Technical communication as a brand

Flickr image by Ruper GanzerOne of the tea break discussions at the Congility conference I spoke at last month was over the need to improve the awareness of technical communicators and technical communication as a profession.

I suggested the profession would benefit from having (and promoting) a simple positioning statement that explains the profession as if it were a brand. This is something I believe Tekom, the German professional body, did in the early 2000s. Tekom carried out some research in Germany that suggested as many, if not more, people were carrying out a technical communication role as part of another job, and that they were not aware the profession of technical communicator existed. So they aimed some of their marketing efforts at these groups, to make them aware of the profession. They wanted to see if they could bring these people into the Tekom membership.

In fact, I think there should be two statements to improve awareness of the profession:

  1. One saying there are these people called technical communicators who could help your business.
  2. One aimed at people who are writing technical documentation, but don’t realise it is a profession, with a professional body, standards etc. that could help them do it better.

Looking at the STC and ISTC sites, there are some useful simple descriptions of the profession. I’ve used content from these two sites to come up with the following description for the first statement:

“Technical Communicators are professionals who take technical and complex information and make it clear to people who need to understand and use it.

They have skills in providing the right information to the right people, at the right time. They communicate by using technology such as Web pages, Help files or printed content.

Having clear instructions can make all the difference to users of products or staff carrying out tasks. That’s because the need for accurate and accessible content has never been greater.”

We hope to progress this idea a little bit further, and produce something that the ISTC, the professional body for UK technical communicators, and ourselves could use.

Do you think the description we’ve used could be improved? If so, please use the comment box below.

What would life be like if there were no instruction manuals you could read?

Illiteracy is, sadly, something that can greatly affect people’s lives. According  to The Literacy Trust, less than one per cent of adults in England can be described as completely illiterate and approximately 16 per cent as “functionally illiterate”.

There are various articles on the Web that indicate how people live with their illiteracy:

  • They depend on people (relatives or the kindness of strangers) to read and explain things for them.
  • They recognise places and the location of things based on colours or shapes.
  • They often have to trust people aren’t scamming them.
  • They generally work within more limited boundaries, keeping to a consistent routine.
  • They often memorise how they completed a task last time.

If we produce a product but do not supply user instructions with it, the user has nothing to read, whether they are literate or not. The user has to fall back on coping mechanisms similar to those used by people with illiteracy. They can function, but they would do much better if they had something to read.

We explain things

Danielle M. Villegas has just pointed us towards a five minute lightning talk by Rick Lippencott on the future of technical communication, and its value. Rick covers in five  minutes a great deal of the content I covered in my 45 minute presentation at the same conference – it’s worth watching.

He summarises the value of Technical Authors in three simple words :”We explain things”.

Rick added some notes to the description on YouTube:

The clay tablet “first example of tech documentation” is about ten thousand years old, not two thousand.
The odd photo at about the 4:50 mark (where I say any of us could have explained it better) was a hotel room layout map posted at the elevators. It gave room locations based on compass points, but there was no way for the reader to know which way was actually north. It was completely useless.
“All of this has happened before, and it will happen again” was originally from Peter Pan.

Measuring the value of Help in desktop applications

One of the challenges for Technical Authors is quantifying the value of what they produce. For example, how can you tell how many people are reading online Help when the software is installed on someone’s desktop computer? One application mentioned in passing as last week’s UAEurope conference, ApplicationMetrics, might be able to provide the answer.

ApplicationMetrics collects usage and platform data, behind the scenes. It’s a product that is no longer being developed any more, but you can still download it. It may enable you to collect “operational funnel” data that’s similar marketing funnel data – test and track whether users are going to the help and resolving their issues.

 

Do Technical Authors do anything important?

Chatting at the Royal Institution just before Christmas, someone asked me “But do you do anything important?”. They were slightly embarrassed when they realised what they’d said, but it’s still a valid question to ask.

As it happens, there are a number of projects Cherryleaf is involved in that illustrate Technical Authors can do things that are important.

A recent project involved creating a four page user guide for military equipment that is being used by infantry soldiers in the British and Pakistani armies. If the soldiers don’t attach the equipment correctly, then it might fail in the field and leave them vulnerable. We changed a very wordy guide into something similar to an Ikea installation manual – containing pictures and arrows to explain, simply and clearly, how to install and use the equipment.

An upcoming project is for a charity that provides support for those who are feeling suicidal. They want to make sure their procedures are presented in a form that mean their volunteers can always find out the right action to take, should they ever be unsure of what to do.

Another project involves communicating to staff working in mental health, policies to ensure patient records are kept private and confidential – that they are never sent to or seen by the wrong people.

I could mention medical equipment we’ve documented, and software applications that fulfil important tasks, as well.

Often, the more important the job, the more important it is for people to have clear information to hand, explaining what to do and how to do it.