Are YouTube and Google Making Technical Writing Redundant? tcworld India 2016
I’m attending tcworld India 2016 in Bangalore. The last session of the day was a panel discussion with the enticing title, “Are YouTube and Google Making Technical Writing Redundant?” The moderator was Edwin Skau. These are my notes from the session.
Note: By “Google”, the panel means Google Search.
Edwin started by saying that for the past few years, there have been prophets of doom foretelling the end of our discussion. In the age of YouTube and Google, what is the role of technical communication.
The panelists were Rajesh Chandrasekhar,Nihal, and Parveen Mittal.
Rajesh Chandrasekhar kicked off the discussion. He thinks the answer to the question is, it depends. If you think of the job as someone who publishes, then yes, your job may go away. But if your job is to make sense of the information out there, and to understand users’ problems, then our job will remain. Writers become curators of information. We collaborate on putting the information together – see the world of wikis. It’s a deeper understanding of the customer workflow that enables us to put documentation together. Rajesh showed us a configuration guide compiled from infographics, as a simpler, visual way of absorbing information.
At this point, there was discussion from the floor about the practicality of video guides.
The next panelist was Nihal. For apps, you need a nice way of describing what the app does, said Nihal. He gave 2 examples. A friend of his wanted to connect his phone to Nihal’s car. It was a very complicated procedure, and in the end they couldn’t do it. So they examined the user manual, which was a very thick book. Couldn’t find the information. So then they searched on their phones, and found a YouTube vide that helped them find the answer and do the task within 5 minutes. The video didn’t come from the car company, but from a third party.
Nihal’s second example was a game app that he was playing. He had an issue with adding another player to the game. On the website he found documentation in a question and answer format, and found the answer very easily.
So, in one case, YouTube was the answer, in another it was a technical document.
As a third example, Nihal described a product of his own, which helps people find each other in a certain environment, such as in a conference. He’d explained this app so often, but still the same answer came up: what does the app do. So he created a YouTube video, which does the job well. To create the video, he used a group of creative writers. So no, YouTube does not mean the death of technical writing.
The third panelist was Parveen Mittal. He decided to flip the question, and see what opportunities there are for technical communicators. YouTube and Google are additional channels that we can use. When you need serious information, you need technical writing. He thinks there are massive opportunities, but he’d like to wait for questions before sharing his thoughts.
There was quite a bit of discussion around dating sites at this point, Kinder, eHarmony, and other ways of connecting people. I have to confess I got a bit lost about the relevancy here.
Parveen thinks the amount of work for technical writers will not be reduced. There’ll always be a requirement for some documentation. Edwin made the point that in some cases, there’s a legal requirement for documentation. Regardless of the delivery mechanism for content, someone still needs to design the information.
A member of the audience pointed out that she and many people needed a starter manual, when getting a new product, so that they can confidently start using the product without being afraid of spoiling it or breaking it.
Rajesh pointed out that when you get an iPhone, there’s no manual that comes with it. The expectation is that the design is so good, no documentation is required. A member of the audience pointed out that technical writers are getting involved in the user experience design, that enables such great product design.
Edwin brought curation of user-generated content, and crowd sourcing, into the discussion, asking what the advantage is. Rajesh said the advantage is that you’re making use of the experience of the people out there. Edwin pointed out that there are users who have been using the product for longer than most employees have been with the company that designed the product.
Nihal pointed out that the ability to express the user’s requirements and write clear, useful documentation will always be useful.
A member of the audience said that a study had showed that 75% of the features of a product aren’t used as designed. How do we determine what the customer wants, and how the customer will use the product. Parveen said that crowd-sourced and collaborative technical writing plays a part here. As the UX becomes simpler and the underlying technology becomes more and more complex, you need crowd-sourced answers to issues that arise. Someone else will have had the problem you encounter, and will have solved it.
If technical writers try to stick to writing PDF documents in a dark corner (an analogy that’s been used a few times in the conference) then we’ll become outdated. But if we’re willing to change, there are plenty of opportunities open to us.
A question: Do you think there are limitations to search engines, such as Google, that are preventing users from finding information. Is this so, even though the algorithms are so good, and what can we do to solve the problem? Rajesh suggested running the search engine against your own company’s database, find any shortcomings, and improve the search engine.
Edwin closed by saying that we all agree. Yaayyy. He also suggested that we should consider writing outside our jobs, expanding our skills, and providing information in the places where people are looking for it. So, technical communication is a field that is growing with all these changes, not shrinking.
The consensus was that our profession isn’t going away. Yaayyy.