Technology and Technical Communication

I always find it fascinating to read about the history of the technical communication profession. It is undeniable that technology—particularly the advent of personal computers and the Internet—has completely transformed the landscape for technical communicators. Saul Carliner’s chapter (Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication does a great job describing the impact of technological changes on the role of the technical communicator.

“Technology has always played a central role in technical communication. At first, it served primarily as the subject about which technical communicators wrote. As various publishing technologies emerged, the technology also became the tool that facilitated the work” (p. 45).

Advancements in technology have certainly made life much easier for technical communicators today than in past decades. Frankly, I can’t imagine the amount of rework that communicators had to put into early documents created using a typewriter, retyping content for each correction or addition. Additionally, the challenges that came along with printing and formatting in the 1970s and 1980s were considerable. Today we, as technical communicators, have fancy software that comparably makes it a breeze for us to perform our jobs, and to create an appealing and usable product that meets the needs of our audience.

While I came away from this chapter with a new appreciation for all the technological advancements we benefit from, I also now recognize that the role of the technical communicator has become a lot more complex as well. Not only do we have more than ever to document (i.e., our potential subject matter has increased significantly), but there is an infinitely larger audience to reach.

In my current position, audience is something we constantly try to evaluate. In writing about my company’s products, it is sometimes difficult to know what level of knowledge and skill an audience has right off the bat. Some users are probably well versed in using computers and technology, others may not be. What do we assume the user already knows? This is even further complicated by language and cultural barriers. Even when a company only produces content for an audience within the United States it can be difficult to determine an appropriate reading level and vocabulary.

I have to admit, I’m thankful to be a technical communicator today, with all the technology we have available to help us do our jobs. But I certainly acknowledge that this same technology does add to the complexity that exists within the field.

Posted on September 30, 2012, in Literacy, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I remember a lot of the same kind of manual effort you described from the beginning of my career too. Thankfully, I missed the era where cut and paste actually involved scissors and glue.

    I also agree with you that the new technologies that have come along have, by and large, made life better for the technical communicator (formerly technical writer). I literally never print anything anymore.

    I don’t think that it is the technical changes that are going to be the problem though. As technical communicators most of us are pretty high on the geek scale, so new software and technology doesn’t really scare us. But, the changing nature of how we will have to interact with people is going to be a problem for lots of people.

    A few years ago I went to conference for technical communication and they gave everyone there the Myers-Briggs personality test. I think that about 75% of the people in that room were either INTJ or ISTJ (I’m an INTJ). Each letter corresponds to a personality trait. Without explaining all of them, the first letter “I” means Introverted.

    I have worked with a lot of old-school writers that fit this description, and a lot of them just could not adjust to a world where they would have to interact with their audience. Or, some of them were okay with it, but were so bad at interacting with people that you just couldn’t put them in front of a customer (virtually or physically). Most of them are gone now.

    I think that this change in mindset is going to be harder for our profession than all the technological changes combined.

  2. Your paragraph about your current position and the need to be constantly aware of audience levels of expertise AND international traits is eye-opening. I try to remind my undergrads about how “world wide web” means world wide and anything we publish online has such great reach, but then I often forget how companies need to make such adjustments, sometimes right on the spot.

    Can you tell us a little more about the products your company produces and the types of audiences it reaches, or is that not something they want to divulge?

    • Without going into too much detail, I work for a student loan servicer. The company must communicate with schools (think financial aid offices), lenders (of private education loans), and student loan borrowers (in-school borrowers, borrowers in repayment, borrowers in good standing, borrowers who are delinquent, etc.). All of these audiences are spread throughout the country, and while it’s not technically an international audience, there is a ton of diversity (cultural and otherwise) among student loan borrowers. Furthermore, some borrowers may have been in repayment for years (are they up to speed with emerging media?), some are still in school (they may be more technologically savvy, but might not know the first thing about loans). So you can see where this quickly becomes complicated—not only do geographical and cultural influences likely make a difference in an audience’s technological knowledge and preferences, but also other factors like age and access to technology are huge.

  3. Advances in technology, in my opinion, are both negative and positive for writers. Part of me believes that good writing is just good writing. Sometimes it may be easier to create a really clear and concise document for an intended audeince if one does not have to worry about learning new technology at the same time. For example, last semester I learned how to use Adobe Framemaker. I learned this software while creating a 40 page user guide about my employers intranet system. I know for a fact that because I was struggling to learn the new software, my writing was distracted.

    On the other hand, now that I know this software, it makes life easier. Indeed, Framemaker allows for vast and consistent changes in large documents through the use of styles and master pages etc. This new learning curve, along wiht the fact that all this new technology allows us to reach infinite audinces makes the job of a technical communicator complex. Not only do we need to learn about the products we are writing about, we also need to constantly learn new software to communicate through, and develop new methods to determine who our audince is.

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