Writing to create context to think – and work

The skill of technical communication is to create a context in which other people can work. – This concise insight helps me to stay focused on my users and their tasks, even if it’s not totally original.

I came to it via an article by Tim O’Reilly in his Financial Times article “Birth of the global mind” where he quoted Edwin Schlossberg:

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.

 

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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.

Content is a service, not a product

A couple of days ago, an intriguing tweet taught me a lesson about content – and the search for its source taught me another lesson about the benefits of twitter. It all started with this:

Content is a service, not a product. For consumers, less a thing they buy, more an experience.

This tweet by Scott Abel on Feb 23, 2010 made sense to me immediately. That day, I wondered how much content I had actually produced, compared to serving existing content to people who need it: I had converted a legacy document to a new template. A colleague had needed a use case which I told him could be found in the release notes. And some existing documentation needed to be made available in a new channel. So my readers needed me to supply content, not to create more of it.

Then I noticed Scott’s tweet RT’ed a less telegraphic tweet by Aptara from Feb 17, 2010. Attached to it was a link…

… which led to a blog post by NewFiction.com from Feb 9, 2010 that ended in a link to its source…

… which was an article by Kevin Keller in Business Week from Feb 7, 2010, “What Murdoch Still Doesn’t Get About the Internet”: Content isn’t a product anymore, it’s a service. Because for consumers, content is less and less a thing they buy and more a thing they experience. It turns out the sentence paraphrased and quoted…

… a blog post by Andrew Savikas from July 13, 2009, “Content is a Service Business”: … what you’re selling as an artist (or an author, or a publisher for that matter) is not content. What you sell is providing something that the customer/reader/fan wants. … media companies are in the service business, not the content business. An update at the end of the post mentioned…

… a talk by Jim Lichtenberg at O’Reilly’s TOC conference on Feb 8, 2008: Book publishing is moving from bringing physical commodities to market, to offering services that delivers content in a variety of modalities based on consumer choice. Jim mentioned as his inspiration…

… the seminal article by Tim O’Reilly, “Publishing Models for Internet Commerce” from June 19, 1995: The actual content is valuable–but far more valuable [in publishing] is the relationship with the people…

I had read O’Reilly’s article years ago, but I couldn’t remember that point as clearly as Scott Abel made it. The phrasing is, of course, different, but most likely, the timing or the context wasn’t right either.

Then I noticed how the very idea proved itself: Here was content that was available and essentially known to me, like the unused coffee-maker at the back of my pantry. But it took Scott’s service to make it valuable as a new and fresh insight that summed up my experiences of that day.

Certainly, Scott didn’t plan to teach me a lesson with his tweet. But the scattershot distribution is part of twitter’s design and success, so my insight is not an isolated accident, but intended. In my case, twitter was effective because the tweet was applicable and good, not because it was a new idea.

What do you value more in twitter and blogs: What’s fast and new or what fits for you?

And, to come full circle, what’s your experience: Do you feel like you create or curate content?

P.S. To read more about good vs. new, check out Scott Berkun’s first article for Business Week, “Good beats innovative nearly every time“.