STC Summit day 1 – What is the role of a technical communicator when everything just works?
I’m attending STC 2012, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. For the last session on Monday, I chose to attend “What is the role of a technical communicator when everything just works?” by Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf.
For me, this was the crux of Ellis’s presentation: When we write documentation, we make the assumption that the thing we’re documenting is big, scary, and likely to break. Now there’s a new model, or a belief in this model: “It just works”. It’s not even technical these days, it’s just product. Whether this belief is right or wrong, we need to take it into account.
Ellis covered the following topics:
- Is our profession in an existentialist crisis
- Evolution of technology
- Brief history of technical communication
- Your organisation believes its products ‘just work’
- Learning from other professions
Ellis mentioned that his presentation includes research from other speakers in recent conferences: Adrian Warman and Briana Wherry.
A crisis in tech comm?
Is the technical communication profession in an existential crisis, and are we still needed? Ellis showed a graph depicting the number of vacancies for technical writers, as a percentage of all IT jobs. The demand for technical writers has reduced to about half what it was 8 years ago. The graph was based on UK data, but Ellis thinks the situation is similar in the US too.
How is technology evolving? Ellis recommended the video by Kevin Kelly called “What does technology mean in our lives“, available on TED. The message is that technological changes can be compared to those in evolution. Technology too goes through spurts of specialisation, complexity, ubiquity, and so on.
A quick history of tech comm
As a profession recently, we’ve been trying to analyse what needs to change in technical communication. To help this, Ellis sped through the history of technical communication. In an attempt to document complexity we developed a number of standards such as STOP, Information Mapping. Then the big change happened: the move to PCs. We introduced minimalism, and tools for technical authors including F1 help, SGML, FrameMaker. With Windows, we got the first help authoring tools. Then with Internet Explorer, we got HTML Help (CHM files).
Now came Google. This heralded a new change such as user-generated content, software as a service. And DITA – this is all about what happens under the surface, not about presentation. Now we have YouTube. A client asked Cherryleaf to write documentation for a mobile phone app, that should look more like marketing content than technical documentation.
Google produced the comic as a user guide for Chrome – a significant experiment. Anne Gentle wrote her book about documentation, community and conversation. Siri came along. And Joe Welinske wrote his book about mobile content.
So now we have two models side by side:
- It’s big and scary
- It just works
Then there’s the “maker generation” – they glue things together that weren’t really designed to be used together.
It just works?
By “just works”, Ellis means a product that is intuitive to operate, and does the job effectively and efficiently.
Let’s say your organisation believes their product “just works”, and you can do away with the manual. What can you do when your employer says something like that? It depends whether they’re right or wrong.
If they’re right:
- The traditional writing model may not work.
- The way we justify our existence may not work.
- We need to change our assumptions.
- Customers don’t call support.
- The product may become a commodity. If the product doesn’t work, people just throw it away. This can be dangerous commercially, as your product can be trapped in a downward commodity cycle.
- Technical documentation becomes part of the brand. We need to contribute to the brand of the product. More, we may be part of the marketing team. Take a look at the Mozilla Help, which has a specifically marketing tone. You need to use more idiom in the language, be more engaging.
- Marketing is perhaps not so different from tech comm as we may think. See the advert for Coca Cola Content 2020. The content of the video displays the same concerns as those of technical writers.
- Apps that are “cool” provide plenty of help, but the help elements are part of the user interface (UI). And there are 2 extra factors: A social element (for example, share questions and answers with other users) and the fact that the help is provided in context. Technical writers may need to muscle in and “own” this sort of user assistance.
- Technical documentation moves into the training arena. The consequence is that you explain only the concepts.
So if they’re right and it “just works”, we are still needed. Our functions:
- Explain unfamiliar concepts.
- Explain how to hook up and hack products that were not designed to be connected.
- Help the product avoid being a commodity.
- Differentiate our product from the competitor.
What if they’re wrong?
What if our employers or the developers tell us the product “just works”, but that’s not true? Not all products work simply. As technical communicators, we need to compensate for the lack of simplicity, explain how the additional features provide extra flexibility, and clarify the complexity.
When talking to our employers, we can ask them to draw their evolutionary map from complexity to simplicity, and compare the product to the products that they admire. In that way, we can come to an understanding of the complexity/simplicity of the product.
We are in a world where things are shinier and simpler. We need to provide different, shinier outputs, and we need to fight to be the people who do this. We may need to acquire new skills.
Thank you Ellis for an amusing, enlightening, thought-provoking and heartening talk.
Posted on 22 May 2012, in STC, technical writing and tagged ellis pratt, STC Summit 2012, stc12, technical communication, technical documentation, technical writing. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.