Change and obsolescence are a constant reality of our lives. In most spheres of life, we can anticipate and prepare ourselves for the changes that lay ahead. But when it comes to technology, the change is so sudden and disruptive, that we are swept aside before we realize what hit us! A number of technology companies can be cited that were caught unawares in the technology wave – Moser Baer, Nortel, Compaq, the list goes on.
Ever wondered how some prominent and successful products suddenly vanish from the market or are forced to undergo major changes, due to seemingly unrelated alternatives? For instance, the hapless bed-side alarm clock simply vanished at the advent of mobile phones. Or the humble post card became a vintage souvenir after people discovered the joy of emailing!
During my MBA days, I was fascinated by the concept of externalities in Economics. The above examples are typical cases of this economic phenomenon. Technological externality refers to an economic / business situation where the function of one firm is favorably or unfavorably affected by the function of other firms engaged in unrelated technologies. What’s this got to do with changes in technical writing, you might ask. Plenty, actually.
Technical writing has always been an integral part of the product lifecycle. Before the digital revolution, technical documentation was the only way to reach out to the target user, at any lifecycle phase.
The diagram below illustrates various technical documents that product teams
prepare in each phase.
But today a powerful and self-explanatory UI makes lengthy documentation redundant! Not just IT products, even brick-and-mortar products are looking to replace voluminous documentation by glossy brochures with pictures instead of words!
I recently purchased a Bosch DIY drilling kit. It did not have a single word printed on the instruction manual! Just 2 pages of pictures of various steps to follow. Design in Germany, make in China, sell in India, without bothering with any of these languages in the technical documentation. You save on the cost of hiring language translators, and also make it easy to simultaneously launch your products in several countries. Now that’s a big change, that could potentially endanger the traditional breed of technical writers, force them to reinvent themselves.
So does that mean, technical writers are to be an extinct species soon?No, not yet, not entirely.
There are some aspects of technical writing that are rather timeless and resistant to change. Such as the basic purpose of technical writing. Which is to educate, attract and convince the customer about the suitability of a product to his needs. Once he buys the product, he needs guidance on how to use it, what do to when it stops working and soon. These actions can be divided into 3-time slots:
This phase has 2 possibilities :–
The first possibility is that yours could be a product “built to order” to suit a particular customer’s needs. The product can be conceived and produced exactly as per the customer’s requirements. Customized luxury cars sold to individual high net worth buyers or customized telecom equipment sold to network service providers are cases in point. The associated documentation is listed below:
In the second possibility, your product could be for mass consumption and hence “built-to-scale”. Think generic goods like LCD TVs, laptops, and mobile phones. Here the documentation before sales is internally directed. The associated documentation is listed below.
Once the product vendor and purchaser come to the point of sale, some contractual
documents are exchanged. They are:
The product enters its design and development phases if “built-to-order”,
finally followed by installation and maintenance at the customer premises. The
documents produced for these activities are:
Most of the above-mentioned documents are mandatory and they need to be prepared for all kinds of products- physical goods, service intensive products, software – and are present even in products of today. However, the names and contents might change according to the nature of the product.
What is changing constantly are the subject areas covered (due to newer products in new technology spaces), tools used for drafting technical documents, media used to publish these documents and increased video content against written content.
Technical writers are essentially people who are familiar with the product and the underlying function it provides to the customer. In the traditional sense, the technical writing was associated with electrical / electronic equipment as consumer goods, defense equipment, infrastructure projects, etc. For instance, the technical documentation produced by NASA is supposedly around 4 million official records! They have their own strict documentation style guide and hundreds of people employed in their documentation department.
But technical writers need to brace themselves for new emerging technologies constantly. Medical electronics, process automation, cloud-based online products, complex financial instruments – these are some of the current flavors of the market space. Those technical writers who successfully manage the leap, thrive, while the rest struggle to survive.
Advertorials – These are articles written in print/digital media on technical subjects by subject matter experts. But the written content would show an inclination to promote a certain company or a specific product. Such documentation serves dual purposes – educating and inducing the public!
Digital content for hand-held devices – Transition from printed material to digital content for PCs and laptops signified a paradigm shift in technical writing. The next step is moving to concise, easy to grasp content presented on miniature, portable smartphone devices.
Cloud storage of technical manuals – Technical documents are no longer bundled with the product alone. Your washing machine is several years old and you have misplaced the user manual ? Never mind, you can access the manual online anytime, anywhere.
IT based authoring tools – In the print era, technical writing encompassed several sub-roles of copy editors, proof-readers, stenographers, typists, publishers, etc. But today these roles are replaced by powerful software products, some of them are –
Associated roles in tech writing:
Is there a case of the traditional technical writer to fret? Not if he or she can morph into one of these new age role associated with technical documentation.
And last but not the least, good old bloggers like me can make a living writing pages about everything in general and nothing in particular!
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