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Here are a few examples of communication requiring simple, little, or no technology

Technical Communication: A Pragmatic Approach

Information icon.svg Unirivercity
Technical Communication (TC)
See: History

Welcome to an open educational resource (OER) designed to help you understand what technical communication (TC) is and to apply the principles and practices of (TC). My approach is pragmatic, because it considers that the most important aspect of TC is to generate practical results.

This OER is my first experience in creating wiki content and is part of my assessment requirements for the completion of a directed studies course. I respectfully request that you not edit until I have completed my version (around March 15, 2009). After that time, I hope that others will eventually add to, correct, or refine the pages I have initiated.

I have been guided by Techniques for Technical Communicators (Barnum and Carliner, eds., 1993) and the other resources noted, and by my own experience and training as a technical communicator and editor.

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After reading through this OER, you will be able to:

  • Understand what technical communicators do
  • Define and give examples of technical communication (TC)
  • Explain the difference between technical writing (TW) and TC
  • Discuss the purpose of and key concepts in TC
  • Develop a piece of TC in a medium of your choice

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You might already be a technical writer and/or technical communicator. According to the STC (Society for Technical Communication), you can determine this by asking listing and analyzing your communication activities and their end uses. You can also compare them against the checklist (2007) compiled by STC's Executive Director, Susan Burton.

What Do Technical Communicators Do?

To help you understand what technical communication is, it might help to know what technical communicators do. Burton summarizes what technical communicators and technical writers do in the process of developing and producing instructional and informational tools:

  • Researching, interviewing, designing, structuring
  • Writing, editing, marking and/or laying out
  • Combining multimedia knowledge with communication skills and technical expertise
  • Testing for usability, soliciting feedback, and evaluating materials
  • Ensuring accessibility for users with disabilities

Burton's checklist (2007) also makes clear the distinction between technical writing (TW) and technical communication (TC). TW consists of writing, editing, and layout and results in print materials, whereas TC, in addition to those activities, also includes tagging, markup, user interface design, hyperlinking, online help structuring, usability, needs analysis, and preparing text for translating, or surveys. And these activities usually result in online delivery, often in addition to print.

So, What is Technical Communication?

  1. It is pragmatic communication
  2. It is intended for a specific audience
  3. It is a translation from complex to clear
  4. It is a process involving many steps, which means project management
  5. It is delivered in many formats

And, TC is persuasive.

The University of Washington's Department of Human-Centered Design & Engineering (formerly Department of Technical Communication) offers a free, 30-minute video (2002) to explain what TC is, the history of how it developed, the importance of rhetoric in TC, and how TC it is used today. You can skim through the video to get a quick, anecdotal but accurate, view of what TC is about. (Note that you may have to download a plugin to get the video to play.)

1. It is pragmatic communication

TC is guided by rhetoric: persuasive, not creative, writing. Its value is extrinsic, or outside of itself, rather than intrinsic. It is important not for what it is, but for what it can help its users do: solve problems, observe rules, act safely, use equipment or software, and so on.

2. It is intended for a specific audience

The needs of the audience, not of the writer, fuels TC. "[It] is characterized first by the need to identify and understand the intended audience for the information" (Barnum & Carliner, 1993).

You must determine both who your audience is, why it needs the information you will be providing, and how and where it will use that information. That way, you can decide exactly what your audience needs to know and how you will present that information. You will also be able to take the perspective of your audience to anticipate its problems and predict its questions.

Audiences can share common characteristics, such as a familiarity with a specific type of technology. Or they might have little in common, other than a need to know and to use the information provided by TC. Knowing where your audience is situated is important, too. Is it in the workplace, where people read to do? Or is it in a training environment, where people read to learn?

3. It is a translation from complex to clear

TC is the transfer of packages of information from one group (experts) to another (users). Successful TC is the translation of complex subject matter into words and images that can be readily understood. A technical communicator takes complicated, unorganized data from subject matter experts (SMEs) and breaks it down into organized chunks of information that can be assimilated and used by non-experts.

4. It is a process involving many steps

TC is much more than simply writing clear instructions for technical manuals. It involves a holistic approach that focuses on the entire user experience and includes a sequence of steps. These steps are taken separately or simultaneously and usually involve collaboration with others. Steps include:

  1. Researching regarding audience and gathering information
  2. Planning a design draft and organizing information
  3. Writing and formatting
  4. Editing and revising
  5. Test driving for usability and accessibility

These steps might occur in a different order than that listed here and might include other steos, such as producing and protecting your work.

5. It is delivered in many formats

Examples include software and instruction manuals, training materials (workbooks, videos, multimedia), marketing and promotional products (catalogues, brochures, advertisements, financial reports, presentations, speeches), safety materials (information sheets, posters, manuals, procedures), scientific research and articles, and online information (websites, wikis, blogs, content pages).

What is the Purpose of Technical Communication?

The purpose of TC is to convey specific meaning, usually information that readers need so that they can take safe, appropriate, and effective action to use something, solve a problem, form an understanding of a particular issue, and so on. Such communication can be on any subject, in any discipline or industry, and in a variety of mediums and formats.

Let's look at the methods of communication shown in the picture at the beginning of this OER.

Can you select the low or no tech communication?

  • Footprints & tracks
  • Smoke signals
  • Talking
  • Yell beach
  • Shouting through the neighborhood

What are some examples shown in this picture of higher tech communication?

  • Morse code
  • Radio
  • Letters
  • Shadow puppets
  • Wanted notice

Although some do not require any technology (talking, shouting), most of these require either one or more technologies (electronics, transportation, printing press). Hey, did you notice that some technologies take a natural product (like horns) and change it slightly (so that it can convey sound and, therefore, meaning)?

Did you also notice that computers are not necessarily part of the technologies used? Did you also notice that these communications, technical or not, require preknowledge and semiotics?

In addition to semiotics and preknowledge, higher level TC generally uses a variety of technologies as tools toward creating the communication.

Wait: What's Semiotics?

It's the study of signs and symbols and the meaning and intent we allot to them. Semiotics can be divided into three areas: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics. According to Wikipedia[1], they are defined thus:

  • Semantics: relation between signs and the things they refer to
  • Syntactics: relation of signs to each other in formal structures
  • Pragmatics (general semantics): relation of signs to their impacts on those who use them

Effective TC requires all three.

Key Concepts of Technical Communication

To further understand what technical communication is, think of the key concepts in TC, which are:

  • Audience
  • Translation
  • Process

Audience: The audience is the group of people for whom your writing is intended. If you are a WikiEducator contributor, it is other people in the WE community. What these people have in common where your TC is concerned is a need to know. What exactly they need to know depends on how they will use the information. So TC focuses on on the needs of the audience, not on those of the writer. It requires the use of rhetoric (especially, persuasion), rather than literary and creative writing.

Translation: TC is translation, the middle ground between subject matter experts (SMEs) and non-experts, the users. This translation requires the breakdown of complicated information into written and visual chunks of information that can be readily understood, assimilated, and used by readers.

Process: The process is the many steps that are taken to transpose technical information into a language, style, and format that will appeal to its audience. These steps are not always linear or separate from one another. They include brainstorming, planning, researching, designing, writing, editing, producing, evaluating, and protecting information.

Technical Communication vs. Technical Writing

It is important to realize that, largely thanks to the development of the Internet (but not entirely because of it), there is a difference between TC and TW. TC has more scope and uses more forms of media than does TW, which is mostly confined to writing.

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1. Difference between TC and TW

According to both Barnum & Carliner (1993) and STC (2007), this the difference between writing and communication:

  • Technical writing is static, one-way, confined to writing and layout, usually non-collaborative
  • Technical communication is dynamic, interactive, encompasses numerous tasks and processes, involves collaboration.

2. Technical communicators

Those who produce technical communication are defined by what they do. According to STC, they:

Develop and design instructional and informational tools needed to assure safe, appropriate, and effective use of science and technology, intellectual property, and manufactured products and services. Combine multimedia knowledge and strong communication skills with technical expertise to educate across the entire spectrum of users’ abilities, technical experience, and visual and auditory capabilities.

Chris Malcolm, Self-portrait (1982). Creative Commons

Researching and Gathering Information

Researching is part of the planning process in technical communication. You will want to do first-hand research by interviewing both subject matter experts and members of your audience. University libraries and specialized article databases are excellent places to research technical topics. Focus on articles from peer-reviewed journals. You also may want to consult Wikipedia, but be careful! There is some dispute about the validity and completeness of wiki sources. Links provided by wiki articles may also be useful materials, but again, their reputability must be individually assessed.

Planning and Organizing information

Before you can start writing and creating your piece of TC, you will want to produce a plan of how you will organize the information you gathered during the research phase.

There are several steps you take before actually beginning to write. First, consider what resources you have and who you will need to consult or interview. Next, decide on how the deliverable (your piece of TC) will look. Then, write an outline of what you intend to communicate. Identify the highest priorities of your audience and what they need to know and how they will use the product.

What is Organization and Why is it Important?

Organization is giving order to a collection of data or information so that it can be understood and used by readers. This means you will think about how you structure your info, how you will present relationships between ideas, and how you will arrange info and ideas so that they relate to what readers already know.

As you might expect, how info is organized is dependent on audience, subject matter and content, purpose, communication medium, delivery method, and context of end use. If your material includes many terms with which your readers might not be familiar, for example, you might organize those terms into a glossary. If material conveys instruction, you might break it into sequential procedures. If material is delivered online, your chunks of information will be smaller.

If your information is presented with these considerations, it will help your audience cognitively process it with the least amount of effort and relate it to what they already know.

Writing and Formatting

So, in TC, it is essential to think like a reader, not like a writer, and to remember that reading is a voluntary act.

Do you have time and patience to read dense, complex documents? Maybe, if that's part of your job or if you are engaged in a program of study. But if you are a reader, you want to find specific information very quickly.

Are you going to read such documents for anything other than reward, such as getting paid or learning how to do something? Probably not, unless it involves a punchline.

If a document or, especially, a webpage looks or feels difficult, you aren't going to bother reading it. Even if you might lose out on an opportunity to benefit, you'll say, "I'll read it later," and then won't.

  • Tell readers what they will get
  • Divide information into chunks
  • Use a mixture of text, displayed lists, visual images, tables
  • Use plenty of white space
  • Use different ways to present

Your job as a writer is to help readers actively interpret text. Think like a reader before you think like a writer. It is up to you to translate the information from the subject matter expert (SME) so that the user can understand and use it. When you begin to explain a concept, think of how you can break it down into chunks of information. Explain it as simply as possible: by using point form, for example and by omitting unnecessary words.

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Activity 1—Before and After Clear Language [10 minutes]
  • Imagine that your supervisor emails you and asks you to turn the following paragraph into clear language. Read the paragraph, then revise it. Then check your answer at the bottom of the main Unrivercity page. (Adapted from Belfiore & Burnaby, 1995.)

Before Clear Language

"The normal working day begins at nine in the morning and ends at five in the afternoon. There are two coffee breaks, each lasting fifteen minutes, at 10:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. Lunch periods are one hour each and begin at 12 noon."
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Tip: Use complete sentences only if there is a reason to do so. You can change the format if you want to.

Editing and Revising

You will need to develop an editorial style sheet as you write. More about that later.

Keep in mind that certain conventions are used in technical writing. For example, only one space is used between sentences. Exclamation marks are used sparingly, as are abbreviations such as i.e. and e.g. These guiding points regarding style can be found in the Microsoft Manual of Style, the APA Style Manual, and the Chicago Manual of Style, to name a few.

Test Driving

It is important to evaluate your material before giving it to your user. First, have the SME read it and give feedback regarding accuracy and ease of use. Apply those changes. Then, choose someone who is not a specialist in the area to "test drive" the material. If a nonspecialist can understand and use what you have written, you are on the right track.

Links and References

About Unirivercity, the Course Author

my sandbox

Answer to Activity 1—Before and After Clear Language

After Clear Language

9 a.m. Work begins
10:15—10:30 a.m. Coffee break
12—1 p.m. Lunch
3:15—3:30 p.m. Coffee break
5 p.m. Work ends