When everything "just works"
By Larry Kunz
posted on May 29, 2012 09:47
Once in a great while I attend a conference and hear something that changes the way I think. That's what happened last week at the STC Summit, where Ellis Pratt gave the talk What Should Technical Communicators Do When Products “Just Work”?
In this article I focus on the last part of Ellis's talk -- the part that made me say "Whoa." You can find a summary of the entire talk -- well worth reading -- in Sarah Maddox's blog.
Ellis stepped through a history of technical communication, the upshot of which was this: Over the last couple of generations people's attitude toward technology has changed dramatically. Before, technology was a little bit intimidating, and people were afraid of breaking it.
Many of us built our careers writing technical content that served this audience very well: its tone was reassuring ("Don't worry, I won't let you break it") and mostly authoritative ("Do what I say and you'll be OK.")
Today, Ellis says, it's different. People regard technology as something that "just works." When it doesn't work, they're apt to throw it away rather than trying to solve the problem. When it does work, they're inclined to tinker and make it do things the manufacturer never intended.
For today's audience, the old-style content falls flat. Reassuring and authoritative no longer resonate.
Does this mean that technical writers are obsolete? Only if we refuse to change our stripes. In a world where technology "just works," Ellis says that someone still needs to:
- Explain unfamiliar concepts. People still need to be introduced to new technology before they feel comfortable using it.
- Explain how to tinker and hack. I see this more as after-market content than traditional product documentation. But as technology vendors embrace social media platforms like blogs and customer forums, this kind of content will become mainstream.
- Differentiate our employer's product from its competition, and help keep it from becoming a commodity. We accomplish this by adding value beyond the product's features and capabilities -- for example, a social media presence that provides friendly and timely responses to customers' questions and complaints.
Like most speakers at the Summit, Ellis is upbeat about the future. Even though our traditional style of communication has to change, we technical communicators still have the core skill set to create new-style content.
Do you agree with Ellis (and with me) about the ways in which the tech comm landscape has changed? What role will technical communicators fill in the future, and what kind of content will we create? What's your experience with creating this new style of content?
About the Author
Larry Kunz is a project manager and information architect with SDI with more than 30 years’ experience as a writer, manager, and planner. He has experienced the transition from book-based documentation to today's integrated delivery of information both as a writer and a manager. Larry is a Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and in 2010 received the STC President’s Award for leading the Society's strategic planning effort.
Recent Related Articles:
Tuesday, May 29, 2012 10:40 AM
Thank you Larry for your kind words.
I'd like to point out that there will still be a role for traditional documentation. Facebook, for example has one approach for creating ads (the traditional approach) and a different approach for end user Help (a more informal tone). Some products will remain "technical".
Co-incidentally, Gretyl Kinsey has come to a similar conclusion in her blog post today. http://www.scriptorium.com/2012/05/new-to-tech-comm-expect-the-unexpected/
Tuesday, May 29, 2012 11:36 AM
You're welcome, Ellis. And you're right: there will still be a place for traditional documentation in certain circumstances. Thanks for the pointer to Gretyl's article - I think that everyone in tech comm should read it.
Friday, June 08, 2012 1:13 AM
For future, I will see that merely writing instructions (even if clearly and accurately) will not be sufficient. Gone are the days when documentation can plan help topics well, write well, and deliver well, and relax that the instructions are clear and they did a great job.
The focus is to know and track user response. For example, seeking user comments by *Was this information useful (Yes/No)?*. Ten years back, my manager would have called me crazy if I would have suggested it. To her, it would have meant that *do we not trust our documentation skills?*.
But not now.
The paradigm has shifted and documentation managers are all the more to know which are the *most visited help topics*. It means a good food for thought for the product development team, because more user queries on same feature or task, may point out to some usability or implementation issue.
So for example, the approach of (a) how we plan documentation or (b) understand audience may not have changed drastically. However, the deliverables are changing fast.
- Vinish (http://www.enjoytechnicalwriting.com)
Friday, June 08, 2012 3:20 PM
Thanks, Vinish. You touch on a lot of important issues: the need for a different kind of documentation than the traditional "I'll show you how to do it." The need, given limited resources, to identify and concentrate on the content that our customers use most. The need to be responsive to the audience (and the audience's increased expectation that we will
be responsive to them).