Rethinking technical communications, rethinking Technical Authors

Our June newlsetter contains a links to a flurry of articles on rethinking technical communications. We’ve added comments to a number of these articles, and I thought it might be worth summarising our thoughts on the likely future for technical communication.

Today, many products are not always “technical”

A lot of technology today is part of day-to-day life. It can be mundane, almost a commodity. This means some of the principles, business benefits and techniques in the world of technical communication are not relevant. For these products, we need a new approach, new business benefits (of which there are many) and different techniques.

Even in easy-to-use, intuitive products, there is still a need for user assistance, and many products still have it. It’s often in many different places, under different names, and it may not have been written by a Technical Author.

We also need to determine which products are technical and which products are no longer technical. For example, we may need to adopt the traditional approach for Systems Administrator related functions and a new approach for end users.

We can measure the value of technical documentation if we put it on the Web

Web analytics, A/B testing, user ratings and user comments  can give us a much richer insight into the value of user documentation. From our research into the view of Technical Publications departments in UK technology companies, the only ones who could quantify their value to the business were those who had their content on the Web.

Resistance to change is often from outside the Technical Publications department

Others can have a perception as to what user documentation looks like, and can feel that anything new might adversely affect training or support revenues.

Just because there’s a need for user documentation, there’s no guarantee Technical Authors will do it

Others may claim it’s part of their job role, and new job functions may appear.

Commentary rather than conversations

Conversations are essentially oral – they have a rhythm, they repeat. I know a number of traditional storytellers, and I suspect their approach may be a better model: there is a “teller” of the information who often responds to questions and feedback from the audience as the story is told. The differences between conversation and commentary are: there’s a primary teller; the core information stays the same, but it can adapt to the audience. Writing and speaking differ – writing is much more succinct and efficient.

There is light at the end of the tunnel

For Technical Authors that change the approach they take (if it’s not working), either through skunkworks projects or officially approved pilot projects, low cost technology is available that can deliver a different type of user assistance. The move to mobile may well force significant change onto the User Assistance – a healthy shove towards new approaches.

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