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May 29, 2012

New to tech comm? Expect the unexpected

When I started at Scriptorium a year ago, I knew almost nothing about tech comm. I knew what technical content was, having used it many times, but I’d never really thought about how it was produced. Looking back on my first year in tech comm, these were the biggest surprises about the industry.

Surprise! (flickr: Benson Kua)

Disconnect between producers and users of technical content

I was shocked to learn how uncommon it is for technical publications teams to get direct user feedback. How could they create effective documentation if they didn’t know how people used it?

But I learned that at many companies, other departments such as customer support or marketing interact directly with end users—and may or may not pass on those users’ comments to the tech writers. One client told us that their marketing team had been meaning to conduct a customer survey about the documentation but “had never gotten around to it.” Maybe this disconnect helps explain why I knew so little about tech comm before I came to Scriptorium.

Resistance to change

This one was understandable. People feel safe and confident doing what they know, and as long as it keeps working, why change it? The surprise was finding out how often tech pubs teams kept using familiar tools and processes when they didn’t work anymore.

In discussions with clients about content strategy, I heard tech writers admit that their current workflows added stress, made it difficult to meet deadlines, and were unsustainable. But they’d also say things like, “Will we get to keep Tool X?” or “We’re scared to learn Tool Y—it looks hard.” As a newbie, I could sympathize with their fear of a learning curve. But I was still amazed that some tech writers would rather keep an inefficient workflow than face that curve—especially if it would give them more time to actually write content.

Wasted resources

In the digital age when everyone is talking about the latest and greatest technology, I was astounded to see so many tech pubs departments using outdated tools or doing manual work that could be automated with a computer. Whether it was copying and pasting content, maintaining multiple copies of reused graphics and updating them separately, fixing broken cross-references, or managing files, I saw tech writers having to do too many things by hand.

Implementing a new workflow may be expensive, but so are the hours of work performed by the writers, and those hours are especially costly when they aren’t used productively. Companies would benefit from making the most of what technology can offer, and saving the time—not to mention the tech writers’ talents—they are currently wasting.

Using the “Band-Aid approach,” again and again

The Band-Aid approach (flickr: jetalone)

I know it’s hard to think past the implementation cost and short-term productivity loss that accompanies a major change in publishing processes. So I wasn’t too surprised to see companies making quick fixes to their tech comm problems instead—often with a shiny new tool that’s supposed to solve everything. After four years of journalism school, I knew these kinds of fixes didn’t just happen in tech comm, but in any deadline-driven industry.

The real surprise was seeing companies using the “Band-Aid approach” or picking tools for their tech writers without a strategy over and over. When I learn about clients’ tech comm publishing histories, and they go something like, “First we had Tool X, then switched to Tool Y, then changed managers and got Tool Z,” it’s clear that a) content strategy is not as high a priority as it should be, and b) these companies are not learning from their mistakes. This is not only costly to them, but unfair to their tech writers.

Need for convergence between tech comm and marcomm

Working in tech comm with a background in journalism and multimedia design, I immediately discovered how much tech comm differs from marcomm. For example, I saw that there wasn’t as much room for design in tech comm—trying to have too much control over formatting can interfere with efficiency in an automated workflow. I was worried that this would make it difficult to use my background in my new career. So I was pleasantly surprised to see Scriptorium and others in the industry talking about a growing need for tech comm and marcomm to converge.

At the very least, these two departments should collaborate with each other instead of working in separate silos. This would help solve the problem I mentioned earlier of tech writers being disconnected from users. It could also encourage collaboration amongst all of a company’s departments for a more unified (and ultimately successful) business.

As I move forward with my career and keep building knowledge inside the tech comm industry, I hope to maintain some of my outsider’s perspective, or at least remember what it was like to be new. Taking a step back to think about how a person with no knowledge of tech comm might view our industry and our issues can help us be more logical in our approach to content strategy. It can also help tech pubs teams communicate more effectively with others in their companies and with users of their content.

What are some surprising things you’ve encountered in tech comm? And how can we work toward resolving the issues addressed here?