Here where I live it’s back-to-school time: a reminder that no matter how long I’ve worked in technical communication, there are always new things to learn.
The skills I’ve already mastered, while still valuable, won’t be enough for me to succeed in a world of new technologies and new ways of consuming information.
What will I be looking to learn this year? The following list is inspired by Joe Welinske’s talk, Key Trends in Software User Assistance, which
he gave last week to the STC Carolina chapter.
Search-engine optimization (SEO)
Joe’s succinct advice, to everyone in the room, was “Learn this.”
No matter what kind of technical content you create, it’s going online. Even the lowly (but still popular) PDF. And your readers will find it using a search engine.
So you need to understand how the right words and phrases, both in text and metadata, make your content bubble to the top of the search results. The best advice: don’t try to game the search engines. Make sure your content is relevant, and use terminology appropriately.
I asked Joe whether the science of SEO — and what we need to know about it — is a moving target. For example, I’ve read how Google constantly tweaks its algorithms. Joe suggested checking your search results regularly, just as you check the oil in your car. If you see that your content is slipping down the results page, modify it and retest until it moves back to the top.
Don’t tell me. Show me. People have said that for as long as I can remember. Now, for the first time, we have the technology — both on the production end and the receiving end — to make video a viable choice for mainstream technical documentation.
A video might be a series of screen shots to show how to do something using a software user interface. It might an animation that explains a concept, for example how a wireless network works. It might be a movie showing how to attach cables to a switch or router.
Each of those formats requires different equipment and skills to produce. There are well understood best practices for each. You’ll also need to apply good, old-fashioned audience analysis so you match your audience’s vocabulary and level of sophistication.
And, of course, you need to match the playback mechanism your audience is using. Will they view your video on a desktop computer? A smartphone? Something else?
Depending on what equipment and expertise you have, you might be able to produce video content yourself or you might need to call in a specialist. Even if you call in a specialist, you need enough know-how to ask the right questions and make sure your requirements are being met.
I love it that the time-honored art of storytelling appears on Joe’s list of skills for the next generation of technical communication.
Mark Baker has described how, as technical communicators, we are fundamentally storytellers: “the way we tell stories is by stringing words together in ways that evoke stories that the reader already knows.”
We also imbue those stories with facts — data — to provide the reader with what they need to know next.
For that reason, we need to know who our reader is, and we need to know their frame of reference. We also need to generously provide links to other stories so that our reader, if necessary, can fill the gaps in their knowledge.
Maybe, back in the distant past, people sat down and read technical manuals cover to cover. No more. Now our reader is the subject of, in agile parlance, a user story: I am a [description of role] and I want to [gain some knowledge or perform some task]. As technical communicators we need to tell that story well.
And still more….
Joe mentioned other skills that’ll be keys to success for technical communicators in the coming years. I’ll cover those in my next article.
In the meantime, tell me what you think. Have you honed your skills in SEO, video production, and storytelling? Can you recommend good places to go to learn those skills?