Framing tech comm: O’Reilly vs. Dangerfield

Technical communication is perceived in many different ways, some more constructive than others. Luckily, the framing of tech comm is the result of a dialogue/feedback loop, so we can help to shape how we come across.

Tim O’Reilly on the future

Consider Tim O’Reilly, quite a visionary technical communicator. He works to create “The Missing Manual for the Future“. O’Reilly explains it by quoting William Gibson: “The future is here, it is just not evenly distributed yet.” So we technical communicators can help to distribute the future evenly – a pretty noble mission to be on.

Or consider Kathy Sierra whose Kick Ass Curve taught me that my documentation can help users look good and suck less.

– Of course, just because I find cool quotes on the web doesn’t mean my work and I actually help to “distribute the future” (what does that really mean, anyway?) or help a single user suck less. But it’s the attitude that counts. These ideas inspire me. They give me a sense of the best I can aspire to with my documentation.

Rodney Dangerfield on respect

Photo by Jim Accordino, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Or consider these assessments:

  • “No one reads the documentation.”
  • “Nobody cares, but we gotta have it.”
  • “This manual is unusable.”

They seem to be rather common, I sometimes even hear them from tech communicators who graduated from RDSP, the “Rodney Dangerfield School of Professions”. The school is named for its patron saint and his motto “I don’t get no respect, I tell ya…“. RDSP graduates tend to accept criticism, when they hear it often enough, not when they find it fundamentally and immutably true.

Actually, it’s worth finding out in a customer survey how many people do read the documentation – and while you’re at it, try to find out how customers use it and what they expect to find it. Maybe only a few care, but if a company cares enough to do documentation at all, they might as well do it right – and yes, you can get documentation done right on the 80/20 rule. And a manual that’s deemed unusable can be made better and clearer.

Tech communicators on their work

Most of the time, my work speaks for itself. But sometimes it cannot stand up against prejudice and misguided judgements. Then it needs my help. I don’t mean making excuses about a late spec or a review that fell through. I mean moving the critic into the position of the generic customer who reads my documentation and finds it useful.

And when I engage with my readers, whether they are colleagues or customers, they are frequently surprised how much thought goes into my documentation. They marvel that

  • Documentation that offers less of a narrative is actually easier and faster to use in the majority of cases when customers look up specific questions.
  • Many users welcome the separation of concepts and procedures, because they read concepts just once, but need to refer to clear, bare-bones procedures repeatedly.
  • What has recently beefed up our marketing material is actually lifted verbatim from the documentation.
  • When they find a mistake, I can tell them immediately what I will do to fix it and when it will be rolled out to customers.

This dialogue/feedback loop gives my work the chance to earn respect by virtue of its benefits. And it allows me to follow the goals that O’Reilly and Sierra have inspired in me.

Your turn

What’s your experience? Does it work to enlighten colleagues and customers just how cool your documentation actually is? Does it help? Please leave a comment.

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How you can exploit the “Big Disconnect”

By way of consumers, web 2.0 and social media present a disruptive influence on corporate IT: Existing “systems of records” face challenges by new “systems of engagement”.

The thesis is by Geoffrey Moore in an AIIM white paper and presentation, and I’ve come across it by following some links in Sarah O’Keefe’s post “The technical communicator’s survival guide for 2011“. So once again, I find a great idea, summarize and apply it, instead of thinking up something wildly original myself. (Maybe not the worst skill for a tech writer, come to think of it… 🙂 )

Out-of-sync IT developments

Moore’s premise builds on out-of-sync advances of corporate vs. consumer IT:

  • Corporate IT developments recently focused on optimizing and consolidating otherwise mature, database-based “systems of record” which execute all kinds of transactions for finance, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, supply chain, etc.
  • Consumer IT, on the other hand, saw the snowballing improvements in access, bandwidth and mobile devices which have quickly pervaded ever more spheres of everyday culture.

“The Big Disconnect”

This imbalance leads to the pivotal insight of Moore’s analysis: As I read it, the disruptive influence on corporate IT occurs not through technologies or processes, but through people.

People are quick to adopt or reject or abandon new consumer IT tools and habits that cater to their needs. The same people feel hampered by corporate systems and workflows that seem unsuitable and obsolete. Moore calls it “The Big Disconnect”:

How can it be that
I am so powerful as a consumer
and so lame as an employee?

How consumer IT affects corporate IT

For the next 10 years, Moore expects that interactive, collaborative “systems of engagement” will influence and complement, though not necessarily replace traditional “systems of record”:

  • Old systems are data-centric, while new systems focus on users.
  • Old systems have data security figured out, new systems make privacy of user data a key concern.
  • Old systems ensure efficiency, new systems provide effectiveness in relationships.

For a full comparison of the two kinds of systems, see Moore’s presentation “A ‘Future History’ of Content Management“, esp. slides 10-12 and 16.

But does it hold water?

Moore’s analysis has convinced me. I used to think that corporate and consumer IT markets differ because requirements and purchase decisions are made differently. But this cannot do away with the “Big Disconnect” which I’ve seen time and again in myself and in colleagues. Personally, I know that this frustration is real and tangible.

Also, the development of wikis and their corporate adoption is a good case study of the principle that Moore describes. If you know of other examples, please leave a comment.

What does it mean to tech comm?

The “Big Disconnect” affects those of us in technical communications in corporate IT in several ways.

Tech writers write for disconnected corporate consumers. So we do well to integrate some of the features of “systems of engagement” that Moore describes:

  • Add useful tips & tricks to reference facts.
  • Provide discussion forums to complement authoritative documentation.
  • Ensure quick and easy access to accurate and complete documentation.

But technical communications can do one better by helping to ease the drawbacks of engaging systems:

  • Offer easy, comprehensive searches through disparate formats and sources.
  • Moderate forums and user-generated contents carefully to maintain high content standards and usability.

Tech writers are disconnected corporate consumers. So we can push for the improvement of the products and processes we describe or use.

  • On consumers’ behalf, we can advocate for improved usability and for documentation that is more efficient to use.
  • On our own behalf, we can insist to improve workflows that serve a system rather than us writers and our processes.
  • We can urge to replace help authoring systems that support only fragments of our documentation workflows with more efficient tools.

Our managers are also disconnected, most likely. So when we argue for any of the above disruptions, we can probably fall back on their experience when we have to justify them. We’ll still need good metrics and ROI calculations, though… 🙂

To read further…

The “Big Disconnect” and its effects connects nicely with a couple of related ideas:

Your turn

Does the Big Disconnect make sense to you – or is it just the mundane in clever packaging? Do you think it’s relevant for technical communications? How else can we tech writers exploit it? Please leave a comment.

The kick ass curve

How long do your users spend in the “I suck” (or “this product sucks”) zone? Once they’ve crossed the suck threshold, how long does it take before they start to feel like they kick ass?

I don’t know anybody who illustrates the motivational angle of documentation better than Kathy Sierra. Her post “Attenuation and the suck threshold” from October 2005 has one of the most insightful, funniest curve charts I’ve ever seen. It may not apply to everything you’ll ever write, but I recommend it as a fresh perspective.

More passion about creativity

The discussion about the creativity in technical writing continues, see Tom Johnson’s post “Creativity in the Workplace” and the comments.

“The Creative Passion” guest post

“How exciting is technical writing, really?” Every once in a while, discussions in blogs or at conferences turn to that question. How technical writing is not really a calling or maybe even boring. I find it fulfilling and engaging in itself. Technical writing is my creative passion…

– The guys at DMN Communications have invited me to write a guest post. Thanks, Scott and Aaron!