Integrated Technical Communications: A Map to Better Understanding

Editor’s note: we’re republishing one of our more popular articles during the summertime slowdown–whether you’re working or on holiday, it’s worth a re-read.

Tech Writer Today’s Integrated Technical Communications column is brought to you by Adobe Systems, Inc. Download a 30-day free trial of Adobe FrameMaker here.

As immediate past president for my local STC community, here’s a message I encountered at the beginning of January and immediately addressed by phone. Needless to say, the technical communications evangelist in me kicked into high gear. What can we do to make certification gain momentum within the technical communications community and visibility in the general business community? The hiring managers are hungry for it.

“Hi there,
 
I am hoping you can help me in determining the qualifications I should be asking for when requesting bids for technical writing services. I have a series of standards manuals that need updating and I hired a Project Manager to manage all the consultants needed to coordinate the work.
 
Unfortunately, the PM is telling me that there is no such thing as a technical writer, and that I should just use his admin person to “do the typing”.
 
Help! I am hoping to talk to someone from your industry to determine:
a) What qualifications I should be asking for?
b) If they do not have a Certified Professional in Technical Communication (CPTC) designation, what should they have to make sure I get what I want?”

 

In Connie Giordano’s and Al Martine’s first installment of this series, Integrated Technical Communications: A Strategy for Technical Communicators, they write about, and advocate, the concept of integrated technical communications (ITC), arguing that the technical communicator role is evolving such that, “We need a change in mindset because we are being relied on more and more to be key players in our companies’ communication programs… and if we’re not, we should be.” They go on to address different aspects of an evolved technical communications field and tentatively define ITC as follows with the caveat that it will become clearer as we shed more light on the idea:

The coordination and integration of all technical communication processes, tools, functions, and sources within an organization to convey information and knowledge relevant to optimizing the users’ product experience.

This article is the second installment of the series and in it, I will address what I think is a major problem in our field and propose a practical call to action. It may well be too simple, but it’s my approach to ITC evangelism and I really like TechWhirl’s approach, so I’m on board.

Why am I getting involved? What’s in it for me? I want a simple, standard visual definition of Technical Communications, which I believe does not exist today so that I can:

  • show my post grad tech comm students at Seneca College in Toronto, at a glance, exactly what they’ve signed up for.
  • show my clients, at a glance, our realm of rich ROI when you embrace content management strategies and super cool tools, so that they interpret tech comm as an integrated part of their software solution.
  • show the folks at technicity.ca and Chambers of Commerce around the globe what’s in it for them to partner with STC.org and jump on the tech comm evangelism bandwagon.

The way I see it, technical communications sits at the core of all top quality software solutions. We guide technology user experience – and not just through manuals. At the LavaCon Conference 2011, Andrea Ames, STC past president and recognized usability expert was heard saying, “We don’t write manuals, we solve problems.” Who should be designing the getting started wizards? That’s right. But we’re not the only profession that guides the end user experience, and I’m not saying that we are.

Technical communications overlaps with all the other fields involved in the software development lifecycle and often our job objectives dovetail with the business analysts, interaction designers, software architects, product managers, marketing specialists, and so on. We’ve branded ourselves as Jack of all trades, which is tricky to define, especially when some of us want to drive the user experience as leaders, while others just want to passively contribute. We’re an eclectic bunch.

The core problem is that not everyone in the business realm recognizes we exist as the integral part of the product lifecycle that we are. We haven’t penetrated the general business market and we sell ourselves short … as in missed $$$. This is a major challenge for us and it’s time we took action instead of hiding behind our single sourced and reused words, where it feels safe. There’s collaborative work to be done and decisions to be made. Time to step outside of the comfort zone and get noticed!

The painful truth of technical communications today

Does this sound familiar?

“So what do you do for a living?” 
 
“I’m a Technical Communicator.”
 
“What does that mean?”
 
“I make complicated software easy to grasp for the average Joe so that they can do their jobs more efficiently.”
 
“Pardon?”
 
“I interview subject matter experts and end users to find out what tasks they need to complete with their software. Then I develop task based user guides or online help or classroom training or quick reference guides or demos or videos or all of the above, using minimalist writing and really cool tools, so that we reuse content to reduce effort and mistakes and get all the work done with tight deadlines for maximum ROI! Yeah! Cool right?!”
 
Blank stare
 
“Do you know what DITA is?”
 
Another blank stare
 
“Never mind.”

 

What can we do to fix the visibility problem for technical communications?

Having been completely entrenched in the field of technical communications for over 15 years now, and worn a few different permutations of the technical communicator hat, I’d like to approach the integrated technical communication evangelism exercise from what I see as the right side of the software development lifecycle rather than the left side.

Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) spectrum: technology to the left, business to the right

I’ve worked on development teams, product management teams, and marketing teams and the left side is solution, technology, process, and details oriented while the right side focuses on the customer business needs, messaging, and building relationships, plus they’re the ones who close the deals.

The proposal

At the LavaCon conference, November 2011, in Austin, Texas, Alan Houser, STC Vice President, retweeted Ankur Jain, Product Manager at Adobe Systems, “RT @ankurjain8: Tech Communicators haven’t been known to lead the way. I think it’s the time for that to change. @scottabel #LavaCon,” and Jack Molisani, LavaCon Executive Director, issued a challenge to investigate the value/ROI we bring to our organizations and report back in a year.

I propose we take Alan and Jack’s advice and, using TechWhirl’s foundational definition, collaborate to develop a simple, common, visual message, and then develop a communication strategy to get the word out about what technical communication is all about.

We need a map that guides the non-technical communicator through our realm – provides context and clarity for a particular outcome. The outcome I’m looking for is wiping the blank stare off of the general public’s faces when I bring up the term technical communications. It won’t happen overnight but a map will help provide context by illustrating what our field encompasses at a glance.

The target audience for our message

Let’s stop defining technical communications for us—because that part is already done—and start figuring out how to make our field penetrable for these particular audiences:

  1. Executive Leadership who are in charge of the strategic direction of their companies, products and financial allocations.
  2. Senior management who are responsible for defining the processes involved in troubleshooting business issues… the ones that can be solved through integrated technical communications.
  3. Newcomers who know that technical communications is a fruitful field to get into but don’t understand where they fit best, how to launch their careers, or how to promote their value.

These audiences are central to my proposal because executive and senior management have the money and authority to actively promote technical communications evangelism, and newcomers need a better understanding of how to grow the profession and their careers.

The design

Good news! We do not need to invent a new model but adopt one already recognized worldwide. A model people refer to when they need to find something quickly in a big overwhelming sea of stores. A model people can adapt for their own purposes:

The mall map of course! You can also refer to it as the more formal: store directory.

It’s the perfect example of a visual communication tool that provides context and clarity for a particular outcome and it works for a variety of audiences and a variety of outcomes.

Think about it for a minute. Many different audiences visit the mall for many different purposes. Same thing applies for visitors to and residents of technical communications.

Toronto is a pretty great place for big malls, and I’ve investigated most of them, and their maps. I think the best one to use for our exercise is Vaughan Mills. This mall is north of Toronto, just south of Canada’s Wonderland and was built about three years ago, so all aspects of its design are current.

 

The Mall Map for Vaughan Mills, north of Toronto

The ITC Mall Map: Q and A

In order for us to come up with an ITC Mall Map, let’s start by generating answers to the following questions:

  1. What are our anchor stores? Content Management? DITA? Usability? Tech Comm Tools?
  2. What are our different entry points? English Degree? Subject Matter Expert? Career Shift?
  3. For what purpose are people using this directory? Searching for business solution? Searching for a career? Where to go next in your career?
  4. What are the independent stores? Accessibility? Standards?
  5. What are the different categories we can list the stores under? Tools? Content Management?

Those are enough questions to get you thinking. There won’t be one design that makes everyone happy because we all exist as technical communicators in slightly different contexts. I’d like to see feedback from the content management experts, tools experts, standards experts, accessibility experts, training experts, and so on.

STC Body of Knowledge: A foundation for the ITC Mall Map

By most accounts, and their track record for leading tangible changes in the brand of Technical Communications, the Society for Technical Communication is and should be a major player in ITC. In fact, STC.org has already done most of the legwork for our ITC Mall Map.

Countless hours of research, work, and debates have gone into building STC’s Body of Knowledge. It is already a directory that works and we should use it; however, it is very detailed, a work in progress, and is penetrable only by technical communicators who have a good sense of the neighborhood.

The ITC Mall Map is targeted at newcomers and management so we’ll need STC and the wider community of technical communicators participating here. So, folks from STC, local chapters, SIGs, TECHWR-L, other discussion boards, LinkedIn, and other locations, please lend your opinions to help create the right language.

If you are looking for standard definitions, start with the links provided here. The problem is not definition anymore but gaining visibility and providing the right context for our definitions. It’s time to sell the program.

What comes next?

I am a technical communications generalist and my area of expertise lies in customer service and information solutions that target specific business needs. I am a facilitator and I see a business need here.

Please provide your feedback to this article in the comments section below so we can get healthy debate going. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I sure will be able to sell ITC ROI much more effectively even with an initial ITC Mall Map draft in place.

By developing a simple, visual ITC Mall Map that is embraced by STC and then shared with the technical communications community, we can strengthen our global message. It’s not the brand yet, but a visual definition of something that encompasses a lot of space. It’s not easy to define a profession that bridges moving targets. I teach my students that we bridge technology, communications, and human nature. We guide humans through the ever-evolving worlds of technology and communications and in order to do that, we need a map. A map provides context for technical communications so that newcomers and management can find a clear path towards achieving particular outcomes in our neighborhood. Once people understand our neighborhood, trust me, we’ll get noticed!

A special thank you to Adobe Systems, Inc. for sponsoring our Integrated Technical Communications column. You can learn more about Adobe’s industry-leading technical communication tools by going to their website.


Gurpreet Singh

7 years ago

Nice one Anna!

I’m looking forward to the mall map for the chosen one (aka Technical Writers).

Gurpreet

Andrew Brooke

7 years ago

Awesome article Anna! It is indeed one of the greatest ironies of our profession that we are unable to clearly define what we do. Part of the problem is that so many of us do so many different things. “Technical writer” is a misnomer, because we actually strive to make things *less* technical.

I love the idea of a mall map – perhaps it should have a big dot on it to indicate: You are here,

In addition to a visual aid, our profession could use a catchy slogan: here are some to mull over:
* Technical communicators: making sense out of nonsense.
* Simplify. Clarify. De-mystify. Be a Technical Communicator.
* Technical communicators: translating machine information for humans for over 100 years.
* Technical communicators: we move information forward.

Ray Gallon

7 years ago

Anna, great article, right on the money. I like the mall map analogy, sounds like something we should be working on collectively!

Pamela Allison

7 years ago

Wow Anna! Very impressive article!

Anna Parker-Richards (@aparkerrichards)

7 years ago

Thanks for the kudos everyone.

Andrew, thanks for the slogans – a good start. Plus the idea of the “you are here” arrow. Exactly what I’m shooting for. Anyone entering the field as a young’n or someone who is switching careers can bring past experience with them. A “you are here” arrow is most definitely a feature we will use on the map. Also, the store directory. How do we set that up? What are the categories. If you look at mall maps, many of them filter info, not only by category, but also alphabetically. They also list services that the malls offer. Every single element of a mall map applies here, especially the you are here arrow.

Ray, I would love to know what your mall map looks like – Ray is an uber technical communicator and tech comm professor – I would love to see your mall map. My next steps are to start interviewing and collecting data. This can’t be done in a vacuum. Fun project! Looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Prasenjit

7 years ago

My two cents and I may not be right; but it appears to be working at our organisation.

First, sell technical communications as a service. (and associated KPIs of course – clients love to get that assurance)

The service is comprised of several sub-units (you can call them stores in your analogy)

Each service unit has its individual sub-units with different pricing (and yes, to take the mall analogy further, differential pricing by volumes, peak and off-peak times etc. also exist for our services)

These individual service units deliver different output. Each output type becomes our showcase – a sort of shop front to show what you get from each service type, thus offering a pick and choose selection for the organisation.

And yes, we are a technical communication service. I would be happy to collaborate in a formal set up and detail how we have done this and showed value to the management. In fact, the approach has got us higher visibility and well, we do not crib anymore…people now perceive value, since everything is defined in monetary units.

Rebecca Fleisch Cordeiro

6 years ago

Hello Ms. Parker-Richards,

Thank you for the timely article, “Integrated Technical Communications – a Map to Better Understanding”, written 1/18/12 and posted at TechWhirl: http://tinyurl.com/6mtsu8p. I look forward to seeing this map evolve, providing a clearer explanation to me and those for whom I must provide a definition about technical communication. I do have a question about one statement in particular within the article. A bit of background first to help clarify.

I’ve been an Instructional Designer for many years, officially (i.e., with a graduate degree) since 2002. My work has always involved writing courseware, sequencing training, and facilitating classes. Three years ago I began (again) to contract (freelance) and have been hired to create instructional videos for a few different clients using Camtasia Studio, PowerPoint, and Audacity. The work has included, as is often the case with techcomm, researching, writing, script writing, narration, synchronization, and production.

But…it doesn’t always involve a software development cycle…or even software at all. Thus, my question about this statement (next-to-last paragraph under the main heading).
“Technical communications overlaps with all the other fields involved in the software development lifecycle and often our job objectives dovetail with the business analysts, interaction designers, software architects, product managers, marketing specialists, and so on.”

I’m inferring from this that TC only relates to software development. Is this true?

Before I recently had my business cards created, I looked at STC.org’s definition (http://tinyurl.com/5tqqpgc), and contacted my SIG’s president to see if I would be misleading people if I used Technical Communicator as a title. I described what I do and what I don’t do (e.g., coding kinds of work). He stated in strong terms that I am definitely a technical communicator.

My business cards have been created…but I’m still struggling with this concept, and that statement in the article made me begin to wonder again.

Thanks for any light you can shed on this…and apologies for the length of this post.

Anna Parker-Richards (@aparkerrichards)

6 years ago

Becky, thank-you for pointing out this important aspect of the Technical Communications definition. Much appreciated.

In my opinion, NO, technical communication most definitely does not only apply to software. You raise a good point about how I positioned my article – it was a bit misleading. When it comes to technical communications, the world I understand best is software development, because that’s my area of expertise, so that’s what I wrote about.

However, as a technical communications evangelist, I want to clarify for the audiences specified in the article–students and executives–that technical communications is the concept of making complex concepts easier to understand using a variety of communications strategies and tools. So it’s not just technology. This is where we need to be clear about what we mean by “technical” because it can apply to all sorts of topics that sit outside of hardware and software. We need to address this in the ITC Mall Map… hmm, but how?

Here’s another question we need to answer – What do we mean by “technical” when we say Technical Communications? What are some of our other verticals besides hardware and software?

Rebecca Fleisch Cordeiro

6 years ago

So clever, “making sense out of nonsense.” Not sure we could actually put it on a business card, but wouldn’t it be cute with a catchy little tune :-)

TechWhirl: Technical Communications Recap for January 20, 2012

6 years ago

[…] of integrated technical communications increasingly relevant.  Anna Parker-Richards article, Integrated Technical Communications: A Map to Better Understanding, takes on one aspect of the challenge by proposing the ITC Mall Map to define what we do in a […]

Integrated Technical Communications and the Content Revolution

6 years ago

[…] Two recent columns in Tech Writer Today illustrate the importance of a technical communications approach that places the function closer to the center of an organization’s business strategy.  In Integrated Technical Communications: A Strategy for Technical Communicators, Al Martine and I describe an initial framework and develop a definition for Integrated Technical Communications.   In the next ITC article, Anna Parker-Richards recently proposed a method for visually defining and communicating ITC and its strategic value in her piece, Integrated Technical Communications: A Map to Better Understanding. […]

Scott Abel

6 years ago

Great article, Anna. As the trouble-maker in the #techcomm industry famous for lines like the one Ankur retweeted (“RT @ankurjain8: Tech Communicators haven’t been known to lead the way. I think it’s the time for that to change. @scottabel #LavaCon,”) I can say with confidence that you are spot on. We need to redefine and reshape ourselves. And, we need tools, techniques, and some creative thinking to get us we we need to go.

That said, Jack Molisani and I have been challenging technical communicators to think differently for some time now. Our recent article in Intercom spells out part of the problem (http://intercom.stc.org/2012/03/tech-comm-2-0-reinventing-our-relevance-in-the-2000s/) but due to lack of space and editors who are sensitive to what we’d really want to say, the article only touches on the tip of the iceberg.

Karen McGrane, a content strategist who was interviewed at an event I hosted at PayPal eBay UK (Content Strategy Applied 2012) responded to a question from an audience member about something tangentially relate to our problem. When asked about the cause and solutions for problems we all know shouldn’t exist (but do) she basically said, it’s a generational problem. We won’t be talking about this in 10-20 years. We will be doing it the way we talk about now, but it will be the way things are done. I think this line of thinking will be true of technical communication as well, especially as new educators (and older ones with willingness to explore fresh ideas and new approaches) start teaching new techcommers the skill set the need to work in today’s always on, socially-enabled, dynamic content driven world. There are many things that will be changing in our field, but I doubt that it (most of the field) will change for some time. Sure, we need to — and yes, I want it to — but I don’t believe that it will.

As researchers at Aberdeen call them, the “laggards” will be around for some time, dragging their heels and wishing for a world that no loner exists, telling people who are trying to change things why we can’t do it that way — usually because “they’ve never done it that way” or some regurgitation of the notion that there’s reason not to change.

What is certain is that there is a new field of technical communication pros (of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels) reshaping what techcomm will look like in the future. I’m hopeful more of our ilk will jump inn the train and come along for the ride, sooner, rather than later.

Keep up the good work thinking outside the box.

B.J. Smith

6 years ago

Anna, this certainly is thought-provoking.

I can see how the mall map idea might be useful for thinking about the many aspects of technical communications in order to develop a message. It is more difficult to see how the metaphor will be used to deliver the message. (Possibly because I detest shopping so much, I have some reservations.)

Diagramming is one thing; persuading the audience that the diagram is worth examining and understanding may be the bigger challenge.

Looking forward to seeing how this evolves…

Rio

6 years ago

Anna,

Having read this in class, I am glad you’ve taken the time to illustrate a solution to tackling the underlying uncertainty regarding the overall merit of this emerging profession. While I’ve likened the visual interpretation of the technical writer to website mapping, the ITC Mall Directory works more efficiently to encompass several key questions of the profession regarding:

1) Direction
2) Multi-facted skill entry
3) Independent end user experience

I agree with B.J. Smith in that having to persuade the higher ups in examining the diagram in the first place may prove to be the more difficult part. Though the field remains to be in its infant stages, I can foresee leaps and bounds in the coming years with the emergence of highly technical information systems and the use of newer and more competitive hardware/software.

Chantel

6 years ago

Spread the word! Tech Comm rocks!
I love the mall map and the potential it shows for technical writers. When you showed us, I was relieved to have a nice visual– it helped me understand the profession and the many different possibilities it holds for us. Nice one!