What do we do?
Technical communicators design, develop and deliver a wide range of information products that may be presented in print and online. These information products are frequently intended to inform or instruct the user in the operation of machinery, equipment or computer software and include:
- installation and "getting started" guides
- user guides, operation, reference and administration manuals
- software user assistance, including online help and Web help
- Web and intranet content
- training manuals
- quick reference cards, charts and posters.
The term "information product" is used here as the scope and variety of these items suggests that traditional terms like "documentation" or "manuals" are no longer adequate.
For a quick overview, watch our presentation on What do technical communicators do? (3 min 15 sec, YouTube).
Technical communicators work with people involved in business and leisure activities, usually documenting the use of some form of technology. However, technical communicators may also be involved in areas with little or no direct application to technology such as mapping business processes, developing health and safety manuals, ISO 9000 quality manuals and company policy manuals. So, what do technical communicators need to do as they develop various types of information products?
The primary goal of a technical communicator is to communicate appropriate information to the reader as clearly and concisely as possible. To achieve this, technical communicators must understand the needs of their audience and be able to gather and then "translate" detailed or complex information into a form that can be readily understood. Good technical communication reduces the effort required by the reader to understand the information and also minimises the possibility of the reader misunderstanding the material or using it incorrectly.
This process is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the "dumbing down" of information. This is not fair to either the reader or the technical communicator. The role of the technical communicator is to communicate the essential information required by the reader to perform a task or understand a concept. The information is not changed in the process - it is just presented in such a way that it is more accessible and meaningful to the reader. Deciding how best to present the information: designing the layout of the text, its structure, content and organisation and making the appropriate use of graphics are all part of the role of the technical communicator.
Work with a variety of people
Technical communicators work with people at all levels of organisations. Some of these people will act as sources of information or review draft documents, others will assist in documentation tasks in a variety of ways. A technical communicator may be part of a team working on a large project, or may work independently.
It is important that the technical communicator works with people from the target audience for the information products being developed. This helps to ensure that the information products will meet the needs of that audience - whether it is a small group of account managers in a call centre or a diverse group such as the users of a software product like Microsoft Word. In some cases, an audience can be treated as a single group and in others, it may be made up of a number of smaller groups, each with their own characteristics, activities, and needs.
Work at a variety of activities
A technical communicator undertakes a range of activities and tasks, and not all of it will be time spent writing. The role of a technical communicator involves:
- project planning and project management
- research into user and business needs
- designing and (if applicable) prototyping
- interviewing and observing people at their work
- gathering information from a range of other sources - existing documentation, specifications, experts
- recording and organising the information gathered
- developing the information product
- updating and correcting draft versions of the information product following reviews by users and content providers
- testing the information product for functionality and usability
- publishing or delivering the information product
- periodically updating the information product to ensure that it remains relevant, complete and correct.
Work as a user advocate
An important aspect of the work of technical communicators is their role as user advocates. To some extent, this role involves "thinking like a user" of the software or device that the information product relates to. However, simply thinking like a user may not go far enough. Using techniques like personas and scenarios enables technical communicators to identify a wider range of user characteristics and needs, which then allow the information product to be tailored more effectively.
As user guides reflect the usability of the product or device, acting as a user advocate can also mean working with the product designer to help make the product easier to use, hence simplifying and reducing the need for supporting information products.
Keeping the focus on the user can be difficult at times, especially when this is not a key requirement for other members of the project team. The technical communicator needs to:
- ensure they understand their users in terms of attitudes, motivation, relevant knowledge and skills
- determine what the users want to do and need to know
- establish any constraints or requirements resulting from the environment in which the information product is being used
- focus on producing an information product that will best serve the users' needs.