A Call for Empathy in Technical Content (or, How I Found One of My Blind Spots)

November 22, 2020

Guest post by Malachy Lavelle, Information Senior Engineer Manager at Avaya

Back in July I got an email request to review our documentation source code for a couple of words. The request was to check for the words “master” and “slave” in our technical content. After an initial metaphorical blank stare, I got it: the request had sprung from the renewed focus on Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May.

I got on with the task, but as I read the supporting information, and set about searching through the content repository, something was tugging at the back of my mind. Use of these terms was not unusual in software development, especially in solutions designed for redundancy, though admittedly I had not seen these particular words used for quite a while. As I reflected on that and how our use of language to describe such systems had evolved, I began to remember similar incidents where staff and customers challenged the insensitive use of language. And then the penny dropped.

It had not even occurred to me previously that using Master and Slave together as a technical concept would have a deep impact on some communities. Sure, to me the words were not great choices: but only considering recent events could I appreciate the visceral response they can evoke in people whose history is steeped in the abuse and injustice of slavery.

This was the moment when I finally realised the true import and weight of white privilege, the advantages that as a white person I did not recognize I had. I had read these words many times in technical contexts, and never had it occurred to me the extent of hurt or insult they can impart to a reader—or at least it had not occurred strongly enough for me to take action to change them.

Acknowledging the problem, as they say, is the first step. But what’s the next step? What long-term lessons can I take from this?

No one of us can fully represent the needs of others from the scope of their own experience and knowledge. Diversity in the workforce is essential to serve the needs of, and recognise the various sensitivities of, a global customer base. We should not limit ourselves to just the workplace and the realm of business either.

A great insight on this point came recently at a Zoomin User Group meeting, in which Doug Kim, Principal Content Design Manager at Microsoft Azure’s Cloud Design Studio, spoke about Microsoft principles of Inclusive Design. Microsoft’s Inclusive Design draws on the full range of human diversity to build equitable experiences, to eliminate mismatches between the person and their environment.

The past six months have shown me that powerful mismatches can exist in plain sight if you don’t have the reference to recognise them. In order to prevent and rectify these mismatches, authoring content must start with empathy for the reader/user. To write something that really connects with some unknown person out there in the world, you must try to put yourself inside that person’s space and motivations. What are they trying to do? What is important to them? How do they feel about what they are doing – is it pressurized, mundane, enjoyable, painful? If you want to support your product’s success, when someone turns to your content, they at least need to feel comfortable and grounded.

Now I have some clarity. Empathy goes beyond functional and job-oriented factors. When we tap into authentic, human empathy that caters to the diverse needs of our audience of human beings, a true engagement with your reader begins.

 

Malachy Lavelle is Information Senior Engineering Manager (Documentation) at Avaya. He has over 25 years of experience in technical writing, technical training, quality assurance, and customer service in the telecommunications and software industries.

 

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