What can tech writers learn from history?

Histories … can reflect on how technology led the field [of technical communication] to this point, … provide a springboard for predicting how technology might affect the field in the years to come, [and help us] make informed decisions about the future…

This is Saul Carliner‘s claim in his concise, yet comprehensive historical essay called, “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”. I’ll summarize his argument, respond and cite some academic responses.

The essay appeared last November in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice, a book that addresses students, educators and practitioners of technical communication (TC) alike.

Carliner tells the history in two parallel strands, first how TC evolved in a large IT company (IBM), and then how technological developments changed the TC workplace. Telling the histories one after the other makes for some redundancy; I’ll merge the strands into one in my summary.

Carliner’s argument

Explaining functions and features to professionals was the main task of TC around 1980. Technical writers were hired either for their technical expertise or for their writing skills.

TC centered on users and their tasks throughout the 80s, when the range of applications and audience widened. The first desktop publishing applications enabled writers to get more involved in the production of their deliverables.

With the rise of PCs in the 90s, three trends drove changes in TC:

  • The “GUI revolution”, which presented applications in windows-like desktops, further widened the audience for documentation. Users required task-based documentation for more purposes than before. At the same time, technical communicators could address users in new formats, from searchable online help to self-guided e-learning courses.
  • The web and browser technologies have moved publication and delivery of documentation online, where text and images were easier, faster and cheaper to distribute.
  • Standards and standard-like formats, such as WinHelp, FrameMaker, HTML, PDF and XML established common interfaces and practices. They ensured that even complex applications could distribute contents and services reliably.

Technical communicators responded to these trends with a new role: User experience experts design interfaces and interactions, for which technical writers structure and define documentation contents.

In the last few years, the three trends have further diversified the tasks and products of technical communicators in both roles. For example, films and sound have become as easy and fast to distribute as text and images. The DITA standard has enhanced the XML standard for TC purposes. Two additional developments shape TC significantly:

  • The two-way Web 2.0 has evolved more recently and encourages users to not only consume, but create contents as well in virtually all documentation formats.
  • Content management systems support the continuous production and publication of content that can be dynamic and user-specific.

My response

I appreciate Carliner’s grasp which admirably summarizes and structures decades of volatile developments in IT. I was surprised to learn that several technologies that I had taken for granted had been introduced shortly before I started in TC.

It’s interesting to see that some early practices still stick around, for better or worse: We’re still debating whether technical or language skills are more valuable. Carliner’s history is one of evolution, not of discrete stages where a new stage replaces the previous one. So the old is not necessarily bad, the new is not better just because it’s new (and Carliner doesn’t claim it is).

One of his premises seems to need a qualifier: I think that technological developments as such don’t drive the evolution of TC. This idea of “build it, and they will come” has been proven wrong in the dot com bust (which Carliner mentions). Whether or not any technology prevails to change the TC workplace depends on several factors, including its usefulness and efficiency, the marketing and market share.

Given such a complex motivation of changes in TC, I can’t quite imagine how looking at technology might shape the field and help us “make informed decisions in the future.” I think it’s more useful to keep an eye on user benefits and how they’re embodied in use cases and services.

Academic opinions

Syracuse University has used Carliner’s text in their CCR 760 class “TC in the Digital Age” that is part of their Composition and Cultural Rhetoric PhD program. Teacher Mike Frasciello points out that many more roles produce documentation than just technical writers:

In many ways, the activity of producing information products was decentralized and moved out of documentation groups. Business analysts were writing and publishing use-case studies. Programmers were writing help statements as conditional code statements. Quality analysts were writing FAQs and user documentation. These individuals were not recognized as technical communicators…

And Missy, a student, argues that technical communicators’ improved skills to produce their own deliverables is quickly taken for granted and therefore seems to lose value. She makes a comparison to

Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives when she talks about how increasing access to education and higher rates of literacy are seized (that may not be the right word) by corporate/economic interests that begin to expect (or demand) higher levels of literacy while the way those literacies are valued begins to decrease. So, as Carliner demonstrates when he talks about the kinds of technical skills technical communicators are expected to come into the workplace with, being able to use various kinds of software or internet technologies becomes a necessary prerequisite for technical communication jobs rather than something that is valued as specialized knowledge.

Your turn

What do you think? Does technology drive change in our field? Or is it customers and business? Or is it pointless to separate the factors? And how useful is history as our crystal ball? Feel free to leave a comment…

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4 Responses

  1. My opinion is closest to: “It’s pointless to separate the factors”. Customers and businesses and technologies have all had noticeable but variable effects on changing trends.

    Large companies (such as IBM) that have historically invested a great deal in documenting their products [I remember when their mainframe products came with a stack of manuals as high as my desk.] have developed (or bought) and promoted new technologies for technical communication. Small companies generally expect their writers or editors to use the tools they already have available. Technology adopted for other reasons gets adapted for technical communications, and technical communicators’ use of that technology affects its continuing development.

    The first word processing programs, Script (developed at the University of Waterloo in Canada), which ran on IBM mainframes, and Runoff (developed at AT&T’s Bell Labs), which ran on Unix mainframes, are both very HTML- or XML-like markup languages. They were eclipsed by wysiwyg word processors like MS Word on PCs. But now we’re coming back to the basic markup approach.

    The history of tech comm trends is as reliable a crystal ball to the future as the history of fashion trends is: Sooner or later everything comes into style again, usually with a new twist or emphasis, you just can’t predict when we’ll all be ready to take a new look at it.

    • Thanks for your insightful opinion, techquestioner!

      I hadn’t yet thought of recurring cycles (and didn’t see that in Carliner), so that’s a new twist. I’ll be sure to look out to what’s coming around again.

  2. Kai, Thanks for the reflection on the chapter. It was a challenging, but fun one to write. The editors wanted me to primarily focus on technology; avoiding side-trips to related issues was a challenge.

    It’s nice to get your point of view as a reader–kind of like getting the reaction to a usability test of sorts.

    • Thank you, Saul, for your comment. It’s most insightful to get a glimpse into what went into writing the chapter!

      It proves once again the value of effortless and direct feedback between author and reader – a benefit the printed word makes so difficult!

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