobe RoboHelp Server, as I’d used them for over ten years. I’d also participated in beta releases, ensuring problems were discovered (and hopefully fixed) before release.

These days I don’t use any Adobe technical communication product, and had to forfeit  my ACP status. Three years ago I moved jobs to take on a management role, where the team use a community platform to author and host our online documentation. It’s not a perfect solution for my team or our users, but that is about to change. I’ll have more news on this early in 2019.

When I was an ACP, my job didn’t have a great need for Adobe FrameMaker, although we had a licence as part of the Adobe Technical Communication Suite. So when an opportunity came along to learn, I grabbed it with both hands. It involved a project compiling a large process and procedures document.

The initial brief was to author in Microsoft Word until I got involved, but only because they wanted PDF output and the powers that be didn’t know any better. I suggested that Adobe FrameMaker was a better fit, and once I’d explained the benefits this was accepted. I’d dabbled with Adobe FrameMaker in the past, but this gave me the opportunity to learn and use it properly.

Adobe FrameMaker was once described to me as the “Rolls Royce of authoring tools.” I’ve also heard it being called lots of other things, some of which is not repeatable here! I won’t say it’s perfect, well what application is, but a lot of the problems faced by those disgruntled users were caused by poor training or unrealistic expectations.

Part of the reason for this is their previous experience of applications like Microsoft Word. Microsoft were clever to design a product that was easy to use right out of the box. Perhaps too easy. It established a user base among folk who’d never even thought that something would replace the typewriter, let alone used a computer. All of a sudden everyone was creating documents…… badly!

That was OK so long as all they were doing was writing a letter or making notes. Even to this day, PhD students will scream and shout about how poor Microsoft Word is when writing their 300 page thesis. Whilst there are those who swear that Word templates can cope with files that size, it’s not straightforward to your average user.

Adobe FrameMaker does have a steep learning curve. I recommend new users to attend a course, or (like me) buy a good book. It’s well worth it to prevent having to reinvent your templates, and provides many a time saving tip. The Adobe FrameMaker Forums are also well worth visiting, with excellent support from real users.

Whilst I haven’t used Adobe FrameMaker in anger for awhile, I’ve kept a watching eye on its iterations. There’s another release imminent, Adobe FrameMaker 2019, and there’s a webinar planned to showcase what’ included in it. See the link below to register:

https://framemaker-2019-release.meetus.adobeevents.com/

Full details of what will be shown in the webinar is included in the Adobe TechComm blog post at:

https://blogs.adobe.com/techcomm/2018/08/framemaker-2019-release.html

In summary, the release includes:

  • A major platform update, including 64 bit architecture.
  • A new PDF generation engine that negates the need for PostScript or Adobe Distiller processing.
  • UI changes including:
    • A new better organised welcome screen.
    • The return of colour icons, with a choice to revert to monochrome.
    • Changes to make finding a colour or style easier.
  • Additional language support for German (Duden).
  • Improved image handing, including transparency.
  • Improved DITA and XML workflows.
  • Support for Microsoft SharePoint 2016 or SharePoint Online.
  • Support for Adobe Experience Manager 6.4

Todoist task formatting tips

I’m a seasoned Todoist user, an online to do list application that works across all devices and browsers. I’d hesitate to call myself a power user, but I do use it extensively both in my professional and personal life.

One of the reasons I love working in the IT sphere, is how applications you’ve used for awhile occasionally surprise you with what they can do. Todoist did that to me today when I watched one of Carl Pullein’s excellent productively YouTube videos. I’ve embedded it below for completeness.

In it Carl formats tasks so that they:

  • Don’t need a date / time scheduled.
  • Are formatted in bold. (Note: I’ve also discovered how to format in italics or both bold & italics).

It’s All About Those Asterisks

Task formatting is as easy as adding one or more asterisk. Check it out in the short video below.

The costs of poor communication, and how to tackle it.

There’s a old joke about doctor’s handwriting being illegible. These days that’s less of an issue, as patient notes and prescriptions are typed, but this has highlighted a different issue.

The BBC reported today on an initiative to get doctors to communicate with their patients in plain English (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45394620). The problem is manifesting itself in patients making appointments with their GPs, just to ask them to explain what a form of treatment they’re expecting means. The problem seems to be that patients referred to hospitals are receiving appointment letters full of medical jargon they don’t understand.

Take the following excerpt from a hospital discharge report I recently saw for someone I know:

"CTPA showed bilateral segmental and subsegmental PEs. Initial Troponin 
raised (46) repeat 11."

This was supposed to inform the patient and their GP what had happened to the patient whilst in hospital, and the delivered prognosis.

The problem here is the two audience addressed by the same deliverable. The patient’s GP will understand, but the patient likely won’t.

In instances like this, it is often easier to resort to resort to jargon. It’s the doctor’s own language after all. In just the same as two Network Engineers talking about DHCP or MAC Addresses, That’s fine so long as the audience is the same as them. Try involving an outsider though, and you’re asking for trouble.

You need two separate deliverables, based on the same content. That’s something most Technical Communicators understand and deal with on a daily basis, particularly in a software environment. Whether it is end users or administrators, English or Spanish speakers, you need to have the content for each audience generated from the same source.

Mark Baker asked the question on twitter recently why Technical Communicators find it so hard to explain our profession’s importance. It solicited a fair few responses, yet none really answered the question.

It’s an interesting question. We’re good at explaining things within our own specific spheres. We can even turn our hands at different spheres, but try to explain why we’re so important to others and we seem to struggle.

Case studies like the UK doctors help us, in that a direct effect of poor communication has resulting is wasted GP appointments and frustrated patients and doctors. By correlating the time and money spent having these appointments, we can monatise the problem. Armed with that information, we can argue how us working to resolve the issue can save the organisation money.

Maybe there’s a lesson for us there.

Just a “normal” day in my life as a Technical Writer

The only usual thing about my days as a Technical Writer, is that it’s rarely usual. Today was no exception.

I manage the technical writing function, including another member of staff. Unfortunately for me, they started a week’s holiday today and I’ve just returned from two weeks away. The timing of our holidays isn’t ideal, but I’d monitored what was going on during my absence. I didn’t actually do much, but it ensured there weren’t any unpleasant surprises on my return.

My journey to work involves a 15 minute walk to the station, a train into central London, and a further 20-25 minute walk. I could get a bus or tube, but I figure that by the time I walked to the bus / tube, waited for said bus / tube to arrive, decide not to force myself onto an already crammed bus / tube, get on the next bus / tube, and walk to the office, I may as well just walk. Besides I enjoy walking.

Today I set off wearing a fleece, and soon regretted doing so. After the walk to the local station, it came off and never came close to being worn again. It was announced today that the UK had just experienced its joint hottest summer on record. The last week or two had seen a slight drop in temperatures and plenty of rain, but today demonstrated that whilst we are now in the meteorological autumn, it’s still warm enough for a short sleeved shirt commute.

Taking of surprises, whilst I was away, a desk move was announced. I knew this was happening, but unsure when. Whilst I was away it was announced it would be taking place on the Friday before my return. I’d asked my team member to ensure everything necessary was moved. This happened, but of course on arriving this morning I spent an hour ensuring everything was setup to my desired configuration.

A colleague last week had sent me a meeting request for 11am to discuss a forthcoming release. We’d completed all the updates some months ago, but the release was delayed. With the release imminent, she wanted to discuss some finer detail of what we’d provided. I went in search of her, not easy as she’d moved desks also, and managed to get the meeting moved to the afternoon. Enough time to organise myself and start trawling through my emails.

Within 30 minutes, I’d been approached by three separate Product Managers to inform me of projects in the pipeline. Only one of them is in any way urgent, likely to be released later this month. It doesn’t contain too much additional functionality, but annoyingly does contain new icons. I made a note to inform our Education Team who produce our certified video training programmes. They just love having to update all their videos every time an icon changes! We’ve got another large project completing about the same time that we’d both been working on. I may have to look at reallocating resources to ensure both project deadlines are met, once I’ve evaluated the effort involved. That’s not for today, so an item is added to my to do list.

Up to lunch was spent on admin. As a manager, admin is an essential part of what I do. It may sound boring, but having processes and ensuring they’re followed is pivotal to ensure a smooth running team. Running reports, trawling through my Inbox to prioritise any work items, or updating our project spreadsheets with details of changes / timescales, these tasks have to be done.

Around 12:30 I down tools for a trip to the gym in the basement of our office. I’m a keen runner, but have been recovering from a serious injury since late March. Today was my first day back on the treadmill, so I planned a gentle 30 minute jog. I want to get back to doing my local Parkrun ASAP. Being a Parkrun volunteer is fun, but just doesn’t give you to same buzz. I’m not looking to get back to anything like my PB just yet, but I’ve a goal in mind.

Back in the office, and I’ve time to eat a sandwich and apple before my Rescheduled meeting. The Product Manager and I discussed some minor changes to our best practice guides. A perfect chance to do some actual technical writing. As we discussed each setting, I changed the pages on the fly.

Afterwards I finished going through my Inbox. That only left the automated emails, comments generated by users, and those sent to our team’s distribution list, each of which is sent to a separate folder. The comments were easy, as not all are related to our Knowledge Base.

By mid afternoon, my earlier plea to my colleagues to come and eat a biscuit or two I’d brought back from my holiday, seemed to having some affect. The biscuit mountain was reducing, but not enough to avoid me taking the easy route to solving the issue of having the afternoon munchies.

Late in the day and another work request came my way. Four new projects in a day. That’s a record! Once again I update our project spreadsheet with the details. It’s a useful shared resource that the team and my boss can use to see what is coming up.

As folk began to leave for home, I pondered whether to stay late and finish off those unread automated emails. I consider logging on from home this evening rather than staying in the office. As a global company, and with my manager not being based in the Uk, I’m used to occasionally working irregular hours. However as today was a US holiday, I decided I’d have some time tomorrow morning to sort those email folders out before the USA woke up.

So it was a walk to the station, sans fleece. An unusually busy train meant a less comfortable journey than normal. My wife texted me to say she’d bought some milk and bananas, so I didn’t need to visit the supermarket on my way home. Bless her, as I hate that supermarket with a passion. It’s very handy for commuters as it’s only a minute from the station, but it’s layout and poor customer service makes a visit a soul destroying experience.

Home by 7:30, I change into shorts and sandals, take the bins out for the bin men who arrive early tomorrow, and sit down to eat. Nothing fancy tonight, but that’s OK. Plain food can still be tasty.

After catching up with my wife on her day at work, I spend time catching up on what’s been going on online. I normally try to do this during my train journeys, but today I didn’t. I predominately use Twitter for professional information, and Facebook for personal stuff. After a few minutes trawling, I had the idea for this post, but before I started, I prepared my lunch for tomorrow.

As my bed beckoned, my mind turned to what I can expect tomorrow. I know what I’ve left from today, but you can bet there’ll be the odd curve ball thrown in to make life interesting. Working for a software company in a dynamic environment is never boring.

Technical Communicators: There’s hope for us yet!

“I found that exercise rather depressing”, I said having participated in an exercise at a recent training session. Unsurprisingly my slightly tongue-in-cheek comment solicited a question from the trainer. “Why’s that?” To answer that, I need to explain the exercise.

We were given a scenario. We’re in a large city with a transport problem. There isn’t enough of it for those who want to travel. The answer is possibly hot air balloons! As the Head of Transportation, we’d one hour to research whether they really are the answer to all your problems. In order to do this, we had four options:

  1. Read the blueprints and instruction booklet?
  2. Watch other hot air balloonists and devise a plan?
  3. Meet with a subject matter expert and ask them questions?
  4. Just buy a balloon and try it out our self?

In our group only I went for option 1. Five went for option 2, with one other going for options 3 and 4.

Now do you see why I said what I said? As a Technical Communicator, I design how best to present the blueprint, and I write the instruction booklet. If no one but me would choose to even look at them if they’re in a hurry, what is the point in my profession?

OK so we’ve managed to buy another hour’s research time. What other research method of the three remaining choices would you choose? Six went for option 3, with one each for options 1 and 2.learning_styles

With eight people, it’s hardly a scientific sample, but it did raise some interesting insights into the different learning styles people have. According to Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, these are:

  • Option 1 = Theorist
  • Option 2 = Reflector
  • Option 3 = Pragmatist
  • Option 4 = Activist

As a follow up exercise, our group completed a questionnaire that aimed to demonstrate which of the four learning styles we best fitted. Guess what? The person who’d said they’d immediately just buy a balloon and learn from their mistakes, found they’d actually a high theorist score.

Ha! You can deny it as much as you like, but well designed and written technical documentation will always be needed. Especially for those who say they don’t read it.