My Favorite Tools

People are always asking me “what tools do you use”? I’ve filled out multiple surveys on the subject, such as the 2012 Writers UA Tools Survey. So here is a list I put together of the hardware, software, and apps that a Tech Writer / Business Analyst / User Experience Architect cannot live without.

In such a modern and digital age, it’s weird to think of how tool-dependent we are. People have always used tools in their daily lives and always will. It’s just part of life. But it seems like the tools you use can define you. For example, “are you a mac or a PC”? Answer carefully because you could be judged based on your answer. The tools we use are important, but what’s more important is what we do with them; what we create and contribute to the world with them.

So here are the tools I use on a daily basis. Usually when I have the choice of tools, I choose the one that produces the best output, while being easy to use, and affordable.

For anyone who is trying to break into the industry, I would recommend downloading free trials or purchasing these tools and becoming familiar with them. It can help immensely to have a leg up before you sit down and try to use a new tool for the first time and produce real work on it immediately.

Software

  • Word processing: MS Word – obviously… you can’t live without this tool ūüôā By now, I can make Word sing and dance.
  • Spreadsheets: Excel (aside from the usual spreadsheets, I use this a lot for project management to make timelines and schedules – I know I should probably use MS Project, but it’s a pain in the butt, so I use this instead)
  • Presentations: Power Point (the old staple), Prezi (the new flashy kid), and Keynote (for apple products – I use this one to do presentations on my iPad)
  • Quick Reference Guides: Adobe InDesign (somewhat of a high learning curve, but produces really beautiful documents) or MS Word (less beautiful documents, but easier to use – I usually start in word and then make it pretty in InDesign)
  • Help Authoring Tools (HATs): Madcap Flare, RoboHelp, Framemaker, DocToHelp – I like DocToHelp the best because it integrates with MS Word and is very easy to learn and use. Flare is becoming the new industry standard and RoboHelp is the old industry standard so you still see that on a lot of job descriptions.
  • Tutorial Videos: Camtasia Studio, Adobe Captivate (I prefer Camtasia, it has less of a learning curve, easier to use)
  • Photo Editing: Photoshop
  • Screenshots: Snagit – this tool is AMAZING and its really cheap. It allows you to take screenshots of any portion of your screen, then you can edit those images. You can also create videos with it. It has a lot of useful functionality and will become a tech writer’s bread and butter. Used daily. It’s very easy to learn and use.
  • Illustrations: Adobe Illustrator
  • Blogging: WordPress
  • Wikis: Mediawiki, Confluence
  • Audio Editing: Audacity
  • File compression: WinRar, 7-zip
  • FTP: Filezilla, WinFTP
  • Internet Browsing: Chrome
  • CSS Editing: Firefox web developer extension and Firebug
  • Web design and HTML Editor: Dreamweaver (not free) and Notepad++ (free)
  • Flowcharts: Visio – creating flowcharts, process flows, organizational charts, swimlanes, and diagrams.
  • Requirements Management: I use Case Complete to write, manage, and produce reports on software (or product) requirements specifications, use cases, test cases, dictionary/glossary, actors, and more. It’s fabulous. This particular tool can be somewhat expensive if more than 1 license is needed, but it does it all and I use it every day.
  • Wireframing: I use Balsamiq for creating wireframes (also known as mockups / prototypes) of User Interfaces for web and mobile applications. This is by far my favorite tool. It’s very inexpensive, fun, easy, and fabulous. It creates beautiful wireframes that really translate information architecture and concepts of the application to the clients. It helps them visualize things really well and is easy to manipulate and change as they provide feedback. (Another top industry tool is Azure. I haven’t used it but I’ve heard it is clunky and requires it’s own Azure administrator to run it.)
  • SEO: Google Analytics – Google pretty much owns the internet now, so the only way to do SEO is the way they want you to.
  • Music: Spotify – this free tool is IMO the best online streaming source of music. You can create playlists, use a radio feature, send songs to friends, etc. I have it installed on my PC, mobile phone, and tablet. I listen to music all day, so it’s a must.
  • Notes: Evernote (free) – this tool syncs on your PC and tablet so you can take notes wherever you go and it’s there when you need it. I use it all the time.

Hardware

  • Monitors: 2 monitors is the ONLY way to work. It’s a must for me in any workstation.
  • iPhone and Android mobile phone – I have both because I design mobile applications and I use both platforms to see how the app would work on both, to get ideas, learn new things, and better understand usability. ¬†(But I use the iPhone 5 as my phone and I MUCH prefer it to android. I keep my old Samsung Galaxy SII around for testing.)
  • iPad and Android tablet – same reasons as above. I love my iPad and I’m on it constantly.
  • Bose noise cancelling headphones – another must. When I’m in the zone, I put these babies on and the noisy office around me fades away so I can concentrate.

Apps

These are some of my favorite apps on my phone and tablet:

  • Productivity: Evernote, Flight Tracker, Prezi, Keynote
  • News & Entertainment: Flipboard (this app takes all the articles, videos, tweets, pics, and posts on your interests from all over the internet and brings them all to once place for you – It’s magical), Buzzfeed (I feel like this site was created specifically for me because every day I read a post that is hilarious and so relatable)
  • Social: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin
  • Music: Shazam (recognizes music playing around it and tells you what song and artist is it), Spotify
  • Blogging: WordPress
  • Food: Yelp (food reviews, tips, pics, and info – I almost never pick a restaurant without this app), Starbucks (I love this app because you can pay with your phone and earn points for free things)

I love using new tools so if you have any suggestions for me, please let me know.

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The Benefits of Google +

Last week I attended my first google + hangout and found it to be a really interesting networking and collaboration tool.  Myself and about 6 other writers from Tech Writer Today Magazine (Tech Whirl) met for a video conference call to discuss the upcoming Writers UA conference and March story ideas. Some of the main features that will benefit users both personally and professionally are as follows:

Video Chatting: The video chatting feature is very similar to skype.¬† It displays all of the user’s webcam video windows at the bottom of the page and each time a person speaks, it automatically moves their video window up to the top front-and-center.¬† It then automatically switches back and forth between people’s videos as they talk.

Simultaneous Document Sharing/Editing: During the meeting, we shared a text document and were able to simultaneously edit it. Each person’s cursor and edits were color-coded, had their name above it, and were displaying in real-time.¬† Very cool.

Integration with Google+ Circles:All of the google applications are fully integrated with one another.¬† Google+, Gmail, Google Docs, Calendar, etc are all connected.¬† You can send a google+ hangout invite to someone’s gmail, they can accept, put it on their google calendar, attend the hangout, and connect with all the participants in google+ and add them to their circles.¬† Circles are the best part about Google+, and largely the main appeal of the site.¬† We already naturally compartmentalize the various social groups and aspects of our lives, so why not do it in our web interactions as well?¬† Circles allow you to filter what you post to different circles of people (work colleagues, friends, family, etc).¬† It also allows you to view the news feed of the circles individually or all at once.

Google is quickly emerging as the one-stop-shop in communication and collaboration tools (and it’s free too!).¬† Between gotomeeting, skype, and google+ hangouts, people can communicate, collaborate, and share ideas easily and seamlessly.¬† Each of the writers in the hangout were spread out all over the country and were able to sit and chat as if we were all sitting in the same room.

Google+ was originally a posh, invitation-only social network that thought it was better than everyone else, but now it has come off of its high horse and accepts all users with open arms.¬† A lot of people were skeptical of it when it first came out, saying “I already have a Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, I don’t need another social networking site,” but now I think more people and companies have seen the benefits of using it.

Meet us in Memphis @WritersUA Contest

I just entered a contest to be a guest blogger for the Conference for Software User Assistance hosted by Writers UA in Memphis, TN in March!¬† I’ve never been to a conference like this before and would absolutely love to go.

Just reading the session topics got this #techcomm nerd excited about the possibility of being chosen to go.  Their main topics are: Content Strategy, Tools and Technologies (HTML5, CSS3, HATs, Adobe, DITA, and Mobile help), and Emerging Skills. I feel like I could learn so much from these industry experts.  If picked, I would be interviewing them, attending the sessions, and blogging about it from the road.

I’m glad that tech writers and industry professionals get together like this to share ideas and engage in discussions.¬† It helps everyone develop and improve their skills.¬† College was the best time of my life, and I think it was mostly because of the constant learning, community, and engagement in focused subjects of interest.¬† I thrive on it.¬† I’m always researching new topics and looking for ways to improve myself both personally and professionally.¬† Attending conferences like this one is a great way to do so.

I hope I get picked!

 

2/24/12

Follow up: I won!¬† I’m going to the conference and will be covering it both on this blog and on the Tech Whirl website.¬† Stay tuned for more info!

Web Design for Tech Writers Part Two

So I realized that there are a couple of other tools and tricks that I didn’t share with you all in my last post on web design for tech writers.¬† Today, I wrote CSS to go with a page of HTML documentation.¬† I used the following tools, which some of you might already know about, but if you are just learning web design,¬†they might be helpful to you:

Browser Developer Tools

Each browser has different features in their developer tools which allow you to inspect and edit the source code of a webpage (both HTML and CSS).

  1. In Internet Explorer (IE), you can simply press F12 and the developer tools window will open.  From there you can select the arrow to highlight areas of a webpage to inspect or edit.
  2. In Google Chrome, click on the wrench icon on the right, then tools, then developer tools. There are a lot more features in Chrome’s developer tools than IE such as elements, resources, network, scripts, timeline, profiles, audits, and console.
  3. Mozilla Firefox has probably the best developer tools of all, but you have to download a plugin for Firebug.¬† Firebug works much the same as Chrome and IE’s developer tools.¬† It is opened by pressing F12 and it has many of the same features of Chrome, but is also has predictive text and auto-fill capabilities.¬† This is especially useful to beginning web designers who are still learning the code, but can also speed up the coding of even the most experienced web designer. (This is my preferred method.)

*Note: If you do not already have all three of these browsers installed on your computer, highly recommend doing so.  Webpages look very different on each of them (especially chrome) and it is beneficial to test it on each.  Certain browsers only support certain fonts, graphics, technologies, etc. It is equally important to make sure that your browser is always up-to-date with the latest version. It seems to me like everyone has a different favorite browser. hmm

Viewing the Page Source

On any webpage, you can right click the page and select view source or view page source.  This will open up a notepad document with all of the HTML and CSS source code for a webpage.  Using developer tools mentioned above provide you with the exact same information, but in an editable format.  If you are just looking at the source, or copying and pasting it, this is the best way to do it.

For people learning web design, this is a great way to get familiar with how webpages are put together and what HTML and CSS looks like.  It may seem like a foreign language at first, but the more you read it and break it down, the more it will make sense to you.  Everything is abbreviated and represented by characters.  For instance, paragraphs are marked with the letter <p> and to insert a line break is just <br>. (As I mentioned in my other post, the quickest and best place to learn HTML and CSS is w3schools.)

Notepad++

The best free MS Windows source code editor is notepad++.¬† I used to code in regular notepad, but once I got notepad++ I will never look back.¬† It’s name describes it pretty well, it is notepad, but plus, plus.¬† It makes coding so much easier by doing syntax highlighting, line numbering, and also supporting several programming languages.¬† Plus, plus, it’s logo is an adorable green gecko and who doesn’t love geckos?¬† (You can also use Adobe Dreamweaver to edit your source code, but that is an extremely expensive software and not needed to design web pages with HTML and CSS.)

Even if you don’t know what you are doing, try out some of this stuff and play around.¬† You can make a simple HTML page and add CSS to it and then just mess around with it in the developer tools and notepad++.¬† You can’t break it, so try different things out.¬† Go to w3schools and play with their “Try it Yourself” editor.¬† It’s fun to see how the changes you make to the code impact what happens on the webpage.

If you are an expert web designer and you’ve known all about this stuff for years, then I apologize if this bores you, but I’m a writer and I’m still learning.

Emerging Trends: Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) and Wikis

One of my favorite aspects of my job is how every single day I am learning new things.  Today, I stumbled upon DITA.  I have heard DITA mentioned once or twice but never knew what it was. Today I researched it a little bit.  This site has a good overview and description.

“The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based, end-to-end architecture for authoring, producing, and delivering technical information. This architecture consists of a set of design principles for creating “information-typed” modules at a topic level and for using that content in delivery modes such as online help and product support portals on the Web.”

An example of online help content using DITA XML and a CMS is the Autodesk WikiHelp Page.¬† A lot of tech writers are using wikis for their help content.¬† That is another area that I am exploring.¬† {A wiki is a website that can be modified by multiple people.¬† Wiki means “quick” in Hawaiian.¬† Some companies use them to provide a community-like feel by allowing users to help¬†author the software documentation. The best, and most obvious example of a wiki is Wikipedia. Genius invention, even though it isn’t 100% reliable.}

A frequent topic of discussion is how to present online help content in new and interesting ways.¬† In fact, I was once asked that very question in a job interview.¬† As a writer, the thought at the front of mind whenever I’m writing user documentation is “What does the user want?”¬† I try to think of what I would want, and what examples of online help content¬†have helped me the most.¬† (More often than not, I start with the search field in the online help or just go straight to google because I am looking for a quick answer so I can get back to work.)

I think that most people are like me, they¬†want their questions¬†answered in the shortest amount of time and the fewest steps as possible.¬† No one wants to read a 200 page manual to find out how to use the software or to answer a question that is holding them up from completing their work.¬† That’s why things like FAQ’s (frequently asked questions) and search fields¬†are so instrumental; they rapidly provide¬†users with¬†answers.

I am constantly looking for new and creative ideas for presenting information in the MOST user-friendly, user-oriented way possible.  Recently, I started incorporating more Quick Starts, Tutorial Videos, and Walk-Through Guides into my documentation architecture.  I find that these guides rapidly provide users with just enough information to get them started performing the most commonly used tasks.

I am excited to learn more about wikis and DITA for authoring technical information.  Does anyone have any advice or examples of how they have used wikis and/or DITA?

Web Design and Technology for Tech Writers

In today’s “digital age,” it is essential for a Tech Writer to have a working knowledge of¬†web design concepts and emerging technologies.¬† This field, like¬†many others,¬†moved to the web about 10+ years ago when almost all other written content went electronic.¬† The entire field has radically changed in that time.¬† Everything has gone digital.¬† Yes, some companies still publish printed manuals, but most of the documentation is now digital and web-based.¬†That’s why tech writing isn’t for everyone, because not only do you have to be a skilled writer, but you have to understand technology because you will be engaged with it on a daily basis.¬†

This comes relatively easy for me, because I grew up with technology as part of my everyday life.¬† I knew the importance of learning new technologies for success in today’s workplace¬†and made sure to keep my skills current.¬† Most people fall in the early or late majority of the Technology Adoption Curve (below). Innovators are the people who wait in line to get the latest iphone, early adopters quickly buy and¬†use the latest technology in their daily lives, the early majority is risk adverse and somewhat skeptical, they will wait for the next release when all the bugs are worked out or when the have read enough positive reviews, the late majority are the people who refuse to use a smart phone or use facebook, and the laggers are the people who refuse to own a home pc or a cell phone.¬† There is a chasm between¬†the early adopters and the early majority where a lot of new technology falls.¬† Tech writers need to be early adopters to be on the cutting-edge of the field.

When most people start using a product for the first time, they generally just want a Quick Reference Guide or Quick Start Guide; just something that tells them the basics of how to get started.¬† No one wants to read a 200 page manual.¬†¬†The most people will do is go through the online help, but only after¬†they have run into a problem or are trying to do something that isn’t obvious.¬† So, writers have to find creative ways to make information stand out and be accessible to readers.¬†¬†¬†

For most products, the entirety of the user documentation is housed online.  Therefore, tech writers need to understand web design and how to author web-based materials.  There are many different help-authoring tools on the market right now that provide the writer with a relatively simple way of publishing online content (Flare by MadCap, RoboHelp and Framemaker by Adobe, and Doc-to-Help by ComponentOne for example).  Often HTML and CSS are necessary to style the output and make sure that it displays correctly on a number of different outputs.  For instance, some of these programs allow you to design output for internet browsing on PCs, iPads, and mobile devices.

In my role, at a software development company, my web design knowledge-base spans past authoring web-based documentation and help content.  I assist in the QA process, update the website, and create documents using the Adobe Creative Suite (InDesign, PhotoShop, Illustrator, etc).  All of these things require a working knowledge of web design, user interface design, and programming languages. 

I have developed a list of the basic concepts, skills, or programs that every tech writer should know.

  1. Be able to read and write in HTML, CSS, and XML.¬† Knowledge of¬† XHTML, Java, and Javascript is beneficial as well.¬† HTML (hypertext markup language) is the backbone of any webpage.¬†CSS (cascading style sheets) is the style of the webpage; colors, borders¬†– how it looks.¬† If you do not know these programming languages already, I highly recommend picking up any of the Head First¬†books¬†and using http://w3schools.com¬†to learn.¬† That’s how I learned.¬† All the web designers I know are self-taught.¬†¬†You can easily teach yourself how to do all of this without taking an expensive college course.¬† It’s not as daunting as it¬†seems.¬† These books walk you through it step-by-step in a¬†very simple, and easy to understand way.¬† They also have the “answer”¬†on their website so you can see how it is supposed to look as you are developing.¬†
  2. Use Content Management Systems (CMS)¬†(WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Dreamweaver, or others).¬† Almost every website was built using a CMS because hand-coding is tedious and¬†time consuming.¬† Besides,¬†these systems do most of¬†the work for you (who doesn’t love that?) because they have built-in designs and themes.¬† They have two different ways of letting you¬†write, edit, and design¬†the content, either in a visual pane – meaning that you can¬†you can see the content as it would appear on the web and click on icons to insert hyperlinks, make headings, etc, or HTML¬†pane – which has the entire¬†web page¬†displayed in code for manual editing.¬† You can toggle between the two different views, as¬†I¬†often do.¬† Knowing html and css can help you make¬†adjustments to formatting that might not be available in the visual pane.¬†
  3. Use File Transfer Protocol (FTP) РUsed for creating and maintaining web pages.  FTP such as WinSCP and Filezilla, (which are both open-source programs -meaning free, non-proprietary), allow you to transfer your web design files (HTML and CSS code files, image files, etc) to the web host.  You can easily move files back and forth across two panes (one for your computer and one for the web host).  You use FTP in conjunction with CMS.
  4. Know the different image formats and when to use them.  Images can be displayed in a number of different formats on the web.  The five most common are .JPG (or .JPEG), .GIF, .BMP, .TIFF, and .PNG.  .JPEG is best for photographs.  .GIF is best for line art, logos or other simple images without gradients or varying color.  .GIF can use transparency and animation.  .PNG does not support animation, but does support transparency.  It creates smoother graphics than .GIF.  .TIFF files are very large files but they produce a very high quality image.  .BMP files cannot be resized and are not compatable with all platforms. The ideal image file size is about 20KB.  Any larger than 1MB will take a very long time to load.
  5. Study User Interface (UI) design as well as Web Design.  Every program or system has a user interface Рwhere the user interacts with the machine.  Learning design principles will help you understand the inter-workings of programs and will make you a better writer.  UI will also help you write readable online content.  Some of the design principles that I live by include: keeping the column widths around 75 characters, font no smaller than 12 point, and line height around 20px to 26px, and having paragraphs contain no more than 3-4 sentences with frequent subheadings. 

The list grows as technology changes, but knowing these basics will ensure that you are on the cutting-edge and capable of handling almost any project that comes your way.