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It sounds like you want to find a magic tool that you can study and then pitch to management as a way out of the PDF/.chm box.
It's a common issue in Tech Comms -- we're sort of prisoners of whatever tool, technology, and subject matter we're using or involved in at the moment.
It's like going to college but you can't choose your courses, or even your major. They spin a wheel and whatever it lands on, that's what you're studying that term, or year, or 10 years -- or 5 hours, until they pull you off that project and put you on another one.
I'll get a job or an assignment or project, and I'll get a bunch of books and resources, all excited about what I'm going to learn. It's fun, it's new. Then before I can get 10 pages into the first book, I'm on to the next job, or assignment, or project, which has totally different tools, technologies, subject matter.
My experience over the years is that tools and technologies, all the crazy formats, are fun at first because they're new, and at first they're also powerful. But then over time, they become just like anything else, and then it's work. Example: CSS was a joy at first, in the early days of HTML, because of all the power you had to design cool web pages. Then it became work, and then when automated tools took over (Dreamweaver and others), it was like, why bother?
My own experience, and this is fairly recent, having developed over the past few years, is that what stands the test of time and keeps the job interesting is content design and presentation. By that I mean, how to weave your text to capture the reader, how to use images and graphic design (to the limits of graphic ability), how to bring these together, how to incorporate other media but not just for its own sake, rather to enhance the information design.
I really think information design plays more of a role than people give it credit for. I guess this overlaps with information architecture in a way. Think of an art museum and an art exhibit that draws you through in a way that you don't realize you're being directed along but it creates a great experience because it exposes you to the artist's work, or creative periods, or some other arrangement, in a progressive way.
You know, there's the user, the author, and the company. What makes the user happy is a great experience. What makes the author happy is a great experience in creating the communication -- a challenging, fun development process. What makes the company happy is saving time, money, and resources. It's often a very different thing from what either the author or the user wants.
I think I've made the point but if you're looking to alternate technologies as a way to bust out, yes you can do it but you may have some work cut out for you. However, these are very marketable skills so it's always good to explore the new and especially very useful stuff. DITA has a place, and so does single-sourcing. FrameMaker is still a marketable skill. But you can still be creative and find some satisfaction even in creating PDFs and .chms. And it's hard to find a place that's truly banned PDFs; but they're out there.
PS - A few months ago Lauren posted a link to a tech writing sample from 6th Century BC about how to build your own ancient Greek temple (she was discussing the meaning of the word "technical" in "technical writing" -- a great post). Those tech writers didn't have any tools or technologies like we have today, and yet they still pulled it off. I think it's a worthwhile endeavor to go back and look at that and get a sense of what could stand the test of time in that documentation piece. I'll be looking at it myself.
From: On Behalf Of Nancy Allison
Sent: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 11:12 AM
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Subject: Re: RE: Most innovative user doc output
Steve Janoff asks for clarification about the kinds of innovation I'm looking for.
Here's my background: I have been stuck in the PDF/.chm box for many years, at both freelance and full-time jobs. The PDFs have been stuck with page layouts that were the cutting edge of 1992, and the .chms have been bare-bones, text-only, context-sensitive at the topic level.
So, when I say *innovative,* I am talking about things that may not be that innovative to some lucky tech writers, but that would be to me, such as:
-- Presentation (graphics-heavy, text-light, for example). Definitely not a new idea but infrequently practiced in my neck of the woods.
-- Medium: i-Phone apps, e-book readers, I-pads, Android tools, all mobile stuff
-- Collaboration tools: wikis, MindTouch, I don't know what else
-- Production: XML, wikis, DITA producing multiple outputs, single-sourcing intelligently done to meet the needs of different audiences
-- Innovative technology: Interactivity with user, intelligently applied multi-media (Flash things you actually want to use, for example, instead of being dreaded time-wasters).
I appreciate the questions very much -- you've already helped me think more clearly about what I should be looking for. Please speak up if you think I'm missing an aspect of innovation in our field that I should know about.
This list is, as always, a treasure.
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