The future of technical documentation is more about psychology than technology

In the quest to offer better forms of user assistance, most experts in the technical communications profession propose technological solutions: using XML, intelligent and adaptive content etc. to present essentially the same type of guidance as has been provided for the past 20 years.

We believe there has been a change in the relationship between people and technology, and there needs to be a corresponding change in the relationship between people and the user documentation.

In the past, a lot of technology was unfamiliar, idiosyncratic, expensive and complex; users often became anxious when they used a product. As technology has become part of everyone’s daily lives (particularly Web and mobile applications), people’s relationship with a great deal of technology has changed.

As a consequence, for some types of products and for some types of documents, the traditional approach for technical writing is no longer appropriate.

This means Technical Authors need a better understanding of this relationship – the psychology of users – and understand how they can relate and communicate to users in context.

We are not suggesting that the traditional approach to technical writing should go away completely. We’re also not arguing against technology such as XML and DITA – these are vehicles for delivering content. We’ll still be writing user documentation for scientific equipment and financial systems in the traditional way, as these types of products fit the traditional model. However, even the documentation for these types of products can benefit from the inclusion of some psychological techniques.

Web sites such as voiceandtone.com indicate some of the changes that we are likely to see in technical documentation, but we disagree with some of the approaches suggested on this site for some types of documents, and we feel this site only scratches the surface.

There is evidence from randomised control trials that these new approaches work, although we recommend you carry out your own testing to double check it works for your users.

So having come to be belief that Technical Authors need to incorporate some new techniques into their documentation, what should happen next? One approach is to engage Cherryleaf to provide advice or write documents. In addition, you’re able to discover these techniques through our new advanced technical writing training course. However, the starting point is to recognize the change in the relationship between users and many products, and to recognize the need to change the approach to technical writing so that it’s appropriate to the situation.

The question is, do you agree?