The decline of the gerund in technical documentation?

Louise Downe, who works at the UK’s Government Digital Service, wrote a blog post (Good services are verbs, bad services are nouns), where she stated:

“After several rounds of user testing, the Home Office changed the name of ‘Immigration Health Surcharge’ to ‘check if you need to pay towards your health care in the UK’ – a service that allows visitors to the UK to pay for the cost of healthcare.”

Screenshot of Home office page, where  Heading uses "create"

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The Art v Science conundrum in technical communication

One of the common debates in technical communication is how much the profession is art or science. Can we take an engineering-like approach to assisting users, using tools like DITA, or does each requirement need a bespoke, hand-crafted solution? Can we quantify, using analytics and other means, the effect of technical communication, or do we just have to hope and guess it’s being useful?

There’s been a similar debate in advertising. Indeed, there is the famous quotation, attributed to various people, along the lines of:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

One organisation believes it has cracked this puzzle. On Wednesday, The Saatchi Institute announced a formula describing the correlation between the investments in the art and science of a brand and their financial impact. The new formula has been developed in conjunction with the London Business School, and is based on academic research conducted in partnership with Unilever and Nielsen Research.

Although the formula is presented as a way to predict cause and effect in advertising, and justify advertising budgets, could it be applicable to other forms of communication, such as that created by Technical Authors? We won’t know for a few weeks. According to a press release by M&C Saatchi, the new formula will be explained in detail by Lord Saatchi, Tim Duffy and special guests at a London Business School event on 3 July.

Protecting your brand using technical communication

Lisa Thomas

On BBC Radio 5 live’s Wake Up to Money programme today, Lisa Thomas, Chief Executive of advertising agency M&C Saatchi, said:

“We can’t just think about just one advert. We have to think about the brand and the relationship that consumers have with that brand, and be aware that consumers see your brand and your product everywhere now.

They can have a very direct relationship with that brand, whether that’s via Social Media, whether that’s via just by being more in more contact with those brands and the business, so there’s more imperative now to think holistically about the brand than before, and be more creative.”

The co-presenter, Mickey Clark, commented that he’d heard from David Kershaw (a director at M&C Saatchi)  that even the through the toughest economic times, companies are anxious still to protect their brands, even if they have next to no money.

Brand means the customer’s expectations of what they will get, or experience, when they use a product or service. Today, organisations have to protect the promise, that expectation, and make sure that promise is matched by what they actually experience.

Organisations that think more holistically, and focus more in terms of brand than simply advertisements and sales orders, need to ensure the brand image is consistent throughout the whole of the customer’s experience with it. In this context, technical communication, the instructional content that supports users as they use the product or service, becomes an important means of protecting the brand.

That’s because, when the customer has left the store, all the packaging has thrown away, and the customer is actually using the product, one of the few things left to sustain the brand’s reputation is technical communication – the User Assistance, the technical documentation. This will help support the user through the periods they spend using of that product or service.

Tips for writing in the business world

Writing in the business world can be difficult. We have to write Web pages, proposals, emails, policies and procedures and, perhaps, adverts. It can be hard to get going, and create something that’s clear and to the point. Here are some tips to help you get over these difficulties.

It’s not your fault

Let’s start by saying it’s not your fault if you find business writing difficult, because most of us are not taught how to do it at school. At school, we learn how to write stories and how to argue a case. That usually involves building to a big conclusion at the end.

In business, mostly we have to write to:

  • persuade
  • instruct, or
  • inform.

Those are different forms of writing.

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Why business writing is so difficult

“Everyone is taught to write at school, so surely everyone can write in business?”

Although the quotation above would seem to make sense, the reality is that many people find it hard to write in a business context. They struggle to write clearly, and it can take them ages to produce a piece of content.

It’s not their fault. What we’re taught at school is how to write narratives, that is stories or articles. We’re also taught to argue a case – to use rhetoric to build to a conclusion. We’re taught writing to persuade and writing to entertain.

In the world of business, we often need different forms of writing. We’re often writing to inform or writing to instruct.

In these situations, people want to know what they should and shouldn’t be doing, and get on with their jobs. They want the important information at the beginning, rather than the end. They want to scan and hunt for the information relevant to them, rather than always having to read everything from beginning to end.

Many people haven’t been taught how to write to inform or to instruct, and that’s why many people find business writing so difficult.

Trends in technical communication – the funny airline safety video

The airline safety video is about actions that could save your life, but it can be very dull and mundane if you’ve flown more than once. So airlines are using the third aspect in good design – emotion – to engage with their audience.

The latest video to follow this trend is from Delta Airlines:

Other examples are:

Content as an API – Google’s engineering documentation

Google’s Riona MacNamara presented at the Write The Docs North America conference on “Documentation, Disrupted: How Two Technical Writers Changed Google Engineering Culture“. In the video of the presentation below, Riona explains how she worked with a small team of writers and engineers to build a documentation platform in six months that is becoming a part of the standard Google engineering workflow.