Got Problems? Get Tech Comm!

Website problems of Healthcare.gov could have been greatly reduced with technical communicators on the job

Like most Chief Executives, President Barack Obama could have saved himself a  whole lot of trouble if he had hired a technical communicator. Healthcare.gov became a public relations nightmare for his administration due to problems with enrollment and numerous user errors as millions of people tried to sign up for government health care subsidies.

Those are precisely the kinds of problems technical communicators are trained to solve. Technical communicators are advocates for the user. They carry out extensive user testing of products and websites, and contribute to a better user experience on every project. Having such practitioners involved in development of the Healthcare.gov site would have greatly reduced the number of user errors, and made the entire process smoother.

David Auerbach writing on Slate.com notes that large scale projects with multiple contractors working in isolation are not only going to miss problems, they often create them. Remember the carbon dioxide scrubber mismatch on Apollo 13?

Technical communicators concern themselves as much with the big picture as the technical details, so they would have ensured those groups communicated with each other, or at least shared information. It’s a technical communicator’s role to think each project through from beginning to end, especially from the user’s perspective — and then ask the questions that need to be answered to enhance the user experience and support user performance.

Apart from the obvious problem of heavy load, which should have been anticipated by the server administrators, Healthcare.gov subjected users to confusing navigation, meaningless error messages, a broken sign-up process, and information privacy issues.

Executives from CGI Federal, which handled most of the project, claimed testing began too late and the website rollout was premature. Technical communicators, while handling the documentation tasks related to web content and product development, begin user testing as soon as they can get their hands on a stable working version. Consequently, errors are found during early stages of development, allowing bug fixes to be made quickly and inexpensively as the product is being worked on, instead of after delivery when errors are not only embarrassing but much more expensive to repair.

Further, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. pointed out that the government was sending out mixed messages, telling people they could keep their policies in one place, then elsewhere telling them they couldn’t. That’s another area where technical communicators add value to an organization: they ensure all communications are clear, consistent, correct, and appropriate for the target audience.

Of the myriad issues plaguing Healthcare.gov, technical communicators could have helped with most of them. Technical writers, now called technical communicators because they do so much more than just write, have always worked to make technology easier to use and understand. Technical communication is practical communication, intended to help someone perform a task, answer a question, or solve a problem. In institutions, government, corporations, and businesses large and small, technical communicators contribute to reducing customer support costs and improving user satisfaction.

For more information on the Society for Technical Communication and its professional members, see http://stc.org. To apply for the Seneca College Technical Communication post-graduate certificate program, see http://senecacollege.ca/fulltime/TECC.html

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The Website Triad

Who is the first person you call when you need a website? It should be a technical communicator. Often described as a web content developer or web writer, a technical communicator with knowledge of the important disciplines of web usability and user advocacy will save you thousands of dollars when building or enhancing your web presence.

Most people contact a web development firm that may or may not include a technical communicator on the team. Web developers are necessary for building a website. Their job is to make the website work. They code the HTML, XML, Javascript, or Flash, they build the links, they ensure the page loads quickly and that the meta information is correct.

A web designer might be the first call you make when thinking about your new site. Their job is to make the website look pretty. You want an up to date look and feel for your site, you want the colours to be attractive, and the overall design to be inviting. Designers create or modify CSS and page templates, create the visual images needed for the site, and give the entire site a pleasant, uniform look.

The efforts of those two professionals give you a site that looks nice and works well. There are no broken links. Images don’t overlap. The site is attractive and functional.

But does it do the job you need it to do? Can customers or potential clients find the information they need? Does the user interface (UI) support the user in achieving their goals? Is it usable?

If you had called a technical communicator first, that individual would not only project manage the site’s development and co-ordinate the activities of the web developer and web designer, but they would ensure your content is well written and makes sense. They would ensure any user of the site is able to navigate to what they want easily, and is prompted to take the right action. They would ensure your website meets the objectives you have for your web presence. They would review and improve the work of the designer and developer, pointing out any potential bugs before the user sees them. And they would keep you from spending money on bells and whistles that may make the website cool but contribute nothing to the value the site offers visitors.

Getting a good website requires having each member of the website triad — the technical communicator, the web developer, and the web designer — work together to make a site that does what you need it to do. Whether you want your site visitor to buy something, pick up the phone for an appointment, or just get necessary information quickly and effectively, the way your site merges functionality with design in a way that leads the visitor to take that action is largely the result of the technical communicator’s skill in unifying the development and design efforts.

Web content also needs to be optimized for search engine results (SEO), something a good web writer or content developer can accomplish as well.

Usability for a website means that the visitor can accomplish the goals they had when they came to the site. If customers leave without buying because they couldn’t figure out how to navigate to the product they want, or they get frustrated because they cannot read the faint gray type on the web page, your site has failed, no matter how much money you spent on it. If you are hiring a creative agency, make sure they have someone with technical communication skills assigned to your project.

Technical communicators save companies money, time and headaches no matter what jobs they are asked to do. Helping make websites that work is just one of them.

Bad Websites — poor usability, interfaces, navigation or content
Good Websites — great usability, pleasing interfaces, efficient navigation, and purposeful content.

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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.

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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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Seeing the Big Picture

High tech companies have a lot of moving parts. There are numerous projects on the go, multiple teams at work, different divisions to oversee company operations, and the need to continually keep one eye on what’s going on outside the company as much as what’s going on inside it. It’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture with all those details to manage.

Technical communicators are often among the few people in an organization who really do see the big picture. The reason for that is because we routinely talk to other teams and departments within the company. Our work may be anchored in the development department, but because it has implications for other areas such as sales, marketing, customer support, and training, we have to develop relationships with these other stakeholders. We talk to them, and we find out about the aspects of our project that affect their deliverables.

When questions arise, who better to answer them than the technical communicator who not only can explain things clearly, but who literally “wrote the book” on the product. No one knows it better than we do, because we’ve seen it from the inside as well as the outside.

Technical communicators also are adept at facilitating communication. Even if the discussion is about something other than the product we’re working on, we help by ensuring understanding. We might pipe up with the questions that everyone is thinking but are too reticent to ask. It’s our nature, and our job, to be bold in order to get information for our users. In a group situation, we often act as the user advocate and take a kind of responsibility for ensuring that everyone is getting the message.

If you don’t have technical communicators in your organization, what else are you missing?

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