Tech Write Tips

October 6, 2006

What is: XAML (authoring’s best kept secret)

Filed under: Future-proofing,Technology,Tip,Vista,What is — AndyR @ 12:02 pm

microsoft-expression.gifXAML is an XML file that defines user interfaces. It not only defines the frames, buttons, fields but also introduces any other visual effect that the interface may require. In a similar way to Flash interfaces, XAML provides a rich user experience with a variety of graphical effects.

XAML, a markup language to declaratively represent user interface for Windows applications, improving the richness of the tools with which developers and designers can compose and repurpose UI.

For example, you could define a button as follows:
    <SolidColorBrush Color=”Blue”/>
    <SolidColorBrush Color=”Red”/>
  This is a button

So what! How does this help the technical author? Here we find one of the best kept secrets of this new technology. Whilst its benefits for programmers and designers is often highlighted:

“One great benefit of XAML is that it helps to separate design and development, which actually helps to improve collaboration and efficiency between designers and software developers.”

What is less publicised is how this opens up the development process to other players, such as the technical author. Not only does this help close the great divide between authors and devlopers, it also starts to provide a route to achieving the sort of user guidance offered by Assistance Platform.

Firstly, it becomes a possibility for the technical author to become the owner of all the text in the appication. The user interface text in the XAML files can easily be updated with little programming knowledge.

Sceondly, it also become possible to generate templates for dialog help, as the XAML can be transformed with an XSL to produce a XHTML page that lists all the fields and includes notes as the starting point of the help project.

Thirdly, the XAML itself can also be checked from a consistency perspective. An XSL file can run through the file checking it aganist the companies interface standards. Again this helps the technical author flag up any issues with the user interface.

We find that this helps, authors move towards providing more wide spread User Assistance than simple help files. Aspects of Vista, such as super tooltips, require much more integration between the help content and the application. XAML provides a means for us, technical authors, to play our part to achieve this.


  1. Earlier this year, I used XAML to prototype a few interfaces for the developers on my project team, using the CTPs of Microsoft Expressions designer.

    This is a _great_ way to get your feet “wet” with XAML. I recommend everyone try it out.

    Comment by theMonkey — October 6, 2006 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  2. We use external string files since quite some time where a unique numerical key corresponds to the string in the UI. This not only allows for changing strings without recompiling the application, but one can also switch languages on the fly and add more languages as time comes by.
    So is XAML just a string file on steroids? It appears it is more as one can change more than just the text, for example the color as well. I will take a closer look at XAML. I currently work on a GUI design spec and what better if I not only could document the specs, but make the UI as well. I currently use Visio to make some mockup screens, which is a lot of work for nothing.

    Regardless of that, any software engineering manager who excludes the tech writer just doesn’t seem to get it. Tech writers are often subject matter experts not only in screen layout, wording, and such, but also in usability, functionality, software testing, and support. In the same sense, tech writers that “just write” without access to design discussions early on are just a fifth wheel on the car. I still don’t get why many companies get a contractor for making the help file. How is someone supposed to be able to grasp the industry, the particular business, find out about customer needs, and write an awesome help file within a few months?

    XAML may just be the key to really make the tech writer an important member of the design and development team, something that shouldn’t require a new modeling language to begin with.

    I do see one problem with XAML. How is one supposed to get this stuff translated into other languages? Most language professionals are not technical people, but they may be able to use Notepad or any other simple editor. I am sure that quite a few look at the funky strings and translate “Button.Background” as well. And even worse, good luck spellchecking this file. I assume there are tools that parse the file and present only the labels, but assuming that translators have or even are skilled enough to operate those technical tools is a bit foolish. So, yea, XAML is great as long as one operates in the english speaking world. I doubt it is an example of american arrogance, I think it is more an oversight that lead to this design flaw – most likely because there wasn’t a tech writer on the XAML design team!

    Comment by RamonS — October 6, 2006 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

  3. The beauty of the appraoch is that once the UI definition is in XML you can you XSL to trasform it into any format you require. You could pull out just the text for the author/translator to work on. You could check the positioning and spacings to pull out a list of dialogs thatdon’t comply to the software house style.

    All this is in addition to tools like Microsoft Expressions Designer that provide automated processes to assist all this.

    Comment by techwritetips — October 9, 2006 @ 9:25 am | Reply

  4. XAML is the future. Training for Researchers is needed. Researchers need to get into this stuff. Start publishing their work in an interactive way. Static just does not cut it anymore.
    Data being displayed live in the new generation way on the web.

    Comment by Garrydene Waldie — December 22, 2009 @ 10:09 am | Reply

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