Is there a role for Technical Communicators in help forums?

November 2015

Earnsy Liu, TechCommNZ member and GDID student, looks for evidence (not just opinions) to help you manage the daily conundrums we face in our profession. If you have a question for Earnsy to tackle, please email

‘Google first; manual maybe never.’

So wrote Mark Baker (cited in Johnson, 2015), author of Every Page Is Page One, stating that googling has displaced technical writers. Documentation specialist and technical writer Anne Gentle has said the same, observing that search results often point to forums (cited in Frith, 2014).

In this article, I outline research on why users turn to help forums and what moderating forums entails, before concluding that technical writers would make good moderators.

Why are users turning to forums?

Jason Swarts believes traditional documentation doesn’t meet users’ needs because tasks are more complex than documentation allows for (Swarts, 2014), and because audiences use products in unanticipated ways (2015).

Swarts (2014) analysed 80 forum threads and found many user problems were ill defined:

  • One third of the problems in the Microsoft Excel, Adobe InDesign and GIMP (open source image editing) forums
  • well over half of the problems in the Mozilla Thunderbird (an email client) forum.

This suggested the tasks could not be easily explained in ways that traditional documentation anticipated. Moreover, diverse factors could complicate matters, such as programme interfaces and networks. For example, the many ill-defined Thunderbird problems could be because hardware, software and exchange protocols all have to be configured for the programme to work.

Participants put a lot of effort into expanding on problems, either by reporting on the outcome of a proposed solution (e.g. different error messages), or by clarifying the problem (e.g. providing details of the operating system). Swarts muses:

Noteworthy is how much conversation is aimed at developing an understanding of the problem. In traditional, task-based help documentation, the technical communicator is assumed to know what the problem is from the start. (p. 264)

He later notes that when technology is first rolled out, it is used as it is intended (Swarts, 2015). Over time, its use expands and the original documentation no longer suffices. Email, for example, is not just used for correspondence, but also for file transfer, collaboration and reminders. (In Don’t make me think, revisited, Steven Krug (2014) describes watching people use software, websites, and products ‘in ways that are nothing like what the designers intended’. And remember how the pauper in The Prince and the Pauper used the royal seal as a nutcracker?)

After interviewing 20 senior participants and moderators about forum participation, Swarts (2015) observed that help documents oversimplify by making too many assumptions, such that the scenarios and motivations explained do not cater for real-life complexities.

What’s involved in moderating forums?

Two studies examined forum moderation. One was Swarts’ (2015) interviews, mentioned above. The other was Jordan Frith’s (2014) study of various online forums. Interviewing 23 moderators and active forum participants, he learnt that while some technical knowledge was important, communication skills were more crucial. Indeed, participants were sometimes asked to moderate in forums outside their area of expertise because they were good communicators.

The themes from the studies can be categorised under content and atmosphere.

Content matters

Credibility and authenticity. Swarts’ interviewees discussed how credibility in forums comes from responses being seen as authentic and relevant. Moderators promote two-way interaction that demonstrates credibility and authenticity.

Expansiveness. Swarts found solutions may vary depending on the context. Moderators can guide discussions to reveal complexities and encourage participants to explore different solutions.

Quality control. Frith described moderators as ‘quality control experts’, often dealing with the widespread problem of spam. Removing spam requires ‘an attention to detail, language, and content that is not dissimilar from the content management practices of skilled editors’ (p. 178).

‘Translation’. Frith also called moderators ‘translators’ who help beginners ask questions and translate experts’ answers into beginner-friendly language.

Information architecture. Frith’s interviewees acted as ‘information architects’, shaping and creating content by writing FAQs and guidelines on asking questions, creating sub-forums for categories, and moving questions to the right sections. By improving the forum’s architecture, one moderator doubled the number of new posts.

Atmosphere matters

Speedy, persistent, customised interactions. Swarts’ interviewees spoke of the importance of welcoming new and returning users. ‘Online forums live or die by the quality of their participants and the atmosphere they project’ (p. 27).

(Re)Assembling the community. Swarts found moderators built forum communities by promoting participation, for example, by involving users with different skill sets or inviting users to work on projects.

Setting the tone. Frith’s moderators set the tone of the forum, even writing rules on behaviour and when necessary, saying, ‘Hey, knock it off’ (p. 180). Setting the tone could mean discouraging beginners from forums for experienced users, such as by suggesting they do their own research.

Help forums are useful and important

Solving problems sometimes involves working things out in a forum, and these articles suggest help forums are useful and important.

Frith discusses the growth of online forums, and Clint Lanier (2011) points out forums may have a wider reach than the number of posts and registered users imply, as most visitors to open source software (OSS) forums are ‘lurkers’, unregistered users, or registered users who seldom log in. Managing forums well and encouraging quality participation could therefore pay off more than we realise.

Lanier predicts commercial organisations will provide more user support through online forums because forums serve users better and create more effective, efficient documentation. In fact, in contrast to costly translations of traditional documentation that sometimes still encounter problems, users on the international OSS forums he studied were able to seek and obtain solutions to their problems with little miscommunication.

A role for technical communicators

Not only are technical communicators suited to take on the important role of forum moderation, doing so can improve their understanding of their products and users, leading to better documentation and products.

Right skills

Between them, Swarts (2015), Frith, and Lanier argue that technical communicators have the skills for forum moderation, to:

  • obtain and clarify information from subject matter experts
  • recognise the types of information required to understand problems and find solutions
  • guide users to information
  • facilitate interpersonal interaction
  • translate information into user-centred language
  • create content
  • edit and suggest changes tactfully
  • correct mistakes
  • tag content.

Useful information

Spending time in forums can reveal what users are struggling with and allow technical communicators to improve their documentation by incorporating forum solutions (Swarts, 2015). It’ll also reveal if users are using products in unanticipated ways and consequently enable companies to adapt accordingly.


Many thanks to Emily Cotlier for reviewing my first draft.


Frith, J. (2014). Forum moderation as technical communication: The social web and employment opportunities for technical communicators. Technical Communication, 61(3), 173-184.

Johnson, T. (February 13, 2015). The only significant innovation for tech comm. Retrieved from

Krug, S. (2014). Don’t make me think, revisited: A common sense approach to web usability. Retrieved from Proquest Safari Books Online.

Lanier, C. L. (2011). Open source software peer-to-peer forums and culture: A preliminary Investigation of global participation in user assistance. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 41(4), 347-366.

Swarts, J. (2014). The trouble with networks: implications for the practice of help documentation. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 44(3), 253-275.

Swarts, J. (2015). What user forums teach us about documentation and the value added by technical communicators. Technical Communication, 62(1), 19-28.