More than writers, at STC Summit
This week I’m attending STC Summit 2019, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). I’m blogging my notes from the sessions that I attend. Thanks and all credit go to the speakers. Any mistakes are my own.
Alan Porter presented a session titled Why Technical Communicators Should Be More Than Writers. The alternative title is Why Technical Writers Shouldn’t Be “Writers!”
Alan started his career as a technical author, writing technical manuals for the Concorde aeroplane (British Airways). He said there are mentions in history of Roman times of people consulting the manuals. Even hieroglyphs and cave art are technical writing. He showed us some examples of writing that are hard to read, and touched on best practices:
- Structured content
- Topic-based authoring
- Simple language
- Consistent terminology
- And more
What is our role?
We may think we’re hired to be technical writers, but actually our job is to communicate complex material in a way that’s as simple as possible.
Alan said this is the main takeaway from this session:
Your customer does not care where your content comes from.
What the customer wants
People want answers to their questions: 70-80% of people come to a website because they have a question. The questions are primarily in 2 groups:
- Discover, learn, and train
- Get answers to product or service questions, fix a problem, and enhance their usage of the product.
Most documentation is feature-focused, whereas people want to know how to do something or what the benefit is to them.
Customer experience and brand experience
Documentation and the product should work together to make a good user experience. Alan showed us an example of a tech guide for a product where cables and ports were colour-coded to ensure easy installation. The manual showed diagrams that corresponded to the physical pieces.
The most important thing for companies to focus on is customer experience.
Technical writers are not just writers. We’re the key differentiators. We drive customer experience because we understand the customers and the market.
Every time a customer interacts with content, that’s a brand experience. Alan showed us a page of diagrams that was obviously an Ikea guide, but did not have the brand name anywhere. We all knew the brand anyway.
Next we looked at a Lego guide, which presented the same experience.
Alan said this is the way we should be thinking: Content should align with the brand and the product. Looking back to cave diagrams and glyphs, Alan said that humans have been communicating in a visual way for a very long time.
However, the diagram must convey the message you want. Alan showed us an engineering diagram that was intended to show the rings on Challenger would crack at a certain temperature. The diagram was dense and full of information, and did not convey the intended message.
Before creating a diagram, we must understand the data. Then we need to decide how to convey it.
Another important step is abstraction. Alan showed a series of pictures of a face, moving from a photo thru various simplified drawings to an emoticon. Babies will react to a smiley face icon before they react to their mother’s face.
Symbols and icons help people understand something quickly. They become part of the culture. But before using them, make sure the meaning is clear.
- There are standards for symbols and icons. For example, for car maintenance manuals, an automotive committee (I didn’t catch the name) has created a standard set of symbols for use across companies.
- Be aware that certain symbols mean different things in different countries. An example is the thumbs up symbol, which has an unacceptable meaning in some places.
Think about colour. For example, in China white is the colour of funerals and morning. Other cultural aspects include whether people in a photo are wearing shoes or not, or the amount of white space on a page.
Alan mentioned many more cultural and design aspects that you need to be aware of. Visual communication is complex!
Where the content will be used
Consider where people will be viewing your content. For example, if they’ll be outside, it may be hard to read on a computer screen.
More to consider
Alan touched on animation, sound, and video. Video is an enormously popular way to consume content. As the next generation grows up, their primary interaction with content will be through voice.
We also had a quick look at augmented reality (AR) in technical instructions.
Examine a screenplay or a comic book script, and see how those were translated into visual content.
Thank you Alan for an engaging look at our changing role.