Category Archives: Technical Writing

Tips for working with Web Designers

A friend contacted me on Facebook to ask if I knew any web site designers for her sister’s newly-opened store. I replied with this, which is probably way more than she asked for. Then I realized I could repurpose the content. I think they’re good tips for anyone looking to find someone to create and maintain their web site.

  • Depending on your business, there could be niche designers. I know there are designers who work solely with race car drivers and teams, or restaurants, so that may be something to look into.
  • Before you talk or meet with anyone, find some of your competition’s sites, see what features they have, list what you like and dislike. Do the same thing with sites you visit regularly. Ask yourself if you are one of those people who hated Facebook’s re-redesign. Why? Why not?
  • Don’t walk into any conversation with “I’m not really tech-y, but…”. You’re already giving them the upper hand.
  • “Web 2.0” doesn’t mean all that much.
  • Make sure they respond to emails within a reasonable amount of time, especially if it’s the only way you communicate.
  • Don’t trust anyone who tells you they can get your site in the top 10 on google. Don’t listen to anyone who is a search engine optimization (SEO) expert. SEO simply doesn’t work, and in some cases will get you worse results than if you haven’t done anything.
  • Make sure you see an online portfolio, and that you like what you see.
  • Navigation and search are extraordinarily important; make sure they work on the sites in their portfolio you visit, and are logical.
  • Don’t use the lowest bidder, but don’t necessarily use the highest either. Pay for experience.
  • In this economy, tons of designers are looking for work. Make sure you like them and are someone with whom you can see yourself having a long working relationship.
  • Give them as much clean, grammatically correct text as you can. Remember, designers generally aren’t writers or editors. They take what they’re given and put it on the page.
  • Make sure you give value back to the customer. Maybe start a blog about your sister’s area of expertise, and make sure it’s updated regularly.
  • Keep the site fresh, too; just like with a designer, you want to start a long relationship with the people who visit your site. You can’t make it look like no one’s minding the virtual store, or no one will come back to check after awhile.
  • Listen to people who talk about content management, content management systems, or CMS. If they use words like Drupal, Joomla, or WordPress (all great CMS), make sure they explain it to you. Ask questions.
  • And remember – it’s not just a page anymore. You can’t just slip some nice graphics on a page and a little bit of vague sales-y text. We call that ‘brochureware’. It’s a site.

What Adobe Should Put in Framemaker 10

If you’re fortunate enough not to use Word, it seems the only other decent choice for technical writing is Adobe’s Framemaker. However, some of Frame’s quirks make Word look almost welcoming. Here’s a running list of the things I’d like to see in the next release of Frame, in no particular order:

  • Find and Replace with more functions. How come I can find a marker, but can’t replace it with a different kind of marker?
  • Dialog boxes and palettes that you can close with the Esc key.
  • More intuitive keyboard shortcuts. All of these Esc functions hearken back to UNIX, and when’s the last time anyone used Frame on UNIX?
  • Drag and drop text. C’mon, this was a new feature to users back in, what, 1990?
  • I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Macintosh support. Seriously, I’d give the Mac another look if Frame ran on it natively. Emulation doesn’t count. Yes, I’m aware of Boot Camp and Parallels.
  • Full OpenType support. All of Adobe’s fonts are now OpenType, with ligatures and special characters, but yet we tech writers get the typographical shaft.
  • Word processing features, like AutoCorrect, spellcheck as you type, and all of those everyday functions that Word has, but writing in Word is so bad that you refuse to go back.
  • How about Ctrl-backspace to delete a word before the cursor, just as Ctrl-delete works great for deleting the word before a cursor. Again, this was a feature of, let’s say, Word 2.0?
  • Support for transparent PNGs.
  • How about a more usable “missing file” dialog box? If you type in the path to the file, Frame doesn’t change to that directory, it accepts that as the filename!
  • Much better style management. How come I can import styles across a book, but they don’t always update? Why can’t I delete unused styles? Argh.
  • A reasonable upgrade price commensurate with the new features. All DITA, all the time, isn’t worth $400.

Check back often for updates to this list, since I find something that drives me insane pretty regularly.

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Happy Little Errors

So I’m working on designing buttons, icons, and interface items for a new release. The buttons I’ve created looked… nice, but still not what I wanted them to look like.

Somehow along the process, I cropped the template file a little too judiciously in Photoshop. Buttons I created a week ago were taller by six pixels. I’m still not sure how I did this, as all the guides were in the same place, and making the button taller changed the alignment of text.

While playing around, trying to figure out WTF I did, I ended up using a clipping mask with an existing layer – and it looks great! The only downside, of course, is now I have to recreate approximately 50 buttons. But, I’m happy now they finally look good!

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Why Linux will never be mainstream

Digg is one of the sites I check several times daily, using the wonderful Klipfolio software. Once again, a top-Digged discussion arose about Linux. And once again, Linux folks don’t get it. I’ve tried Ubuntu, and found it neat. I’m even considering using it for a home file server. But here’s why I think Linux will never achieve the success they hope for:

Linux? Huh?

Despite the fact that IT (Information Technology) folk talk about Linux like it’s the greatest thing since GREP, most people don’t have a clue. They know Mac, they know PC. They don’t have the time to learn about anything else.

Distributions, Anyone?

Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Debian, Slackware, Red Hat? C’mon! People are confused when you ask them if they have XP Home or Professional, and you want them to choose from “flavors” of an operating system? I’ve had people ask me if they can run Office XP on Vista. And even the community shows snobbery: I just read someone referring to “Ubuntards”.

The Command Line

I have a friend who considers himself an intermediate user of Windows and computers. However, when trying to help him with a problem, I told him to open Windows Explorer. I was met with a blank stare.

Sure, geeks know to type cmd and use DOS. In XP, Microsoft hides the command prompt all the way under the Accessories menu. And Linux expects people to compile their applications from it? I know that there are programs to do this for you the majority of the time, but the point remains, most people aren’t going to sudo anything.

The Apps Ain’t Pretty

In general, open-source software is created by programmers for programmers. Making the software look pretty is secondary. No matter how much people say it, the GIMP is not Photoshop, Inkscape is not Illustrator, and OpenOffice is not MS Office (Yes, I’ve tried them all). Designers use Macs because they’re sexy, not because they’re utilitarian. People use iTunes because it’s pretty and simple to use.

The “Community”

Linux advocates will tell anyone who listens that any Linux problem can be solved easily by the oh-so-supportive community of users. However, not everyone has access to either a second computer at home, or a work computer where they can spend idle time interacting with the community to find answers. It’s kind of hard to look up the answer online when your computer can’t connect to your wireless network.

People Don’t Like Change

There’s a reason IE is still a huge part of the browser market: people are scared of “breaking their computer”. Most people can’t fix computer problems themselves, and everyone knows that support these days consists of either “This isn’t our problem, it’s a problem with [insert application here]”, or “reformat and reinstall”. Sure, give someone Firefox and they generally like it more than IE, but most people will use IE because it’s what they’re used to.

People Just Want Their Computer To “Work”

This is why the Mac is making inroads lately. Most people don’t want to know how their computer works, don’t want to tweak settings, they just want to check their email and surf the web, and maybe use Word to type something up. My same “intermediate” Windows user friend recently bought a Mac, and just gushed how nice it is and easy to use.

You Get What You Pay For

You’d think that since Linux is free, people would flock to it. But they’re not. Instead, they’re buying overpriced Macs, and never looking back. Even with all the publicity that Vista is a horrible operating system, Linux’s market share is below even the Mac.


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