Once upon a time (sometime in the 80’s) everyone in the tech business was a novice. Novice tech writers wrote for novice users about novice products created by novice developers employed by novice entrepreneurs (most of whom, apparently, had recently dropped out of Harvard).
There were no conventions about how any of this stuff was supposed to work. No one even knew what the business model was for software, let alone what the standard conventions should be for how anything should work in software or in hardware. As the popular saying of the time went, if it isn’t documented, it isn’t a feature.
If it wasn’t written down, there was virtually no way to figure out how anything worked. There was no one to ask because everything was new and everyone was a novice. Tech comm at the time rightly focused on novices. There was no one else to write for.
But times have changed. Tech is a mature industry with an abundance of experienced users using products developed by experienced developers working for experienced managers and executives. The business model for software is well understood, and there are ample conventions for how almost everything works. The world has moved on. Tech comm hasn’t. Much of it is still obsessed with novices. This has to stop or it will put us out of business. What do I mean when I say it will put us out of business? Very simply, documentation is a commercial product. It rarely stands alone (that is a separate business altogether) so it is generally sold as a component of a commercial product. As is the case with any component, it adds cost to the product and potentially affects the time it takes to get the product to market (that is, its opportunity cost). Like any component, it has to justify its cost in revenue terms. That is, it must show that it increases margins, increases share, or decreases costs by more than it cost to build and ship it.
Documentation focusing on novices would only fulfill those requirements if there were a large demand for information for novices — that is, if most buyers were willing to pay more for a product, or to buy more of a product, if it came with lots of information for novices. Is there a large demand for novice information today? There certainly was in 1989 or 1993, when we were all still novices. Have things changed since then? Yes, for a number of reasons:
- Electronics and software are a daily part of our lives today. We have been using them for 30 years now. Even if a new product is a little bit different from other products we have used, it is not nearly as different as the new tech of the 80s and 90s was. The experience gap for new functionality is much smaller.
- We are much better at interface design. 30 years have winnowed out the design ideas that don’t work. Stuff it just easier to use than it used to be.
- We have the power to run sophisticated interfaces. Early electronics did not have the power to run fancy interfaces, to provide infinite levels of undo or to warn about any destructive actions before executing them. Interfaces used to be cryptic and dangerous because they ran on limited hardware. Now they are clear and safe because we have the computing power to make them clear and safe.
- We are all familiar with the fundamental interface conventions shared by all products of a certain class. Standardization makes knowledge transferable — we don’t have to learn the common stuff over and over.
- We are not all novices anymore. While a few people in any family or organization may be novices, most people are experienced and can teach the novices.
- We crossed the chasm long ago. The novices of the 80s and 90s were early adopters. Most real novices today are the laggards, and laggards don’t read documentation. (Yes, there are still groundbreaking products being created which need to cross the chasm, they just don’t account for the bulk of contemporary tech products.)
- The Web makes a world of experts available to help novices. Much of the information demand from novices today is handled by online forums and other Web sources.
In aggregate, therefore, we have far fewer novices, and far more help available for the novices we do have. Demand for information aimed at novices is correspondingly lower, and it is therefore much harder to justify the cost of an extensive novice-oriented documentation set.
The result, inevitably, is that companies are cutting back on documentation, or outsourcing or off-shoring its production to reduce costs. Tech comm’s obsession with novices is driving it out of business.
Why then does the obsession continue? For two main reasons, I suspect:
- Tech comm has been justifying itself by an appeal to the needs of the novice user for decades. — The users can’t understand technical language. Engineers can’t write for novices. Novices need documentation or they won’t be able to use the product. — These have been the stock justifications for so long that we turn to them automatically when challenged.
- Writing for novices is easier than writing for experienced people. The first principle of writing is to write what you know, and tech writers have long positioned themselves as the champion of the user. It is easy to step into the shoes of a novice, to see things from the novice’s point of view. To step into the shoes of someone experienced in both the task domain and the tool domain as they tackle complex problems can be much more difficult.
What must we do to end the obsession with novices and keep tech comm from going out of business? The answer is simple to state, though by no means easy to implement: Find out where the real information demand is today. Find out, specifically, what information demand people are willing to pay to have met. And when you have found it, prepare yourself to meet it.
In this regard, it is important to note that there is not nearly as much of this kind of demand in the B2C space as there used to be (though the demand in the hobbyist space should not be overlooked). The bulk of it is likely to be found in the B2B space, especially as our ever-more-networked world means that products have to have interfaces that allow them to work with other products — which means there is a lot of need for documentation of APIs, data formats, and integration methods. There are similar complex information needs in many technical fields, from medicine to aerospace and manufacturing to telecommunications.
We are not without exemplars in this. There are many tech writers out there who have been working for years to meet the sophisticated information demands of experienced users who are using complex tools to perform complex and important tasks. They are deeply steeped in their subject domain, and they recognize the value of contributions from people with specific technical expertise in particular areas. They are the example of what tech comm needs to be in an era of mature technology and experienced users.