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.

Don’t geolocate me – it’s bad UX!

Software publishers, webmasters, listen up, and listen up carefully!

The fact that I happen to be in Finland doesn’t mean I need my software or web pages installed or served up in Finnish. That would be true even if I were Finnish. Many Finns speak Swedish as their native language, and the Saami people have their own languages, many of them endangered.

Just because I happen to be in Spain doesn’t mean I need my software or web pages installed or served up in Spanish. That would be true even if I were Spanish. People in Spain also have Catalan, Gallego, or Euskadi for native languages.

I live part of my life in Catalonia, and I speak both Spanish and Catalan, but English is my first language, and I prefer to read material written in English in the original version. All my computers but one have English operating systems installed, but many programmes and web sites insist on giving me the language of my IP address or GPS coordinates, or of the regional settings that I have installed on my system (in my case, French keyboard, date and time formats, currency, etc. – I also live part of my life in France). Worse, some of them don’t let you change even after the fact.

Get it? I’m an international person. My computer And I speak and use many languages. In many places. But we most like to function in English, except when the information is originally in a language I know or is culturally specific.

Here’s a real life experience with a web service many of us use, Survey Monkey. I set up an account using the English interface. If I type the general URL for the site in Barcelona, the interface comes up in Spanish. This is not necessarily bad usability, most people with IP addresses in Spain will prefer that language – except if they are in Catalonia. Except if they are in the Basque country. Except if they are in Galicia. OK, so I type in my user ID and password, but guess what? It doesn’t know me. Now what? Well, one of the things I do is look for a language selection. But would most users know to do that? Anyway, finding it on Survey Monkey’s login page is no easy feat. It’s way at the bottom. I changed the language to English, eventually, and tried again. Success this time, I got in.

Next time I went to Survey Monkey I was on the same (laptop) computer, but in France. Surprise, the French interface comes up, and it doesn’t know me! Change to English, success.

Frustrated, I searched the settings for a language preference. There is none. Come on, guys,
even Google lets you pick your interface language and set it, and they know who you are in any language. And they speak a lot more of them than you do.

In a fit of pique, I treated Survey Monkey to an email with my opinion. I got a terse reply from a French representative telling me that most people in France prefer to speak French and that I could switch languages. Thanks.

Oddly, another offender is Canon printers. If you install their software from a CD it gives you a nice language choice screen. But if you download their drivers or other software, you get what they give you, which is the language of your regional settings. Even from the English download site!

These are clearly examples of poor thinking, leading to poor user experience.

Just because we know how to geolocate someone doesn’t mean we should. I would rather you looked at what language my system is in. It seems to me, this gives you a better guess about what language I want to use.

What do you think?