As technical writers, the majority of our work is based on translating technical jargon, making complex tasks more easily understandable and forming knowledge bases for new and existing users. However, as user interfaces become more easy to navigate and the general public become more exposed to technical terminology, the importance of adapting and learning from other industries has steadily increased over the last decade or so.
The position of a technical writer can vary from company to company. Traditionally, technical writers have been lumped within engineering and development divisions. Interacting with those who’ve developed the software or product is handy in many ways for technical writers (the ability to get clarification on features directly from developers, for example). But how can technical writers improve their skills if they’re not working alongside other content creators?
Nowadays, there seems to be a growing trend of technical writers bridging the gap between engineers and marketers. Technical writers often work alongside marketers to produce content consistent with the company’s brand. But what can technical writers learn from those in marketing?
1. Understand the Subject Matter
It’s often said (and in a lot of ways is true) that technical writers see things from a usability point of view. It’s important for us to know how things work, why they work and under what conditions. We can then pass on clear instructions to the user, making sure that the user understands complex processes with minimal confusion.
You could say that technical writers focus largely on helping users resolve the issues they face. After all, our typical audience would be those who are seeking help for a current problem, not those who want to pre-empt them.
One of the ways in which marketers can aid technical writers is their insight. These days, marketers have access to significant amounts of data to find out how customers are finding the product, why they are using the product, how frequently they are accessing content and so forth. Working with marketers closely gives us access to our user’s experiences and thoughts, helping us to better understand how the product or service is being used. A key to being an effective technical writer is to develop a deep knowledge of every aspect of the subject matter, because it shines through in the content we create.
2. Identify Gaps with Marketers
A crucial element of a marketer’s job is to identify potential users who would benefit from the product or service most. These are the people who are more likely to buy and enjoy your product.
Technical writers are often shielded away from this. Traditionally, we would create content that is relevant for all users, regardless of their knowledge of the product/service. But there’s nothing more frustrating from a technical writer’s viewpoint (and a user’s) than documentation that assumes a level of knowledge that isn’t representative of the majority.
With the help of marketers, we can easily identify our target demographic and their behaviour. For example, we can work together to run surveys or interviews to find what functions are being used the most, which areas users regularly struggle with, what terminology needs clarifying etc. This helps us to fill in any gaps and cater online help and e-learning materials more closely towards the end user.
3. Engage the User
Companies are engaging with their customers and users more than ever before. The dawn of social networks has opened up new avenues for companies to gauge user feedback and public opinion.
The fact that so many of us have a presence on social media makes it easier for technical writers to directly approach users. In fact, social media marketers actively try to drive interaction all the time, whether it’s by creating blog posts, contributing in a forum or sending tweets. Following their footsteps gives you a chance to assess your audience’s behaviour, monitor interest and encourage the sharing of your content.
A huge advantage for using social media to distribute your content is the potentially huge audience. You never know, you might be helping many of your users, some who would never have been able to find your content in the first place, all from a single social media post. There’s really no reason for technical writers not to get involved!
4. Optimise Your Content
Modern-day technical documentation is often internet-based. There are many benefits to putting your documentation on the internet, but one of the main reasons is for searchability.
Optimising your content for search engines allows your users to find exactly the content that they need with minimal effort. Making your content more social, adding outbound links, inserting relevant keywords and applying appropriate alt tags and meta descriptions can really make a difference to your documentation’s searchability. Frequently updating your documentation is also beneficial for both SEO and your users.
Your online documentation can have a major impact on how search engines such as Google rank all your web pages, so it’s wise to follow best practices and guidance when it comes to SEO. Enlisting the help of online marketers could reap benefits both for those who are searching for your content and your company’s online presence.
Technical writers have to always adapt and learn from other departments and industries to improve and maintain the standard of our work. And these days, it’s not just about creating content. It’s about how you deliver it too.
What have you learned from other departments in your company? Do you work with marketers on your documentation development? Where do you think technical writers can improve? Leave a comment below.