The Great Debate: It’s All Technical Communication

TechWhirl may be in one of the best positions ever to present both sides of this great, and long-standing debate. We’ve got lots of exposure to and experience in both technical communication and marketing.  However, in the interests of fairness and objectivity, we decided that asking a thought leader to defend the statement “It’s all Technical Communication” with the answers to five sort of simple questions about the critical role and value of Technical Communication in an organization. The president of the Society of Technical Communication (STC) seemed like a great candidate, and Alan Houser graciously accepted the challenge.

How and why is the customer key to what practitioners do in technical communication?

The success of any organization depends on the customer. And the mission of the technical communicator is to make the customer successful.You may say, “I work for a government agency.” Or a non-profit organization. Or an educational institution. Or an association. But all organizations have customers in some form – customers, members, constituents, students.Your audience may be internal or external to the organization. For example, you may provide documentation for internal policies and procedures, or internal software.  But the success of the organization depends on its success in supporting its customers.

How do technical communication practitioners play a role in product development?

In an ideal situation, the technical communicator sits as a member of the product development team. The technical communicator, by nature, must learn about the product from the users’ perspective, and is ideally suited to serve in a user advocate role.The technical communicator often performs a user experience role. Providing user personas. Developing and testing workflows.  Reporting design flaws or unnecessary complexity. Contributing to the overall user experience.

How and why is product knowledge (features, benefits, usage, etc.) critical to technical communication?

The mission of the technical communicator is to empower the user to use the product or service successfully. The technical communicator is experience designer, information architect, user advocate, usability expert, and writer.The technical communicator must have strong product knowledge, but at the same time cannot be too “close” to the product (a common affliction among developers). The technical communicator must know the product, know the user, and think in terms of how the user will engage the product.

What are the requirements in creating effective technical communication content?

There’s one universal axiom in technical communication: “Know your audience.”The technical communicator must know the audience. He or she must know the product or service, from the user’s perspective. The technical communicator must understand the user’s goals, background, and experience, and must have a sense of how the user will engage the product or service to be successful.With that knowledge, the technical communicator must create appropriate content, in the appropriate format, to support the user’s success.

Why does technical communication play a more central role than marketing communication in the organization?

There’s an old sales cliché – “Sell the Sizzle, not the Steak.” The marketing writer sells the sizzle. Describes the customer experience. Promotes the product. Helps the customer to envision how the product will make him or her more successful.The technical communicator must follow up on the promise. Must support the customer in experiencing the “Sizzle.” Must work closely with the product team, ideally to influence the design of the product, and certainly to support its users in being successful.Both roles – marketing and technical communicators – are critical to the success of the organization. But the technical communicator is more likely to be involved throughout the product lifecycle, and is more likely to influence the design of the product and the user experience.

Get into the debate from MarComm Spy’s point-of-view.

Alan Houser

Alan Houser, the 2012-2013 president of the Society for Technical Communication, trains and consults in the field of technical publishing. He and the staff and contractors of Group Wellesley, Inc. train writers in the popular technical communication tools such as Adobe FrameMaker, structured FrameMaker, Justsystems XMetaL, and some of the popular technologies like XML and DITA. They focus on helping clients set up processes and workflows to streamline technical publishing. Alan has a storied career in the STC, serving as president of the Pittsburgh chapter, and working his way up through the regional and national organizations. He served as conference manager for the STC Summit in 2010 and 2011, and took office as president at the Summit in Chicago in May.

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