Tip of the month from PRC
January 2000

Current trends in technical communication

Minor updates: 5, 12, 13 & 23 Jan., 17 Feb.and 22 Mar. 2000
Published: 4 January 2000

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Tip of the month is edited by Peter Ring, PRC (Peter Ring Consultants, Denmark)

- consultants on how to write user friendly manuals 
If you have corrections, better texts or suggestions for improvements, please let me know .


Preferred software for technical writers

Over the last years, the winners of the software race have become clearer. Two software houses have taken distance from the other ones: Microsoft in the office sector, and Adobe in the professional graphics world. Their strongholds are Microsoft's almost monopoly on the operating system for PCs (DOS, Windows), and Adobe's control over the de facto standard for the professional printers, PostScript, which is also the basis for Adobe Acrobat. This trend has even become stronger in 1999.

This trend means conversion of manuals incl. macros from e.g. WordPerfect to MS Word or PageMaker, and PRC has been involved in such projects in 1998.

The winners within technical writing depends on the application:

HTML help has gained ground

HTML help has gained ground. The viewer (hh.exe) is included in Windows 98 as standard, and it is used for Microsoft's own applications.

For more info about HTML help in general, see Tip of the Month November 1998 .

Machine (aided) translation

Machine translation will not be the final solution to all translation problems in the forthcoming years, but the systems are still becoming better and better. The status today is, that the better systems are very useful for making a raw translation before the human translator takes over and makes an - also linguistically - correct translation. An example of multi-language machine translation using Babelfish/Systran software can be seen on the AltaVista Internet search engine. Systran can currently only translate between some combinations of English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

Translation memory ("TM") systems for computer-aided translation has become more and more common in the professional translation sector and here the Trados Translator's Workbench seems to be on its way to become the de facto standard. Microsoft owns 20% of Trados and use it internally. Equivalent competing systems are Translation Manager 2.0 from IBM, Déjà Vu 2 from Atril and STAR Transit Computer-aided Translation System.

Trados in short:
Running in the background as you translate, Trados Translator's Workbench compiles a database of source sentences together with their translations. When new text is sent to the Workbench, it immediately compares the sentences with the content of the database management system. As soon as the program identifies identical or similar source text, it is displayed along with the stored translation. All you have to do is simply confirm, complete or edit the suggested translation. You will never need to translate the same sentence twice. Translator's Workbench also offers automatic conversion of dates, numbers and measurements, bilingual concordance search, as well as  handling of footnotes and index entries. There are facilities for producing project time and cost estimates. Since you use your own word processor when working with Translator's Workbench you can continue to use its dictionary, spellchecking and thesaurus look-up features. Translator's Workbench can be easily integrated with Microsoft Word 97, Word 95 and Word 6 with support for Word 2000 coming soon.
Dictionaries on CD-ROM has become very common. They integrate well with the major word processors, and they speed-up the look-up process significantly, generally leading to more use of dictionaries and consequently better and/or faster translations. For some odd reason (which cannot be the production costs!) they are often more expensive than the equivalent paper editions. Before buying, please note that there may be major differences in the quality of the dictionaries not necessarily reflected in the price. Ask around before you decide to buy.

Monitors and screen resolution

Surprisingly many technical writers are still working with 640x480 or 800x600 pixels resolution on a 14" or 15" monitor. 17" CRT monitors are so reasonable in price now (~200 US$), and so much better. A 17" monitor running 1024x768 should be the absolute minimum. If price is less important, a 19" to 21" monitor is the absolute preference. Flat screens are also becoming more and more common, and you can now get a 15" (almost  equivalent to a 17" CRT) and 1024 x 768 resolution for about 700 US$. Larger flat screens and higher resolutions are still very expensive. For e.g. webpage developers, it is also a problem, that reducing the number of pixels on the screen reduces the image size proportionally making it difficult to get the impression of what the page will look like on e.g. a VGA screen. But no doubt:: flat-screen monitors are the future.

Possibilities with colour laser printers and photocopiers

Colour laser printers and colour photocopiers are now (January '00) available down to the US$ 1200..3000 range. This means, that also all of you who are making low volume print of manuals using laser printers or photocopiers should now consider seriously adding colours to your manuals. Examples of suitable use of colours:

Print on demand = "In-line" manual production

Print on demand is now an economically acceptable solution.

Experiments by Danfoss in 1997-98 have shown that ...

The advantages of "print on demand" are ... The disadvantages are ...

Increased interest in interactive multimedia manuals

The low prices on and widespread accept of CD-ROMs means that more and more manuals are distributed as CD-ROM.

The advantages are:

The disadvantages are: The file formats are expected to be HTML help or Adobe Acrobat, combined with executable (.exe) files for on-line tutorials.

Electronic cameras are gaining use

The electronic images are now gaining use in two ways:

Electronic file transfer to the printshop

Usability testing is developing rapidly

If you want to make user-friendly manuals, testing the manual and correcting the errors found is not enough. Neither is it enough to write the manual in a proper way and then publish it. You must make a usability test of the design of the product, including the properly written manual.

In the good old days, you made six tests, corrected the errors, and if the errors were small you were through. Not so any longer.

The problem is, that the test results are not reproducible. They point out errors -- yes -- but to find at least most of the problems, they are not good enough.

You should most likely make some series of tests still probably with six test persons each, but with different sets of questions and probably also with different test leaders. And it is not only the manual, it is the whole concept (mainly the GUI) of the product + the manual + in some cases the environment which is under test.

The classical usability lab with its video cameras and one-way mirrors is also being reconsidered. New concepts are popping-up and being tested. Typical problems discussed are: is the test situation changing the results, and if yes, is it significantly changing the consequences of the test? Are the results of the test too dependent of the judgements of the test leader?

If you disagree with these ideas - or have other relevant points, experiences, or ideas +/-, please e-mail me !

Ideas for new "Tip of the month" subjects are VERY welcome, too!

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