Tag Archives: Technical communication

Do we understand ourselves?

People don’t understand us. From the first time I met a technical writer, I’ve heard them — I’ve heard us — say that.

Our bosses don’t understand us. Subject-matter experts don’t understand us. Our audiences don’t understand us.

So, at long last, we have a chance to change that. A few days ago on Twitter, an app designer named Louie Mantia put this out to the world:

As Louie’s tweet kept popping up in my timeline — with answers from journalists, lexicographers, and historians — I pondered how a technical writer might answer.

It was harder than I expected.

First take

First I thought of answering Louie’s question like this: Our top priority is writing directly to the people who use the instructions.

Then, in my imaginary dialog, I heard a resounding yawn from the general public: Of course you write for the people who use the instructions. For us. Who else would you write for?

Writing for the audience. While we technical writers trumpet it as a big deal, to our audience it’s so blindingly obvious that it goes without saying.

Second take

So I tried a different approach. Technical writers think in terms of how to use a product, not how the product works.

General public: We know that! It’s common sense, right? I don’t need to know how an internal-combustion engine works. I just want to change the oil.

Third take

crowd of people

Might the people understand us better than we think?

My third try: We work hard to tailor our information to our audience — in terms of both content and media.

GP: Hmm. The tailoring part, again, should go without saying. Maybe we don’t understand why you have to work so hard.

After all, when we get it right, it looks effortless. And when we get it wrong, it looks like we haven’t tried at all.

I began to realize that the skills we technical writers prize the most and discuss the most among ourselves, like audience analysis and media expertise, are things that — in the minds of our customers — ought to be second nature.

When we say that people don’t understand us, it’s not because they don’t grasp our skill set. It’s because they don’t realize how much energy we devote to honing those skills and to reminding each other how important they are.

Why do we need to remind each other of things that are so fundamental? Is it because our perspective is skewed from spending too much time with our work colleagues (especially Development) and not enough time with our customers?

Maybe it’s not that people understand us. Maybe we don’t understand ourselves.

Epilog

I finally did answer Louie’s question about what seems obvious to us but is misunderstood by the general public.

What do you think of my answer? How would you have answered?

Do you think our customers would be surprised to learn how much time we spend talking about things that, to them, ought to be second nature?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The linchpin of inspiration

Author and storyteller Carla Johnson, in her keynote speech at this week’s STC Summit, described how inspiration comes, not as a bolt from the blue, but from observing other people’s creative work. She warned against brand detachment disorder, in which we see another brand — maybe Disney or Apple — doing something cool but immediately dismiss it because it couldn’t possibly bear on our own company’s brand.

photo of Carla Johnson

Carla Johnson

Instead, Carla charged us to observe what other brands are doing, distill the parts we can use, and relate those parts to our own brand and customers. Then we can generate ideas and pitch them to our bosses. Call it the inspiration process.

That’s what Rachel Sparks, Technical Director at Xenex, did. Xenex makes robot-like machines that hospitals use to disinfect areas where patients are treated. This is a very big deal, because it drastically reduces the threat posed by sepsis and other infections. When Sparks noticed that some hospitals were giving their machines whimsical names and putting Santa Claus hats on them, she saw a way to market her company’s product not as a machine but as something that touches people’s hearts.

That’s great creativity, great marketing. But is it technical communication? Did Carla get mixed up and think that she was speaking to the Society for Technical Marketing?

No. Carla knew exactly where she was. Continue reading

Launching your technical communication career

Last time I wrote about the places you can go, or the different trajectories your career can take, when you work in technical communication.

But how do you get that first job? What qualifications do you need, and what are employers looking for?

Prompted by interview questions from a Tech Comm graduate student, and based on my experience working in the field and interviewing candidates, here are some thoughts.

montage of album covers from 1979

We listened to different music in 1979, and breaking into the field was different too.

I got my first technical writing job a long time ago — in 1979. One thing I know for sure is that your breaking-in story won’t be the same as mine. Things were a lot different then, and I’m not just thinking about the music we listened to. Companies, having realized that technical people didn’t necessarily make good technical writers, went looking for young writers who weren’t necessarily versed in the technology but who could learn it.

Armed with a double-major in English and philosophy, and having a tiny bit of experience with computers, I landed that first job with IBM.

You won’t have the same experience. Your résumé will need to look a little shinier than mine did.

What are the educational requirements for working in Technical Communication?

Follow-up question: Are certain degrees or backgrounds more sought after by employers? Continue reading

Technical Communication: Oh, the places you’ll go!

A Technical Communication graduate student recently interviewed me for a project she’s doing. She asked great questions, and (with her permission) I thought I’d share some of my answers with you.

What does a career trajectory look like in technical communication?

Places_you_go_Seuss

Your career in Tech Comm, and possibly after Tech Comm, will be uniquely yours — shaped by your interests and talents.

Follow-on question: Is there lots of room for growth, or do people need to transition to management after a certain point?

There is lots of room for growth. Just as people follow many paths into Tech Comm, they find a lot of paths to follow once they’re here.

It’s like Dr. Seuss said: you can go almost anywhere.

Where you go in Tech Comm — or where you go from Tech Comm — depends on what you’re especially good at and what you’re most interested in. Continue reading

Is your child texting about technical communication?

Here’s a quick guide to find out:

stack of dictionariesBRB
Big reference books

TMI
Tagging my index

LOL
Learn other languages

NGH
Need graphic here

TTFN
Try this font now

Quill penIDK
Insert DITA keyword

WTF
Write the facts

ICYMI
I corrected your mistakes, incidentally

TTYL
The things you learn

TL;DR
Technical literacy definitely rocks

FTW
Fantastic technical writing

Reaching your audience through empathy

On Tuesday, January 23, I’ll give an online talk — along with my colleague Christina Mayr — about empathy and how you can use it to connect technical documentation with its audience. Our talk is part of the “Writing Well” conference.

I hope you’ll consider joining us.

Our talk

man-in-the-mirror

In the mirror exercise, you and another actor (think: your reader) follow each other’s moves (credit: whatshihsaid.com)

Audience analysis is at the heart of what technical writers do. But what makes an audience analysis truly successful? Empathy. Customer empathy spans more than customer service; in fact, it’s most needed long before a user even calls for help. By employing empathetic techniques – for example, monitoring customer support cases to find pain points and improve documentation to address them – you help your users  trust your documentation and seek it out before calling customer support.

Our talk, Improve Documentation Usage with Customer Empathy, will show you how to acquire user empathy and effectively create empathetic technical information. It will discuss several empathetic techniques you can use in your organization to start writing with a better understanding of your users’ pain. We’ll also discuss the case studies, collaboration, and user outreach Extreme Networks performed and the results of these activities.

The event

IDEAS conference logo
The “Writing Well” conference is a two-day, online event that’s put on by CIDM, the Center for Information–Development Management. CIDM brings together managers in the field of information development to share information and new ideas.

The “Writing Well” conference invites you back to basics as we explore what defines good documentation in today’s structured, topic-based environment. What does it mean to write well? What characteristics predict whether or not content will be usable and understandable? Where should we be spending our time? What strategies help authors produce content that users willingly turn to first?

I look forward to connecting with you there.

Questions from the old year, questions for the new

Looking back over this blog’s performance in 2017, I see a pattern. The 3 most popular articles, in terms of page views, were ones that posed questions. The questions I asked in 2017 are still worth considering today.

Is augmented reality part of technical communication’s future?

While AR is popular for gaming, I asked, can it become a viable platform for technical communication? Nearly a year after I wrote the article, I still don’t see much enthusiasm.

screen shot of a sky map appThere are a few popular low-end AR apps, like the stargazing apps I mentioned in the article. Susan Carpenter, in a comment, envisioned using AR for museum interpretation.

But it’s still hard to see a business case for AR in mainstream product documentation. General Motors, attempting to break into this market, deployed its myOpel app a few years ago. While the app is still available, it’s getting only tepid reviews and it doesn’t seem to be spawning imitators.

Why is it so challenging to apply AR to product documentation? Partly, perhaps, because it’s so hard to know exactly what the user is doing — and trying to do — when they access the documentation. Mark Baker pointed that AR will work only if we can maintain our focus, remove distractions, and not introduce new distractions by, say, cluttering the user’s field of vision with “dashboards” full of irrelevant data.

As we turn the calendar to 2018, the vision of AR for technical communication remains gauzy, maybe somewhere in distant the future but not yet coming into focus.

Is “soup to nuts” what we need?

When I posed this question, I was thinking of authoring systems that combine under one banner all of the major steps of the content workflow:

  • Creating
  • Managing
  • Reviewing
  • Publishing

Vendors have been pitching these kinds of systems for a while. But I questioned whether very many real-world content-development teams were buying and using them.

Since I wrote that piece, my company has invested in one of those “soup to nuts” systems. We’ve begun using it to create, manage, and publish content — but not to review it. Just as I said back then, our subject-matter experts still prefer to mark up drafts using a familiar format like Word or PDF.

It’s too soon to tell whether our soup-to-nuts system will, as I feared, actually hinder cooperation and collaboration with other parts of the company. Service and Marketing, for example, use tools and processes that don’t play well with our the soup-to-nuts system we’re now using in Information Development. How big a hurdle will that prove to be?

People who commented on the article expressed skepticism, based on their own experience, about whether soup-to-nuts can work. One correspondent, however, reported being very happy with a tool I hadn’t considered when I wrote the article: Atlassian Confluence.

Will you still need me? (STC at 64)

Sgt. Pepper album with STC logo addedDuring the last Summit conference — and as Liz Pohland took the reins as STC‘s new CEO — I invoked a Sgt. Pepper song to explain why I thought STC, then marking its 64th anniversary, remains relevant in the 21st century.

I said that STC — which for decades has billed itself as the world’s largest professional society dedicated to technical communication — has stayed relevant by:

  • Providing a solid platform for networking and information exchange
  • Curating a body of knowledge
  • Connecting practitioners with educators

To stay relevant, I said that STC must:

  • Reach across to professionals in fields that involve content creation but that don’t necessarily fall under the rubric of technical communication
  • Make newcomers welcome and help them find their place in the organization
  • Find new ways to attract, train, and energize volunteers — because volunteers are the lifeblood of STC
  • Build its certification program into something that’s valued by practitioners and their employers — a process that’s likely to take a long time
  • Continue to operate as a worldwide society, retaining its place at the table alongside organizations like tekom in Europe

Now, in 2018, STC is spotlighting its age: its next conference is billed as the 65th Anniversary Summit. I think that its strengths, and its challenges, are much the same as they were in 2017.

What do you think — about STC, about soup-to-nuts systems, or about augmented reality?

What questions do you think our profession will need to focus on in 2018?

An image with an impact

If good writing is the foundation on which technical communication is built, then visual elements provide the curb appeal.

Even though most of my training and experience are in writing, not illustrating, I’m keenly aware of the huge effect — for good or ill — that visuals can have on content.

I pay close attention to how the artist chooses to present data in maps and graphs, because that choice can strongly influence the reader’s perception.

I like to spotlight images that are informative and well-executed — like the map in ProPublica’s story on last summer’s Houston floods and the Tampa Bay Times‘ 2015 infographic about the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Unfortunately, the Times has removed the infographic from its site, but a small piece of it survives in my post.)

Then there’s the recent op-ed by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof on gun violence in the U.S. In an article full of bar graphs and maps, one image in particular made my jaw drop.

Wishing to point up the lack of research into gun violence, compared with research into diseases like cholera and diphtheria, Kristof had a Times artist compare two data points for each problem: number of people affected and number of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health over the 40 years ending in 2012.

As you scroll down, try to set aside your political views — whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control — and evaluate this image on how effectively it delivers its message.

graph juxtaposing 4 million gun-violence cases and 3 research grants

I’ve seen very few images that delivered their messages so startlingly, so resoundingly. The numbers are impressive, but the huge red circle and the three tiny boxes thunder out the message: gun violence, while a serious threat to public health, is woefully under-researched. (Kristof says that’s because of lobbying by opponents of gun control.)

Feel free to disagree with the message. But don’t tell me that it wasn’t delivered effectively.

A new vantage point

Around 1610, Galileo Galilei, pointing his newly invented telescope at the sky, became the first person to see bulges on both sides of the planet Saturn. He didn’t know what they were. It took 45 years before another astronomer, Christiaan Huygens, figured out that they were rings surrounding the planet.

For 350-plus years since then, every view we had of the rings came from the same vantage point: from outside.

Until last month. For the first time, the Cassini spacecraft slipped between Saturn and the rings, turned its camera away from the planet, and started taking pictures from inside the rings.

Cassini flying inside Saturn's rings
This illustration is part of a NASA animation that shows Cassini’s trip inside the rings. The inset captures an actual image that Cassini sent back.

Following Cassini’s example, I’ve begun considering how I can look at things from new vantage points. If I’ve always looked at something in the same way, have I really seen it in its entirety? Maybe not.

Here are a few things I’m trying to see from new vantage points.

Mergers and acquisitions

My company, Extreme Networks, has acquired parts of 3 different companies over the past year. As a result, our technical writing team is growing rapidly. New people, with all sorts of different backgrounds, are learning our tools, our workflows, and our corporate culture. A lot of anxiety comes with the experience of being part of an acquisition.

I actually have experience with this. I’ve seen things from the other side of an acquisition. Now is a great time for me to remember how it felt — and thereby to help make it easier for the newcomers to our team.

Starting out

My recent participation in the STC Carolina chapter’s mentoring program has given me a new appreciation for how hard it is to break into the technical communication field — from finding a specialty (software writer, e-learning developer, scientific editor) to creating a personal brand to simply landing that first job.

Colliding worldviews

Look at the current world scene and you’ll see people with fundamentally different worldviews. More and more, those worldviews seem to be colliding — and the more they collide, like particles in an accelerator, the more sparks seems to fly. The greater the differences seem to become.

I’m still trying to grasp that. More important, I’m trying to understand the people whose worldviews are different from mine. If I can understand the people on the other side, maybe we can find something in common that we can use as a basis for moving forward together. Maybe that’s too much to ask. I don’t know. But I do know that talking beats shouting, so that’s what I try to do.

(If you’d like to try, too, Jesse Lyn Stoner recently shared some practical tips for taking a stand without polarizing others.)

Epilog

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. On Friday its mission will reach its grand finale when it dives into the planet’s atmosphere. When it transmits its last data from inside Saturn’s clouds — a vantage point no one has ever seen — humankind will gain more knowledge about Saturn’s atmosphere than ever before.

How have new vantage points helped you in your professional life? Can you think of other vantage points you’d like to gain?

It’s not your text

Hey, wow. I was looking on the internet and — what do you know? — I found a list.

Yes, I realize that the internet is full of lists. Many of them exist simply to entice us to click. A few might entertain or inform, and then I forget them in 5 minutes.

A very few are worth recommending. One such is this list of rules for editors, compiled by the Baltimore Sun‘s John McIntyre. If you’re in any part of the writing business, hurry on over to The Sun and take a look.

I lingered long over Rule 4: It’s not your text.

You are in the middle of things. You have a responsibility to assist the writer in achieving their purpose. You have a responsibility to the publication to maintain its standards and integrity. You have a responsibility to the reader, the party most commonly overlooked in these operations, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. Your personal preferences are subordinate to these responsibilities.

quill penSo it is with editors, and so it is with technical writers as well. We have a responsibility to the company we represent, to maintain its standards and integrity (to the extent it has them), and to present its products in such a way that our readers can use them effectively.

We also have a responsibility to the reader, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. This is our paramount responsibility, because this is the one we have to get right. We might get away without perfectly reflecting the company’s style or brand image, or without perfectly describing the product’s features. But if we don’t meet the reader’s needs, so that they stop reading and walk away (or dial tech support), we’ve failed completely.

stone bridgeI’ve heard the technical writer described as the bridge between subject-matter expert and reader. I used to bristle at that metaphor: I thought it implied a passivity on the part of the technical writer, as if we were nothing more than a conduit carrying information from one actor to another. “People walk on bridges,” I remember complaining.

Now, in my old age, I’m more comfortable with the bridge metaphor. Maybe I have a higher opinion of bridges: some of them are engineering marvels, and even the simplest ones are mighty useful. But mostly, I think, I better understand that it’s not my text.

Yes, I play an important role in the transaction between expert and reader. But I’ve come to understand that part of my role in that transaction is to get lost. If I want my name on something, I should write a novel.

My job is to make the text good, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s not my text.