Reflections on Write the Docs Conference, 2013

I was pleasantly surprised by the Write the Docs conference. It cost about 10% of other documentation conferences and had nearly the same amount of great ideas. That’s a tremendous deal. Plus it was in Portland. In a McMenamins. With Ruby ale.

Great colleagues, wonderful ideas, and fantastic beer? Can’t be beat.

I could be wrong, but my feeling is that many attendees were not long-tenured writers. There were some assumptions that were incorrect (e.g., there are few documentation conferences), some missing citations (e.g., there was no acknowledgement of usability studies), and some quirky ideas of industry standards. But, really, this was a terrific little conference. I look forward to the next one.

What I Loved

I loved the length of the presentations. They were either 20 minutes or 40 minutes. That’s a perfect presentation time, as far as I’m concerned. My biggest gripe about most workshops or presentations is that the content can usually be communicated in 20 minutes.

I loved the fact that all presentations were held in one room. No more having to decide between which one I go to. I was able to go to them all. Sure, some were great, some didn’t speak to me. But I had the opportunity to figure that out myself by listening to them all.

I loved the content of the presentations. There were superb and inspiring ideas both days. The kind of ideas that make me think, “Dammit, why didn’t I think of that?” and “How can I pass off that piece of brilliance as my own?” Yeah, I know: I’m a shallow bastard.

What I Didn’t Love (But What Still Made Me Think)

The only gripe I had about the presentations was that many of them came off as personal preference. The craft of technical communications is mature enough that we are not afforded such a luxury. We have standards and they’re always open to change. But that change has to be based on user studies. We write for users, not ourselves.

For example, one presenter slammed my old docs at the AWS site for the number of clicks required to get information. And he had a legitimate point. I was happy to hear him out because it’s something I’ve been troubled by too.

However, he ceded his argument by neglecting usability studies that show many people don’t read online content that falls below the fold. In other words, they won’t scroll. Click? Yes. Scroll? No. Go figure.

So the critique came across as simple personal preference. However, it wouldn’t have taken too much time to research how others felt. Perhaps many engineers coding for an API prefer to scroll, whereas users of help for a desktop app prefer to click. We might very well need to design both content AND output for different levels of reading. That would be fascinating to find out.

There were other examples of presenting such personal preferences with regard to formatting and sourcing. Personal preference is something that’s fine to hear when you’re one-on-one with someone, or in a small group. And, paradoxically, this whole “personal preference is not good for presentations” thing is my own personal preference. But I’ll present it here on my blog for both of my readers. I won’t be presenting my preference at a conference.

Back to facts: Eric, Troy, and Eric did an amazing job with this first documentation event. I know I couldn’t have pulled it off as successfully. Thanks to them and to the wonderful presenters.

About scotmarvin

Scot is an editor and writer involved in content design, content architecture, big data, cloud computing, and other buzzwords related to technical stuff. He loves his family, history books, jazz guitar, and the Minnesota Vikings. Scot is a proud father, so don't make the mistake of asking about his family unless you have four hours to listen to him ramble on about his kids.
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