What does a technical lead (TL) do in a technical writing team? How does the role of a TL differ from that of a manager, or from that of another technical writer? In this blog post, I hope to answer those questions and to start a discussion where others can add their thoughts too.
I’ve been TL of a technical writing team for a couple of years. In fact, my current team includes people working in several roles: technical writers, developer relations engineers, instructional designers, and program managers. In the past, I’ve also been TL of a team that consisted solely of technical writers.
The TL role is interesting, challenging, and rewarding. I think the first thing to be aware of is that the role varies depending on multiple factors: the structure of the organization you belong to, the size of the team, the nature of the documentation and other content that you’re looking after, the audience for that documentation, and most importantly, the people in your team.
With all of that in mind, I’ll describe my role as an example.
What does a TL do?
In my experience, the most important (and most time consuming) part of the TL role is communication. As a TL, everything you do involves communication, whether you’re planning the team’s work for the next period, keeping your stakeholders informed about the team’s progress, or keeping the team informed about things that are happening around them. So let’s start there.
As a TL, I see myself as having two major communication goals.
The first goal is to keep my management chain and the product-area stakeholders informed about the work that the team is doing. What are our goals, how are we tracking against those goals, and what have we produced recently?
I do this in various ways, including the following:
- Write and then talk through informal periodic (e.g. monthly) status reports at pre-scheduled meetings. These meetings are very useful for me as well as for the stakeholders, as an opportunity to get instant feedback on progress and to ask questions about prioritization and overcoming blockers.
- Contribute snippets to periodic formal reports (sometimes called news letters) for higher-level leadership. This type of reporting is often onerous, as the content needs to be more strategic in nature than the informal status discussions and has constraints around format and length. If you can use existing templates or get the help of others in compiling these reports, so much the better!
- Ensure that we as a team publish announcements of our launches or other successes, using whatever channels are best suited in our environment.
The second communication goal is to keep the team informed about the strategies and goals of our management team and of the product and engineering teams who’re building the product that we document.
The team is a unit, working on a subset of patterns that fits into a larger set of patterns. It can be hard for people to know how they and their work fit into the larger pattern. The TL’s role is to help team members see the patterns.
A few tips about communication:
- Err on the side of over-communication rather than under-communication. People may miss a message because they’re away or just too busy to pay attention right now.
- Use multiple communication channels: Email, chat, meetings, planning docs, and so on. People absorb information in different ways.
- Avoid falling under the curse of knowledge: that predisposition, shared by all people in the know, to omit what seems obvious. This predisposition makes it almost impossible for experts to explain something to a new starter. As technical writers, we’re very aware of the curse of knowledge. We know that the documentation needs to include information that may seem obvious to our subject matter experts. As TL, though, you might find yourself falling under the curse of knowledge too. You’re aware of activities and messages that your team and stakeholders don’t know about, but it can be hard to remember that they don’t know. When you receive an item of news, share it with everyone who might find it useful.
Building a framework for other people’s success
Another essential aspect of the role is creating a framework in which the team members can succeed. I find it helpful to remind myself of this goal, because it helps me to focus on the important elements of my role.
Part of creating that framework is to do regular and thorough planning of the team’s goals. Help people understand where we’re headed as a team.
Planning of team goals
In my current team, we do in-depth quarterly planning as well as high-level annual planning. The annual goals tend to be more strategic. They set the pattern for the quarterly, tactical goals.
For our quarterly goals, we use the OKR framework. OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. We use the objectives to reflect our strategic goals. Often an objective corresponds to a theme in our annual strategy — something like “Improve the getting-started experience” or “Increase adoption of product X”.
We group our key results under the various objectives. Key results are more tactical (more task-like) and reflect goals that we aim to achieve within the quarter — something like “A design doc approved for user journey X” or “80% of onboarding docs complete”. So, an objective might stay the same across multiple quarters, while the key results grouped under it will change from quarter to quarter.
As with everything, communication plays a key role in the planning. As TL, I need to consult our stakeholders and management team, to find out what their goals are. I consult my team members on the details of their long-running goals and shorter-term goals. I put together draft OKRs, then review them in person with multiple groups of people before coming to an agreed set of goals for the quarter.
Of course, the job doesn’t end once the OKRs and strategic plans are created. We need to do periodic assessments of progress against the original plans, make adjustments where necessary, communicate those adjustments. If some goal has been significantly derailed, the TL is the one who’ll discuss readjusting priorities and communicate the results to stakeholders, management, and the team.
Creating specifications for junior team members to work from
Another aspect of building a framework for success is to create requirements specifications and design docs that the more junior team members or new starters can implement. As a TL, it’s often the case that you won’t be the one writing the docs even if you’ve done the analysis and design. Instead, you’ll hand the specifications over to another writer or group of writers. This is especially true if you have new team members who don’t yet have the depth of product knowledge required to design a significant doc update. I’ve touched on the topic of design docs and doc plans in two earlier posts: The power of a doc plan or design doc and Writing a one-pager to pitch a doc idea.
A content strategy doc is often useful to set high-level goals and define strategies for meeting those goals. For example you might create a content strategy doc to help the team and stakeholders outline the goals and strategies for the coming year. Or you might define a high-level strategy for a particular product area or user journey. Other team members can use the strategy doc as a basis for more detailed planning and designs.
I could write an entire blog post about content strategy docs. I’ll leave that for another time perhaps!
Another important part of a TL’s role is mentoring of team members. Mentoring isn’t confined to the TL role: any team member can mentor others. But for a TL, it’s a logical, natural part of the role. Typically, this type of mentoring involves working with team members to manage priorities, smoothing out any technical problems the team member may encounter, advising them on how to communicate with stakeholders, and helping the team member to decide whether a particular issue is on that they should take to their manager.
I think that the most important goal here is to help people find the best way to be successful in their roles. That means helping them figure out how best to complete their assigned tasks and making it clear to them that you’re available to offer advice.
How does the TL role differ from that of a manager?
Although much of the TL role involves working with team members, a TL isn’t a manager.
The focus of the TL is on the projects that the team is responsible for. The focus of the manager is on the people in the team. The manager helps team members reach their career goals and navigate any organizational complexities.
In reality, there’s no hard line between the two roles. The TL and manager need to consult often. They work as a leadership team, sharing responsibility for the well-being of the team.
In particular, TL and manager work closely together on strategic planning. The high-level planning affects the well-being of the team members, the assessment of the team size and the potential requirement to add more people to the team. High-level planning incorporates goals that stem from tech writer management as well as from the product areas whose docs we’re responsible for.
Many organizations have a hybrid Tech Lead / Manager (TLM) role, which is a blend of the two roles. The TLM role is all-consuming, and works only for a small team (fewer than 10 people) otherwise the TLM is swamped.
How does the role of TL differ from that of another technical writer?
If you’re a singleton technical writer (that is, the sole technical writer working with a product team on a set of documentation), there are many similarities between your role and that of a TL. Singleton writers have to do a lot of planning and communication. The main difference is that they’re doing it for their own work only, not for a team.
Both TLs and singleton writers face a similar problem: how do you fit in any work on the actual documentation, when you’re spending so much time planning it, reporting it, and communicating with everyone?
The TL role can be a tough one. I hang on to the fact that by doing this role well, I’m guiding others through the tricky bits of a technical writer’s role and helping managers and stakeholders do their job too.
My top tip is to make sure you find the time to do the things that make your job rewarding for you. Make this part of your prioritisation exercise. It’s important.
For me, the best part of the technical writing role is when I can focus on the documentation and the users’ experience of the product through that documentation. If I can get in the zone for at least part of the day, by fixing doc bugs, or designing major doc updates, or best of all by actually writing a doc that helps a user accomplish a task, then I’m happy at the end of the day.
A happy TL makes for a productive team.
Another top tip is to learn the art of saying no. It’s actually helpful to stakeholders and other leads when you give a clear “no” backed up with reasoning and an explanation of the higher priorities that the team is currently working on.
Potentially, you could soften the blow with a suggestion on how the stakeholder can add the task to the queue for prioritisation in the next quarter. If the stakeholder judges the requested task to be of higher priority than current tasks, work with that stakeholder and the product leads to decide which tasks can be deprioritised. Include an estimate of the amount of time wasted when the technical writer(s) have to switch context and ramp up on a new task.
What have a missed? Let me know. 🙂
I’ve been examining several articles about the financial impact of good or bad communication. Mistakes in documentation cost money, and there’s some good evidence of that point. In addition to the cases that involve documentation, I’m also interested in communication in a wider sense.
Here’s what I’ve found so far:
- Workplace communication statistics (2021) in the Pumble Knowledge Library. This is a comprehensive article with a long list of references at the end.
- The Cost of Poor Communications, a Holmes Report by David Grossman on Provoke Media.
Thank you to Kit Brown-Hoekstra of Comgenesis for the following cases of communication mishaps that have cost money:
- The loss of a Mars orbiter cost NASA $125 million. The root cause was that the engineering teams used different units of measurement (metric vs English).
- A missing Oxford comma cost a dairy company $5 million.
Looking for more
Do you know of any other recent research into the financial impacts of good or bad communication? I’m interested particularly in metrics around how good communication can save an organization money, and of times when communication that’s gone wrong has cost money.
Recently I’ve been using a card sorting tool, part of the Optimal Workshop toolbox, to analyse a set of user journeys. The card sorting tool is also useful for designing an information architecture for a website or documentation set. This post describes how I used the card sorting tool, because it may be useful to other tech writers and information designers. (I’m not affiliated with Optimal Workshop, nor have they asked me to write this post.)
I’m working with a team to design a tool for gathering and presenting documentation metrics. As a first step, we want to know what type of metrics people will find useful, and how they’d like to use those metrics. We decided to start by gathering user journeys. For us in this context, a user journey is a goal that someone wants to meet by following a set of tasks.
After gathering the user journeys, we needed a way to analyse and collate them. Optimal Workshop‘s card sorting tool came in useful here. This post describes how.
Note: The examples in this post come from Optimal Workshop’s demo application. (They’re not from the actual interviews and user journeys that my team is working with.)
This screenshot shows an example of a card sort, from Optimal Workshop’s demo application:
In the above example, participants in the card sorting exercise can move the cards from the column on the left into the work area on the right. When moving a card, participants can choose to put a card into an existing group, such as “Buying a cell phone”. Or they can create a new group and give it a name.
Context around what I needed to do
My team’s goal was to understand a large set of user journeys that we had collected for a yet-to-be-designed system. Before using the card sorting tool, my team had done the following work:
- Interviewed prospective users of the proposed system, asking them a set of open-ended questions about why and how they would use the system.
- Made notes during the user interviews, using a standard template to ensure that each interviewer captured the same sort of information from each interviewee.
- Distilled the notes from each interview into one or more user journeys. A user journey encapsulates a single goal expressed by the user. It may take one or more tasks to achieve that goal, but at this point the goal was the important thing.
- Collected all the user journeys into a single repository. In our case, we used a spreadsheet.
After doing all that, we had a large collection of user journeys — too many to work with in the next phase of the project, which is to prioritize the use cases, define requirements for the use cases that we want to tackle first, and design a minimum viable product. Some of the user journeys were duplicates. Some user journeys represented subsets of others. Some user journeys expressed a similar goal, but from a different perspective.
We needed some way of analysing and collating our user journeys. Enter the card sorting exercise!
What is card sorting?
Card sorting is an exercise that you can use to see how your customers think about a certain subject area or product. You give people a set of cards, each representing an activity, task, topic, or concept, and you ask them to group (sort) those cards into categories.
I’m using the word customers in a broad sense. The participants of a card sorting exercise can be customers, users of a product, readers of a website, members of a design team, and so on.
As the creator of a card sorting exercise, you can choose whether to give your customers preordained categories (a closed card sort) or to let the participants make up their own categories (an open card sort).
By examining the groupings made by the participants, you get useful insights into the way people think about your subject area or product.
In the past, I’ve participated in card sorting exercises where we used real cards made out of paper or cardboard. Sometimes the cards were Post-it notes. We’d write the topics, tasks, or concepts on the cards and place them on a table or stick them on a whiteboard. Then we’d shuffle the cards into groups, using the exercise as a way of exploring concepts and designs.
It’s quite common to use electronic cards instead of paper ones. That’s what we did for the user journey analysis that I’m describing in this post, using Optimal Workshop.
How we used card sorting to analyse our collected user journeys
We decided it’d be useful for each member of our team to analyse the user journeys individually as a first step. That’d give each of us the freedom to look for patterns and understand the users’ goals, without being influenced by other members of the team. After that, we wanted to analyse and collate our findings.
I loaded all the user journeys from the spreadsheet into Optimal Workshop’s card sorting tool. I created an open card sort, so that each person could make up their own groupings of user journeys. Then each team member spent a couple of hours sorting and grouping the user journeys. You can see what this looks like by trying Optimal Workshop’s demo app, using the participant view.
The next step was to examine what we came up with. Optimal Workshop offers some useful tools in the Analysis tab of the Results section. To try it out, see the results view of their demo app.
In particular, I found the 3D cluster view interesting and useful. Here’s a screenshot from the Optimal Workshop demo:
The tool analyses the categories created by the participants, and further groups the categories into clusters. This is particularly useful in an open card sort, where participants have created their own categories. It gives you a way of finding similar categories.
The next screenshot shows the details of one particular cluster, listing first the categories in the cluster, and then the cards in those categories:
We used the sets of “similar category labels” offered by the tool as a starting point to help us combine and reduce the number of user journeys in our collection.
Card sorting for information architecture design
In the situation that I described above, we used card sorting to analyse user journeys. Card sorting is useful in other situations, one of which is designing the information architecture (IA) of a website or a documentation set.
The IA usage is closer to what Optimal workshop’s demo application shows. In case you skipped past the section of this post about user journeys, here are the links again:
- You can try out Optimal Workshop’s demo as a participant in the exercise, using the participant view.
- Or you can try it out as the analyst or designer viewing the results of the card sorting exercise, using the results view.
Card sorting is also useful for the members of a team designing the website. Instead of having users do the card sorting exercise, you can have your team do it. This gives each person the freedom to draft designs in peace, play with concepts, and experiment with new groupings. Once everyone has finished, you can get together to see the differences and similarities in the way you’re thinking about the design.
Trying out Optimal Workshop
You can use Optimal Workshop for free to try it out. See the various options on their pricing page, including “try for free”.
More tips about card sorting or other UX tools?
If you’ve used a UX tool as part of your role as technical writer or information designer, I’d love to hear about it.
As a technical writer, I’ve sometimes found it useful to write a short document describing an idea or a proposal. The target length for such a document is one page. Hence the name, one-pager. In some situations, a one-pager is a good alternative to a doc plan.
This post is about one-pagers used in the context of technical writing. In other contexts, a one-pager may be a pitch for a company or a student’s summary of a lecture.
Quip: An engineer pointed out that one of my one-pagers was technically a two-pager. (It was actually about one and a third pages long.) I responded that I could fix that by reducing the font size. 🙂
For me, the purpose of a one-pager is to express an idea and get input on the idea. For example, I’d write a one-pager when a doc plan would be too heavy-weight, but I want to get feedback before starting the documentation update.
A one-pager isn’t the place for a detailed design — that’d go in a doc plan or a design doc. (See my post about doc plans.) Rather, a one-pager is useful to coalesce my own thoughts about an idea, and to get feedback from my colleagues about the overall idea before I go ahead and implement it.
For example, I’d create a one-pager to propose one of the following:
- A new tutorial for a use case that we don’t yet cover in the documentation.
- A new type of tutorial that follows a different pattern from the other tutorials in the documentation set.
- A change of tone in a particular document or documentation set. I’d describe the tone of the current documentation, the effect that the tone is having on readers, the new tone that I’m proposing, and the reason for the change.
- An event, such as a doc sprint. I’d describe the purpose and format of the event in order to gauge support before plunging into further planning.
What does a one-pager look like? Well, firstly, it’s short and to the point. Because it’s so short, a one-pager often doesn’t include headings. My one-pagers tend to look like this:
Title (For example: One-pager: New tutorial type for Foo users)
Date and author
Goals: A business statement of the effect you want to achieve. (For example: customer retention, increased adoption, etc.)
A short, motivational callout, often in large text and a different style from the rest of the doc. (For example: We want to help customers use Foo when things go wrong.)
A succinct description of the idea or proposal. This is the main part of the one-pager. Start with a descriptive paragraph, followed by bullet points to capture the main points in your proposal. As well as being a useful short form, a bulleted list gives visual emphasis that this is the core of the one-pager.
In scope: Areas that are in scope for this proposal. If you don’t have anything to put here, leave out this section.
Out of scope: Any areas that are out of scope. The goal of this section is to ensure there are no misunderstandings between you and your stakeholders. If you don’t have anything to put here, leave out this section.
References: a list of relevant documents
Have you ever written a one-pager, or have you felt the need of such a document type in the past?