TCUK'2019: Workshop Inspire with Comics

I wanted to attend the Technical Communication UK conference for years. The conference offered a reasonably priced residential fee in a countryside hotel. For a foreigner, this means an affordable conference, with more opportunities than usual to network with local colleagues.

Networking happed over breakfast, lunch, dinner, evenings... and even during a fire drill! The hotel included its own British pub that became the natural meeting point after dinner to talk about technical writing, consulting, and Brexit.

Having a workshop accepted at the conference helped the company to sponsor the attendance and fostered more meaningful interaction with other attendees.

Workshop announcement

Successful software products accumulate features over time, becoming more complex and harder to explain. When complex products are combined with staff turnover, knowledge of product features erodes over time, and the software products are used below their potential.

Comics can teach staff how to recognize the situations that products solve, as a starting point for further exploration of documentation and user interfaces.

After the workshop, the participants should be able to:

  1. Identify good comics.
  2. Identify people stories behind product features.
  3. Craft insightful comics to explain product features.
  4. Explain products with coordinated sets of comics.

Workshop narrative

The 90-minute workshop drew 28 attendees, which sit on large round tables across a wide rectangular room. I was surprised to discover that the session would be recorded by a professional audio engineer.

I started the workshop with my own story of getting involved with comics. The intention was for attendees to grasp why they might want to develop a professional interest in comics.

There is something about this profession that you know where you start,
but you never quite know where you finish.
And I ended up doing comics as well, as part of the job.
— Joaquim Baptista

In part 2, I drew on Kevin Cheng to introduce some theory on comics, including what makes comics effective, before offering my own definition for what are good and bad comics.

You can abstract the unimportant details in a comic,
encouraging the reader to focus on the areas of the story
that are most important.
— Kevin Cheng

Part 3 challenged students to lose their fears of drawing for others. I drew again on Kevin Cheng to lead students through a series of exercises, starting by just copying a one-page copybook.


If you can copy that copybook,
you can draw as well an me.
— Joaquim Baptista

Magic happened when I challenged attendees to pair and share their own sketches to each other, something that attendees did not see coming as they were drawing. There was palpable excitement in the room as peer feedback revealed that even simple sketches were quite effective, and that some attendees had excellent drawings.

In part 4 I outlined and demonstrated my own process to design comic strips. I used the 1979 introduction of the Sony Walkman as an example, and interacted with the attendees to identify situations to represent as comic strips.

Find the situations and actors of a decisive moment.
— Joaquim Baptista

Finally, I asked students to do the same with a fictitious wireless doorbell product, inspired by existing products.

Unfortunately, I discovered that I had not prepared the exercise for so many attendees. Not everyone understood the exercise statement immediately, and I had limited time to interact with each table and react to the situation.

We finished without a decisive finale. Only a few attendees managed to draw some comic strips before we run out of time, and they received little feedback.

During the next few coffee breaks, I learned that the workshop had been perceived as a success. Several attendees praised the workshop and recommended me to offer the workshop at other conferences. Most importantly, some attendees felt inspired to start drawing, which was one of the major objectives.

Furthermore, the workshop had generated a buzz and I received congratulations from people that had not attended the workshop. Most significantly, Katherine Judge invited me to write an article for the ISTC Communicator.

However, an attendee and most certainly a fellow teacher told me that I had achieved the first two learning objectives, but not the last two. She was quite right.

It has also been said that doing the right thing poorly
is much better than doing the wrong thing perfectly.
— Russell Ackoff

Derek Cooper

Brexit kills TCUK as we know it

Little did I know that the 10th TCUK would also be the last residential conference. Derek Cooper, the organizer, summoned an informal meeting during the conference and broke the news to about 20 people.

The uncertainty around Brexit reduced vendors and sponsors, especially company-paid attendance. Furthermore, the organizers hesitated in scaling down the 10th conference, for example by dropping professional audio recording.

In 2020 TCUK became a half-day meetup in central London similar to TCeurope in scope. With the further help of the COVID-19 pandemic, TCUK evolved to a series of monthly online sessions, plus a few concentrated sessions in September. In a sense, the residential conference evolved to a series of meetups. There was both creation of value (no need to travel) and destruction of value (not the same depth of interaction).

The good news is that ISTC intends to get back to presencial meetings in 2022. Let's hope we can reenact the wonderful and unique experience of the residential conferences.

Announcement bio at TCUK

Currently working at Farfetch, Joaquim has documented large and evolving software products that require industrial writing processes instead of just writing craftsmanship, since 1997.

In 2014, Joaquim adopted comics as a way to quickly introduce product features to new users, or to add insight to training lessons. Later, Joaquim adopted comics to show how users experience a product, and to explain the many problems solved by a larger company.

Before tackling documentation, Joaquim worked as trainer, programmer, system administrator, and academic researcher.


Speaker page at TCUK'19
Announcement of the workshop at the conference Technical Communication UK 2019.
Workshop slides
Slides for the workshop, shared by the TCUK organization, with a local copy.
Workshop audio
Professionally recorded audio of the workshop.
Inspire with Comics at ISTC Communicator
Article published in the magazine ISTC Communicator describing how to create cartoons.
20 Years of Technical Writing at Altitude Software
Article published in Proceedings of ACM ISDOC'14, Lisbon, Portugal. Context and background story that led Altitude Software to adopt comics.
Chesford Grange Hotel
The hotel is located in a rural area close to the town of Warwick in central England. The hotel meets or exceeds all the TCUK requirements, and most of the “nice to have” features too.
Will Eisner, 1985. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and practices from the legendary cartoonist
The first book that reflected on comics as a form of art, based on his popular sequential art course at New York's School of Visual Art.
Scott McCloud, 2006. Making Comics: Storytelling secrets of comics, manga and graphic novels
Comic book explaining theory and practice of making comics in exquisite detail.
Scott McCloud, 2008. Google Chrome
Booklet that announced the Chrome web browser to the world, showing the ability of comics to explain complex technical matters.
Kevin Cheng, 2012. See What I Mean: How to use comics to communicate ideas
Book edited by Rosenfeld Media in 2012, available in 2019 as a $22 eBook. This was the book that consolidated comics in my mind.
Dan Roam, 2008. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
Book explaining how to think in six different ways, and draw the corresponding illustrations effectively. Also published in Portuguese by Gestão Plus.