Top 10 Workspace Configurations for Technical Writers

dual monitorsHere’s my list of the Top 10 Workspace Configurations for technical writers. (By “workspace configuration,” I mean the characteristics of your work environment that make you most productive and happy.)

  1. Dual Monitors. Allows you to put the application you’re documenting on one screen, your authoring tool on the other. No more scrunched windows or frustrations with constantly maximizing and minimizing your screens.
  2. Laptop with docking station. Gives you mobility of workspaces. For example, this morning the train stalled for 40 minutes, but I was working on my help file anyway. I don’t even have a work desktop — the laptop with docking station combo is perfect. It’s like having both a desktop and laptop, but having their files always perfectly in sync.
  3. VPN connection. Essential for connecting to the Intranet from home to access the application you’re documenting. Especially when you’re trying to meet a tight deadline, VPN can help save your bacon as you work late into the night.
  4. Enterprise-integrated BlackBerry. My favorite new toy. Tonight I had a quick thought about improving the usability of an application while waiting for my wife to pick a movie at BlockBuster, so I thumbed an email msg to the PM and other team members. I’ve also just loaded my BlackBerry up with tech podcasts to listen to while I’m going to work. If I’m away from my computer for a while in meetings or at lunch, I won’t experience that eerie feeling of disconnect.
  5. Open tool office policy. “Use the tools you’re most comfortable with to produce the needed help materials.” Freedom of tools is a writer’s dream. It gives you more responsibility and ownership of your toolset, since you chose it and it wasn’t forced upon you. It also allows you to author in the most comfortable environment for you.
  6. Google Talk as the IM Client. IM avoids the dozens of pointless messages you get daily that shouldn’t be emails. IM is quick, and Google Talk is one of the best (and free).
  7. SharePoint 2007 platform for publishing help files. I set my publishing target in Flare to automatically push my help files to a SharePoint directory. Because it’s SharePoint, I can update all help information on the fly, and I’m not restricted to the developers’ code freeze and hardening deadlines. This removes a lot of pressure, and I know that if I later discover an error, or want to add more material, I can adjust the production help within seconds. April Update: After more experience using SharePoint as a file repository, I no longer recommend this method. SharePoint is not a stable platform. It’s loading speed fluctuates, and if you have 20 MB videos, they don’t load at all. SharePoint is like a Pinto for performance. You need a stable, robust server instead. Trust me on this one. Also, the anonymous access feature is also problematic. It can cause your entire server farm to crash.
  8. Proximity to project managers and project team members. As I said in a previous podcast, proximity to people with key project information is one of the best ways to get the information you need. If you’re remotely located, or if your project team is scattered across different floors and department buildings, camaraderie and communication will go downhill. In contrast, proximity opens up the channels of communication.
  9. Open access to Pandora, Yahoo Music, or other online radio. Music helps me focus and blocks out random voices of people yakking away in the hall. I especially love Pandora because it’s free and doesn’t have audio commercials. It also loads almost immediately and begins playing.
  10. Ubiquitous wireless connectivity. A laptop’s wireless capabilities can give you incredible freedom when your entire building has wireless access points on every floor, in every conference room. You can take your laptop to meetings and still be productive.

**Bonus configuration: A manager who reads your blog and who also blogs. This seemingly small gesture yields big returns in workplace rapport.

Madcap FlareAdobe Robohelp

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

24 thoughts on “Top 10 Workspace Configurations for Technical Writers

  1. Tom

    Yes, either will work. I’ll probably have to do screenshots rather than video b/c of the privacy of info. But here are the quick steps in MOSS 2007:

    1. On your SharePoint site, click View All Site Content (left column).
    2. Click one of your document libraries.
    3. Go to Actions > Open With Windows Explorer.
    4. Drag your online help’s webhelp folder into there.
    5. After the files upload, open the start topic (e.g., index.html) for your help file.
    6. Look at the URL in your browser.
    7. Point the help button in your application to that URL.

    Flare allows you to have a Publishing Target different from the Output folder, so you can upload it in one click. RoboHelp might have something similar — I can’t remember.

    One more thing. SharePoint usually requires authentication, but you can get around it by doing the following:

    1. Click Site Actions > Site Settings .
    2. Under People and Groups, click Advanced Permissions.
    3. Go to Settings > Anonymous Access.
    4. Select Entire Web Site, and then click OK. Now users won’t have to authenticate to see your help file. This may not be a problem if your company has single-sign-on.

    That’s about it. Was that what you were asking?

  2. tr

    Sharepoint for help sounds great – but what about for applications that are installed on devices that may not have connectivity to the web some or all of the time? Is there an alternative method for packaging help with the app?
    Or maybe I’m missing something about how SP help is accessed?

  3. Stefanie

    I don’t have much experience with Google Talk, but I find that Meebo is an excellent online IM client. I can log onto all of my IM accounts at once, and it automatically saves my chat logs. Since I work on both Mac and PC, syncing is a problem, and this gives me access to my accounts and chat history no matter what computer I’m currently working on.

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  5. Tom


    For apps not connected to the web, the SharePoint solution wouldn’t work. However, the trend in software apps is brower-based delivery, so the number of locally installed clients that never connect to the web is minimal.

  6. Tom

    Stefanie, I agree with your recommendation on Meebo. Meebo is great especially if you aren’t allowed to download any IM clients on your computer. For those not familiar with Meebo, it’s a brower-based IM client that allows you to use Google, Yahoo, and other IM services.

  7. tr

    True – may be the trend but not the trend for the stuff I have to support :)
    I really like the idea of being able to update help outside of the build process – maybe my requirements will change someday :)
    Also might have some trouble getting a server dedicated to storing the help.
    Thanks for the info – it got the wheels turning over here

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  14. Tom

    I’m withdrawing my recommendation of SharePoint.

    After more experience using SharePoint as a file repository, I no longer recommend this method. SharePoint is not a stable platform. It’s loading speed fluctuates, and if you have 20 MB videos, they don’t load at all. SharePoint is like a Pinto for performance. You need a stable, robust server instead. Trust me on this one. Also, the anonymous access feature is also problematic. It can cause your entire server farm to crash.

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  16. John Hewitt

    1. Dual Monitors.
    No, but they are “working” on this.
    2. Laptop with docking station.
    No laptop. Too security paranoid.
    3. VPN connection.
    No VPN. Too security paranoid.
    4. Enterprise-integrated BlackBerry.
    Blackberry (mine) cannot be integrated, too security paranoid.
    5. Open tool office policy.
    Nope. Moving toward one-source.

    6. Google Talk as the IM Client.
    Lotus Notes IM. I don’t use it because company monitors all communication.

    7. SharePoint 2007 platform
    Oh sure. This we’ve got. I hate it.

    8. Proximity to project managers and project team members.
    Varies. Some are in my building, some are across parking lot.

    9. Open access to Pandora, Yahoo Music, or other online radio.
    No. Have to use my MP3 player.

    10. Ubiquitous wireless connectivity.
    I think you know the answer to this already. No wireless. Too security paranoid.

    John Hewitts last blog post..05/23/2008 Writing Jobs and Links

  17. Tom


    Wow, I would really push for the dual monitor setup. Above all else, I love my dual monitors. I would even buy the second monitor myself if I didn’t have one (it’s easy to say this, since it’s not a real possibility at this point).

    I have a new one to add to this list of the top 10 workplace configurations: no cubicles or offices. This may seem a bit odd, calling this an ideal setup. But really, I sit next to the interaction designer, programmer lead, near the project manager, etc. I overhear a lot of important conversations. Breaking down the cubicle walls is HUGE. When it gets noisy, I pop on my headphones and listen to Pandora. However, it actually doesn’t get as noisy as you might think. In a cubicle environment, people are under the illusion that others can’t so easily hear or see them, so they’re more apt to talk loudly or, my favorite, listen to their voice mail on speaker. But without the walls, you see who’s around you, and you use a quiet library voice. It really does work.

    About SharePoint, I’m giving it a go again. I’m not entirely fond of it, but it is like a push-button website that anyone can set up and use.

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  20. Access Blocked Websites

    The basic idea is that with a dual-monitor setup, you can avoid having to minimize any window you are currently working on to access the other… You also can avoid using Alt-Tab to navigate between multiple windows…. While it’s cool to immediately access the desktop, you have to restore all the other windows, one at a time!!

  21. technology

    use SLAX. download it and unzip to an empty pendrive and start the system with usb bootable and start working with SLAX. Go to the below link to get more info abt this Operating System


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