Vol 44, Issue 3

January/February 2005


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The Death of the Technical Author?

Ellis Pratt, Sales and Marketing, Cherryleaf House

Technical authors do not have high prominence in the workplace, and they don't have the best of images (as can be seen in the movie, “The Technical Writer”). Today, many technical authors are struggling to find new employment in the current IT sector, and one can find messages on Internet newsgroups that question the future employment prospects for technical authors in North America and Europe . Some wonder whether the role of the technical author will disappear, as other careers have in the past. In this article, we look at the problems faced by technical authors in defining their role, and we make some recommendations for the future.

The Problems

Technical authors face the following issues:

Overlapping technologies mean overlapping job roles.

Technologies and software are developing in a way that means that the boundaries between the programmer, the technical author, the Web developer, and the trainer are becoming blurred. For example, the online Help that will ship with the next release of Windows (code name Longhorn) may look more like a Web site or a computer-based tutorial (CBT) system than the type of Help files we currently see. This means that some technical authors feel that they are being “crowded out” and losing their jobs as their work is taken on by others within the organization.

The work can be done in other ways.

From time to time, new software or technology will lead some technology evangelists to claim that you can do away with the need for “man-made” user assistance. Common themes appear and reappear with each technology wave, with people claiming that:

  • They can make software that is so intuitive to use that users will never need online Help.
  • Programmers can write the documentation to the standard needed.
  • Special software can be used to create user assistance by looking at the lines of code.
  • Information can be dumped into an information store, and special search software can be used to retrieve the information that people need.
  • Computer-based tutorials can provide all the assistance that people need.

It's a specialist job and a lonely one.

Many are in an environment where he or she is the only technical author in the organization, and this can mean that their career path is unclear.

Their contribution to the business can be uncertain.

Some people perceive what technical authors produce to be a necessary evil—something that needs to be provided but is not of any great value. So they look to keep costs, and consequently the quality, to a minimum.

So What Do Technical Authors Do That Is of Value to the Organization?

We believe that technical authors, as well as specialist documentation companies, are valuable to organizations in the following ways:

They explain technical information to a nontechnical audience in an unambiguous way.

Enabling people to understand is a fundamental part of producing user assistance and is the authoring part of technical authoring. And as life is getting more complex, it seems unlikely that software will ever be developed that is so intuitive to use that users will never need any assistance.

They organize information so that people can find the information that they need.

We call this skill information design or information development . We believe that these skills in information design have a wider application to the business than just the development of user manuals, procedures documents, and Help files. These skills—organizing information and providing the means by which people get that information—can help organizations fight and win the battle of information overload.

Our Recommendations

We offer the following suggestions:

Technical authors' skills should be applied more widely across an organization.

In other words, create an Information Design department.

We suggest that the role of the technical author should be redefined as information designer and that the Technical Publications department should be redefined as the Information Design department. Doing this should help make it clearer to everyone that technical authoring skills—making large amounts of unstructured information more useful— can be applied elsewhere in the organization.

IT departments, quality assurance managers, marketing executives, and Webmasters don't have information design skills. The technical author (or information designer) does have these skills and can offer these skills to anyone in the organization that has to deal with large amounts of unstructured information.

Carry out usability testing to measure the value of what technical authors produce.

You should use some form of measurement if you want to place a value on something. Jakob Nielsen ( www.useit.com ) has described how to carry out meaningful usability studies with a small amount of effort. So test to see what happens if users don't have any documentation and how they react to different types of user assistance.

Get involved in the development of new software at an earlier stage.

As online user assistance becomes more tightly integrated with the software, the technical author should be more tightly integrated with the development of the software, right from the beginning of the process.

Acquire the additional skills needed.

The technical authoring role today requires more than just writing. It requires skills in online information design and usability. In the future, it could require skills in writing JavaScript and developing e-learning content. You can probably avoid the need to manipulate code if you use the most popular Help authoring tools. Nevertheless, ongoing developments probably mean that technical authors will require more training.

Use the right tools for the job.

The latest software from the main software vendors in the technical authoring field provide more than just an authoring environment. Many tools now include content management, e-learning, scripting, and support for output across a range of media. The vendors seem to have a good appreciation of the key issues surrounding the provision of user assistance and large documents.

Conclusion

The overlapping of technologies and the uncertainty of the contribution of the technical author means that the boundaries between this and other positions in organizations are becoming blurred. Technical authors have skills that organizations still need. Indeed, their skills can be applied to new areas, which means that it's time to take a new perspective on the role. So maybe we need to say "The technical author is dead. Long live the information designer."

E-mail: ellis@cherryleaf.com

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