What questions do you ask to SMEs to begin with technical documentation?

During a recent online conversation, someone requested for a list of questions I would typically ask to a subject matter expert (SME) to prepare technical documentation for a topic. Of course, the parameters may vary, but there is still a list of questions that apply across all sizes or complexities of projects. In this post, I share with you the list of questions that I shared with them…

TechComm and Content Disruption

Vinish Garg recently posted on the content’s role in Disruption. In his post, he shared what the experts had to say on the role that content has to play/currently plays. Here’s my opinion:

What is Disruption?

Let me first take you back in time. This started when the marketing and branding industry opened the corporate gates to the world of consumers. And, by opening the gates, I mean it transformed its value proposition from “this is what I have” to “this is what I can do”.

This is when the small brands started becoming revolutionarily big by using the power of content to reach people. Gradually, the brand communication transformed from advertisements to jingles, to sports, to brand personification, and to emails. But, this inherent idea of associating brands with emotions continued to lose its value as the size of content continued to become unmanageably big.

Today, we have a lot more touch points to reach to our consumers, yet we are far less effective in reaching the right audiences. Reason? The consumers are lost in the enormity of content. In the race of creating more content, we have forgotten to make it effectively personal. Today, the consumers have a lot of options, and each of those options is trying to be different. But, when everyone tries to be different, no one is different.

It is important to disrupt this clichéd template of communication to help consumers make informed decisions. It is important to keep consumers at the focus to design communication strategies that transform the value proposition from “this is what I can do” to “this is what I can do for you”.

This disruption is to bring back the consumers from the point of “I am being pushed” (with the product/service) to “I am being heard”. And, only such a disruption can help us engage better, listen better, and do better.

And, how can technical communication/technical communicators play a role in Disruption?

I think it is about the consumers, and not about the product. We exist because the consumers (and their needs) exist. We help build this communication ecosystem. We communicate products in an undistorted, unappealing form. But, we do connect the features and benefits. We can help our consumers answer the “what’s in it for me” question. Of course, we may not sell. But we can at least help them buy.

I look at it this way: If organizations were chemical equations, technical communicators would be the catalyst. We communicate. And, we help communicate. The information passes through us. So, it is up to us to transform that information into its utterly simple, memorable, and usable form. In fact, we can equate customers’ requirements with the developers’ intentions.

We can align tools, methodologies, and the technology while we bring clarity, insights, oneness, and simplicity (not in that order though). But of course, that all sums up as the easy-sounding commonsensical task. And, making common sense truly common is perhaps the disruption.

Do you create video reviews on newer technologies, too?

Time and again I get to answer the question about what I do for a living. Yes, it does get irritating at times. But, mostly I love answering such questions. This time around, it was a marriage party and the questions were from the father of a curious teenager.

“So, I heard you are a writer!”

Is that a question? No, he knows that I am a writer. It’s just a rephrased form of “So, though I know that you write, I’m curious to know what [the hell] you do for a living?!” There still are traces of suspicion, amazement, and non-knowledge, which I liked. Tip: Never let the other person know that you know how it all starts.

I said I don’t just write. Just to be informative, we – in India – mentally associate writers as mostly boring, wage-less people who write because they cannot do anything better than that. So, I said, I don’t just write, I work as a technical writer.

I continued, “I prepare technical documentation for a software company. We, as a company, create software blah… blah… blah… and I get to create user manuals, troubleshooting guides, and the other *important* stuff, which is similar to the guides that you get when you purchase mobile phones.”

“Hmm… OK!” [Expected reply.] That’s a sign for you to continue. So, we talked for some more time before this happened…

“You see, my son keeps searching on YouTube… he mostly searches for [and watches] videos, spoofs, reviews, and funny stuff on technology… Do you do anything of that sort?”

Spoof? Well, No! Reviews? Still a No. Videos? Maybe! He probably intended to say “tutorial” for “spoof,” but alas there weren’t any translators available. Nevertheless. That’s another word to add to the list of what I DON’T do for a living.

Toward the end, I could give him a fair idea of what I do to earn a bread (and the other edible stuff). It turns out, he too wrote occasionally. No, not the way I do, but he wrote poems and diary entries. He wanted to start writing more intently and found “So, I heard you are a writer” to be the only way to crack a conversation about it. I totally respect that.

We kept talking for about half an hour; It was nice talking to him. Our streams of thoughts converged when he asked me about that “one *all-important* thing about my profession.” From where I can see, there is only one answer to this question: Curiosity.

Though we never really concluded the conversation, I got to know one thing toward the end: the curiosity of the curious teenager was very much visible in the eyes of the now curious father. He was content with my reply, it seemed. But, I think I saw a writer in the making.

Connect Those Pesky Dots

“For god sake, once, just once, connect those pesky dots. Can’t you see that I can’t understand anything? Even a word?” That’s what I often say when I look at bad write-ups. I just can’t connect those pesky dots to see what the story is. But, am I the only one who rubbishes write-ups that often? Don’t you too?

I think a write-up is bad because it doesn’t tell me anything. So, if it is poem, I am like “Uh!” and if it is a story, I’m like “So?” Write-ups that do not take either me or my learning from, for example, point A to point B are bad write-ups for me. I do not read poems. Not from all the writers. I am choosy, because not all writers do justice to their works. But, here’s one who I read quite often, and every time I see a new poem, I realize the poet wants me to step into her shoes and flow through the story she narrates.

But then there are those writers, who can beautify their words, and still fail to get the messages across. In contrast, I would love to read those writers who can break the ice, tell me a story, and make me smell the flowers as I read through their texts – just like the Juhi’s poems I just shared with you. Such writers, I believe, are a lot more effective. That’s because they have a message for me. Beautification is not a message. Beautification may be important, but not for me.

My take? Fiction, non-fiction, biographies, and poems: I see that the quality of write-ups (good or bad) depends on the flow of thoughts from the intentions to the messages. This flow is what can help us connect those pesky little dots. The message in the flow is about something that I either need to know or am interested to know about. And, as long as the writer can help usher me through the tides of the emotions, and still communicate the message and bring me (or my learning) from point A to point B, I’m good.

Plain, simple rules, aren’t they? Flow and message! But, why am I writing this to you? Why? Or, is it not something you already know? How many of us not write to rant out our pain? How many of us write for the fun and soul in writing? I am not sure. Not sure, because I know that writing isn’t always for a purpose. Not sure, because we know that we know the principles or the idea, and yet not follow it. Most of us don’t. But, I think I do. Do you?

The Next Big Thing: Workshop

Next month, I am conducting a couple of workshops at the STC India Annual Conference, in Pune. I like to talk about technical communication. And, at the conference, I’ll meet a lot of those would like to talk to me about this faculty of knowledge. Also, information design, as a topic, has always fascinated me. And, this time, I am conducting the workshops on the same topic.

In one of my recent interactions, with the Information Design batch at the National Institute of Design, we discussed some design principles. This is one of the reasons I chose to talk about information design at the annual conference. I see that a lot of new writers in our faculty of knowledge are turning toward information design. And, all this just makes me more curious about the topic.

I plan to keep the same flow of thoughts for both the workshops: I will make my point; then I will help you explore the topic; and then we all will draw conclusions on it. The first workshop is on the pre-conference day, and the second on 11 December. You can read more about the first and second workshop using the following links: Workshop#1 and Workshop#2.

The colleagues at my office too are excited about the workshops. In fact, some of them have asked me about how they too can attend the conference. In case you have not registered for the conference, do so quickly. Those of you who regularly follow me on the social network have asked me questions about the workshops. One such question is about a typical format of workshops. That is an interesting question. In fact, that’s how I began my research when I was invited to speak at the conference.

My research says that every workshop (and the speaker) is different. So, there cannot be a fixed format for workshops. However, I think there is one template that every speaker follows: First, make a point and describe it; second, create an exercise for the attendees; third, restate your point in light of the exercise to help your attendees connect the new insights with the thought you initially established; and in the end, leave your attendees with a thought.

But, there is one thing I would hate to do at my workshop: lecture about things. This is YOUR time as much as it is mine. To be a little too specific, you have two hours with me on the pre-conference day (that is 10 December), and 45 minutes on the day that follows (that is 11 December). Please remember that these are interactive workshops. So, the topics cannot steer ahead if YOU don’t participate.

At the workshops, I aim to talk about some intuitive design principles that can help map the need of the user with the benefits of your products/service. But, unlike what most of us think, these principles do not belong to information design. The principles are what I call the torchbearers, because they remain same no matter what faculty of knowledge I apply. This is enough now: I won’t spill the beans! Attend the workshops to know more.

How do I make information-communication effective?

Information communication is a cyclical process, much like the usual purchase decisions that you take. So, if we can wear the shoes of our users and understand their requirements, we can write better documents or even project the information-communication more effectively. In this blog post, I try to find those effective checkpoints using the purchase-decision analogy. We will take daily-life examples, such as using mobile applications to searching for “mobile phones” versus searching purposefully for “new Android phones under 10,000.” The analogy lends us some interesting insights that can help us communication information effectively. Let’s explore.

Heuristics in Information Design: So that you get only what you need

Heuristics, unlike what most of us know, is not ONLY about the trial-and-error way of doing things. Heuristics are those basic guidelines that mostly cover the generic application of common sense. And, I don’t see a better faculty than technical communication to apply this technique. Here’s what I have to share.

Three Tips for Effective Localization

In this post, I take a closer look at the localization project in which my team and I assisted. I take cues from this project, and the similar ones that I have done previously, to discuss the top-three points for localization. This post is special to me, because it has helped me unfold those chapters of my life, which I had come to forget. If you are new to localization, this post will help you scratch its surface. If you already are into this field, I hope that the post will help add some new points to your localization plans. Click here to read the full post.

Trends in Technical Communication

In response to a reader’s question, I explore the impact of soft skills on the trends in technical communication. But, do the skills and trends have anything in common? Can the soft skills affect trends? If yes, how? Well, there are a lot of questions. And, I attempt to solve some of them in this post. Read the full post.

The Writing Principles

Have you ever come across a poorly written write-up? Have you ever felt that you could have written better? A couple of write-ups, which I read recently, drew my thoughts on writing about writing. I have always believed that anyone can write. But, if everyone can write, can everyone become a writer? I have explored this thought, and prepared a list (… which is not really an exhaustive one!) of guidelines that can help everyone write better. Read the full post.