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Technical Communication

What is Technical Communication?

Technical communication is a specialised type of business communication, aimed at creating easily-usable information for a specific audience. The information produced by technical communicators can range from heavily technical to heavily business oriented - and anything in between.

Technical communicators are also called technical writers. Because writing is now only one aspect of what we do, the term "technical communicator" is now a more appropriate title than technical writer. Technical communicators are also known as technical authors, documentation developers or documentation specialists, and more recently the titles "information designers" and "information architects" have come into common use.

The term technical writer originated around the start of the 20th century, when the work was exclusively related to writing about technical products such as machinery and equipment. Back to TopTop.gif

What do Technical Communicators do? 

Technical communicators design, develop and deliver a wide range of information products that may be presented in print and online. These information products are frequently intended to inform or instruct the user in the operation of machinery, equipment or computer software and include:

  • installation and "getting started" guides
  • user guides, operation, reference and administration manuals
  • software user assistance, including online help and Web help
  • Web and intranet content
  • training manuals
  • quick reference cards, charts and posters.
The term "information product" is used here as the scope and variety of these items suggests that traditional terms like "documentation" or "manuals" are no longer adequate.
Technical communicators work with people involved in business and leisure activities, usually documenting the use of some form of technology. However, technical communicators may also be involved in areas with little or no direct application to technology such as mapping business processes, developing health and safety manuals, ISO 9000 quality manuals and company policy manuals.
So, what do technical communicators need to do as they develop various types of information products?

Communicate clearly!

The primary goal of a technical communicator is to communicate appropriate information to the reader as clearly and consisely as possible. To achieve this, technical communicators must understand the needs of their audience and be able to gather and then "translate" detailed or complex information into a form that can be readily understood. Good technical communication reduces the effort required by the reader to understand the information and also minimises the possibility of the reader misunderstanding the material or using it incorrectly.

This process is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the "dumbing down" of information. This is not fair to either the reader or the technical communicator. The role of the technical communicator is to communicate the essential information required by the reader to perform a task or understand a concept. The information is not changed in the process - it is just presented in such a way that it is more accessible and meaningful to the reader. Deciding how best to present the information: designing the layout of the text, its structure, content and organisation and making the appropriate use of graphics are all part of the role of the technical communicator.

Work with a variety of people

Technical communicators work with people at all levels of organisations. Some of these people will act as sources of information or review draft documents, others will assist in documentation tasks in a variety of ways. A technical communicator may be part of a team working on a large project, or may work independently.
It is important that the technical communicator works with people from the target audience for the information products being developed. This helps to ensure that the information products will meet the needs of that audience - whether it is a small group of account managers in a call centre or a diverse group such as the users of a software product like Microsoft Word. In some cases, an audience can be treated as a single group and in others, it may be made up of a number of smaller groups, each with their own characteristics, activities, and needs.

Work at a variety of activities

A technical communicator undertakes a range of activities and tasks, and not all of it will be time spent writing. The role of a technical communicator involves:
  • project planning and project management
  • research into user and business needs
  • designing and (if applicable) prototyping
  • interviewing and observing people at their work
  • gathering information from a range of other sources - existing documentation, specifications, experts
  • recording and organising the information gathered
  • developing the information product
  • updating and correcting draft versions of the information product following reviews by users and content providers
  • testing the information product for functionality and usability
  • publishing or delivering the information product
  • periodically updating the information product to ensure that it remains relevant, complete and correct.

Work as a user advocate

An important aspect of the work of technical communicators is their role as user advocates. To some extent, this role involves "thinking like a user" of the software or device that the information product relates to. However, simply thinking like a user may not go far enough. Using techniques like personas and scenarios enables technical communicators to identify a wider range of user characteristics and needs, which then allow the information product to be tailored more effectively.
As user guides reflect the usability of the product or device, acting as a user advocate can also mean working with the product designer to help make the product easier to use, hence simplifying and reducing the need for supporting information products.
Keeping the focus on the user can be difficult at times, especially when this is not a key requirement for other members of the project team. The technical communicator needs to:
  • ensure they understand their users in terms of attitudes, motivation, relevant knowledge and skills
  • determine what the users want to do and need to know
  • establish any constraints or requirements resulting from the enviroment in which the information product is being used
  • focus on producing an information product that will best serve the users' needs. Top.gif

What Skills and Knowledge do Technical Communicators Need?

To be a technical communicator you need some formal training and a range of specific skills. You also need to be prepared to constantly build on your knowledge and skills.

Basic writing skills

All technical communicators must be able to write clearly in the language in which they are working. Some formal training or education in writing is important, either through specific courses in technical communication or through tertiary study generally, where there is a requirement to produce written papers as part of the courses.

A range of other skills and abilities

The technical communicator needs to be able to demonstrate at least some of the following skills and abilities.

Written and oral communication skills

  • write good plain language
  • listen effectively
  • express themselves clearly using the spoken word

General work practices

  • demonstrate good organisational skills relating to themselves and their work
  • follow appropriate codes of ethics and good practice
  • show an understanding of business and how it functions

Working with others

  • be part of a team
  • exercise effective interviewing skills
  • respect the opinions of others

Thinking skills

  • analyse material logically
  • organise and structure information based on its characteristics and the needs of its audience
  • solve problems

Using computers to produce printed or online documentation

  • manage their own computer system
  • demonstrate a good level of skill in using word processing, desktop publishing and graphics applications. Top.gif

How do Technical Communicators Develop their Skills and Knowledge?

Starting out

The skill set of a technical communicator starting out is obviously under development and may be weak in some areas. If they are willing to learn on the job, they can work with a mentor, who will advise and direct them to help develop their skills as they work. Short courses can also provide an in-depth understanding very quickly in specific areas. Joining organisations such as TCANZ or the US Society for Technical Communication (STC) can also provide valuable resources and contacts.

Moving into more senior positions

Technical communicators in senior positions require additional skills and knowledge, which can also be learned on the job. Beyond those listed above, they need to develop the following:
  • experience and proven success in a variety of complex projects
  • excellent people skills
  • design skills - structure and layout
  • ability to see both the big and the small picture
  • assessing and meeting client requirements
  • project management skills:
  • estimating
  • budgeting
  • organising and managing resources
  • time management
  • project co-ordination and control
  • handling people
  • production management
  • quality assurance
  • ability to research and accommodate new technologies as they apply to software and the documentation development process and delivery mechanisms.

Exploring new domains

The technical communicator, taking a user-centred approach in their role as a user advocate, is in a prime position to extend their sphere of activity into other areas.
The issue of usability has always been part of our field of endeavour, but in recent times the concept has become more significant in other fields, particularly in the area of software design.
Technical communication is about making sure people understand what they are doing and how to do it. To achieve that understanding, technical communicators have had to ensure that they know their audience - who they are, how they function, what tasks they perform, how they go about those tasks, what influences them in their activities - in exactly the same way as a usability specialist does. Technical communicators also need to understand the products and business applications they are documenting and often become the first users.
With a detailed understanding of products, processes, applications, and users, technical communicators are in position to take a significant role in the design process. In the computer software field, a specific example of this is in user interface design. Top.gif

The Challenge

Being a technical communicator is intellectually challenging and varied in the interests and skills required. It involves meeting a variety of people working in a range of occupations and areas of business, and provides a gateway to expanding your professional activities to include other spheres of influence and endeavour in meeting the needs of users.