Sunday, August 22, 2010

The New Age Technical Writer

As do most professions, Technical Writing is also undergoing a sea change. Gone are the days when a Technical Writer was just expected to churn out document after document, be it installation manuals, user guides or training manuals.
As times are changing, the way people perceive and search for information is also changing. Students today not only rely on their text books; they find information over the internet through search engines and visit online forums for detailed discussions over specific topics. The very concept of education is undergoing change. There are numerous online companies offering courses on various subjects.
Technical Writers have been the teachers of technical information for a long time. This change in ways of learning and understanding has put the onus on Technical Writers to update their skill set and deliver information according to the needs of the present.
Although the traditional user guide and online help will not be replaced in the near future, there are few additions to the deliverables for a Technical Writer. 

Some of them are explained below:

• Videos and Video casts

Recent studies indicate that users have narrower attention spans than that of their predecessors. The learners of today rely heavily on visual representations. Hence using short videos to explain concepts is a trend which is gathering steam. It is a trend that is most commonly seen in newer applications of Google. Along with the supporting documentation, an introductory video is also provided by Google. The searing popularity of YouTube is further proof of the demand and effectiveness of videos.
New age Technical Writers should develop video recording skills, along with knowledge of video capturing and demo creation software like Camtasia and Captivate. These applications are handy in preparing video based tutorials. The video should be long enough to be useful, but not too long to lull the users to sleep. A brief know-how of voice modulation techniques, sound engineering, and story boarding will be valuable additions in this quest.

Blogs and Forums

Search engines have become the primary searching tool for people needing information. Users are more likely to try and find a solution for their queries on blogs and online forums rather than scour through the user guide. This is why most applications have online help. It works out to be a win-win situation for users as well as application manufacturers. Users discuss common problems on online forums, and more often than not, find information to help them out through them.
New age Technical Writers need to understand the effects of social media and Web 2.0 and how it is changing the way people search for information. They need to maintain blogs for their products and services, and ensure that not only are these blogs updates regularly, but that they take contributor comments seriously. This collaborative type of mutual assistance is the future of Technical Writing. Wikipedia is living proof that such models are popular and helpful to the end users. These steps not only provide customer satisfaction, they also are a great public relations/marketing tool for the product and service as it shows that the user is cared for, leading to tremendous goodwill generation. The key things for a successful blog will be credibility, consistency, and relevance. Also, though blogs are useful marketing tools, care should be taken to keep user interest foremost. If users feel that you are trying desperately trying to promote your services, it may lead to serious loss of credibility.

• Usability Design and Testing

Many applications fail to be as useful as they could be for a user and the primary bottleneck for this is poor usability of the application. Also, a website may post great content, but if it's not user-friendly, the user can get frustrated pretty quickly. Users want quick answers, with minimal clicks, and it is now becoming a Technical Writers job to endure just that.
Technical Writing is veering towards User Assistance. New age Technical Writers don't just have to write user manuals, they need to do all they can to make the tool or the product as user friendly as possible. Right from the time an application is being developed; Technical Writers need to be involved in the design of the application or the website. Keeping in mind the end user, they need to ensure that the design and architecture of an application is clear and user friendly.
While there are others skills that a Technical Writer has to learn, the ones mentioned in this article are where the future of Technical Writing is heading.