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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Interested in Technical Communication?

If you’re looking for more information about technical communication, or as it is also known technical writing, you can search for related items or rely on an aggregator like Alltop.

Gathering information about the profession will lead you to a number of well-written blogs, the Society for Technical Communication itself, and a list of programs that provide degrees, diplomas or certificates in various aspects of the discipline.

If you think TechComm is right for you, we’d love to consider your application for our 1-year post-graduate certificate program. It includes a co-operative education component so you can try out the field while you are learning. TechComm is ideal for anyone who loves to write, explain, and play with technology. Contact us if you want more information.

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Technical Communications Community Networking Event

Calling all technical communicators – past, present, and future!

Please join administration, faculty, and alumnae from Seneca, George Brown, and Humber Colleges for an opportunity to learn about the benefits of each program. Come and track down all the information you need to decide which certificate program is the best fit for you, and then validate your choice by getting testimonials from current students and alumnae—all in one place!

Who should come?

This party isn’t just for students. We extend the invitation to the greater tech comm community. Come and visit with Toronto’s tech comm luminaries, visit old friends, and make some new contacts. It’s a great excuse to grab a beer and enjoy an evening of camaraderie. There’s no charge to attend, but you do pay for your own beverages and food.

Logistics:

Date: Wednesday, March 27th, 2013
Time: 6PM to 9PM (or later)
Location: The Madison Avenue Pub (14 Madison Ave. at Bloor and Spadina)

Register today! 

(For last minute cancellations, please contact Sumedh Nene)

Questions?

For general inquiries, contact Sumedh Nene at sumedh.techwriter@gmail.com or
Anna Parker at anna.parker-richards@senecacollege.ca.

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Tech Comm Can Be Full of Surprises!

Here’s a note we just got from one of our excellent tech comm grads, Ellen Fleischer:

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m working in my field. After all, that was my goal when I went into tech comm. However, after graduation, I had to face a few harsh realities:

  1. I’d entered Tech Comm with a strong English background, but scant technical experience. Partly because of this and partly because I tend to get nervous at job interviews, I was unable to secure a co-op placement through Seneca. Instead, I spent my winter semester copyediting a textbook. Even though I loved the work and it fulfilled the co-op requirement, the position didn’t give me hands-on workplace experience in tech comm.
  2. Not having much of a technical background, the thought of working with IT terrified me.

After I graduated in August, I updated my resume and tried my best to find work in editing and/or tech comm. I started volunteering for a monthly online magazine, which led to some paid editing credits on an independent comic book (expected publication in March 2013).

I also started exploring the freelance sites. It took about three months, but I’ve just hooked up with one of the rare US-based companies (as opposed to independent employers looking for cheap short-term labor) that does not require a W9 of their independent contractors. They advertised for someone to rewrite their procedures manuals and were very impressed by my portfolio—despite its lack of IT documentation.

I’m doing freelance work for Covalent IT in Colorado. I never saw myself doing anything like this, much less enjoying it, but I do and I am.

Great news, Ellen, thanks for letting us know! Ellen is not the only grad to find that her first few technical communication assignments involved working remotely as a freelance contractor. These initial forays into the profession can lead to other more lucrative and permanent opportunities.

We’re proud of all our grads, and love to hear how you’re doing. Don’t forget to keep in touch!

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New Program Co-ordinator

After four years as co-ordinator of the Technical Communication program, Beth Agnew is handing over this responsibility to Anna Parker-Richards.

“It’s a great opportunity to get someone new involved in the Program,” says Professor Agnew. “Anna has been a strong leader in the Toronto chapter of the STC and her drive will be an asset to Seneca College and to our technical communication students.”

Having grown the program from a low of 18 students when she took over as co-ordinator in 2008 to a recent high of 42 students, Professor Agnew is still going to be active in getting the word out about this top post-graduate educational program for those seeking to enter the profession.

“I’ll still be teaching technical communication subjects and working with Anna and our co-op co-ordinator Charmaine Johnson to find appropriate work placements for our students,” says Agnew. Due to the program’s excellent reputation, there are more applicants than ever — prompting a second intake that will begin in May 2013.

Agnew thinks the program provides great return on investment. “The technical communication program is ideal for career changers because they can leverage their existing skills, background and experience into a new profession. Nothing is wasted. For new university graduates, the Tech Comm program offers a way to add to their skills while the students are still in “study mode”. It helps them differentiate themselves from all the others graduating with similar degrees.”

Tech Comm grads have proven technology and communication skills — high value currency in today’s workplace. “Plus, they’re trained to be problem-solvers,” says Agnew. “Providing solutions to customer problems always improves a company’s bottom line. That makes us very valuable commodities in any company.”

Agnew is excited about the new directions the Tech Comm program will be taking with Anna Parker-Richards as co-ordinator. “Anna is a positive leader,” she says. “She’s a master at networking and has the vision to ensure our program is meeting the needs of employers and students.”

For more information on the Technical Communication program, and to apply, see http://senecacollege.ca/fulltime/TECC.html

 

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First Certified Professional Technical Communicator

Professor Beth Agnew, Seneca College, has become one of the first in the world to receive the new Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC)™ designation from the Society for Technical Communication.

“It’s a great step forward for our profession,” says Agnew. “For 40 years our organization has been trying to hit the moving target of what it means to be a technical communicator. Our skills have changed rapidly along with technology and the many ways of communicating it. Finally, this past year the STC settled on our core competencies.”

Certification requires expert evaluation of demonstrated skills in 9 areas that cover user, task and experience analysis, information design, information development, information production, and process management. It includes a commitment to honour a code of conduct and professional ethics.

Long a skilled and qualified professional, Agnew and others awarded the CPTC™ are now recognized on a par with MCSE, PMP, CGA, and other “Registered” or “Certified” experts.

“It’s exciting that our professional organization now can grant official acknowledgement of our skills that employers and clients can rely upon,” she says.

“Our profession is very broad,” says Agnew. “We deal with all aspects of usability, user assistance, product and content development, customer relationships, and information architecture. That’s a tall order. Technical communicators make significant contributions to improving a company’s bottom line by reducing customer support costs and making technology easier to use and understand.”

Technical communicators are industry independent, working as easily in aerospace and engineering as banking, manufacturing and science, though some specialize in their particular areas of interest.

“Practitioner backgrounds are as varied as our workplaces,” notes Agnew. “Ideal for career changers, your existing knowledge and experience are leveraged into communicating about technology to achieve specific results.”

Agnew’s background?

“Fine Arts,” she laughs. “Specifically, Fiction Writing, but that hasn’t hindered me working for NASA, the Geological Survey of Canada or MDS Sciex.”

Professor Agnew is the co-ordinator of the Seneca College one year post-graduate program in Technical Communication and teaches courses in information technology, web-based training and multimedia. The program is focused on giving students a solid foundation in the areas that will be required for certification when they’ve met the experience requirements.

“All you need are an affinity for technology and some writing ability. New grads facing competition for jobs from all their classmates with the same English, Liberal Arts, Computer, or Science degree can take our program in technical communication and quickly differentiate themselves from their competitors. Plus they get co-op work experience that helps launch their new careers.”

Since 1998, the Seneca Tech Comm Program has been graduating skilled technical communicators who have gone on to work for companies such as IBM, RIM, Siemens Milltronics, TD Bank, Mount Sinai Hospital, engineering firms and government ministries.

“Technical Communication is a very rewarding profession,” says Agnew. “When we do our jobs right, it’s completely transparent. We work behind the scenes, and few realize there’s been a technical communicator involved. The only evidence is that products are easier to use, information much easier to understand, and customers are more satisfied with their purchases.”

“Every company can benefit from having a technical communicator on the payroll.”

For more information on the Technical Communication Program, and to apply, see http://www.senecacollege.ca/fulltime/TECC.html. Contact the Society for Technical Communication at http://stc.org.

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