production & publishing

Tablets are the new Swiss Army knife

checklistWow, everywhere you look it seems that electronic checklists are what industry uses to record data. When I took my car for servicing, the manager brought up my order on his tablet. We reviewed it and with the scrawl of my electronic signature the job was in motion. The dental hygienist can tap info on a conveniently mounted tablet but she prefers hands-free notation through audio instructions. Equipment managers roam the lot, tablet strapped to one hand while using the other to snap pictures, look up specifications or hold a Wi-Fi gauge. Utility crews carry packets of installation orders protected from the elements. Electronic checklists prove as easy for workers to adopt as they are for companies to distribute.

book types & parts design & typography production & publishing

Calls for Doc Plan limited, but if you need to create one…

Project managers verbalize the big picture in a project plan. This high-level document covers the scope and requirements. Alone it doesn’t answer all questions so the plan is complemented by subsidiary plans. Project teams manage their work through a set of formal planning documents. They cover details about department functions. Scheduling, staffing, cost, quality, risk, acceptance and communications functions are created as subsidiary plans.

I recall only a few times in the last decade when a project required a documentation plan. Depending on whether technical documentation falls under marketing or R&D will determine who manages documentation planning.

download doc plan
Documentation Plan
book types & parts production & publishing

SIPOC tool

The process map is an information type in the Information Mapping Method. Similarly, SIPOC is a tool from the Define and Measure phases of a Six Sigma project. SIPOC takes its name from Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, and Customers. These segments in the process map define where a process starts and ends. Here I’m going to show how the SIPOC tool is used to write process documentation. This is a quick exercise that serves process improvement.

  1. ID the process. Name the key point. What does it do? What is its purpose?
  2. ID the outputs. What happens, whether desirable or not. What are the deliverables, outcomes, and results.
  3. ID the customers. Who becomes the recipient? Think ‘voice of the customer’ and whether the customer is internal or external.
  4. ID the inputs. What series of events causes or triggers a process? Are they manual? Automatic?
  5. ID the suppliers. Who provides the resources? People? Systems?

SIPOC templates are readily available to help you sketch out this info using a particular flow. Or make your own template:

  1. Hold a piece of paper horizontally and fold it in fives.
  2. From left to right title each folded column, one letter per column, S-I-P-O-C.
  3. Then working in reverse from right to left identify the Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, and Customers.
production & publishing

A case for terminal punctuation

The key is knowing how tools work, whether a job takes physical strength or mouse clicks. I used the latter to find a handyman. My needs were simple.

  • Loosen shower handle so that it turns easily.
  • Adjust shower doors so that they slide fully from end to end.
  • Align bi-folding doors and adjust hinge hardware.

An online rating service helped pinpoint the ideal handyman. In describing the smallish job, I learned the estimate would cost the minimum charge. Exactly two hours later I was a pleased customer. My turn now to rate the worker.

When you can’t be sure how content will be presented use terminal punctuation. Omitting punctuation in a text box could display something unexpected. While the feedback form let me list a few items, the online version de-itemized the list.
text box word clump

design & typography production & publishing

A blogoversary sparks a makeover

My starter project, Shorter Documents, turned three years old this month. To celebrate I give it a makeover. Why a makeover? Self-paced publishing is fun until mechanical glitches hit — links break, colours fade, tags need tuning.

What stays, what goes

The vision stays — write commentary about technical writing. What began as a collection of anecdotes grows by the week. Still, I’m keeping it short — in scale and name. Oh, and the blog naming thing? That toys with my height.

A grand redesign takes shape

I approached this makeover in three stages and imposed a one week deadline to get it done. Here’s what I did.

First, deal with data. Analyze categories and tags for duplicates, relevance and one-offs. Control categories using 7 ∓ 2 rule. Manage tags as subcategories or rethink tagging later.

Next, deal with content. Observe how headings breathe, text flows (around images), tables break. Test links, image enlargement, media playback and revise postings that uncover these problems. Pause to assess effort and roadblocks before deciding whether to tweak your template or swap it for something newer.

slide-o-matic home
slide-o-matic home May 2008

Preview, preview, preview. Hunt for the perfect WordPress theme. There are thousands to choose from so look for functionally that fits. How many columns do you need? Choosing the right grid system is like choosing the right sized stock pot. Leave enough room to add your own rhythm and spice. Voilà! Your data and content are remixed.

Koi home
Koi home May 2011

Counting down to the fourth blog anniversary.

production & publishing writing & editing

Free: May issue of STC Intercom magazine

Who doesn’t like free? Well, this month’s issue of STC Intercom magazine is free and available to the public. Nice move STC!

Feature  You May Be an Instructional Designer
Multimedia  Content Evolution in the Translation Industry
Career  Now Is the Time to Design for User-Defined Content: It’s All About Metadata
Writing & Editing  The Technical Communicator’s Machine
Business Matters  Medical Writing and Editing Opportunities for the Independent Consultant or Contractor
The Strategic IA  Introducing the Strategic Information Architect

STC Intercom magazine May 2011
STC Intercom magazine May 2011
production & publishing

A blogger’s go-to place

The Vancouver writing and editing community lost a son last week. Derek K. Miller blogged for a decade until death by cancer made him stop. On news of The Last Post, a wave of traffic clogged his website. The sympathetic outpouring was instant and global.

I knew of Derek’s passion for electronic media and technology and wordcraft. I heard him present to the Editors’ Association of Canada–BC. He gave a thought-provoking talk called Life, Death, and the Blog in which he revealed why he wrote about cancer. He also explained what needs to be in place to keep one’s site going.

Back in March 2008 the audience was allowed to envision the future archive. A new tech world some three years hence preserves Derek’s writings at

book types & parts design & typography production & publishing

Fast food transformation

An operations manual is a 24/7 reference tool. It helps guide someone unfamiliar with your business through the day-to-day operating procedures. In 1958 McDonald’s Corporation created a 75-page operations and training manual. It specified how each menu item should look—french fries cut exactly 0.28 inches thick, hamburgers placed on the grill in six neat rows.

Fast forward fifty-plus years where fast food cooking instructions are designed into kitchen equipment. Crew members rely on panels of images. Instructions that must be printed are written at a fifth grade reading level in English and a second language.

Your operation functions without you

To transform the production-line prototype, redesigned kitchen equipment had to be intuitive. R&D obliged by developing cookers that work only one way. The easier equipment is to use, the easier it is for global fast-food restaurants not to have to train workers. Recognizing high turnover within fast food establishments, fast food execs aimed for “zero training” as documented in Fast Food Nation.

authors & audience production & publishing tech light

Decoder rings go mobile

Not since 1975 has the barcode held this much excitement. That year the UPC forerunner first appeared on packaged food. At the same moment, the microwave oven found a permanent spot in America’s kitchens. I concluded that cooking instructions were encoded on packages of frozen peas, and somehow, the waves read the UPC barcode. My conclusion fizzled when UPCs were printed onto magazine covers.

All things scannable are not necessarily microwaveable.

Thirty-five years later the barcode gets a makeover, and your mobile phone is the decoder ring. Block shaped barcodes appear on lots of physical and virtual items including, yes, magazine covers. What these print blocks contain are the ingredients to turn your cell phone into a Wikipedia of widgets.

Until a block is scanned you’re kept guessing about its contents, though often it reveals a website. Cracking the code is as easy as point, scan and click. That sure beats typing a URL into your cell phone’s browser.

All things scannable have greater potential.

My business card rendered as QR Code
design & typography grammar & speech language & style production & publishing writing & editing

Summer interns

A few months back I commented on the parts of technical writing I enjoy–the nuance of language, a collegial atmosphere. This month I’m adding another aspect, summer interns.

technical publications competition group
international interns, chapter advisors, and competition manager

I’ve been fortunate to work with a group of international students on a not-for-profit project. They’ve taken on planning an event for the Fall. Short of registering their friends and family they are promoting the event in every possible way. They’ve created a plan, designed a logo, multiplied the database and learned a bit about technical writing too. The students became organized as any product team might except that their buzz was about learning English, not launching a product.

International students find internships to practice speaking and listening, reading and writing in English. Passing those skills on a proficiency exam is a key to their future.