Back to school part 2: enhancing my technical communication skills

Back-To-School-Books-And-AppleJoe Welinske’s talk, Key Trends in Software User Assistance, has inspired me to learn new skills, or burnish my existing skills, so that i can continue to succeed as a technical communicator.

In my last article I described 3 of those skills: search-engine optimization (SEO), video production, and storytelling.

Here are the rest.

User communities

Our readers no longer live in isolation For help and guidance they look not to the official company-produced materials (like manuals and context-sensitive help) but to each other.

Smart companies, like the one I work for, host user forums and post knowledge bases on their websites. Customers can ask questions and get answers from each other and from experts on the company’s technical staff.

In many cases, online communities exist independently as well — on sites that aren’t affiliated with a product’s manufacturer. Those sites might have a lower signal-to-noise ratio, but they’re still popular. In some cases they’re preferred because, many believe, you’re more likely to find the unvarnished truth there.

I would be arrogant and a blockhead if I, as a technical communicator, chose to ignore these sources and insisted that my readers rely only on the official documentation.

I need to learn where my readers are seeking information about my products, and then I need to come alongside them — for example, by answering a question on a user forum and providing a link to the appropriate section of the documentation.

I also need to learn how people are interacting with my company on social media and be ready to step in when someone is looking for something I can provide. And when I step in, it should go without saying that the phrase RTFM is strictly verboten.

Designing and writing for the small screen

Joe noted that the most popular documentation format is still PDF, with web- and browser-based content cutting into its lead. However, the adoption of tablet- and smartphone-based formats like eBook remains flat. I think it’s because most technical documentation simply doesn’t lend itself to being read on a small screen.

MALE HAND HOLDING SMARTPHONE 2.jpgIt isn’t that people don’t want to read our content on a smartphone. It’s that we haven’t made it feasible. Yet.

We’re starting to see tools that can break up large technical documents into topics and push them to a tablet or smartphone in such a way that they can be updated automatically and the reader can make bookmarks and other notations.

So the technology is coming. Now we need the skills to create content for the small screen. Break large oceans of text into something more succinct. Find a better way to present content that exists today in large tables or complicated graphics.

How will we do that? I think we’ll have to pick and choose: figure out what content lends itself to a small-screen presentation and concentrate on that. Then provide download links to everything else. We’ll also need to evolve a skill we should already have developed: telling our story as succinctly as possible.

There’ll surely be demand for small-screen content. We have to figure out how to meet the demand.

UI strings and embedded assistance

The most direct way a technical communicator can show people how to use a product is to design the product’s user interface — or at least write the text strings in the UI. In the software world, more and more of us are getting to do just that.

When an input field is labeled in a way that makes sense for the audience, with a well-written help tutorial, the software becomes much easier to use and much less in need of detailed instructions.

Joe noted that in this area, technical communicators might have to fight to earn our place at the table. After all, there are already software developers and UI designers who consider this to be their jobs.

But some technical communicators have already gotten the chance to create UI strings and embedded assistance, and they’re making the most of it. As we — the technical communication community — develop a track record of success, with specific examples of how our work improved a product and made money for the company, we’ll get even more opportunities.

When those opportunities come, we need to be ready to seize them.

 

User communities. Designing and writing for the small screen. UI strings and embedded assistance. Have you been honing your skills in these areas? What other skills are you looking to update? What tips can you share with others?

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