How Technical Writing Is Changing With The Times

Anuradha 5 Comments. Technical Writing

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.

How Technical Writing Is Changing With The Times - Technical documents made in each product life cycle 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!

Also Read: How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times

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.

What aspect of technical writing DOES NOT CHANGE with time?

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:

1. Before the sale of the product:

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:

  • Customer floats tender proposals to invite product vendors to bid for the contract.
  • Product companies respond with competitive bids for winning the tender, with
    technical and commercial information
  • Once the tender is awarded, the product company comes out with detailed product specifications and delivery agreements.

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.

  • Market research and competitive analysis reports which act as the input sources
    for product feature specifications.
  • Technical white papers elaborating the functionality and feasibility of
    implementation.

 2. During the sale:

Once the product vendor and purchaser come to the point of sale, some contractual
documents are exchanged. They are:

  • Sale agreement– to define the terms and conditions of sale, pricing, delivery dates,
    distribution channels, branding and packaging
  • Service warranty– mutual agreement on after sales service.
  • Press releases, media promotions– mainly for products aimed at end customer purchase.

3. After the sale of the product:

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:

  • Product document architecture– defining the various documents to be part of the product at delivery
  • User experience reports and instruction manuals prepared by the technical writer while acting as a proxy user and testing the product before customer delivery.
  • Installation manuals and troubleshooting guides for use by the customer during installation.
  • Maintenance through AMC documents and Migration manual to facilitate
    migration to newer versions of the product.

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 aspect of technical writing DOES CHANGE with time?

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.

How Technical Writing Is Changing With The Times - How documentation changed with technology

Subject Areas:

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.

New age tools and trends in technical writing:

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 –

  • Word processors (Microsoft Word, Open Office)
  • Authoring and publishing tools (Microsoft Visio, Abode Frame Maker, WordPress)
  • Image editors (Adobe Photoshop, GIMP)
  • Web development tools (Dream Weaver).

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.

  • As an illustrator, you can use graphic sketches and picture-stories to condense written content into visual form.
  • A layout designer can plan the web page layout of blogs and web pages.
  • Script writers can use roles plays to elaborate on a product’s user functions.
  • User experience testers can act as proxy end users and simulate actual usage to discover human usage behavior patterns and ease of use.
  • Video content creators can churn out product usage videos using live demos, animation content.

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!

Also Read: 14 Misconceptions About Technical Writing That You Should Know!


 

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Anuradha

Anuradha

Anuradha is a freelance writer cum corporate trainer in the IT / telecom domain with over 16 years experience. She served in senior technical and management positions in Huawei and TCS for 10+ years. Then gave up the traditional corporate ladder to go solo - in order to escape horrendous city traffic and to be her own boss !
Anuradha
  • Rehmanshareef

    Great article, Anuradha

    • Anuradha C

      Thanks for the appreciation Rehman !

  • Joseph Thomas

    Great article. Technical writing should be a compulsory subject in engineering colleges.

    • Anuradha C

      Right Joseph , technical communication is not given priority in our education at all. Why technical writing , even Business English is not a subject in engg. So technical competent engineers find it difficult to communicate their ideas !

  • Very nice article Anuradha. Thanks for sharing.

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