This guest blog post was written by Sean D. Williams Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Technical Communication and Information Design program at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, one of a handful of stand-alone technical communication degree programs in the United States.
What is the definition of technical communication? At its core, technical communication helps an intended audience to get stuff done. Really, I think it’s that simple. When we compare types of planning, writing, design, and research that characterizes our work to that of other communication disciplines, like journalism or marketing, for example, one core concept sets us apart: we exist to help other people accomplish their goals. Not our goals. Not the goals of some corporation, government, school, or church. Their goals.
As a technical writer and communicator, whenever we wonder, “Why am I writing this manual?” or “What’s the purpose of this usability test?” or “Why did I spend so much time creating personas?” we should remember that it’s not about the technical documentation or test personas — it’s about people. On the other side of all the work we do, someone needs us to help them do what they want to do. I believe technical communicators, like police officers, or teachers or doctors (at least ethical ones), serve people. Somebody needs something, usually information in our case, and we help them get it through effective communication. Sure, we help the organizations or clients that pay our salaries to accomplish their goals, too. More importantly, though, our work helps people, and every person working in technical communication should be proud to tell strangers just how important our work is.
Of course, definitions can be deceivingly simple in their search for clarity. My definition is no different. Our field is complicated with people working in a dozen different job titles, each of which has its own nuances, requirements, and expectations.
For example, when I began my career in the early-1990s, I worked in document design. I (literally) cut and pasted pieces of information together to create longer documents. Then came the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s which changed my job to web design where I had to learn about things like File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers and hexadecimal colors. I realized that if I created websites that were easier for people to use, then my clients would be more successful because people would be drawn to their services. Enter user-centered design.
As database-driven systems became more common in the early 2000s, I needed to provide rich, relevant technical content in a timely manner, so I became an early version of what is now called a content strategist combined with an information architect. The point of this little story is that technical communication contains an entire ecosystem of skills, theories, and knowledge that conceptually accomplish one goal: we help people get stuff done by helping them to understand complex concepts.
But how do you know if your technical communication is successful? To start, it’s important to note that technical communication contains multitudes (perhaps even a little poetry), and I think we can extract six practices—and I use the word practices intentionally here to signal that while we might get better at these things, we never finish learning them—that span the range of work we do.
Conduct User Research
Obviously, given my definition of technical communication, we must begin with users and their needs. Many methods exist for learning about the nuances of users’ needs—many sophisticated and many less so—and technical experts and communicators must lean heavily on what our audiences require. As the adage goes, “Begin with the end in mind.” Everything we do comes back to the people using our products and so beginning with them in mind helps us craft the best possible work.
Write Clearly, Accurately, and Correctly for Specific Audiences
We write. We put words (and images) on the page. As audiences change, so might the definition of what is “clear,” but accuracy (the validity of the content we create) and correctness (the rule-bound mechanics of our language use) do not. If our job is to help people accomplish their goals, then we can’t ask them to spend time noodling through awkward sentences or wondering if our words and technical illustrations or images are honest.
Communicate Fluently in Multiple Media Formats
In my career, I’ve created long print reports, database-driven websites, social media, videos, infographics, dashboards, and other types of technical documentation (to name a few). A challenge for technical communicators is knowing what medium will work for what purpose and which target audience because media are not interchangeable. Communicating different bits of technical information requires that we assess what our specific audience needs to know and how they come to know it. In turn, we must use whichever media are appropriate to meet those needs.
Learn New Technologies
This skill complements the last one. If we want to improve our technical communication skills and communicate in multiple formats, then we must constantly learn what is new and when we should use those tools. I mentioned before that I began my career by literally cutting and pasting documents together. When I began working with the web, we hand-coded sites, but now we might use an authoring solution like MadCap Flare. When I created my first infographic, I used Photoshop; now I might use Tableau. Technologies evolve and we must be technologically adaptable to stay relevant for our users’ needs.
Collaborate With Others From Diverse Backgrounds
I have done very little work that was not collaborative, and my teams have been local, global, and everything in between. Collaboration does not just happen naturally, especially in virtual teams. We must express our intentions clearly and frequently; resolve conflicts quickly and equitably; establish reliable patterns of communication; believe that others are doing their best; be honest. Collaboration begins with respect for others.
Manage Complex Projects and Ethically Manage the Work of Others
On any given day, we might be working on three different projects, each of which has its own schedule, deliverables, and team. This means learning to prioritize tasks and sometimes leaning on others for help. And when we manage others, we cannot forget the core of technical communication: helping others get stuff done. Showing empathy for those we work with and manage—and for ourselves—should be second nature for each and every technical communicator.
In the end, the answer to what makes technical communication different from general communication is that it is a mindset as much as it is a profession. The six skills I briefly sketched above matter little if we forget that the core of our work is helping others accomplish their goals. The beauty of our field is that we get to connect regular people with real needs to amazing technologies, to smart people, and to rich, complex information. In our increasingly complex lives, the world needs us now more than ever.