The Best Technical Document in the World

This past weekend I served as a consensus judge at STC’s International Technical Publications Competition (ITPC). I’ve participated before, as a telephone (remote) judge, on-site judge, and Best-of-Show judge. This year STC conducted an experiment in cost cutting. The Boston and Northern New England chapters, which (if I do say so myself as a member and local participant) jointly run one of the strongest local competitions, were asked to host the judging and provide the bulk of the International judges. We rose to the challenge, and In the Publications competition more than half of the 12 on-site judges were local members (who yet had International experience).

The competitions themselves are one of the major events in the Society. Winners of Awards of Distinction at local competitions in publications, art, and online categories are eligible for the International competition. Winners of Awards of Distinction in each of the three categories in the International competition are eligible for the Best of Show awards.

Each category has slightly different criteria, but broadly speaking we looked at writing and organization, copyediting, and visual design and production–corresponding roughly to the work products of writers, editors, and illustrators. The criteria are hardly rocket science. They’re highly practical questions, such as how concise the writing is, whether there are copyediting mistakes, whether graphics are crisp and clear, and whether the work product is free from defects. We’re not awarding prizes for the longest entry, or the most colorful, or the fanciest print job, but whether entries are well designed, well executed, and effective.

I had ten entries to judge, including annual reports, magazines, quick-reference job aids, training materials, and software manuals. They were all good. solid, professional pieces, and I would be proud to have created every one of them. As always, I learned a few things from each, and like the other judges I took pains to critique each entry as objectively, thoroughly, and constructively as possible, as if the entrant were a colleague asking me face-to-face for my opinion. It took me a at least a couple of hours to go through each entry, and another hour or two to complete each judging form. So it’s a significant commitment of time. A PDF sample of the judging form is here.)

The value to entrants at both the local and international level is multifold. I worked in a group that won a high international award, and when the company issued a press release announcing our win, the stock went up, increasing our capitalization $1 million in a day–not bad! And it’s great to be recognized by your peers with an award. But there’s also the value of feedback. How else can you get at least three–more if you’re lucky!–professional technical communicators closely examine your technical document and provide thorough feedback, and for a good price at that?

A conmment on the best-of-show process: If you think it’s hard to compare a quick-reference card with a 300-page software reference guide, try picking the best of show! It’s like comparing apples, oranges, and chocolate cakes. Sometimes the consensus process is long and arduous, but sometimes, believe it or not, the winner jumps out at you as being obviously superior to the other entries (distinguished winners all).

This year’s winners? Come to the Summit and see them!

What is it that we do, exactly?

What is a technical communicator, and why would you hire one? The answer to that question is called a value proposition. In general, it’s a statement of the unique value added by any person, product, or service that explains why you’d want to spend money. For technical communicators, it’s not something we’re used to offering, and it’s hard to articulate. But it’s vitally important: If we can’t answer the question, we’re in trouble, especially these days!

Let me start with a simple example. In explaining to someone (a pointy-haired boss, say) why it takes so long to turn out what might be a brief document, you might say, “writing is not typing.” Yes, like a data-entry operator, you both type; and the operator may type more quickly and accurately than you; but while the operator is merely keying in data, you are creating it. You’re not paid for speed. So while you both possess typing as a skill–and the operator may possess more skill than you!–your skill set is broader, rarer, and thus more valuable. Similarly, if all you do is copy and paste engineering specs into templates, check the spelling, and call it a day, you’re doing formatting–what has been called “word processing”–and your skill set is not unique and, frankly, not particularly valuable. (I’ve worked with people like that, and they’re insidious.)

What other skills do we bring to the table? Here are a few more, courtesy of HelpScribe:

  • Social interaction
  • Usability engineering
  • Marketing writing
  • Project management
  • Dollops of graphic design, programming, and testing

If you throw in everything that any of us in the field might need to know or do, you have a body of knowledge for the profession. Compiling such a body of knowledge is important! But, as we see from typing, not every necessary skill is unique or even valuable.

To get at the value part, we need to determine where we can either create something that our employers can sell, do something that saves our employers money, or do something that reduces our employers’ risks. (Technical documents are sold for good profits in the “after” market, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) I know of three areas where we add value:

  1. Research conducted in the 1980s showed that we can reduce our employers’ support costs, often by 50%.
  2. Since that research was done, laws and regulations have been written that mandate certain kinds of warnings, installation instructions, and recycling information. Increasingly, directions must be available in the native languages of the market countries, which means internationalization and localization–without which products cannot legally be sold.
  3. Most recently, research on consumer electronics has revealed that a very large percentage of warranty returns (which are a cost to manufacturers) are of products that work as designed, but not as expected. (This last is a multi-billion dollar opportunity to increase customer satisfaction and reduce warranty costs!)

We can say that technical communicators help users understand their products better, reducing their calls for technical support and their warranty returns. Also, we are willing and able to navigate the legal and regulatory hurdles of producing documentation for export. The bottom line? Save money! Increase sales! Stay out of jail! I daresay that’s a valuable proposition.

If this list is the core of our value proposition, what unique skills and knowledge do we bring to bear that enable us to provide the value? Typing is no longer germane, but project management is, to get the translations done on time. Formatting is not germane, but writing concisely, consistently, and clearly is, so that the text can be translated efficiently in the first place. Schmoozing is not germane, but the ability to learn complex technical products well enough to explain their operation to a consumer audience–or even the knowledge to make suggestions for improving usability–is, because if we can explain how to use products, users won’t be calling the Help Desk or asking for their money back as often.

I think this is the right train of thought. What do you think?

Top 10 IT certifications: Tools, tools, tools, and … project management?

In an opinion piece posted 12/10/2008, Erik Eckel, former executive editor of TechRepublic, listed what he thought are the ten best IT certifications:

  1. Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP)
  2. Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS)
  3. CompTIA’s Security+
  4. Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD)
  5. Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)
  6. CompTIA’s A+
  7. Project Management Institute Project Management Professional (PMP)
  8. Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA)
  9. (ISC)² Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
  10. CompTIA’s Linux+

I’m not surprised to see a heavy emphasis on software tools, but do you see something that jumps out at you? Me too. Even in an IT-oriented list on a tech Web site, the PMP’s certification is considered one of the most valuable. Eckel describes the MPM this way:

The certification measures a candidate’s project management expertise by validating skills and knowledge required to plan, execute, budget, and lead a technology project. Eligible candidates must have five years of project management experience or three years of project management experience and 35 hours of related education.

The PMP model is interesting to study. The successful candidate must have significant experience or experience and education, and must also pass an exam. That seems both reasonable and flexible.

Of course, with mass layoffs happening all around us (if not to some of us!), isn’t this a bad time to be spending money on certification? Not so, concludes Eckel: “As organizations battle tough economic conditions, having proven project scheduling, budgeting, and management skills will only grow in importance. The PMI’s PMP credential is a perfect conduit for demonstrating that expertise on a resume.”

The Joy of … Reading the Manual?

Naturally, I encourage people to read the manual; the more demand for manuals, the more demand for people who create them.

I try to practice what I preach. Reading the manual is a competitive advantage. Expose yourself to all the features of a new tool and you’re halfway to being a guru. It does my heart good to see my kids reading the manuals (which can be surprisingly complex) that come with their video games, and then buying after-market guides and looking for even more tips on the Web.

So manuals can be a source of information and, for some, employment. But… a source of happiness? Writing for the Huffington Post, Gretchen Rubin suggested some emotional and spiritual benefits:

I’m often frustrated by devices, and I have to go to great efforts not to let my irritation infect my mood. But … a big part of the problem is that I never take the time to read the manual! We recently had to replace our dishwasher, and I feel frustrated by its obscure buttons–but why haven’t I taken the time to read the directions? From now on, when I get a new gizmo of any kind, I’m going to push myself to read the instructions carefully. Why should I expect to operate something without learning anything about it?

But “reading the instruction manual” is also good advice on a metaphorical level. One of my happiness-project resolutions is to “Ask for help,” and I’m always struck by the fact that 1) I find this surprisingly difficult to do and 2) whenever I do ask for help, it’s hugely beneficial. Turns out that getting instructions makes things easier!

Rubin is not alone in her frustration. A 2008 study by Accenture found that consumer-electronics manufacturers spent over $25 billion in 2007 on assessing, repairing, repackaging, restocking and reselling returned merchandise. Faulty goods? No. Between 62-85% of returned products showed no detectable fault. The customers didn’t know how the products were supposed to work.

You can argue that the products are too complex or misleadingly advertised. You can say that some consumers are dishonest. You might even point out that a lot of the documentation out there is lousy. But clearly there’s a huge opportunity in that field to reduce business costs and increase customer satisfaction. I’m all in favor of making my readers happy!

Plain (English) Language

[Originally posted 1/15/2009 in the previous version of my blog–sfj]

Every editor and style guide I’ve ever worked with has warned me to avoid using Latinates (such as “e.g.”) in technical writing. Several reasons are given, including that today’s readers may well not know what they mean. Better is plain-spoken English, in which an equivalent team can always be found. I didn’t bemoan the general decline of literacy; I just did as I was instructed. I can’t say I’ve ever regretted doing so.

I was interested to see this recent article on the BBC News Web site about British town councils making the same decision:

A number of local councils in Britain have banned their staff from using Latin words, because they say they might confuse people.

Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like “vice versa”, “pro rata”, and even “via” should not be used, in speech or in writing.

But the ban has prompted anger among some Latin scholars.

Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University said it was the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.

Some local councils say using Latin is elitist and discriminatory, because some people might not understand it – particularly if English is not their first language.

Bournemouth Council is among those which have discouraged Latin. It has drawn up a list of 18 Latin phrases which its staff are advised not to use, either verbally or in official correspondence.

That sounds reasonable to me, and it doesn’t hinder my technical writing style. By the way, for more information about the Plain English Campaign, click here.

Some poor readers just can’t help themselves

[Originally posted 1/2/2009 in the previous version of my blog–sfj]

A study by the University of Oxford has identified a genetic link to poor reading skills:

A common genetic variant may be partly to blame for poor reading ability, research suggests.

The variant, carried by more than one in seven people, has already been associated with dyslexia.
Tests by the University of Oxford found people carrying the key sequence tended to perform worse than average in tests of their reading ability.
But the study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found no impact on general intelligence.

We care about the reading skills of our audience, and are often counseled to write at the eighth-grade level as measured by readability indexes. But it may be that a significant portion of our audience will still struggle to read what we write.

I suggest that we keep in mind that there’s more than one way to communicate, and more than one channel to do it. If you can get your point across with an illustration, do it! I don’t mean instead of text, but in addition to text.