Day-by-Day at WritersUA: Thoughts from a Newbie Technical Writer

TechWhirl’s coverage of WritersUA 2012 is sponsored by Madcap Software. Find out more and download a trial copy of Flare 8.

Lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN

Day 1: The Technical Writers Gather

After a few weeks of preparation and anticipation, I left Boston and headed to Memphis, TN to attend my first conference; the Writers UA Conference for Software User Assistance.   I checked in at the Peabody Hotel (where the conference was being held) and was already impressed. From the minute my taxi pulled up to the golden front doors (held open for me by doormen in bright red uniforms), I knew I was about to walk into a really cool place.  I had checked out the hotel online before the trip, but was not prepared for how fabulous it actually was in person.  The main lobby had the charm of the south mixed with the grandeur of a different time in America.  It reminded me of the décor of the Titanic.

Twice daily, the Peabody ducks parade from the lobby fountain up to the roof by the Duckmaster – a position of high honor.  (Shannon, the wife of the conference organizer, was even an honorary Duckmaster one day!)  These ducks set the tone and theme for the entire hotel.  Almost everything inside my room has a duck on it (including duck-shaped soap), and the hotel has a policy to never serve duck on any menu.

The Special Writer’s Unit (SWU) at “Local”

As for the conference itself, Sunday included a new event called “User Assistance 101” that had courses on basic user assistance development topics and a separate certificate program.  Stay tuned for a summary of the UA 101 event from Ashley Brown.

After getting settled into my beautiful room, I met the TechWhirl team.  We went to a local bar, aptly named “Local,” for a drink and to get to know each other a bit.

Famished from a long day of traveling, we decided to take a Memphisian’s recommendation and go to Central Barbeque for dinner.  A little hole-in-the wall place with lots of character, it served up some really delicious pulled pork sandwiches, ribs, and banana pudding that “changed my life.”

Day 2: Jumping into User Assistance Head First

Interactive Polling Device for the Opening Session of WritersUA

Today was the first full day of WritersUA conference.  After a nice breakfast (provided by Adobe), we went straight into the opening session, led by WritersUA President Joe Welinske.  Joe was joined by Matthew Ellison and Char James-Tanny, who  quizzed the audience using real-time wifi responseware that immediately aggregated results on the screen.  Many of the questions related to our daily technical writing work, while some were just for fun.  Fun Fact: Memphis was named after a city in ancient Egypt.

They were all very interesting and directly related to my everyday work.  Probably the best one for me was the first session.  Michael Hughes’ presentation really hit home for me and provided a lot of excellent advice for UA professionals looking to add value by being more integrated in the product development cycle.

Conference attendees at the rooftop mixer

In between the sessions, we had lunch in the huge “Peabody Grand Ballroom” that made me feel like I should’ve been wearing an evening dress and gliding across the floor dancing to classical music.

Just before sunset, we attended a cocktail hour mixer on the Rooftop Terrace of the Peabody Hotel (where the opening scene of the movie The Firm was filmed). The weather was perfect for the occasion and the view of downtown Memphis and the river couldn’t have been better.  They served delicious fried green tomatoes made to order. We also visited the Peabody ducks in their “palace,” which was nicer than my first apartment in college.

Ashley Brown and Lauren Hart at the rooftop mixer

After the mixer, Al, Connie, and Keith and I walked to the highly recommended Flying Fish restaurant.  We each got a different kind of fish and I was dared to get banana pudding again so I could try all of the banana pudding in Memphis and declare the best (a welcome challenge). It was wonderful, but so far, Central BBQ still takes the cake—or should I say pudding?

Southern style banana pudding can change your life…you’ve been warned

 

Day 3: Reaching Saturation Level on User Assistance

The longest and busiest day of the conference.  I attended six sessions:

Some of the other popular and “tweet-worthy” sessions were the ones on Neuroscience Research, eBooks, and gamification, and comics topics.  This was a day where I wished I had a clone of myself so that I could be in two or three places at once.  Often times I was torn between two (or more) sessions in the same time block and had to make “game time decisions.” Fortunately between my other TechWhirl compatriots, and the flash drive provided by WritersUA, even though I couldn’t see all of the sessions, I have all the slides and access to the summaries provided by Ashley, Julie and Keith.

The conference attendees in the Grand Ballroom for lunch

The best session I attended was Paul Mueller’s on Integrating Help, Technical Support, and Training Content.  I really liked his strategy for using a landing page like a “Help Center” where everything is in one place.  This makes it so much easier for both technical writers and the users.  The video editing session was really informative.  I learned so much about video file formats, compression, screen resolution ratios, audio quality, etc.

WritersUA offered a great networking lunch to break up the day.  The tables were categorized by topic.  I sat at the Blog/Podcast table, and had great conversations with fellow bloggers and technical writers.  We went to a few more sessions and then headed out to Beale Street for dinner at Silky O’Sullivans (with a group of about 30 people – some of whom went on a Pub Crawl afterwards).  I had a great time there meeting and chatting with people from Microsoft.  There’s nothing like getting some insider perspective on working for a software powerhouse.

Day 4:  The Last Day of Technical Writing “School”

The last day of the conference felt like the last day of school before summer vacation.  Everyone buzzed around in a great mood, trading business cards (the professional equivalent of “sign my yearbook”), saying last-minute goodbyes to their newly forged friends, and taking silly photos.  It was obvious that we had a great time because everyone was a little sad to leave.

A lot useful and cutting-edge info was presented at the sessions, but probably the best part about attending conferences is the networking, side conversations, and personal connections made.  Sharing stories, venting frustrations and just getting away from the office and chatting with people who actually get what you do and what you go through is just fantastic.  It’s even better for lone technical writers like me who don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of.  I feel like I’ve found friends and mentors here that I will definitely keep in touch with, and maybe even see again someday (another conference perhaps?).

I attended four sessions on the final day:

The first and last session benefitted me the most.  The last session was led by Matthew Ellison from the UK and he was one of the best speakers.  I learned a lot about the origins, uses, and best practices for hyperlinks that will come in handy as I continue my user assistance work.

Just before lunch, we visited the reknown and quite fabulous Peer Showcase where 16 of the top industry professionals showed their most innovative work.  The three I saw and voted on were:

  • Creating Flash Rollover Images with Captivate and Snagit  –  Fer O’Neil took standard screenshots that when you moused-over the image, animations would appear in a flash video-style. Very cool!
  • Using a Web-based Product Lifecycle Roadmap and Customized Search to Increase Documentation Usability – Timothy Rosa used amazon.com-style “sticky searches” and roadmaps to help users find the info they need faster and easier.
  • Engaging Users with Documentation that doesn’t feel like “Documentation” – This was the best of the three, my top pick, and the winner of the peer showcase contest! Steve Stegelin illustrates his own cartoons and graphics and integrates them with very contemporary walk-through guides that make reading them fun!

After the showcase, we walked to a tasty lunch at Automatic Slims.  The conference closed with another real-time audience-response session led by Joe Welinski.  He asked us to predict the future of user assistance and the results were surprising, but probably true-most of them anyway.

Peabody duck cookies – a closing session treat

I found the entire conference extremely well organized, and offered only top-notch presentations and materials.  It reminded me of college to be attending lectures, taking notes, meeting new people, and just absorbing so much helpful new information.  More people should take advantage of opportunities to attend conferences and seminars such as this for their professional development.

The conference was organized into three categories for sessions: Content Strategy, Tools and Technologies, and Emerging Skills.  WritersUA provides certificates to attendees who have attended four or more sessions in one of the three categories.  Since I attended the majority of sessions in the Content Strategy section, I decided to get the certificate for it.

At the end of the day, I ate a diet-busting duck cookie, said my goodbyes, and shared a taxi to the airport with several other technical writers. I came to Memphis excited and nervous, not knowing what to expect, and left with a head full of information and a pocket full of business cards.

 

TechWhirl will be publishing articles from Lauren, Ashley Brown, Julie Grady, and Keith Soltys on all the great WritersUA sessions throughout this week and next, to give you a taste of and a feel for what’s happening in the world of user assistance, technical writing tools, and best practices.

Lauren Hart

Lauren Hart is currently working as a Technical Writer for a Software Development company called 2Is Inc. (www.2is-inc.com) in Boston, MA. She previously worked for a university doing technology strategy proposal writing, and in corporate banking writing policies and procedures. Her interests include; content strategy, user assistance, user interface design, usability testing, and emerging technologies in Technical Communications. She also writes a tech comm blog at http://www.writeeditrepeatblog.wordpress.com and is a member of STC. The upcoming Writers UA event will be the first conference of its kind that she has attended. Since she is new to software UA, she is eager to learn and share ideas with the software UA community.

Read more articles from Lauren Hart