Are Technical Writing and Instructional Designing the Same?

This post originates from a couple of related question that I answered on Quora, which you can find here and here. For those who are rushing, here is the gist of the post: Although I don’t regard technical writing and instructional designing different, I do acknowledge that the tools and methodologies both use are quite different.

For the elaborate explanation, I resort to breaking the big question in parts:

How are technical writing and instructional designing different?

Howsoever thin, there is a line that separates technical writing and instructional designing. Yes, I agree that though the end-result is still similar, the routes taken are different. And, here is the first difference. Technical writers focus more on collecting, collating, and presenting information, while instructional designers focus on streamlining the correlated tasks into stepped instructions and courses. Another difference I see is in the approach. I always say that technical writers are backstage players. No one knows they are there, but they are. And, unlike instructional designers, technical writers can never become the front-stage players.

As a technical writer, I deal with creating and maintaining user guides, help files, and release notes, but if the time and scope permits I also get to write white papers, knowledge base articles, full-scope or abridged customer-driven metadata, and blogs. The goal, however, across all cases of documentation and complexities is empowerment. Instructional designing deals with information that’s both specific and generic. It does include offline or online learning, self-paced or instructor-led learning, and activity-based learning from simulation or gamification. The goal, however, across all cases and complexities is still on learning. But then my exploration limits my knowledge.

The thin line that differentiates technical writing and instructional designing becomes thinner at the object level. For example, when you create a knowledge base write-up, you focus both on empowerment and learning. You wish that when a user reads through your document, they will know what next to do and why. I can also see some rules that apply to both technical writing and instructional designing.

In today’s mobility-friendly world, people want everything on the go, including information. And, depending on what you seek or what you have (a smartphone, tablet, watch, or eyewear), the information complexity, language, and medium changes. This means that both information and instructions must be easy to understand and easy to use. In one way, this means fewer words and more visual content. But, we’ll discuss this some other time. Let us look at the second part of the big question.

Do technical writing and instructional designing require different skills and tools?

Quite rightly, the thin line of difference in the professions extends into the skill set and tool set as well. While it is true that both the skills and tools mostly are common, the percentage of a skill’s or tool’s relevance certainly changes based on the profession. I feel that technical writing involves more researching than instructional design. But, like I said, my exploration limits my knowledge. Instructional design involves more of storyboarding. So, it is good to assume that it will also involve more of action-driven, task-based sentences.

Both involve writing instructions, but technical writing restricts such instructions to stepped procedures in user guides and troubleshooting guides, while the entire storyboarding in instructional designing is task-based and action driven. Instructional designing is more of learning management. Consequently, you should have a better understanding of what users do with your products.

Let us take a small example. Consider that you have a job at a place where even a small error might result in huge losses for the company. Now, we will agree that the software or hardware products that you will get to use in such places will come with manuals. But, will it still not make sense for you to undergo a formal training before you get involved in your daily duties? I hope you can now see the difference. You limit your information goals based on your work processes and sequences of actions; on how a tool is designed to work and how it may fail; and, one how you wish to keep yourself and your peers safe and the work processes smooth.

In the context of the differences in technical writing and instructional designing, given the information goals you seek, it would be right to consider instructor-led training first followed by a regular check into the user guides wherever required. That should lend you insights into the only possible difference in the professions. Let us now address the last part of the big question.

As a technical writer, can I switch profession into instructional designing?

Either way, switching shouldn’t sound challenging; it wouldn’t be easy, for sure. But decide what you wish to do or help the users in accomplishing.

Conclusion

Before I conclude, let me take a moment to help you look at how I’ve understood this indifference. First I determine what the user wishes to accomplish. Then, I determine how they wish to accomplish their learning objective. Then, I look for the resources I could use to help them accomplish their learning objectives. Then, I break that learning objective into logical, sequential parts. Now, I see if I could create content that ushers them through those logical, sequential parts. The point is that I register the impact of each of those logical, sequential parts. I register the growth of user’s learning as they move from one goal to another and, eventually, one objective to another.

You see that the already thin line of difference between technical writing and instructional design further begins to blur.

Let’s just introduce a new word into our discussion: training. The word adds a lot of clarity in our understanding and helps us define the scope of both technical writing and instructional designing. Based on what we’ve discussed so far, can we say we are talking about technical training instead of instructional designing? If yes, can we say that technical training helps graduate a user’s understanding from one logical sequence to another or from one learning goal to another? And if that’s also true, aren’t we negating the difference between technical writing and instructional designing?

This is exactly why I don’t regard technical writing and instructional designing different. They may be two sides of the same coin, and I am OK if they are that way. But, that still doesn’t change the end-result for the users. Despite what users wish to peruse, they seek insights and accomplishment. And, as someone who enables them to achieve both these, I continue to remain a problem solver for the users. And, I don’t care what you name me as.