Awards from STC Toronto AGM

Seneca College’s Technical Communication Program was acknowledged with a Silver Sponsorship award for providing support to the 2010 Career Day event held by the Toronto community of the STC.

In addition, we were delighted to see one of our grads, Noor Hussain, win the Distinguished Service Award for Students for his outstanding contributions to the Toronto chapter—for inspiration, enthusiasm, creativity, and quiet dedication to the Toronto STC community in organizing networking events and encouraging student participation.

One of our faculty, Bernard Aschwanden, was recognized with the Rennie Charles Award for his leadership and support in the tradition of Rennie Charles, much cherished by the Toronto technical writing community for the “ideas, support, advice and mirth” he shared with them.

Other recognition and Community Service Awards made at the STC Toronto AGM can be found on their site.

Congratulations to all award winners! It is this level of dedication that has made the STC Toronto Community truly one of excellence.


Employing not Exploiting Students

I’ve recently had another request from a company with a tight budget to engage some of our students on a worthwhile project. I’m very keen on helping students get involved in real world projects while they are still studying. There is great value in that for them. They get experience and the opportunity for a good reference. Frequently, they also get a portfolio item, something they can point to and say, “I worked on that.”

Unfortunately, the latter is often the only thing of value that is offered them when a company seeks student labor to do something they would ordinarily have to pay a professional to do. I advise students against doing something solely “because it will look good in your portfolio!”. They have many opportunities to create something for their portfolio through school projects and co-op placements.

What is more valuable to them is a legitimate work experience, not an exploitative one. Students have up to date skills that they are bringing to the employer, skills that they’ve paid a great deal in money, time, effort, and often stress to acquire. They should be paid for their time. Our co-op employers not only pay students a fair wage, but they provide other opportunities such as on the job training, mentoring, and occasionally bonuses.

Exploiting students because you have a tight budget is simply not acceptable. Be creative; pay them something and sweeten the pot for them. Can you provide bus passes or free products/software? Will they get extraordinary access to senior people in your company to learn things we cannot teach in school? Will you commit to giving them a reference, and refer them to other companies for better paid work?

Make it worth their while to help you out, and you will not only get top quality work from eager and motivated people, but you’ll be establishing a valuable relationship as well. See the opportunity as an investment in their future AND yours. Your reputation will grow as well. In this climate of widespread social media, you want people as connected as students to say good things about your company and help build good will. You can’t put a price on that, and it’s worth every penny.


#STC11 – STC Summit 2011

Technical communicators from around the world gathered recently in Sacramento, California for the 2011 STC Summit. While the big news included STC Certification and the emergence of media-rich content in ebooks and ePub format, many of the perennial topics such as single-sourcing, localization, and content management were given a social media facelift and placed in the context of technology trends.

To summarize, we’re doing the same things, really, just a little bit differently, and with “funner” toys!

Attendees tweeted about sessions they were in, driven by their affinity for tech gadgets and their habit of being early adopters. iPads and smart phones were in abundance. The sense of community had already been engendered by pre-conference contact via Zerista.

Superb conference organization had the keynote by Tim O’Reilly on Sunday evening, with an information-packed slate of sessions starting first thing Monday morning.

If the Summit is any indication, there is much for technical communicators to be optimistic about in the coming years. We are establishing footholds in the User Experience (UX) arena, where we have long labored. We are being recognized as the content experts that we always have been. And we are leading the way in adapting to new realities as technology changes and improves.

It’s a great time to be a technical communicator, and the future looks very bright indeed.


The Website Triad

Who is the first person you call when you need a website? It should be a technical communicator. Often described as a web content developer or web writer, a technical communicator with knowledge of the important disciplines of web usability and user advocacy will save you thousands of dollars when building or enhancing your web presence.

Most people contact a web development firm that may or may not include a technical communicator on the team. Web developers are necessary for building a website. Their job is to make the website work. They code the HTML, XML, Javascript, or Flash, they build the links, they ensure the page loads quickly and that the meta information is correct.

A web designer might be the first call you make when thinking about your new site. Their job is to make the website look pretty. You want an up to date look and feel for your site, you want the colours to be attractive, and the overall design to be inviting. Designers create or modify CSS and page templates, create the visual images needed for the site, and give the entire site a pleasant, uniform look.

The efforts of those two professionals give you a site that looks nice and works well. There are no broken links. Images don’t overlap. The site is attractive and functional.

But does it do the job you need it to do? Can customers or potential clients find the information they need? Does the user interface (UI) support the user in achieving their goals? Is it usable?

If you had called a technical communicator first, that individual would not only project manage the site’s development and co-ordinate the activities of the web developer and web designer, but they would ensure your content is well written and makes sense. They would ensure any user of the site is able to navigate to what they want easily, and is prompted to take the right action. They would ensure your website meets the objectives you have for your web presence. They would review and improve the work of the designer and developer, pointing out any potential bugs before the user sees them. And they would keep you from spending money on bells and whistles that may make the website cool but contribute nothing to the value the site offers visitors.

Getting a good website requires having each member of the website triad — the technical communicator, the web developer, and the web designer — work together to make a site that does what you need it to do. Whether you want your site visitor to buy something, pick up the phone for an appointment, or just get necessary information quickly and effectively, the way your site merges functionality with design in a way that leads the visitor to take that action is largely the result of the technical communicator’s skill in unifying the development and design efforts.

Web content also needs to be optimized for search engine results (SEO), something a good web writer or content developer can accomplish as well.

Usability for a website means that the visitor can accomplish the goals they had when they came to the site. If customers leave without buying because they couldn’t figure out how to navigate to the product they want, or they get frustrated because they cannot read the faint gray type on the web page, your site has failed, no matter how much money you spent on it. If you are hiring a creative agency, make sure they have someone with technical communication skills assigned to your project.

Technical communicators save companies money, time and headaches no matter what jobs they are asked to do. Helping make websites that work is just one of them.

Bad Websites — poor usability, interfaces, navigation or content
Good Websites — great usability, pleasing interfaces, efficient navigation, and purposeful content.


What You Can Do as a Technical Communicator

Listen to the podcast, download the handout, and review the PowerPoint given by Beth Agnew at the STC Career Day, Sep 25, 2010.

In this presentation, Beth talks about the many roles technical communicators can fill, the types of work they do, and the value they add to any organization. She likens them to “Swiss Army Knife” employees, able to use their multiple skills to do a variety of jobs.