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Technical Writing by Mark Metcalfe, Publications Professional

The one thing that has remained constant for a writer is the role of providing information content. However, providing a context for information is changing, again and again. Technological advances and consumer demands have created an explosion of contexts in which content can be consumed; and they want it all.

The high-level contexts for information content can be described as follows:

  • Content - Consumable (raw) data
  • Delivery - Presentation of data
  • Availability - Completeness of data
  • Accessibility - Navigating large collections of data
  • Structural coherence - Understanding large collections of data

Finer granularity of these contexts include such things as book-like information, GUI help, packaged software demonstrations (online quick tours, primers, tutorials, and animations), online seminars, FAQs, special interest communities, and more; (the list is hardly exhaustive).

The exponential scope and scale of the present-day Internet-enabled challenges will require several evolutionary paths for writers, each addressing the issues of providing processed information in a useful manner. I see at least three roles evolving for writers in an Internet-enabled world:

  • Content developers
  • Information miners
  • Infrastructure architects

A content developer is a writer whose task it is to document the use and function of a product or process. These writers have contacts closest to the development of a product. This role most closely identifies with today’s technical writer. The evolutionary path from writer to content developer is relatively smooth for any writer who has already experienced using a new tool or process to deliver content.

An information miner fulfills a purpose of finding information that is related to the use and function of a product or process. These writers are once-removed from the development aspects of the product, and closer to customer feedback forums, such as customer support databases and special interest communities. These writers gather related information and repackage both the content and context for better consumption.

An infrastructure architect focuses mainly on the contexts in which information is presented, ensuring that consumers are able to understand and navigate large virtual collections of data with relative ease. These writers have to possess knowledge to design a scalable infrastructure and to document the infrastructure (with meta-information). (A good analogy might be that these people are like architects of a city, planning major civic centers and roads that provide sufficient flow access to efficiently get from one part of the city to another.)

The following specific elements make up a world-class strategy for content development:

  • Information types are consistently presented in appropriate locations.
  • Expectations of how and where to find different types of information are consistent and easily learned.
  • “Help” anticipates a consumer’s need or desire, based on prior interactions or natural language queries. (Sometimes referred to as active help.)
  • Embedded help for all software products. (More traditional online help offerings)
  • A browser-independent interactive information system for each product.
  • Internet-based interactive (not passive) tutorials that are tightly integrated with software products.
  • Frequent and timely product information updates supplied to consumers over the web.

There are many organizational “owners” of information, such as Customer Support providing data for FAQs, or Technical Marketing providing Internet seminars (webinars) on new product features. All information needs to be channeled into a collaborative web-based architecture to make information useful.

Mark Metcalfe
www.linkedin.com/in/MarkMetcalfe

Posted on Monday, July 27, 2009 3:59 PM | Back to top


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