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Taking Technical Communication Personally (Shop Talk #5)

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Guest Post from Rich Bosshardt

[I invited Rich Bosshardt to respond to the question of what fulfillment looks like for a professional writer. Rich has talked about technical writing in a few of my classes and intrigued us with a note about the psychology of technical writing. He’s writing from the perspective of a working technical writer, and this is his second response.]

People who aren’t familiar with technical communication may be surprised to learn what it really takes to be a good technical writer. Having product knowledge, authoring and illustration skills, some mechanical and/or technical inclination, and a command of (simplified and instructional) language are all necessary. But there is one key ingredient without which one cannot experience ongoing motivation, success, and fulfillment in this field: the personal touch.

There is a psychology to technical writing. Anticipating and appropriately responding to the (rational and irrational) thoughts and behaviors of people is a vital skill in the toolkit of a good technical writer. One might initially think that the technical writer spends hour upon hour in isolation while hunched over a computer monitor in a corporate cubicle farm or a spare bedroom (i. e., the home office). But in reality, a technical writer must keep in mind those who use the product or service (external customers) and regularly interact with those who help create the product (internal customers).

My external customers are the end users who purchase, assemble, operate, maintain, and store the products about which I write. My internal customers are team members, including subject matter experts, who are typically engineers and designers; and reviewers, who represent the engineering, customer service, legal, safety, test, and marketing departments.

External Customers

As an advocate for my external customer, I try to keep these two primary questions in mind as I go about my work: (1) How will the reader use (or misuse) the product about which I am writing? (2) How will the reader interact with the instructions and illustrations that I create?

But there are more questions that help put me in the position of my readers: What educational background and reading ability do my readers have? Are they mechanical? Do they have the proper tools to perform the procedure? When do they do the work themselves and when do they call a dealer for help?

To answer these questions, we rely in part on user testing and feedback from our end users. In user testing, we have had fellow employees from other departments who are unfamiliar with a product perform procedures by following a set of instructions that I prepared. The results of those tests have led to new insights as to how one might approach and engage the product, which enables me to write a more effective set of instructions. But busy schedules and workloads often prohibit us from conducting more than an occasional user test. Feedback from real end users is valuable, but it is rare as well.

Internal Customers

Though the technical writer is an advocate for the end user, the final product serves many more masters than merely the end user. The publication that results is a compromise of multiple interests. The subject matter expert wants to showcase the product  features or have the writer  insert an instruction to cover for a minor design flaw that is otherwise too costly to change; the market manager wants to sell the reader accessories for the product; the legal and safety representatives want to protect the company from liability by inserting page after page of safety admonitions; and the customer care representative wants a rewritten procedure because his or her department has received more than the usual number of customer complaints.

Being the writer but not the owner of the publication, how do I then chart a course for completing the project through the cacophony of the differing requirements of my external customers? And how do I produce an intelligible and helpful work that ultimately meets the needs of my internal customers?

Satisfaction by Means of Service

Serving my internal and external customers well brings satisfaction, and serving both types of customers simultaneously requires that I keep both my goal and the manner in which I achieve that goal in mind. The goal of my work requires that I continually keep my external customers in mind; it guides me in what I should be doing in my work: to serve valued end users by helping them understand the product and have a safe and positive experience whenever they interact with it. The manner by which I achieve that goal requires that I continually keep my internal customers in mind; it guides me in how I should be doing my work: to serve and show respect to valued team members who create the product (the subject of my writing). It may include serving and showing respect to those who may neither respect me nor my profession.

I serve my external customers best by making their needs the goal of my work; I serve my internal customers best by addressing their needs in the manner in which I work to achieve my goal. How I perform my work, no matter what it is, makes all the difference. It is when I serve in the spirit of Christ, the Servant of Servants, that I find satisfaction in my work, whatever and wherever that may be.

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Written by kirkistan

February 12, 2013 at 11:50 am

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