Why Do We Need Good Technical Writers?

Mar 12, 2014   //   by Administrator   //   Blog, Reference Articles  //  1 Comment

And what do technical writers do, anyway?

Have you ever asked, or been asked why you need good technical writers?

The answer:
Developing quality documentation that effectively addresses the needs of each user, without overwhelming them with information they don’t need, is a skill that takes years to develop. It differs fundamentally from other forms of writing used in marketing, engineering, testing, or product management.

Penny-wise and Pound Foolish?

In a real-life example at a large company, the IT Team needed to make an immediate change to the VPN (Virtual Private Network) login procedure. This change would affect thousands of employees who logged in daily. To save precious time and money, the IT Manager asked an IT Engineer to write an email explaining the new login procedure, instead of using the Documentation Team.

Do you agree with the IT Manager’s decision? The result suggests it was not the best approach: The Helpdesk Team received over 10,000 support calls from employees who had problems logging in, ultimately costing the company thousands of dollars in technical support time.

The IT Manager learned some fundamental truths:

  • Good product documentation reduces support costs.
  • Not all engineers are also good technical writers.
  • The cost of hiring a good technical writer in many cases pays for itself many times over.

What Do Technical Writers Do?

Let’s look at how a technical writer works. What does a technical writer do when faced with a new project? Here are five of the most basic steps.

Step 1: Learn about the product

The first step is to gather background about the project or product. What needs does this technology address? What is the purpose of the product?

Step 2: Identify Your Audiences

Who uses this product? What are their roles, education, and work experience? Make a list of your user types, for example:

  • User 1 – Database administrator: technical degree, manages databases.
  • User 2 – Loan officer: experienced computer user, finance professional, approves loans.
  • User 3 – Executive: computer user, focused on reporting features.

Step 3: Start Counting — Features

One thing a technical writer does at the start of a project is count. Two of the most important things to count are features and tasks.
To count features, consider:

  • How many pages does the user interface contain?
  • How many elements or controls on each page?
  • How many total elements, on all pages, menus, etc.?

You don’t need a complete list. Just make some initial notes, for example:

  • Main pages: 8
  • Sub-pages, dialog boxes: 11
  • Elements per main page: average 12
  • Elements per sub-page or dialog box: average 8

Total elements: 184

Step 4: Begin Task Analysis

What tasks must a user accomplish? Each task includes a list of steps. Each step is a single action. Start a list of tasks, for example:

  • Add borrower
  • Add loan source
  • Configure borrower options
  • Configure regions
  • Configure global options

Step 5: Putting it Together

Consider the users you identified. To complete these tasks, what will they need to know?

Good product documentation requires topics, or chunks of information, of at least three types: task, reference, and concept. For a description of each type, see http://saiffsolutions.com/home/topic-types.

You’ve made a good start. Answering these questions enables you to start answering others, such as:

  • How many task, reference, and concept topics do I need?
  • What information is important to each type of user?
  • How can I organize the documentation so that all users find what they need quickly?
  • How long will it take to complete the documentation?

What About Apps?

You may be thinking, “This seems like a lot of work! Is all this needed for two sentences to explain a mobile app?”

While some apps are very simple, others are not. A sentence or two may suffice for one page or function. A complex app will require quite a few sentences.

And, as Mark Twain said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Writing fewer words with equal effectiveness takes more skill and more time.

What is the Value of a Good Technical Writer?

Doing this type of analysis repeatedly enables a technical writer to notice things that even an engineer who developed the product may miss. Good technical writers have years of experience writing, rewriting, and then rewriting again to eliminate unnecessary words.

Why do we need good technical writers? Let us count the ways:

  • To create accurate, concise documentation that enables users to complete tasks independently.
  • To organize information so that users quickly find what they need.
  • To avoid confusing users with extraneous or out-of-place information.
  • To avoid losing users due to inappropriate assumptions about their knowledge and background.
  • To reduce support costs.
  • To increase customer satisfaction.
  • To demonstrate to customers that the guidance they need is accessible and easy to use.

Of course, as with every profession, there are both highly competent and less competent technical writers. At Saiff Solutions, we have decades of experience in hiring and managing outstanding technical writers. Because we are located in the Philippines, where English is the primary business language yet labor costs are much lower than in the U.S., we are able to offer the best value on the planet in technical writing services.

Is there something we can help you with?http://saiffsolutions.com/home/

Barry2014012c

1 Comment

  • If you utilize telecommuting professionals I would very much like to hear from you.

    I really enjoyed the article. I believe it was just missing a few crucial points…

    In many cases Technical writers are actually the “translators” of information from ‘the creator’ to ‘the user.”

    As a proposal/project manager/technical writer (on any task) it is OUR job to realize that everyone within the company (that we need information from) already has a full-time job and that THEIR priority is not necessary OURS… As such, it is extremely important that we make the avenue for their input as EASY as possible…. Whether this means sending out surveys, text to edit, or even templates with placeholders….

    Everyone WANTS to support the Company, because a Healthy company ensures job security – but everyone also has tasks at hand that need to be respected….

    VRY
    Laura

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