Posts Tagged ‘Document Design

PDF with embedded video: H1N1 Awareness

This is a screenshot of an informational H1N1 Awareness PDF with an embedded video segment: imported video, hand-illustrated characters, Photoshop and Adobe Acrobat. The subject is the H1N1 virus.

Who says a PDF has to be just an e-version of the static printed page? Now you can offer your readers a rich, multimedia experience by including video in your PDF documents. Although many documents could be made more useful and engaging by adding short video segments, customers and users may find such a feature especially helpful in reference guides, how-to tutorials, and training procedures.

Many writers create documents using content-authoring software like Adobe FrameMaker, Microsoft Word, MadCap Flare, or the OpenOffice word processor. As far as I know, all of these companies have a document-to-PDF guide on their website. If you are working with FrameMaker, for example, you’ll find the conversion guide under Resources.

Are you among those who already use video-capture software to create video segments? Then no doubt you are probably familiar with names like SMRecorder, HyperCam, Camtasia Studio, Adobe Captivate, and CamStudio, among others. If you’re new to these (and similar) packages and want to get a feel for what they can offer, take a look at CNET Download.com for reviews of Camtasia Studio as well as links to reviews of the others.

Once you’ve got your document and video files ready to roll, how to munch and crunch everything into one fabulous PDF?

Use Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro (and Extended Pro) or Acrobat X to embed video directly in the PDFs you create. (By the way, if you have ever wondered about embedding a flash file (*.flv or *.swf format) in a PDF, yes, your users will need a flash player to view the file. Fortunately, about 99 percent of internet users already have flash player installed.)

When you create a PDF, Acrobat will allow you to embed the video directly in the PDF file, or embed a link to a remotely hosted video.

Here is an Acrobat X Pro step-by-step guide to inserting rich media into PDF documents.

And here are some links to video tutorials that show the embedding process:

These resources can help you easily learn how to embed videos in PDF files.

At long last, you can turn those ho-hum, static PDFs into media-rich productions that will boost your users up the learning curve.

Now it’s your turn: If you embed videos in PDF files, which packages do you prefer, and why? Have you discovered any pitfalls to avoid? Can you recommend any helpful tips and tricks? Please leave comments to share your thoughts – thanks! Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals: Multimedia and Multi-Platform

Does your company use Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM)? These documents offer users a multimedia and multi-platform experience.

Around 1980, some companies and organizations, notably the aerospace industry and the branches of the U.S. military, began to re-think how they presented technical information. Their products were complex, and their maintenance, troubleshooting and product-support requirements were stringent and time-consuming.

They knew they needed to improve performance, reduce errors, and shorten learning timelines. But how?

As it happened, they looked at emerging computer technologies and wondered if moving from paper to an electronic format would improve results. Among their questions:

  • Would users find it easier to learn and use the material?
  • Would they reduce errors and improve performance?
  • Could they integrate documentation with other systems?
  • Could they save money?

Tests with interactive electronic formats showed positive results and so, encouraged, the companies and the military forged ahead into the world of Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM).

Since that time, we have seen IETM systems develop a variety of features, with most using one or more of the following:

Linear Structure. This sort of electronic document is based on the structure and layout of a printed book and uses navigational aids, such as a table of contents and a list of figures, that hyperlink into the content. A PDF file is a good example.

Nonlinear Structure. These online documents are organized around the logic of the product or task, for example, instead of following a linear book-type structure. However, the concept of a static page remains. As you would expect, there are lots of hyperlinks and other navigational aids. This type of document is often authored in a markup language.

Dynamic Data. These online documents are very nonlinear in structure. Content and pages are dynamic, drawing much of their data from relational databases and data dictionaries. Background programming automatically updates the dynamic data when the databases and dictionaries are updated. Hyperlinking in these documents is typically very complex and is, therefore, usually handled by programming. Content may also be context-specific and user-specific.

Integrated with Expert Systems. As companies build databases of heuristics and expert feedback, these can be integrated with the IETM system to improve the user experience and results. This information can be dynamically mapped into documents in all sorts of ways. For example, feedback by expert troubleshooters about errors and how to resolve them is sought after by companies across the product and process spectrum.

New Frontier—Multiple Devices. Many companies are now changing the way they and their customers think about IETM. From design concept to reality, they are experimenting with unleashing product support through all sorts of channels, for example: Mobile devices such as tablets and phones, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, websites, CDs, PDF, print, wikis, and blogs.

The new frontier of IETM seems to call for a “basket” of delivery platforms, each carefully selected for a certain type of content.

And no matter the platform, content rules. As ever.

Content must be organized in a way that suits the product, the audience, and its intended use. Content must be consistent across multiple platforms, well structured, properly modularized, cross-referenced and completely accessible by a full range of search and navigational features.

IETMs and their spin-offs present design, writing and production challenges, but produce a better user experience and greater performance improvements over stand-alone paper documents.

For more on creating an interactive user experience, see my recent post Let Your Customers Tweet in Your Documents.

Now it’s your turn: Does your company use IETMs? On which delivery platforms? How would you describe your experience implementing IETMs? Do you think the results are worth it? Please share your thoughts and questions about IETMs in comments. Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Are Your Publications Things or Behaviors?

Do you see your company's publications as things or behaviors? Your answer can have all sorts of interesting consequences for your customers and your company.

If you started to think about your company’s publications as behaviors instead of things, would such a shift in perspective change the resulting documents? Would your customers respond to your message in a different way?

Consider the publications that you and others in your company create—they probably run the gamut, from sales and marketing literature to online pages to proposals to technical documentation and maybe even to interactive multimedia presentations and video scripts.

Like most writers, you work with others to establish the requirements for each publication and to generate and refine its specifications. You create an outline that captures the topics, features and procedures to be included in each document and organize that content in a way that satisfies the project specifications.

Such an approach is based on seeing the document as a thing. And, while it may be necessary, at least in part, is it sufficient? Does it really satisfy your customers’ needs? Does it let you wring every last drop of value out of what you spend on trying to connect with your customers?

What if you viewed a publication as a set of behaviors, instead of just a thing?

For starters, this might mean that your project requirements stated how your company’s customers would interact with the publication—and any associated product. After all, why do your customers read your stuff? What do they expect to get out of it?

If you thought about customer behaviors—for example, how they use the publication, the ways in which they need to access the document, how they find topics, how they use the information, what other resources they might need, how they might use the document as a focal point for customer-to-customer and customer-to-company interaction—would those considerations change your document specifications? Would the specs begin to reflect a mindset that took user experience into account?

If you viewed each publication as describing, prescribing and integrating a dynamic set of behaviors among your customers, your products and your company, how would that change the types of documents you create?

Would you enhance your publication model to include various scenarios and anticipated interactions that played to customer needs and experiences?

Begin to think about your company’s publications as behaviors instead of things, and I’ll bet your documents become more interactive, more dynamic, more user-friendly and more attuned to your customers.

Now let’s talk: What is your opinion? If you create publications, what is your approach? As a customer, how do you respond to companies’ offline and online publications: What do you like about them? What don’t you like? You can leave your comment at the top of this post. Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

In any document you write, your overriding objective is to make the content immediately understandable and usable by your audience.

If someone tells you that your work is not clear, the problem typically falls into one or more of these categories: planning, conceptual design, information, and language usage. To analyze the problem, start by asking the following questions:

Planning. Did you complete a thorough planning phase at the beginning of the writing project? Did you use the results in writing the document? For example, do you understand the purpose of the product? The purpose of the document? Do you know who your audience is? Do you know how your audience will use the document? You should have answered these and other planning questions at the outset, and then implemented the answers as you conceptually designed the document, gathered the information to be included, and wrote and reviewed the material.

Conceptual Design. Did you answer all of the important design questions? For example, do you know what your audience is looking for in the document? What is the most important part of the document? What are the key requirements that the document must meet? What are the editorial standards you are to use in your work? And so on. Further, did you establish page and text formatting guidelines? And, critically, did you build an outline based on your planning and design decisions?

Information. Did you scope out the content to be included in the document? Content to be excluded? Did you keep in close touch with your subject-matter experts and have them review the document, giving you feedback? How much do you yourself know about the subject matter? How good a researcher are you? Do you have the right material for the document, based on your outline?

Language. Do you have the necessary knowledge and grasp of the craft of language: spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, vocabulary and word usage? If you feel you need to improve in this area, do two things: read and write. Read good writing by good writers, and practice writing. Make both a daily habit. If you want regular critiques of your writing, join a local writers’ group, or check out classes for adult learners at your local university, community college, or online.

A final tip on analyzing problems involving clarity of writing: be careful of telling stories or going off on tangents when you write. All content and how you handle it must serve the purpose of the document, based on your planning and design decisions, and your outline. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with these suggestions? What would you add?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas  lexpower

When you are writing a document, how do you begin to tell your story? How do you snag your readers’ attention and charm them enough to keep them reading?

The beginning of your document is the critical point where you must engage your readers’ interest. If the beginning isn’t good, it will also quickly become the end, and your attempt to communicate with your audience will fall far short of the mark.

So, how to begin? The short answer is that there is no definitive answer; it all depends on the following, which you defined in the planning phase of your project:

  • type of document
  • audience
  • purpose of the document

For example, if you are writing a report, you might start with an executive summary, in which you present the gist of your research, conclusions and recommendations.

On the other hand, if you are writing a user guide, you could start with an overview of the product, its intended audience, ways of using the product, and other useful “getting started” information for your company’s customers.

In a memo, you may decide that opening with a summary of results or conclusions would work best for your audience.

In other types of documents, you could begin by presenting a theme, or opening with a question, or stating a problem, or by providing an answer.

What all these ways of starting a document have in common is that they must give your readers a general sense of where you are going and how you intend to get there. You need to manage their expectations and get your document off on the right foot to accomplish your communication objectives. So think of your opening as a sort of “roadmap,” with the details to follow.

There are no absolutes in how to begin a document, because each type of document has its own requirements, as well as its intended audience and objectives. So put your thinking cap on and nail this part first, before you begin the first draft.

Now it’s your turn, dear reader: What is your approach to beginning a document? Please comment on your most successful method.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas

Cause-effect order shows who causes what. That is, it shows which agent causes a given result. This structural style is typically used to show the effects of various actions and methods of doing something.

Cause-effect order has many practical applications in business and technical writing, as indicated by the following examples. It provides the intellectual scaffolding  to:

  • Show the effect of various manufacturing methods on product quality.
  • Diagnose product malfunction(s), based on likely causes.
  • Recommend “best choice” repair procedures, based on error messages.
  • Show the effect of various agricultural practices on crop yields.
  • Identify multiple factors that contribute to accidents on the job.

Like other structural styles, cause-effect order is scalable. This means you can use it to organize the entire document you are writing, or a single chapter or section within that document, or even just one procedure. It all depends on your objectives (which you established in the planning phase).

Let’s say the outline for your document has been reviewed and approved, and you are now in the thick of writing the first draft. As you work your way through the details, you realize that, in some instances, words alone will not fully or accurately convey your point. You conclude that in addition to tell, you must also show.

Here are some ways of showing cause-effect order that will help your readers better understand what you are trying to tell them:

Paired or grouped drawings, data or photos. Showing the side-by-side results of two or more methods used to accomplish the same task is a very powerful communication tool. This technique lets your readers see and judge for themselves.

Cause-effect table. This useful tool lists actions and their results. For example, you might label the first column in the table: “If You Do This” and the second: “This Is the Result.” This type of table is very useful in diagnostics, troubleshooting, and optimal-decision pathing.

Bar graph. When you need to show the quantitative results of various methods of doing something, the bar graph collapses a lot of information into a small space and can offer your readers clarity and insight.

Cause-effect tree. When there are multiple factors that contribute to a result, this type of graphic can help you get a handle on the complexity of the data and organize it in a way that is immediately comprehensible.

How to select the best graphic for the job at hand? The key is to identify exactly what the text is stating. Here you must tease out the logic flow of your source material (that is, the research material you are using to write the document). In addition, check your document-planning notes to be sure you understand who your audience is. Finally, translate the words or data into a visual image that captures the information or idea being expressed. Elizabeth Lexleigh   The Write Ideas   lexpower

Does a mixed system of online and paper documents work well for most users? The answer is yes, based on feedback I’ve received on many projects. Research reports I’ve read bolster my experience, as have discussions with other professional writers. Apparently, the more resources available for your company’s products, the better. Customers find that paper and online documents together offer greater access to the knowledge and training they want than one or the other by itself.

To ensure that all documents in a product set work together, each document must cross-reference the others, and each must explain how to access the others. For example, a paper document should contain a section that explicitly describes how to access the online documents and, where appropriate, also refer to specific online pages (include the page name and address). The online document should make similar references to the paper document, using a section title and a page number.

While each type of document is valuable in and of itself, mixed media can offer a level of completeness that surpasses what is possible with only one type of document. The value of an individual document is enhanced by its relationship to the entire set of documents and by the expanded user experience that the combination of print and online makes possible.

When you mix your media to communicate something to your audience, start by planning which topics to include and how to link them. You must carefully consider how each topic stands in relation to the others, and how you intend to cross-reference them. Spend time building the outlines (one for each type of document), and refine them with feedback from your reviewers.

Online and paper documents can play well together, but only if you plan them carefully and test them thoroughly.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas  lexpower

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