What good technical communication looks like

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Tampa Bay Times published a story containing a set of excellent infographics. Although I’m not usually a fan of infographics, I think this piece stands out as an example of good technical communication.

Image of bluefin tuna with accompanying text

Detail from one of the infographics (Source: Tampa Bay Times)

It’s visually appealing: The artwork is well drawn, it supports the text, and it captures the reader’s interest.

It makes technical content accessible to a lay audience: The tone is professional yet personable. Scientific terms (like flocculated) and concepts are explained neatly. Metaphors, like the “dirty blizzard,” adapt the material to the reader’s frame of reference.

It stays neutral: Deepwater Horizon remains a sensitive, politically charged topic for many. This piece sticks to the facts and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

How could the piece have been even better?

Smoother transitions: The first infographic doesn’t contain introductory text. The regular HTML text — not part of the infographic — serves as an introduction. The other two infographics, Effect on Marine Life and Tracking the Oil, contain their own introductory text. (Tracking even contains sub-sections with more introductory text.) As you read, you might not notice that you’re moving from one infographic (major topic) to another unless you detect a font change. Then, suddenly, you realize that the subject matter has shifted. If the transitions were handled better, and more consistently, the reader would experience a less bumpy ride.

Editing for consistency: A good edit would’ve caught some little things, like quote marks used for “dirty bizzard” in two of the infographics but not in the third, or for “downhill” in just one of them. I’m guessing that the infographics were produced independently, perhaps even at different times, and then pulled together for this anniversary story. If that’s the case, then it’s remarkable how little inconsistency there is.

All things considered, the flaws in this piece are minor and are far outweighed by the strengths. The story conveys useful information in an effective and engaging way. It’s a nice piece of technical communication.

What do you think?

Kudos to Times staffers Cam Cottrill, Steve Madden, and Don Morris.

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One thought on “What good technical communication looks like

  1. Pingback: Informing the public, responsibly | Leading Technical Communication

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