The way we write about technology has to change. Why?
When was the last time you bought something, cracked open the packaging and found instructions that helped you to do what you wanted to do in the time you wanted to do it in? When was the last time you opened a software application’s online help and found what you were looking for without finding your level of rage elevated to a point usually reserved for people who prang your car? What about when you’re shopping for a new cellphone or computer or MP3 player? How often do you easily find what you want to know?
The internet is awash with information, and a fair bit of it isn’t all that useful. This is especially true when it comes to information about technology products, since in the last decade, the trend has been to save money on documentation by shipping the bare minimum and letting users who need more download it from the company website. The result: people struggle to find the information they need to use a product well, companies lament the amount of money they spend producing and maintaining documentation, and a whole industry of Dummies and Idiots books has sprung up around filling the gap between the information people get with technology products and what they actually need. The worse thing is that there’s a developing technological underclass who would love to take advantage of all the advances in technology but feel left behind because they think they just don’t get it.
The real problem is that the technology sector doesn’t get them.
What it comes down to is this: Technical writing – any writing about technology – should not be approached with the technology in mind. After all, a technical writer is likely to have more than enough technical information at hand; the trick is in figuring out what not to put in. How do you decide what not to put in? The first step is to figure out what the reader needs to know. How? We talk about that in Getting inside users’ heads.