MP: STC 2007 Day 1

Precis: weather nice, vendors many, Adobe resurgent, technical writers focus on technology, architecture, globalization, perhaps a little DITA here and there.

Weather: sunny, windy, hot. Got the chance to wander the sculpture garden after registering, also stuck my head in on Bernard Aschwanden's session on DITA XML and said hi, along with Robert Anderson, my co-presenter (the lead architect of the DITA Open Toolkit).

Program: looks like quite a few DITA sessions - about eight with DITA in the title, plus some more that mention DITA in another context. Not as many case studies as I'd see at a DITA conference, but DITA definitely being pitched by vendors, consultants, and others - with a clear connection to some of the conference "institutes" (designed sets of sessions organized around a single theme), including content management, globalization, corporate knowledge, and information architecture. But then, from me you expect the "tag em all" attitude, no?

Opening session: Various greetings and endorsements, then a panel discussion of trends and concerns for the profession, moderated by Saul Carliner, with participants Nancy Locke (globalization expert), Michael Hughes (user experience and training, corporate knowledge), and Ann Rockley (content management, content architectures).

Some of the trends/opportunities they discussed:

  • (I can never resist a bulleted list)
  • The convergence of user experience with user assistance, as technical writers become responsible for all the information associated with a product, whether in a book, on the Web, or embedded in the product's interface
  • The increasing importance of content and knowledge to an organization's survival and competitiveness: documentation is not an add-on, it is a structured part of a company's intellectual capital, and an integral part of the products it produces.
  • The need to do more with limited resources through single-sourcing and optimized processes.
  • A shift in role from technical writer to information architect or information manager (dual roles reflecting creation/design vs. ongoing management).

There was the usual-for-a-technical-writing-conference question of "who are we anyway?", grounded by a recent redefinition of the job role in government circles to recognize the broad responsibility of writers for ensuring safety as well as quality, and information geared to reader capabilities, appropriate to their expertise and media requirements.

Asked to focus on what defined the profession, the panel participants came up with some pretty good shortlists:

Michael Hughes:

  • information products
  • supporting tasks
  • related to/involving technology

Ann Rockley:

  • communication - always our strongest focus
  • technology as a focus - not only what tools we use, but also how tools could/should be helping us, and helping our readers/customers - becoming increasingly important
  • architect as a role - whether of interfaces, taxonomies, content structures... - only recently emerging as a focus for our profession

Nancy Locke:

  • communication again
  • the importance of fighting for quality in the face of the constant push to deliver faster and cheaper
  • the importance of advocating for improvement in the technologies we use to deliver information to our audience: not just picking the best tool to deliver content, but letting the market know what we want, and guiding it towards better solutions for us and our audiences.

Then off to the booths: many, varied, full. The largest vendor participation ever for the STC, or so I'm told. Adobe as a resurgent force, promising new versions of all its software (including the not-quite-dead-yet-after-all Robohelp), and a coherent strategy tying the various pieces (Flash, Frame, Captiva, Robohelp, etc.) into a coordinated solution for technical writers, aimed at the technical writing market. Obviously what the crowd wants to hear, although we'll be waiting a while still on the promise. But wouldn't it be great if those products were tied together/coordinated by underlying use of DITA? So you could use a single source to inform printed brochures, embedded help, Flash videos, Web sites...?

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