Long Live Technical Writing!
To evoke the words of Mark Twain: reports of technical writing’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
True, it wasn’t that long ago when the buzzards were circling, the pallbearers were stretching their pall-bearing muscles, and technical writers were warning their peers to find the nearest exit and find another career path. As recently as this past May, a couple of technical writers over at UXmatters.com declared that “the profession of technical writing is on the verge of obsolescence!”
The idea behind this widespread lament isn’t that technical writing is no longer necessary – because that’s inconceivable. Like a superhero, wherever products and services are sold, wherever customers have problems and questions, wherever pre-sales teams need tools to do the heavy lifting: technical writing will be there to save the day.
Rather, this grim view of technical writing’s imminent demise is based on the belief that with programmers, QA testers, analysts, consultants and other internal and external stakeholders each contributing a piece of the technical writing puzzle, the traditional role of a technical writers is unsustainable, and as such, headed for the dustbin of history. “If you are a technical writer,” urge the writers of the aforementioned article, “you need to open your eyes to this reality.”
Well, with all due respect to those who believe that technical writers’ best days are behind them – and the current days are numbered – we have a categorically different and far more positive view. Yes, the profession of technical writing is evolving. But why is this threatening or terrifying? This shift is the best thing to happen to technical writers since the Society for Technical Communication – because rather than diminishing the role, it’s elevating it to where it should have been ages ago: driving the bus of customer experience.
That’s right: the chronically over-worked, under-appreciated technical writers in an organization – those same folks who never stop trying to implement communication standards and processes, and who’ve heard every excuse in the book for why SMEs don’t have the time to be interviewed – are on the vanguard of what is arguably the single most important and profitable business priority that exists today; and one that isn’t going to fall off the executive agenda anytime soon. In fact, a Walker study predicts that by the year 2020, customer experience will surpass price and product as the key brand differentiator.
Add it up, and it means that technical writers – those unsung behind-the-scenes superheroes whose names never appear on the content, and who never get a like, upvote or “you rock” from a customer -- are more important now than ever, because they’re responsible for creating product documentation that must attract, nurture and keep customers. They’re part of the new and improved buyer’s journey: one where product documentation and other kinds of “accessible” technical content are as important – if not in many cases, more important – to customers than sales or marketing collateral. After all, according to research by SiriusDecisions, 67 percent of the customer journey is now done digitally, and 74 percent of business customers told Forrester that they conduct more than half their research online before making a purchase. And while this time and effort is naturally allocated to articles, reports, white papers, videos, scouring forums and so on, a big chunk is spent engaging with product documentation – provided, of course, that customers deem such assets worthy of engagement.
It also means that technical writers are no longer relegated to the traditional “technical writing silo”, where they’re subjected to work order after work order, and churn out document after document. Now, they must be part of the big picture discussions with cross-functional colleagues from sales, marketing, product development, QA, customer success, customer service, finance, etc., so that they can provide leadership on branding and image, messaging strategy, customer engagement, marketplace positioning, and other key insights.
And yes, we used the word leadership – which may seem out of place, and would have been in the past since technical writers were typically not given a seat at the leadership table. But now, this simply must change because there are inputs that only technical writers can bring to the table. After all, technical writers are the bridge that connects what a company offers, with how customers will use that offering to solve problems and achieve goals. With no disrespect to sales, marketing and other teams that make equally as vital contributions, no other group can bring the perspective that technical writers can.
Ignoring the invaluable and unique contribution of technical writers has always been a huge mistake – and largely due to the fact that technical writers tend to be the smartest people in an organization, and ignoring them is sometimes more expedient and convenient than following their shrewd advice (that is, until a crisis that technical writers saw coming from miles away erupts, and everyone else wonders why).But now, it’s the most important stakeholder of them all – customers themselves! – who are responsible for calling technical writers to center stage. Indeed, customers want more and better information, delivered through more channels, and that wraps around their specific requirements. And companies need their technical writers to deliver on this expectation, because nothing less than a positive or negative customer experience depends on it.
And so, we invite the beleaguered technical writers out there to relax and recharge. Things haven’t been easy for the last few years. People (albeit well-meaning) have been warning you that your career path is headed towards a Myspace-like dead end, and you’ve seen your vital role in the organization diminish as product documentation became viewed by The Powers That Be as something between a “nice to have” and a “necessary evil”.
But that was then – and this is now! Your time in the spotlight is just getting started, and this time, you’re not just going to make a contribution: you’re going to lead the way. Because for the foreseeable future, company success is all about delivering positive customer experience. And technical writers who help make this happen are worth their weight in gold.
Actually, make that worth their weight in great product documentation – because on today’s customer-centric landscape, there’s really nothing more precious or valuable.