What You Can Do as a Technical Communicator

Listen to the podcast, download the handout, and review the PowerPoint given by Beth Agnew at the STC Career Day, Sep 25, 2010.

In this presentation, Beth talks about the many roles technical communicators can fill, the types of work they do, and the value they add to any organization. She likens them to “Swiss Army Knife” employees, able to use their multiple skills to do a variety of jobs.

 

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No One Is Immune to Usability Problems

No matter how much an organization wants to build good usability into its products and services, sometimes things get overlooked. Often it’s the little details that people don’t think of that cause the biggest problems and cost the most to fix.

That’s why having a trained technical communicator on staff is a great idea. A technical communicator is vigilant about ensuring specifications will result in a usable (meaning something that helps users achieve their goals) product. They also user test prototypes and products in the development and construction phases to make sure usability is adequate.

Recently, an organization that shall remain nameless (but I’m sure you can guess) redesigned and rebuilt its computer consoles. For a user population with an average age of late 40s, they got pretty much everything right except perhaps the most important thing: the ON button for the computers.

Oh, there is one. It’s just so small and hard to see that they needed to create a label pointing to it. And still you have to hit it with a pen or a nail file to get it to turn on. Bad. Very bad. Obviously a technical communicator was not involved anywhere in that process.

In this picture, the buttons are very tiny, as you can see. From an adult’s viewpoint, standing, with this “control panel” covering the computer that sits in the bottom of the cabinet, it is very difficult to see, as well. Therefore, it is easy for someone to press the wrong button, too. Let’s hope there are no negative consequences!

Button too small

That organization is left with two choices: pay a lot of money to re-do the work, or put up with the high level of user frustration that results. Neither choice is desirable. With a technical communicator’s eye on that re-design, this would have been avoided, because the techwriter would have questioned the size of the button given the intended user base. Indeed, every techwriter with whom I’ve shared this story has asked the same question: “Why did they do that?!”.

That’s how a technical communicator adds value to your organization — they prevent you from making costly mistakes that increase support costs. Just ask the help desk techs who have had to go turn on these computers.

Posted in Management, Products, Tech Comm, Usability | Leave a comment

Correction to Schedule

For our new Tech Comm students starting the program in the Fall, it seems there has been an error on the timetable that was sent to you, and TCN705 was inadvertently left off. Here’s the correct schedule:

TECC Timetable – Fall 2010 – 1st half

M

T

W

R

F

08:00

No Classes

TCN709

TCN708

08:55

TCN709

TCN705*

TCN708

09:50

TCN709

TCN705*

TCN708

10:45

TCN705*

CPP100

TCN708

11:40

TCN701

CPP100

12:35

TCN701

TCN700

13:30

TCN701

TCN700

TCN707

14:25

TCN700

TCN707

15:20

TCN707

16:15

17:10

18:05

OFFICE

OFFICE

* This course is delivered primarily online.
** In second half of semester, CPP100 and TCN709
drop off the schedule.

TECC Timetable – Fall 2010 – 2nd half

M

T

W

R

F

08:00

No Classes

TCN707**

No Classes

TCN708

08:55

TCN707

TCN705

TCN708

09:50

TCN707

TCN705

TCN708

10:45

TCN705

TCN708

11:40

TCN701

12:35

TCN701

TCN700

13:30

TCN701

TCN700

14:25

TCN700

15:20

16:15

17:10

18:05

OFFICE

OFFICE

** Note the change of day and time for TCN707
in second half

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My Writers

I teach technical communication at Seneca College here in Toronto. I am also the co-ordinator of the 1-year post graduate technical communication program, so I see these particular students for more than a full year. They are “mine”. 🙂

They often contact me before they apply to the program so that they can have questions answered. I administer a writing test and give them an orientation after they have applied, but before they have been accepted. I have taught 5 out of the 10 courses that they take during the program. I am the person they come to with all their problems — usually academic, but sometimes personal as well. I get to know them very well.

These students represent a range of ages and backgrounds. Many of them are career changers, some even in their 50s and 60s. Others are already working in some aspect of the profession but need to update their skills to become more competitive. And the third group that is typical of our applicants are younger people right out of university who need a valuable additional qualification to differentiate themselves from everyone else in the university graduating class.

Our program is very much hands-on practical writing, editing, content development, publishing and dealing with technology. Our grads are prepared to go into any company, organization or institution and be productive from day #1. They are industry-independent, a grad being as likely to go into Aerospace as Food Manufacturing or work for a non-profit organization.

In our profession they get to marry their love of technology with their love of writing and make something truly useful to others. User documentation, interface design, web content, policy writing, procedures, marketing, anything that has to communicate a message simply and clearly is our province. I tell them that if it has to do with information, communication, or technology, we should have a hand in it somewhere.

I suppose most teachers come to love their students or we wouldn’t be teachers. We get a kick out of seeing them grow and change, we like to see how they develop confidence and competence. But these particular students hold a special place in my heart. Many of them struggle greatly during the first semester. The older students may have been out of school for a very long time and now have to get back in the groove. Others are not as comfortable with computers as they need to be, and they struggle to acquire mastery of these very important tools of their trade.

It is not uncommon for a technical writer to be thrown a prototype of a new piece of software or hardware and asked to write the instructions for it, as well as contribute in all phases of its development. In the end, we find that we know more about this product than anyone else because we’ve seen it from all sides. Often, we are the only people in the company who know exactly how a product is supposed to work, and we get to see the big picture as well as all the details.

This can seem like a huge responsibility for students who are acquiring new skills and are uncertain about their futures.

I always ask them to keep in touch after they graduate. Many do. I have seen them marry, have children, move into management positions, become known in the industry for their excellence, and I have even hired a couple of them to come back and teach for us.

Some even further change their careers, using their learning experience in technical communication as an important stepping stone to something else that they want to do. Even the few who decide the program is not for them continue to let me know from time to time how they’re doing. They invariably say that the opportunity to confront what they really wanted to do occurred when they started the program.

I think you can tell how satisfying it is for me to meet and get to know these interesting people. It is truly my dream job, and one I never would have aspired to, thinking that I just wasn’t up to the challenge. But I guess the very circuitous pathway from where I started to where I am now was the route I needed to take. I am certainly glad I did!

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Why You Need a Technical Communicator

Every company should have at least one technical communicator. A technical communicator (technical writer) is a valuable addition to the team in any organization, especially one in the scientific, medical, or high tech industry.

Technical communicators:

  • Facilitate communication
  • Translate technical language into plain language
  • Document processes and procedures
  • Communicate technical & scientific developments to a lay audience
  • Help turn information into knowledge

The techwriter gets to know the market (audience, users) and works with marketing and sales to provide information that assists them in reaching the market with clear, easy to understand information. This is particularly important if complicated scientific, medical or technical information is involved, or if you need to explain policies or procedures. As experts in plain language writing, techwriters help demystify things like contracts and difficult procedures.

If new products are in development, technical writers work with the development team to document every aspect of the new product or service. This information then becomes manuals of instruction, training materials, and website content.

Technical communicators are very technically adept. We can quickly get up to speed with technologies we have never seen before, and we use a variety of leading edge technologies to communicate with our audiences.

When creating or improving a website, a technical communicator works with the web designer (who makes the site pretty) and the web developer (who programs the site and makes it work) to make the content and navigation easy to understand and usable (usability refers to the viewers ability to accomplish goals with the site).

Technical communicators are one of the few people in a company who interface with nearly every department within that company. We routinely work with customer support to ensure they have up to date information to help customers with problems. We work with quality assurance to perform user testing, standing in for the user with our expert knowledge. Consequently, technical writers can reduce customer support costs and help improve a company’s relationship with their customers. We work with marketing, to share information about the market or end user. We work with sales, contributing to sales literature and getting to understand the customer.

Technical writers are industry-independent. While you may find one with a specific background that is more relevant to your industry, a technical writer with a degree in Fine Arts is just as capable as one with a degree in Engineering when it comes to simplifying complex things. It is more important to look at the writing, editing, and consultation skills a techwriter brings to the table.

Further, technical communicators are skilled in project management, because they drive their own documentation projects in concert with any service or product development projects, and they have good people skills, being able to interview subject matter experts, as well as being able to develop rapport with a company’s customer base.

Technical communicators have skills in:

  • Project Management
  • Leadership
  • Interviewing
  • Publishing
  • Human Resources
  • Management & Budgeting
  • General Business Skills
  • Negotiation, Risk Management, etc.

(Add accounting to that and it’s pretty much an MBA!)

If your company has need of any of the following, you should have a technical communicator on staff:

  • User guides
  • White papers
  • Marketing brochures, spec sheets, labels, signs, packaging, press releases
  • Help files
  • Error messages, interface tooltips and labels
  • Installation instructions
  • Usability testing
  • Technology transfer
  • Project documentation
  • Technical reports
  • Web sites
  • E-Learning
  • Corporate videos/documentaries
  • Product demonstrations & trade shows
  • Focus groups & customer advisory boards
  • Single-Sourcing
  • Knowledge management
  • Content management
  • Science writing
  • Customer newsletters
  • Beta testing programs
  • Voice mail script writing
  • E-mail response writing
  • E-book publishing
  • Mass personalization
  • Meeting facilitation, especially video conferencing

Technical communicators are the Swiss Army Knife-employees you can plug in anywhere in your company and have them be productive and add value to your bottom line.

If you’re interested in hiring a technical communicator, contact me or communicate with the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication in your region.

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FSOSS 2009 & Documentation

Concluding Open Source week in Toronto, Seneca held its annual Free Software and Open Source Symposium (FSOSS) yesterday. I was privileged to have the opportunity to speak about documentation for open source projects.

What is truly exciting about open source development is the collaborative and community aspect of it. I love the synergy of keen minds working on a collective project. Documentation too benefits from having multiple people contribute to and review it. While there is the danger of it sounding a bit like “authorship by committee” I think that problem is easily avoided by having an editor who is responsible for smoothing out the voice.

As we drift more toward topic-based writing that addresses user tasks rather than features, we can accommodate multiple writers because the style guidelines for topic writing are very straightforward. Publishing in an open source environment often involves Wikis, which are an excellent collaboration tool. Marry the idea of topics with a wiki that allows anyone on the team to contribute to the project and you have some excellent documentation that can be developed quickly.

I still encourage documentation plans, and reviews/approvals as part of the process, but generating content is much simpler.

I also still emphasize authorship, meaning document ownership. I don’t mean that someone gets to “own” the documentation in a proprietary way. Open Source is all about moving away from that idea of singular intellectual property toward a collaborative work package that represents the best a group of people can produce. Document ownership is simply taking responsibility for your contribution. Even though other people will look at it and edit it, each author does the best they can to make the documentation excellent.

Another point I brought up in my presentation was that documentation really includes all of the information, communication and knowledge around any particular product. Documentation is a way to add intelligence to the product during development to create a superb user experience. This can be as simple as putting informative labels of data fields that are to be filled in. The example I gave was of a web form that provided for a 10-digit telephone number, without hypens. The user doesn’t know that, however, until they start filling in a phone number 800-555-12 and run out of space. It takes very little effort to indicate how the user should input things like phone numbers, dates, postal codes, and so on.

Of course I recommended that technical communicators be involved in producing the documentation for Open Source projects. I know where you can get some if you want them.

The recorded version of my presentation will be available on the FSOSS web site shortly.

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One of the Best?

Beth Agnew, co-ordinator of the Seneca Tech Comm Program and instructor for a number of our courses, has been nominated in TVO’s 2010 Best Lecturer Competition. A video of her class about Usability will be sent to TVO for further review. TVO staff and a panel of experts will determine the top 20, and then the top 10 lecturers as finalists in the competition. The top 10 lecturers will have one of their lectures broadcast on TVO in the new year for voting.

About the competition, TVO says:

TVO’s 2010 Big Ideas Best Lecturer Competition, sponsored by TD Insurance Meloche Monnex, celebrates the most engaging and intellectually stimulating lecturers in Ontario.

Congratulations, Beth! Perhaps Technical Communication isn’t so boring after all?!

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We’re Growing!

This September marks our largest ever Tech Comm class at Seneca. One of the reasons for this larger class is the Ontario government’s Second Career initiative which assists people in going back to school to retrain for a new career or upgrade their skills so that they are more employable. It’s a great program, and we are benefiting from having top notch candidates enroll in TECC.

The other reason we’re experiencing a growth in numbers is that our promotional efforts are beginning to pay off. Over the past two years, we have promoted the program through the media, related organizations, and word of mouth. Our current increase in enrollment is due to stronger industry partnerships, closer connections with the Toronto chapter of the STC, increased co-operation and relationship building among departments at Seneca, and leadership that brings all of those parts together into synergy.

I always tell our students that Technical Communication is a relationship-building profession. We need to have excellent relationships with our audience, our Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), our co-developers, our employers and clients, and of course each other. Networking is strong in our profession, not only for obtaining work but for keeping up on trends and new techniques as well.

And it doesn’t hurt to have some friendships among other technical communicators — for those frequent days when being a professional gadly isn’t always as much fun as you might think.

Each of our Tech Comm classes travels through the semesters together. By graduation, firm friendships and professional bonds have formed, laying the foundation for future success. Even though this year’s class is that much larger, I am certain the same bonding will occur. It’s wonderful collaboration, and we all benefit.

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Microsoft vs. i4i

There’s a Seneca Tech Comm connection to company i4i, prominently featured in the media recently because of its successful suit against Microsoft. We have graduates working at i4i, and it has also been one of our co-op employers.

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If the User Can’t Find It…

… it’s not there.

One of the many roles of the technical communicator is to assist developers and designers with making products, websites, and interfaces easy to use. Users who have to search for the functions they need get frustrated, and conclude that the product or website is difficult to use. Consequently, they are less likely to remain loyal to the companies that allow such barriers to productivity. This results in lost revenue and a tarnished reputation.

As user advocates, technical communicators help companies avoid such pitfalls. With a continual focus on how the user will interact with the product, technical communicators alert developers and designers to functionality that may seem straightforward but which creates roadblocks or traps for the end user.

One of the ways we ensure usability (meaning a user can accomplish their goals with the product) is to approach product development from a task perspective. What is the user trying to do with the product? This task orientation engenders a different architecture than a pure function-based approach. It supports user performance rather than offering a broad menu with a range of choices and expecting the user to know exactly where to go and what to do. It often guides users into a workflow that makes them more productive, and helps them work faster. This also increases their satisfaction with the product.

It’s a matter of focusing on how the user will accomplish their tasks with the product instead of what the product can do for the user. This HOW over WHAT mindset is often foreign to systems analysts, developers and designers who are immersed in the features and functions of their creations.

A product can incorporate a host of features, but if the user cannot immediately recognize how a particular feature helps achieve the task at hand, those features are meaningless.

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Ideal Second Career

Changes in the economy often mean unexpected layoffs and situations that prompt one to think of a career change. Technical communication is a profession that allows you to leverage your prior background and training into a new career.

No matter what industry you worked in, you can take those skills and reapply them in a new way, by becoming a technical writer, a usability specialist, a content provider, or an instructional designer.

Has the market for bakers shrunk? Consider the equipment used by professional bakers, and others in the food service industry. It all needs documentation. Manufacturers of food service and restaurant equipment need website content, interface advice, and even training materials.

With existing knowledge of any field, you can transition easily into a new career writing and developing information about that industry.

Technical communication relies on skills that involve plain language and procedural writing, researching, interviewing, audience analysis, and project management. Good communication skills are necessary, but do not have to be Governor General’s Award-winning calibre. It is sufficient to be able to write clearly, concisely, logically, and appropriately. It is more important to target information correctly for the audience than select a poetic turn of phrase.

The writing and facility with technology can be taught. Seneca’s 1-year program in Technical Communication teaches the basic skills, tools, and approaches needed by technical communicators. The certificate you receive upon graduation from the program indicates to employers that you have the processes, skills and understanding to communicate complex, technical information to a range of audiences, no matter what the industry.

In good times or in bad, communication is always required, and practitioners who know how to get a message across to the target audience are always valued.

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Occupational Summary

One of the more accurate occupational summaries I’ve come across for technical communicators is this one from the Alberta government. Usually, the description of the occupation is somewhat out of date, but here they seem to have it right.

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