When tech comm does other teams’ work

Should documentation be expected to do the job of other teams and departments to make up for their shortcomings?

That was the essential question in an interesting conversation I once had with a fellow tech writer. It’s basically a twist on the general idea that you often have to pick two of the three: High quality, speed, low cost.

The writer said she had changed her way of writing user manuals to include fewer screenshots, because some of them were not essential to the described task, and they’re difficult to translate and update.

Less than efficient reuse

Her manager didn’t exactly appreciate her efforts to create similarly useful documentation more efficiently, but objected to the new manual. He asked her to use more screenshots as before, arguing they were necessary for three additional purposes of the manual:

  • Sell the product – though dedicated sales materials are also available.
  • Double as self-study training material – though training is also available.
  • Make up for poor usability where the software isn’t so intuitive in some places.

She is totally capable of creating documentation that can also be used for these purposes. (Apparently, the company didn’t have a content strategy which easily allows to share contents between sales, training and documentation.) But it’s just difficult to do it all when she faces pressure to limit cost and throughput time at the same time.

Possible reactions

During the conversation, my position was that her company can’t reasonably expect her to make documentation more efficient while she continues to make up for other shortcomings. (This ties in with the “Two words every (lone) writer should know“, which are “Later” and “No”.)

Then I thought that maybe her manager doesn’t actually know which tasks an efficient technical writer does best (if you can even generalize that) and what to expect from the sales, marketing and training teams. In this case, it might even be an opportunity to clean up processes beyond just documentation (though this easily gets presumptuous).

Your turn

What do you think? Have you been expected to do things that got in the way of your efficiency and that were really the tasks of other teams? How can we writers deal with that? Any ideas? Please leave a comment.

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3 Responses

  1. High levels of product customization definitely throws a monkey wrench into my efficiency. Literally every project requires a new set of screen shots and many new photos. Slowly I am bringing management around to the need to make some things generic.
    One idea I have for our docs is a 3D SolidWorks model in place of actual product photos. I haven’t pitched this one yet, but expect some resistance.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sandy. Yes, the old “1 picture = 1000 words” is hard to overcome. Other ways I’ve seen/heard to make screenshots or photos more efficient is to blur anything but the focal area or to show the focal area, plus a visual anchor. Both images would then still allow spatial orientation.

      • I use a lot of cropping in Paint Shop Photo Pro to focus in on the info I’m trying to convey. Haven’t tried the blurring yet, although sounds like something that could work for me.

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