Tag Archives: Technical communication

Our identity and our future as technical communicators

I like to say, at the beginning of every new year, welcome to the future.

2019, a brand new space with freshly waxed floors and newly painted walls, awaits our arrival. As we enter in, let’s look around for a moment. Let’s think about what we’ll make of the new year.

Our day in the sun

Start with the 2018 STC Summit, where keynote speaker Carla Johnson called technical communicators “the linchpin between people, information, and technology.”

pencil drawing a bridge between two cliffs

Bridging the gap (Source: eurodiaconia.org)

We’re uniquely positioned, Johnson said, to help our companies succeed by influencing the way they interact with customers and prospects. All because we bridge the gap between, on the one hand, products and technologies, and on the other hand, voice, branding, and messaging.

Pretty heady stuff! If Johnson is right, we technical communicators are about to have our day in the sun. Soon everyone in the organization will look up to us.

Back to earth

Yet, at the same time… Continue reading

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Architecting value

A month ago, I got a new job title: Information Architect. I maintain my company’s content infrastructure, training and supporting a writing team that has, through mergers and acquisitions, tripled in size over the last 18 months. I also look to the future, defining strategic goals and figuring out how to achieve them.

In describing my new beat, I told the writing team that I have two priorities:

  • Help the team do their jobs as effectively as possible — by listening to them, by training them in both tools and concepts, and by fixing problems
  • Position our documentation products to provide value to the company and its customers

crane with architectural plansWhat does that look like in real life? Well, the first priority is pretty much what you’d expect. If I’m listening to the team, I know where they need training and guidance. And I try to be responsive when someone has a problem. (I also rely on a couple of colleagues who can also step in and troubleshoot when needed.)

The second priority, for me, is the crux of my job. But, paradoxically, it’s a lot harder to envision. Continue reading

Into our reader’s world

You’ve parachuted onto a random stretch of road. You could be anywhere in the world. How quickly can you figure out where you are?

That’s the idea behind GeoGuessr, a web game that’s occupied some — ahem, too much — of my time lately. You might find yourself on a muddy road outside an Eastern European village, a lonely highway in West Texas, or a scenic drive on the Isle of Skye. (For that one, I guessed New Zealand — exactly halfway around the world. Zero points!)

Technical writers are used to this. We parachute into our reader’s world, and we do whatever we can to orient ourselves. We try to understand their work environment, their background, and anything else that helps us communicate with them.

geoguessr_screenshot.png

A rocky coastline. A car driving on the right. Are you on Vancouver Island? Almost: you’re on the Olympic Peninsula, and that’s Vancouver Island in the distance. (Screen shot from GeoGuessr)

In GeoGuessr, you use whatever clues you can find. The game is based on Google Street view, so you can move back and forth, explore intersecting roads, and zoom in on your surroundings.

You’re looking for clues in topography, road signs (Do you recognize the language? Place names?), vegetation (Tropical? Subarctic?) — anything that would suggest or disqualify a particular location.

As technical writers, we look for clues to orient ourselves to the reader’s world. Continue reading

Finding the organization’s voice

It was simpler back in the day.

If you were a kid growing up near New York City, your favorite music came with a voice. In the afternoon, after school got out, the voice belonged to the wisecracking Dan Ingram. After dinner, it was the voluble, high-energy Bruce Morrow.

(There were other voices, in the morning and on weekends. But for most of us, Big Dan and Cousin Brucie stood out.)

A simple, effective brand voice

daningram

Dan Ingram held down the 2-to-6 time slot.

Amplified by a microphone that lent a slight echo to every word, those two human voices combined to give WABC a distinctive and recognizable brand voice. The voice told us that WABC was fun, in the know,  up to date.

What was the hottest music? Every Tuesday night, we listened as Cousin Brucie counted down the new Top 20. Where to hang out? Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.

WABC’s distinctive, instantly recognizable voice, known to millions of people, came from a couple of voices. Simple.

Later: More content, still simple

When I started my technical writing career at IBM, things were still pretty simple. We didn’t produce voice content, but we did print shrink-wrapped technical manuals that all looked the same. Marketing created print ads, white papers, and spec sheets that shared a common design. IBM customers got lots of content, but only a few kinds of content. And with one glance, they could tell it came from IBM.

Today: Many sources, many outlets, jumbled voices

Today, your organization’s voice is delivered through advertisements and social media — and also through product screens, technical manuals, help systems, blogs, chat sessions, datasheets, videos, conference presentations, and probably dozens of other ways.

What do your customers, partners, and employees hear when they interact with all of this content? What messages do they receive? What’s the image of your organization that forms in their minds?

Chances are the image is blurry. Continue reading

Stand up and be counted: the technical communication census

It’s not just another survey. If you’re engaged in technical communication — as practitioner, teacher, or student — I encourage you to take part.

census taker in front of house

Take part in the census. And don’t worry: no salesman will call.

A team at Concordia University in Montreal, led by Dr. Saul Carliner, is conducting research called the census of technical communicators. It’s in survey format, but unlike most surveys targeted to technical communicators, this one isn’t about tools or technology. Instead, the research is about you: your background, your job satisfaction, your aspirations, and how you stay current in the profession.

I’m delighted that Concordia is conducting this census. Most data-driven research about our profession centers on the tools we use and the technologies we support. Some of it is geared to providing tools vendors with data so they can better market their products.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s refreshing to see research that’s about us: who we are, and how we perceive our work. Having completed the census questionnaire, I can tell you that it was well designed to yield a complete and accurate portrait of the people in our profession.

I look forward to seeing the results of the census, which will be published later this year in STC’s Intercom magazine. More in-depth analysis of the data might also be submitted to academic journals.

Although STC is helping to publicize it, the research project was developed and is being conducted by the team at Concordia. I’ve known Dr. Carliner, the project lead, for more than 25 years. I very much admire his energy, his dedication, and his insight.

One last thing: No one asked me to promote the census. I’m encouraging you to participate because I have high regard for the research team and because I think the research will greatly enhance our understanding of our profession and its people..

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?