ASTC-NSW 2010 day 1: Righting the wrongs of corporate information
This week I’m attending the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by Bede Sunter. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to Bede. Any mistakes are mine.
Bede Sunter presented a session called “Nobody ever came to work intending to do a bad job”, with the subtitle, “Righting the wrongs of corporate information”. Listening to Bede is a treat. Every word, every phrase is carefully crafted. He started with these words:
I love information. I love what good information does and its capacity for solving problems. Of course, bad information causes problems.
Why do people need a technical writer?
In a corporate environment, many people write as part of their job. This may lead to people saying to a technical writer, “Everyone can write, so what’s the big deal?” As a technical writer, you run the risk of being accused a pedant or a bottleneck.
Other problems we may encounter when trying to explain the value of our role or the value of documentation:
- There is as yet no certification for technical writers.
- There is little value placed on the quality of information, and there is little motivation to make information work harder.
Changing the perception of documentation as corporate information
Bede says that there are some simple economies at work. When you get a handle on them, it’s easier to convince people of the value of quality information. Good information saves time. Bad information wastes time. Time is an economic factor.
User focus is the parting line between professional and working writers. Professional writers research the needs of the user and devote effort to catering for these needs.
People need the information to do their job
We need to make it easy for them to get that information. Everyone is a poor reader, especially given the right circumstances. This is the most compelling argument for making every document easy to read.
The fact is that most people want to do a good job, if only they knew what is required to do that. This is where the title of Bede’s presentation comes in: “Nobody ever came to work intending to do a bad job.”
We need to put the right information in the place where people will look for it.
How do we know if we’ve got it right?
Providing information is a design problem. Value for money comes from the effectiveness of our communication. We can measure the effectiveness of our design by watching the user response. If people are doing the right thing, the communication is effective. If they keep doing the wrong thing, it’s not.
Questions from the floor
At the end of the session, a couple of people commented from the audience. Once comment was that very few companies have technical writers or editors, yet a lot of documentation is written. The result is that it’s often not good. One of the big problems is that the working writers are not confident about their writing. This results in a lot of time wasted. Then readers can’t understand the documents – more time wasted. Some companies are now moving towards training people how to write, how to communicate well. This is a good thing.
A question from the floor, posed to both Bede and Neil James, who had given the previous presentation: How do you as a technical writer know if you’ve done a good job – do people ever give you feedback? Bede’s answer is that he usually feels good that he’s done a good job, but he doesn’t remember being complimented about it. One thing he has been told a few times that his work is “consistent”. This raised a laugh of fellowship from the audience. Good writing is like good drumming. You only notice the drummer if they do something wrong. Neil’s answer was in two parts. The first was to agree with Bede. A lot of what we do is easy not to notice, because it just makes things work. The second part was to say that we should set a measurable outcome at the outset. At the beginning of the project, ask what the owners want to achieve, such as a reduction in the number of support calls. Then at the end of the project, measure the result against that benchmark.
It’s great listening to Bede. He has a very clear way of thinking, which translates into a clear way of speaking. We came away from this session with some great points not only about improving the quality of corporate information, but also about how to tell people why that’s important and how we as technical writers can craft that information.