Program Recap: Developing Technical Documentation

On Tuesday, March 12, 2019, we gathered at Washtenaw Community College to hear Dave Robbins’ talk, Developing Technical Documentation With Passion and Purpose.

Dave Robbins shows us a checklist for machine operators that was developed to post where the operator could check it while working.

Robbins started out as a geologist, became the go-to report writer, and eventually became a tech writer. As a new writer, he found STC very valuable. STC has found Robbins’ contributions valuable as well: he has received three Distinguished Awards and an STC Chapter Best of Show Award, all of which he attributes to the support and collaboration of great coworkers.

Great Documentation, Passion, and Purpose

It takes a team to produce great user-focussed technical documentation: writers, editors, designers, subject-matter experts, reviewers, management, and various services. It takes a process, and works even better when writing is part of the development process. It takes design—at many levels—starting with a content plan, information access, user interaction, hypertext and searchability. It may take specialized tools as well.

It takes passion, which, according to its top definition on urbandictionary.com, “is when you put more energy into something than is required to do it. It is…ambition that is materialized into action to put as much heart, mind, body, and soul into something as is possible.”

And it takes purpose, “the force that drives us.” (urbandictionary.com)

Robbins advised us to “Let serving your end users be your passion and purpose.” He showed this with a story of the evolution of an operations manual for a check-processing machine. When he started with the project, finding task-related information took twice as long as the time needed to complete the task. Training didn’t seem to help much, and turnover of machine operators was high, which complicated the situation. He thought about the users, which eventually led to an innovative context-sensitive onscreen help, but not before overcoming some familiar challenges: funding at various points through different budgets, scattershot input, lack of information architecture planning, and no planning for documentation maintenance.

Teamwork Is Key

Writers must understand and advocate for end users. What tasks must they accomplish? What information will they need? As advocates, writers must also guide design and usability. On the other hand, they must also be mindful of business needs: guide and manage the writing process, apply organizational skills, and deliver on time and within budget.

Reviewers need to ensure completeness, correctness, and concision.

Management should understand the role of tech writers and the importance of documentation, engage with customers’ issue resolution, and encourage innovation. Robbins gave examples of how he and his team innovated with line drawings and video.

The team as a whole also has dual roles: they must ensure that the deliverables meet end users’ needs and the needs of everyone involved throughout the product life cycle.

Past, Present, and Future—Your Future

Technical communication has been around for a long time. Robbins’ examples ranged from cuneiform tablets, illustrated sewing machine threading instructions, poster checklists, and manuals, to Elon Musk’s rocket—just imagine the documentation needed.

The future is here. We are, for example, embracing content technologies that allow us to create reusable content and to collaborate through social media. His final recommendation was to work on always expanding our toolkits as a technical communicator, with both domain-specific knowledge and technical communication skills, hard and soft.

Thank yous

Thank you, Dave, for your very interesting talk with its great examples, stories, and resources to explore.

Thank you to Washtenaw Community College for hosting us.

Thank you to Nancy Robbins for the photograph.