Interactive PDFs Using Adobe Acrobat

Written by Ashley Malone

B Hua at lecternMs. Bei Hua visited Lawrence Technological University on April 16, 2013, to share her knowledge of Interactive PDFs using Adobe® Acrobat®. Ms. Hua has worked with Blue Cross Blue Shield Michigan for the past several years as an eLearning and Web development specialist. Her background includes work at General Motors as well as at Wayne State University.  Lawrence Tech sponsored the event by providing a meeting location on its Southfield campus and supplying a number of prizes for use in the door prize drawing.

The session on interactive PDFs was particularly helpful for the attendees’ own professional growth since almost all of us work with PDFs sometime in our careers. Adobe PDFs are a great resource because almost all computers come standard with Adobe Reader®. This product is also easier to use and more Web friendly than other products on the market.

title slide B HuaSome of the different PDF components we had the opportunity to learn about were converting files into PDF format, navigating through PDFs with bookmarks and layers, linking attachments and multimedia, and creating interactive forms that can be easily saved and transferred to the Web. These tools are instrumental in creating effective communication pieces that are easily understood by an audience.

Ms. Hua’s presentation was very informative and extremely helpful, and the meeting participants greatly appreciated her taking time out of her day to share her expertise at this event.

An evening about e-learning

Written by Elizabeth Donoghue Colvin

smaller Articulate photoOn the evening of March 26, 2013, STC-SM program attendees were treated to demonstrations of Articulate® Storyline, a software that lets you “create polished interactive courses” and that’s “simple enough for beginners, powerful enough for experts” (Articulate website). At one of the Ann Arbor, MI, Thomson-Reuters offices, individuals representing a wide range of professions – including technical communicators and e-learning specialists and other educators – not only received instructions in how Articulate works but were invited to develop a basic e-learning storyline using the software as part of a hands-on experience while seated at computers.

Leading the program for the evening were Megan Torrance, the Chief Energy Officer of TorranceLearning, an e-learning design and development company located in Chelsea, MI; Matt Kliewer, a TorranceLearning designer who handles special technology projects; and Jeanette Brooks, who spent four years as Articulate Storyline’s e-learning community manager and who is now the Manager of Member Services at the Dexter Wellness Center in Dexter, MI.

Participants either worked on a prepared storyline about how to make candied bacon or chose their own storyline. Either way, they learned the basics about how the software works and heard opinions on how it compares to other e-learning options such as Adobe® Captivate® and Lectora®. They took their presentations home with them on their USB flash drives.

The presenters showed that Articulate Storyline has some easy-to-use features in common with Microsoft® PowerPoint®, including a design tab with pre-made templates and an ease in moving things around on the screen. In addition, one of Articulate Storyline’s strengths is that it allows the user to synchronize the progression of the visual storyline with the audio attached to it by moving things around – including the audio waves – on the screen. In addition, Articulate Storyline e-learning products can be translated into other languages after the entire e-learning course has been built; everything except the images gets translated, even the buttons. Typically, though, the product will need tweaking after translation, because other languages generally take up more space than English does. E-learning products can also be made 508 compliant (accessible to individuals with disabilities).

Program participants also learned that Articulate Storyline outputs can be published to Adobe Flash® or as HTML5. The Articulate Storyline website has information about what to consider when publishing as HTML5, as publishing that way can present some challenges to the user. Articulate can also function as a learning management system: It can host your content and track and report on its use.

The presenters praised Articulate Storyline for the energy it puts into its online community, which includes blogs, forums and the opportunity for peer-to-peer connections with others users. Even when using the free-trial download, users who ask questions get prompt answers. (Click on the Free Trials button on the Articulate home page). Users are also invited to suggest enhancements to features for inclusion in the next version of the software.

At closing, the presenters had some words of advice: One way to learn how to build an e-learning product is to deconstruct one built by someone else. Also, one of the most useful things you can do as an Articulate Storyline learner is to subscribe to the word-of-mouth blog on the Articulate website.

STC-SM appreciates the time the presenters contributed in hosting one of the most well-attended programs in recent memory. We are also grateful to Thomson-Reuters staff, who lent the use of their computer lab and made sure several computers were ready for use that evening.

Content Management Systems (CMS) and their Application in Creating Documentation

Written by Tom Glennan

CMS program room shot According to a recent study by Information Mapping Inc. (2012), an organization of 1000 employees spends 2500 hours per week searching for information in their documentation. They waste up to $2.5 million per year on employees searching for information they cannot find, and up to $5 million per year recreating information that already exists. And because most organizations typically have only centralized 50% or less of their critical information, there are many harder to quantify costs incurred by the organization relating to poor decisions, poor quality, employee frustration, and lost sales. Furthermore, according to Forbes magazine (1/4/2013), the “creative employees” in an organization (like technical communicators) waste 30% or more of their time looking for, re-creating, or unnecessarily moving content within their organization.
Sound familiar? For situations like these and others, a content management system (CMS) may be the solution you and your customers or employers need. To help understand the issues and solutions with managing and retrieving information, Patrick Becker, president of Asyling Digital Media Solutions of Ann Arbor, discussed the topic, “Content Management Systems (CMS) and their Application in Creating Documentation”, in the February 27th STC-SM program meeting. The program was held at the offices of Thomson Reuters in Dexter, Michigan, and refreshments and door prizes were sponsored by the communications department at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield.

LTU's table at Feb 23, 2013 meeting
What is a Content Management System?
A content management system is a computer program that allows publishing, editing and modifying content, as well as maintenance, from a central interface. These systems can be either manual or automatic in executions, manage workflow among many authors or documents in a collaborative environment. Originally designed in the 1990s to simplify the task of writing multiple versions of code and make the website development process more flexible, CMS now enables the centralization of data editing, publishing, and modification. (Wikipedia, retrieved 2-10-13 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content-management_system).
So How Can a CMS Help Me?
According to Patrick and his team of presenters, a properly-designed CMS consists of three subsystems: the production content component, the web component, and the digital asset management component (think of iTunes or your DVR at home). These three components make up the CMS “eco-system” which creates, manages and distributes the content information. By employing “templates”, the CMS is able to improve the speed, accuracy and control when managing the content information throughout the organization. Furthermore, you can also have multiple working on the same document (although not the same particular article or paragraph) simultaneously, which improves the ability to share ideas and collaborate on the document.
In addition, David Rheault reviewed the concept of “brands” (think a publication title like Time or Sports Illustrated), which are specific to a particular genre within the publication industry and can be used as labels for organizing, managing and distributing the content within specific modules or chunks.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
CMS is both a strategy and a tool for effectively and efficiently managing and distributing reusable content within an organization. Although it may be difficult at first and requires taking more of a “topic-based” approach to content creation as opposed to the narrative method you may be familiar with, the ease of accessing information and distributing it throughout the organization may make it worth the effort.

Usability Testing Reveals Two Audiences and an Approach to Both

On Saturday, February 2, participants from the September 2012 card-sorting activity reconvened at Lawrence Tech with Pam Finger, MS-TPC candidate at Lawrence Tech, to learn about her analysis, to verify or correct her interpretations, and to discuss how to implement some of these changes.

Consensus

Everyone agreed we need good navigation and easy-to-scan pages. Everyone wanted information about STC/SM and our activities and programs, a members’ area, contact information, and resources.

Differences

Students are looking outward for resources including social networking, professional development opportunities, and program calendars, but had no interest in archives. They are interested in multimedia.

Council members on the other hand, are looking inward for a repository of archived newsletters and program information in the process of developing new programs and other activities.

Constraints

These groups represent two different audiences. Everyone concurred that a major purpose of the website was to attract new members, so the information that our students gave us was very valuable, and may be representative of what potential new members are looking for. On the other hand, Council needs to be able to find the information they need.

In the course of her research, Finger met with Dave Mitropoulus-Rundus, who had analyzed the previous website and reviewed the current interim website. One thing stuck out as a shortcoming on both: we need a tagline at the top of the page to the right of the logo.

When Pat Martz took over as STC/SM webmaster last June, she felt that the volunteers who work with the website, including blog editors and writers and the webmaster, need a standards-based, easy-to-maintain site.

Recommendations and Next Steps

Finger took all this into account when she prepared wireframes, which we discussed. We realized that we can move archived files into Resources, as that is what they are for Council members. One person pointed out that archives would also serve as resources for students, if they were to write articles or give presentations that they would later like to refer to in a portfolio.

The Council will discuss the mission statement and a better tagline at the next Council meeting.

A new information architecture will be worked up and implemented over the next few months; the resulting website will evolve from the current one, rather than being another complete change.

November Program Meeting: “Agile Technical Writing”

Jack DeLand explains Agile

Written by Susan Fisher

Agile is not your father’s (or mother’s) tech writing. It’s all about working with small chunks of content, being continually iterative, and understanding that it’s never really “done.”

STC-SM member Jack DeLand, a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner, led the audience on a tour of the Agile development process and explained how technical writing fits into it. Most commonly used in computer software and systems development, Agile can be used with other types of development as well.

Traditional Development vs. Agile Development

In the traditional development process, comprehensive requirements and design specifications are created at the front end of a project. The entire product is then built and finally tested — followed by product-wide bug diagnosis and repair.

The Agile methodology is essentially about iterative, incremental development. Small functional chunks of the product are defined, designed, developed, tested, revised, and tested again until they are working properly. Then, these small chunks are combined into larger functional pieces using the same approach, until the product is complete. Development is a collaborative effort by cross-functional teams.

Flexible design, rapid prototyping, and quick adaptation to changing needs are hallmarks of the methodology. User input and usability testing are woven throughout the process.

What Does It Mean for the Tech Writer?

Instead of joining the project near the end, as is typical with traditional development, the tech writer on an Agile project is a member of the cross-functional team from the beginning. As such, the writer can play a key role in user needs analysis, design, usability testing, and the continual improvement of the product.

On the other side of the coin, the writer has to be comfortable with ambiguity, writing in fragments, innumerable versions of the documentation, and the reality that the product will continue to change until the end of the project.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are worth the effort — and best practices have been, and continue to be, identified.

More Information

To learn more, Jack recommended starting with “Agile Technical Documentation” by Jean-Luc Mazet (http://writersua.com/articles/Agile_doc/index.html).

He also suggested visiting these LinkedIn groups:

  • ŸAgile Technical Writers
  • ŸTechnical Writers in an Agile Environment

Agile Technical Writing Program on November 14

This presentation by Jack DeLand, a Certified Scrum Master and Agile practitioner, will take you through the roots of Agile technical writing, describe some of its common problems and pitfalls (such as scheduling and working to extremely small time boxes), and end with some real-life practice of the Scrum experience. By the end of the evening, you’ll be a practitioner, too!

Where: LTU, 21000 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan, room C406, which is also known as the Welcome Center, in the Alfred A. Taubman Student Services Center in the middle of campus.

When: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 from 6:45 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Cost: Members: $5
Non-members: $10
Students: Free

Please register for this event.

September 22 2012 Program Meeting

Written by Thomas Glennan

Photo of sorted cards bundled to turn in
Sorted cards ready to be turned in

Most STC/SM program meetings provide the opportunity to learn about new technologies, skills, or applications in the field of technical and professional communication. At the most recent meeting, however, held September 22 at Lawrence Technological University (LTU), attendees not only learned about some of the principles and concepts behind effective web design; they also participated in a workshop that would contribute to the actual redesign and improvement of the chapter’s own web site. And the chapter gained additional insight and feedback into what information and features potential web site users might want and need from the chapter. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning for all involved.

The presentation/workshop was presented by Ms. Pamela Finger, a graduate student in LTU’s Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication (MSTPC) program, and Ms. Pat Gomez Martz, STC/SM chapter webmaster and Pamela’s practicum advisor at LTU. The meeting/workshop began with a brief review of the design and content of the previous web site. The elements of the web site needing attention or improvement were reviewed, including the lack of a central, focused format; its cluttered appearance and layout; and the use of tables in its construction. Pat then discussed the cosmetic and structural changes that have been made to date, many of which were enabled by the CSS stylesheet in the new web site. Not only have these changes improved the usability and navigability of the web site, but they have reduced its size by 87% as well, reducing its cost and complexity.

Before moving on to a discussion of additional changes and revisions to improve the web site further, the meeting attendees participated in a couple of small group activities. These included a questionnaire on the usability and features of the previous web site, and an exercise for grouping or organizing potential website topics or categories in a format that would be logical and user friendly. This data will be compiled and analyzed by Pamela and Pat as they continue their research and investigation into additional chapter web site enhancements, in conjunction with Pamela’s practicum on this topic.

The meeting then transitioned into a group review and evaluation of the web site changes that have been made to date, and their effectiveness and appeal to the meeting participants. Discussion focused on a variety of the considerations and challenges that must be considered when developing a web site and blog, including the desirability of search windows, how to design for mobile applications, how to manage responses to material posted on the blog, and the metrics for measuring blog traffic. Time was also spent with a live, online review of the web sites and blogs maintained by other STC chapters.

These survey and exercise results, along with the discussion and suggestions from the workshop, will now be used by Pamela and Pat to make recommendations to the Southeast Michigan chapter for further improvements to the web site and blog. Will the feedback and suggestions from this workshop and everyone’s hard work pay off? Keep an eye on this web site, and the changes to come, to decide for yourself.

Usability Research Program on September 22 to Improve STC/SM Website

Pam Finger, Master of Science candidate in Technical and Professional Communication at Lawrence Technological University, is researching some issues of information architecture in an effort to make this website more useful and the information more findable. Pam is working on her practicum with STC/SM’s new webmaster and LTU adjunct faculty member, Pat Martz.

There are three competing, and possibly conflicting, needs:

  • the users’ needs for findable information on a usable site
  • the volunteer STCS/SM webmaster’s need for a shallow learning curve and an easy-to-maintain site
  • STC/SM’s need for clearly identifiable branding

To that end, Pam will be leading a program on usability with a series of qualitative research exercises to determine what users want and need.

We need guinea pigs. Be one of those users! Join us in this opportunity to see what this type of research is like from the participants’ side of the table and to help us produce a website more responsive to your needs.

Particulars

  • Date: Saturday, September 22, 2012
  • Time: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Place: LTU, 21000 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan, the Taubman Student Center’s Welcome Center, room C406
  • Price: FREE! We will ply you with liquid refreshments and edible goodies in gratitude for your participation

Please register to ensure enough coffee and edible goodies.