Wide World of Tech Comm

The discussion around Larry Kunz recent blog post The Salt of the Earth raises some interesting questions about the part that those of us who call ourselves “Technical Writers” (or some cognate thereof) can and should play in the wider world of technical communication.

In the comments, Larry says:

As technical communicators, we need to ask ourselves whether we’re content with a narrow role — merely producing end-user instructions — or whether we ought to become contributors, and even leaders, in the work of producing documentation in the broader sense.

It’s a very good question. Almost everyone engages in technical communication, from the parent teaching their 4 year old how to tie a shoe, to an aid worker showing third-world farmers how to irrigate their land, to an engineer telling a nuclear plant operator how to perform a safe shutdown after an accident. Every time someone tells someone else how to perform some technical task, technical communication is taking place. In this sense, everyone is a technical communicator.

The wide world of technical communication looks something like this (though not to scale):

Wide World of Technical Communications

Wide World of Technical Communication

Its spheres are:

  • Technical communication: Every time someone tells someone else how to do something.
  • Technical writing: Every time someone writes down (or otherwise records) how to do something.
  • Technical publications: Every time someone publishes information on how to do something.
  • User manuals: The technical publications that ship with a product (or are made available online).

The profession we call Technical Communication is traditionally concerned almost exclusively with this innermost sphere: User Manuals.

In Larry’s blog post, he quotes from “the introduction to an HTML5 Handbook, written by Stefan Münz on the German-language “web competence” site.”

On the Internet, technical documentation is the salt of the earth. Without documentation there is no Internet – because the techniques and technologies would remain isolated, bound in people’s heads, never shared and quickly forgotten. Documentation is therefore the written culture of the Internet and the basis for the Internet’s stability. (Larry’s translation.)

It’s a great quote, but the technical documentation it refers to is not confined to the user manuals sphere. Much of it, such as the RFCs that define Internet protocols, belongs to the technical writing or, depending on how you define “publishing”, the technical publications sphere. Most of it was not done by people who consider themselves technical writers, but by engineers.

The Web has profoundly changed how technical communication, in the broadest sense, happens. In the time of paper, the user manual loomed large for the user, as access to the other spheres was limited. In the time of the web, the other spheres are much more readily available. Indeed, if the user put the manual on the shelf or in a drawer when they unwrapped the product, there is a good chance that the user manual sphere is now the most difficult for the user to access.

Questions, then:

  • Do we need to move outside the user manual sphere in order to continue to serve our customers?
  • Do we have something to contribute to the wider world of technical communication? (Carping at its grammar does not count.)
  • Do we have something to learn from the wider world of technical communication?
  • Can we, and should we, be seeking career opportunities outside of the user manual sphere?

 

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16 Responses to Wide World of Tech Comm

  1. Lief Erickson 2012/08/31 at 16:56 #

    I think we have to move outside the “user manual” in the sense that our customers are going to expect more and more videos showing them how to use the products. I’m not sure where a video describing/showing how to do something or explaining some concept falls into the circles, but I know that I keep getting asked to produce more of them. The videos aren’t going to replace the written manual, but they’ll certainly augment it.

    • Mark Baker 2012/08/31 at 17:03 #

      Lief, thanks for the comment. For this purpose, videos are part of technical writing (“Every time someone writes down (or otherwise records) how to do something.”). Thus published videos fall under technical publications, and videos distributed with the product fall under user manuals.

      I agree that the issue of media other than paper is an important aspect of the changes we are experiencing, but for this purpose, switching to video is not a move outside the user manual sphere. The user manual sphere includes publications that are part of the product package, regardless of media. The question is, can we or should we move outside the sphere of the product packaging, regardless of media?

      • Alex Knappe 2012/09/04 at 04:36 #

        I think most of us tech writers are already on the edge of moving out of this sphere. Many of the writers I know are already shifting their core work towards other fields of technical communication.
        Be it the 2nd level Hotline-Support, trainings or even GUI development.
        Some companies already found out, that their tech writers can do a lot more than just typing boring content for even more boring print publications. They assign them to projects, where their expertise in “getting things explained” and “getting things communicated” is needed.

  2. Larry Kunz 2012/08/31 at 20:52 #

    Mark, these are great questions – and thoroughly delving into them would probably require a whole blog post for each one.

    To keep it short: Yes, we do need to move outside the user manual sphere. If we don’t, the sphere will shrink until it — and we — become irrelevant. Fortunately, I think we have much to contribute — for example, audience analysis and expertise in media choices. We also have much to learn.

    Each of us needs to answer the final question for ourselves. But in the context of the shrinking sphere, my own answer is unequivocal: yes, we need to seek career opportunities in new places.

    Thanks for picking up on the germ of an idea in my original blog post and turning it into an insightful, important conversation.

    • Mark Baker 2012/09/08 at 11:41 #

      Thanks Larry. I too believe the user manual sphere is shrinking. The challenge if tech writers is that the user manual sphere has become their comfort zone.

  3. Vinish Garg 2012/09/04 at 11:52 #

    Mark

    Many technical writers are already moving out of *user manuals sphere* and diversifying into other areas such as ID, business analysis (B2B) or UX design.

    For Q2, we keep our minds open how the sign boards (and leaflets, notices, one-page instructions) are written in shops, stores, notices by community or government, print advertisements by local bodies or businesses, and so on. So, when I notice issues in all these (I always do), I often talk to them about the importance of getting these right.

    For Q3, the diversity in how any two individuals and bodies communicate make us learn so many different perspectives of how they communicate and why they communicate that way. It goes a long way in understanding audience expectations and behavior.

    For Q4: Of course yes. There are options such as UX, ID, B2B (RFPs, Proposals), White Papers and whole content strategy, and as moving to video tours as Lief has suggested above.

    Great perspective in this post!

    • Mark Baker 2012/09/08 at 11:53 #

      Hi Vinish, thanks for the comment. Some other field which seem like a natural fit, but which people never seem to mention are tech support and sales engineering. Any thoughts on those?

      • Vinish Garg 2012/09/10 at 21:25 #

        Mark

        For tech support executives, I am not sure if we can generalise their process for all industries/businesses. Many of the support is either tickets based support (such as using zendesk or their custom support systems), or voice based, or both. I am not sure how much *writing* is invvolved. Now, if they are replying to user concerns in helpdesk, I would include them into technical comm sphere because they provide instructions and directions on how to use the system. So, I am with you.

        For sales engineers, again it cannot be generalised. If they are using a CRM (leads management) and manage documentation for leads-conversion lifecycle, they are doing tech comm. However, my take is that TC stalwards would be reluctant to accept *sales engineers* into tech comm sphere. Just a gutt feeling 🙂

        • Mark Baker 2012/09/16 at 22:25 #

          Vinish, Tech support certainly includes some writing, as tech support people often write knowledgebase articles and sometimes communicate via chat (thought I’m not convinced that in chat based support you are ever not talking to a bot).

          Sales engineers definitely do some writing, since they often end up writing proposals or responding to RFPs.

          But the point of my post is that most technical communication does not involve writing. It involves people talking to people about technical subjects. Technical support and sales engineering are all about technical communication. Having done quite a bit of sales engineering in my time, I can say that it is some of the most challenging and satisfying technical communication I have ever done.

          • Vinish Garg 2012/09/17 at 21:12 #

            Mark, I am with you all the way that most often, B2B documents are more challenging and satisfying than online help manuals. I have developed hundreds of such documents over last few years, functional specifications, HTML prototypes, technical design documents, wireframes, UX mockups, flow diagrams, and so on, for global businesses. And yes, it invloves less writing, particularly as compared to writing involved in online manuals.

  4. Thomas Kohn 2012/09/05 at 18:11 #

    I take Mr. Kunz’s question of whether to be “content with a narrow role — merely producing end-user instructions — or whether we ought to become contributors, and even leaders, in the work of producing documentation in the broader sense” to a larger frame.

    Even user manuals have more than only instructions on how to do something. As well, much non-fiction brings us to, and even inside, the realm of technical writing. Our colleagues worldwide are involved in writing proposals, white papers, applications for grants and patents, even marketing information.

    Thus, my unequivocal answer is yes, many of us have already gone beyond the limits of procedural text. Otherwise, why would the DITA structure have had its Concept and Reference to make up the classic trio that includes Procedure? You’ll find many examples of fine writing that has crossed the boundary, not only in weblogs but also in critical prose and scientific analysis from previous centuries.

    • Mark Baker 2012/09/08 at 11:56 #

      Hi Thomas, thanks for the comment.

      It’s interesting that you equate user manuals with procedural content. Do you see concept and reference as outside the User Manual sphere? In my mind they very much fit inside that sphere.

  5. Rick Aiello 2012/09/08 at 08:56 #

    Regarding the “wide world of technical communication” sphere, what about including technical editing and formatting? Or specifications and proposals? What about online and contextual help? Also business analytical documentation. It’s not always about “how to do something”; it can also be “how something is done” or is expected to be done, and how it is formatted. I’ve had jobs where I’ve only edited or only formatted text, and those where I’ve done the same for graphics. There are certainly a lot of aspects to being a technical writer….

  6. Mark Baker 2012/09/08 at 12:01 #

    Thanks for the comment Rick. In characterizing technical communications as being about how to do things, I was not intending to restrict it to the procedural form. I meant it to include all communication whose purpose is to enable people to do things — including how things are done or expected to be done.

    Formatting, on the other hand, I regard as incidental to technical communication — it has to be done in order to deliver the content, but it is not part of the discipline of technical communication, but part of the discipline of publishing.

  7. John Rosberg 2012/09/19 at 11:33 #

    Mark

    I think that many Tech Writers have been outside the User Manual sphere for quite some time — either wittingly, or without thinking about it.

    I know I certainly have for much of my career — I’ve been lucky enough to get permission to go walkabout into training (same mission, at the core, as tech com, I think), marketing, RFPs, and other areas of endeavor . . .

    I think our status as company or product knowledgeable communicators gives us a great leg up, allowing us to participate in many activities that should help our companies (or clients) become more profitable.

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