Why Isn’t It?

In 2009, I delivered a short, light-hearted keynote address to the STC France annual conference, entitled, It’s Not in the Job Description. This post answers that presentation with a question: Why isn’t it there? What is it that we really do, anyway?

Defining Our Profession

I’m indebted to Mark Baker for his post, The Web Does Minimalism, which I recommend to everyone, and for his response to my election post on STC’s business model. His remarks crystalized for me a number of things I’ve been reflecting about over the last few years.

We used to have a pretty straightforward idea of what we did. We were technical writers, and we wrote manuals. We provided the bridge between engineers and their world, and users. We were able to translate from the functionality-based thinking of a product’s creators, to the task-based mindset of the end users.

We were also at the end of the food chain. We had to wait until the product was done, then chase engineers around with our notepads to try and get an idea of how something was supposed to work (not necessarily how it actually did). And we always got blamed for release delays.

Today we do many things that have never been thought of in the context of technical “writing:”

  • Interface design – user assistance is embedded in the interface. How can we design it if we don’t get involved with interface design?
  • Software information content – software today is an information rich environment, and often has to talk to users in one or more clearly defined voices. We write a lot of this content, whether or not it concerns user guidance.
  • Content strategy – this is a new buzzword, more or less since 2009, but if anyone thinks we didn’t do this before, they’re nuts. We’ve always had to make our work fit into an existing strategy, when there was one, and we’ve often helped define one when there wasn’t – it just wasn’t formalized. Now it’s getting more so.
  • Information Architecture – most of us don’t like being told we’ve got to fill in all the lorum ipsum’s that some designer has created for us without ever asking us what we needed to write and what prominence it needed. But we also can’t really start writing if we don’t have an idea of the structure it’s going into. In truth, content and structure need to evolve together and in parallel. So we do a bit of IA as well, and work with designers and information architects to make sure our content has a place to go – the right place to go.
  • Localization – Most of us don’t do translation, even if we are able to. But localization is not just translation. All the activities above also need to take localization into account. You need a good 30% more screen space for material in French or German than you do in English, just take a mundane example. Then there is the HOW you write – there are ways to write that make translation easier – and less costly, too. We have to know about them. Fortunately, most of these techniques also make better source language content.

I’m sure we could find a few more, but you get the idea. The fact that we do all of the above does not necessarily make us experts in all the fields mentioned. We are technical communicators: jacks of all trades, masters of some. We work in teams with other content workers, engineers and developers, marketers and designers, to create content in a variety of environments and situations.

Our skill, today, is not knowledge of English grammar or good style – though these are tools we must have in our kits. It’s not our knowledge or this or that desktop publishing solution, DITA schemas, or CMS systems, though these are also important.

Our primary and most important skill in today’s market is the ability to find information quickly, synthesize it, and make connections where relationships don’t seem apparent.

To quote Mark Baker, knowledge is no longer a salable commodity. Instead, it is “the calling card of expertise.”

In this context, all the definitions of our profession in all the labour bureaus throughout the world are obsolete and out of date.

The EuroIA Summit – a Wow Experience

I did plan to write this a bit earlier, but while I was in Prague at this year’s EuroIA summit, I got a bout of bronchitis that’s been slowing me down. That said, I can still easily say “Wow.” It was a great conference.

What made it great, first and foremost, was the spirit. Just about everyone there was infused with a certain joie de vivre that was infectious. People were there to share and celebrate their profession. The “celebrate” part was really important. There was a sense that information architecture, as a profession, had gone through some hard times, and that it was now possible to hold one’s head up high and jubilantly proclaim to the heavens, “Ich bin ein IA!” – OK, wrong language for Prague, but I don’t know any Czech 😉

Another reason for the success of this conference is that it is deliberately kept small – sold out at 200. This is done to guaranty that most people get to speak to most people, and that you get to meet new folks, not just hang out with old friends. The small group fosters camaraderie as well. There were only two concurrent sessions at a time, so, although choices were sometimes difficult, they weren’t as daunting as for some larger conferences.

Then there was the quality of the presentations themselves. While I can’t say that they were uniformly outstanding, every presentation I attended was able to grab and hold my attention, even the one that I found disappointing. No one was so boring that I wanted to leave. That might seem to be a backhanded compliment, but anyone who has had to organize a conference knows that it is very difficult to achieve such a thing in a three-day event.

I specially appreciated that this conference was really for people in Europe. There were some attendees from North America, but the focus of the conference was on European practice and European issues, and that was a refreshing change from many so-called “international” conferences where people from all over the world can congregate and talk about the state of their professions in the United States.

One innovation of this conference that I really loved – and will probably steal next time I have to organize a conference myself – was what they called “The IA Shuffle.” Conference chair Eric Reiss explained that in the past, organizers had been disappointed by the poor quality of panels and debates that had been proposed and prepared in advance. They decided, a few years back, that an improvised panel couldn’t possibly be any worse, and thus was born the IA Shuffle.

Here’s how it works. At the beginning of the day, a tall hat is placed in front of one of the meeting rooms, and attendees are invited to drop their proposals for a panel discussion topic into the hat. At the end of the day, in plenary session, a single topic is drawn from the hat, and that is the topic of the discussion. Volunteer panelists are then solicited, and the process is repeated as they put their names into the hat. Five or six names are drawn, and Bob’s your uncle! A panel is born.

I personally agree with Eric Reiss’ assessment that the panel we witnessed was every bit as good, and perhaps better for its spontaneity, as any prepared panel could be.

I came back from Prague knowing that next year I’ll be submitting a paper proposal, and going to Rome for EuroIA 2012 whether my paper is accepted or not.