The conversation confusion in technical communication

Flickr CC image by Search Engine PeopleWe noticed last week a few tweets in our Twitter stream about how technical documentation and user assistance will be turning into a conversation.

A dictionary definition of conversation is:

1. The spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings; talk.
2. An informal discussion.


Informal, verbal, interactive, spontaneous communication is quite different from pretty much all forms of User Assistance you’ll see today, so what do technical communicators mean by “conversation”?

Technical communication has traditionally been a monologue – describing instructions that staff or users must follow. It has been a one-to-many form of communication, with little or no opportunity for the readers to ask questions, comment or challenge the information.

With users becoming more expert, and products becoming easier to use, some in the technical communications community have been asking whether this formal communication approach is still the best way to communicate.

Today, you can see online Help and user guides that use an informal tone of voice, and enable users to add comments at the bottom of the page. Some organisations are developing more contextually-aware content that reflects who the person is, what they have done in the past, and have provided a more personalised experience. They are breaking down the invisible wall between the writer and the audience. However, none of that is a conversation, in the true sense of the word. There’s more commentary and the content is more conversational in tone, but it’s not a conversation.

If we go back to Anne Gentle’s book “Conversation and Community. The Social Web for Documentation“, she states:

The technical communication world is on the brink of a major cultural shift from one-sided “documentation” towards user-generated content, collaborative communication, and the power of communities.

Anne predicted the 1:1 dialogues would occur in the communities, such as user forums. So technical communicators need to be careful with the words they use. The conversations, the spontaneous dialogues, are happening elsewhere. Technical communication is becoming more conversational, and it is becoming more closely integrated with forums and social media (as we break down the information silos), but it’s not becoming a conversation itself.

What to do think? Please share your thoughts below.




My thought is that this has been happening since the mid 1990s.

“The technical communication world is on the brink of a major cultural shift from one-sided “documentation” towards user-generated content, collaborative communication, and the power of communities.”

Since the mid 1990s, bulletin boards, list serves, forums, and later, Wikis, have been used by companies to provide a platform for peer-to-peer support, as well as support by official support staff. Consider the Adobe(r) product forums, which have been around since the mid 90s, where users provide assistance, and thus documentation assistance, with Adobe software for other Adobe users. This kind of discussion and content has been largely user driven and, I believe, has been in come instances a conversation. Lately, some companies have taken to Twitter to provide support, responding conversationally to user requests and providing 1-to-1 content that moves the audience perhaps to email or, alternatively, other Web-based content.

Additionally, Web-hosted, HMTL/XML, solutions make use of hypertext to let the audience access documentation of their choosing. By navigating a flexible, custom, path through the online documentation (including video, graphics, et al.), the customer gets to “build” their own content based on their own need and own navigational choices.

Certainly, before now, books, PDFs, fixed help files, were predominant. However, audience-driven, two-way, peer-to-peer content is hardly new and hardly revolutionary.

My tuppence. Thoughts?


Ellis Pratt

Hi Sean. You’re right to say the trend for User Assistance to become more conversational has been happening for a while, but it’s accelerated in recent years as Web technologies and response times have improved. My argument is we need to be careful over the words we use.

Verbal styles of communication differ from written styles of communication in their structure and (lack of) brevity.


Well, maybe.

Is your point that tech comm has become, is becoming, or is in danger of becoming too conversational, using language better suited for txting? 😉

I would say, conversational is better because it more reflects how your audience really handles content, but I would require no loss in precision or accuracy.

Also consider, a difference in formality of language based on culture, for example, British versus American culture.


Ellis Pratt

No, a more conversational tone is often a good approach. My point is more conversational and a conversation a different things.

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