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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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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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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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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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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