Applied Empathy: the Unique Value of Technical Writers and User Advocacy

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“Writing is easy. Anyone can do it. Just line up a bunch of words and tack a period on the end. Repeat as necessary.”

-Folks who don’t understand

“We promised the customer some doc this afternoon. Make these specs pretty.”

-Other folks who really don’t understand

When faced with these sorts of misunderstandings, how do you make a case for technical writers?

Why pay us? What makes us so special?

Is it our technical ability? Unlikely, when so many of our coworkers out-tech and out-specialize us. Most tech writers I know don’t have a technical degree (mine is “Pre- and Early Modern Literature”).

Is it because our work is difficult? We thrive at the nexus of so many disciplines, integrating the knowledge of engineering, UX, product management, support, and marketing to craft effective communication for multiple audiences within schedules that we have little control over.

That sounds like hard work, but employers don’t pay just because the work is hard.

For example, in high school I got a summer job at a teriyaki take-out joint. I worked many 12-hour shifts alone. I opened, prepped, cooked, served, took orders, ran the register, handled customer complaints, cleaned, and closed. Hot oil blistered skin. Sharp blades drew blood. The wok burner blasted my forearms hairless.

It was hard work. It was dangerous work. I earned minimum wage.

So if employers don’t pay for hard work, what do they pay for? They pay for what they value.

What unique skill makes a technical writer valuable?

Technical writers are special and valuable because we wield applied empathy.

Applied Empathy Defined

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley defines empathy as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling [that] helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others.”

Empathy is passive. Applied empathy is active. Applied empathy bolsters that “ability to sense” with empirical tools and processes to collect actionable data. Imagination is enhanced with metrics, feedback, and analytics so that you can create useful documentation informed by your understanding of users’ perspectives, needs, and intentions.

How It Works: Empathy Versus Ego

Empathy moderates your ego. This is fundamental to how applied empathy works.

To be clear, a healthy ego is vital to your work. You need confidence in yourself, in your mission, and in your abilities so that you can push a project to completion through distractions and competing priorities.

However, unchecked ego is counterproductive.

Ego makes you defensive. You’re apt to disregard evidence that your doc isn’t working as well as you might expect. For example, say you have support tickets flowing in for concepts and procedures that are thoroughly documented. You know they are thoroughly documented because you’ve spent weeks writing hundreds of pages on the topics. Your users obviously didn’t bother to read the doc. RTFM, you stupid, lazy users!

Taken to a further extreme, malignant ego makes you paranoid and possessive. Documentation is your turf. You feel threatened by others encroaching on it. Documentation is a zero-sum game: if anyone else works on the doc, it means either less work and security for the writer or more work and hassle for the writer who has to compensate for non-writers’ incompetence. Developers writing doc? Anathema! Only tech writers know how to follow the time-honored guidelines for writing good, end-user documentation. Malignant ego drives the stereotypical technical writer.

Empathy provides a healthy dose of objective reality, in which you step beyond your own perspectives and needs. Your users don’t care how much work you’ve put into your doc and they shouldn’t have to. Instead of wasting energy on resentment and recrimination, you can start asking productive questions like “Why didn’t our users read the doc?” and “How can we make the doc better?” and “What doc do our users actually need?”

You may find some questions difficult to ask, but by acknowledging imperfection, you open yourself up to growth and improvement. You can see criticism and bugs as opportunities, not attacks. You understand that your doc will never be perfect but can always be better.

And in place of ego-driven paranoia, empathy fosters humility and motivates you to collaborate. You are a kick-ass tech writer and you’re secure in your skills and experience, but you can admit that you don’t know everything, you don’t have all the answers, and, more importantly, you can’t do everything yourself. Maybe your support team can lend your docs a fresh user perspective. Maybe you should encourage engineers to write the first draft.

How It Works: Application

You feel enlightened and in-tune with your users. Your doc is imperfect, your process isn’t optimal, but you know they can be better and you have a lot of questions. Now what?

How do you make your doc better? How do you get your answers?

You need data.

If you want to know where you’re going, you need to know where you started. Data helps you establish baselines (where you started) and identify trends (where you’re going).

Here is where the “applied” part of applied empathy comes in. At this point, you apply the insights gained with empathy to build, deploy, and maintain empirical tools and processes to get actionable data:

  • Metrics: Passive data collection tracks user behavior. Metrics can tell you how your users are using your docs and can help you identify spots that need attention.
  • Testing and feedback: Metrics are important, but they don’t give you reliable insight into your users’ experience. To get at your users’ intentions, expectations, or satisfaction, you need active and interactive data gathering, such as surveys and A/B testing. Give the user conspicuous but non-intrusive tools to express their triumphs and frustration. Reframe your doc questions as testable hypotheses and run A/B tests on topics or workflows identified by your metrics.
  • Collaboration: I guarantee you that piles of useful information about your product and your users’ experience wait to be discovered elsewhere in your organization: in a salesperson’s head, in contact reports maintained by your technical account managers, or in the Support group’s ticket management system. Some of that info might already have data-driven processes on it. Not everyone may be as woke to the opportunities of collaboration as you are, so it would be prudent and considerate in your proposals to other groups to emphasize the upside potential of your work together. They’ll jump at the chance to report fewer new support tickets or the possibility for successful ticket deflection into the docs.
  • Data analysis: Revisit your questions and hypotheses. Did you reach any conclusion or is the current cycle inconclusive? Even ambiguous results yield useful feedback that you can use to dial in your process. Maybe you should ask different questions. Either way, your results drive the next empathy-driven iteration of gather/analyze/improve.

Applied empathy is a process, not a silver bullet or a total solution. In fact, you’d make a mistake to quest for a complete solution. The instant you believe that you have all the answers and that your work is done, you short-circuit applied empathy’s virtuous cycle and start a descent into complacency. There be dragons… and pernicious stereotyped tech writers made flesh.

How Applied Empathy Creates Value

So now your doc is improving. In some spots it might even objectively be considered “good” doc because you have the data to prove it.

But employers don’t pay for hard work and they don’t pay for good doc. They pay for value.

What value does your doc bring?

  • Efficiency: If your organization has already committed to producing documentation, it may as well produce it as efficiently as possible. Your collaboration with other groups means that tech writers more tightly integrate with how your company develops, promotes, and supports your product. Now tech writers leave less room for wasteful disconnects and misunderstandings. And, your entire workforce is better informed, more efficient, and more engaged because they either contributed to the doc directly or they have easy access to fresh doc.
  • Agility: Applied empathy’s virtuous cycle keeps the doc continually improving and responsive to change. There’s less wasteful churn from release to release. Also, with the doc so fresh and accessible, your company can reduce onboarding time for new hires whether or not it invests in formal orientation and training.
  • Reduced risk: You have less chance of disastrously large mistakes that affect operational, reputational, or compliance risk, because most change is continuous and gradual. You can drive large changes and new work with what you objectively know about user needs.
  • Ownership: Documentation is a channel through which all employees can contribute materially to the user experience and to user success.

Beyond these internal dividends, the greatest value that applied empathy brings is through user engagement.

Hopefully you’ve experienced the joy and relief as user when you find documentation that fits you and your situation. You know what you need to know. You can do the thing you need to get done. You feel that the company understands you and cares about your success.

With applied empathy, that special tech-writer skill, you have a greater chance of rewarding your users with exceptionally useful documentation that enables the kind exceptional user experience you want for yourself. In this high-tech world of algorithmic big-data “connection” where your interactions with a company constantly border on creepiness, useful doc crafted for your users by skilled, empathetic users’ advocates can be the most effective tool to foster a real, human connection.

How much would you pay for that?


Big thanks to Mark Baker (@mbakeranalecta) for his inspirational tweet calling for an “elevator pitch for why docs are hard to do” and to Marie Louise-Flacke (@Flacke) for calling me out about doc process.

Also thanks to Rose Williams (@ZelWms) for showing that collaboration can work, even if it leaves you feeling a little Cassandra-like.

Most of all, I need to thank Kat King (@SatchKat and Jen Lambourne (@Jenny__Anne) for their presentations at Write the Docs Portland 2018 demonstrating applied empathy in action so clearly and compellingly.

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