May 16th, 2007
It is at the 54th Annual Conference of the Society of Technical Communicators, this week in Minneapolis, where I’m getting a glimpse into what I believe to be the demise of technical writing.
Technical writing was born of the post-war fifties, amidst a heavy push in technological industrialization. Factories were mass producing goods at a tremendous rate, for consumer, industrial, commercial, and military use. These goods were taking advantage of the new sciences, which brought forth new capabilities and features.
In these early days, human factors and ergonomics were not for consideration in the product development process. Making the product work at all was difficult enough. The product developers expected, having made the investment in the technology, the user would take time to learn to use the device properly, starting with reading the manual.
Thus, the profession of technical writing came into its own, as a way to shift the responsibility of usability from the development process to a post-development documentation effort. Any complexity was “written up in the manual” for all to read.
Translating complexity into a manual was a difficult skill, but one suited for english majors, playwrights, and poets. Since it was a difficult skill, salaries were higher than other jobs for liberal arts graduates, so it attracted some very talented folks.
In the sixties and seventies, we saw a huge explosion of technology, much of it exceptionally complex. This made documentation creation even more important. Tight development schedules and the need for clear documentation put demands on the profession in new ways. The skills for producing clear documentation quickly became highly valued.
In the eighties, we saw the advent of personal computers. Ironically, as the size of the technology decreased, the size of the documentation was growing. (The documentation Digital Equipment Corporation’s MicroVAX, for example, weighed three times the hardware it described and required an entire palette for delivery.)
The late eighties brought several trends to technical writing:
- Minimalism suggested a task-oriented approach to describing only what the user absolutely needs, allowing the interface to be as self-descriptive as possible.
- On-line help required braking narrative description into self-sustaining chunks, which the user could read in any order (or not at all).
- User-centered design brought a new awareness to the design process, simplifying the knowledge necessary to operate the devices.
At this point, I began to see the writers really starting to struggle to find their place in the organization. As the development de-emphasized large manual, the talented writers quickly shifted their emphasis into usability and interaction design.
The web, which would seem a natural place for the writer with its heavy emphasis on good copy, wasn’t an easy transition for most technical writers. It quickly became a haven for copy writers, a different skill, focusing on more persuasive than descriptive writing.
Even worse news, today’s design environment emphasizes multi-discipline generalists, instead of especially-skilled specialists. Writing is no longer a separate function of the design team. Instead, it’s now integrated into the design process with other functions. Everyone on the skill needs good writing skills, along with the other skills necessary to produce quality designs.
The writers left in the field today are feeling pushed out of their jobs. Salaries have dropped considerably. Demand is significantly down. Young writers are not entering the profession at the rate they used to, leaving an aging technical communication community.
It’s no surprise that the two most popular topics at the annual conference are user experience and interaction design. Both are growing areas, while the art of writing manuals is going the way of blacksmiths and radio operators.
Technical writing won’t be gone until the last writer dies, but it will be curious to see what happens with the field as we move into a world where intuitive design implies a manual-less existence.Tweet