A Guided Tour in Tech Writing

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

Part of the Research Backpack

As writer’s, we’ve all got a toolbox or backpack full of our favorite things to use when we need to get a doc written, whether it’s a manual, proposal, or just a user guide. One of my personal favorites is a “Guided Tour,” because it involves asking a user who is able to articulate her needs, working with her to finesse the points, and then heading off to work my magic.

A Guided Tour is more than an interview, but less than a deep dive. It can be a simple phone call where we dash off some bullet points, but typically it provides some really great insight into what the document or website should look and feel like. As a hands-on, personable writer, this is usually something that, for me, saves a lot of work down the road.

How do you conduct a Guided Tour?

To begin the tour, it’s really a conversation with “muscle.” Ask the participant (sometimes there will be more than one, so I suggest having these tours one at a time) to give you a tour of their “space” as a concept. No, really. A walk through. You can do this physically with metaphors like:

“Imagine that your document or website is a house. What is the most important room, like the kitchen? Where does everyone end up at the party, despite the fact that you thought they would all be in the living room? Tell me about that most important place? Or, “When everyone arrives at your (document, website) what is the very first thing you want them to see? Is it the fireplace, the bookcase filled with your impressive reading list, the kids’ trophies from track? What really matters?”

Or, try a more exact approach:

“If you are walking through the aisles of the grocery store and you very much want to get just item X (the one you are designing for as priority), let’s talk about the things your readers will see before they get there – the user guide, the table of contents, the FAQ…and why.

You can talk through where the product is stored and how. You can discuss whether there are video links and archives, whether users are taken to other environments like sales and marketing and whether that is okay or distracting.

I often use imagery like organizing kitchens and garages because they are simple to visualize and valuable visually.

Identify Customizable Environments

Everyone’s product, like their house, is unique. We sometimes think that plug and play really means that, and that we are “stuck” within templates. We are not. Even minor changes will strike fear into participants, but if you are listening on your Guided Tour, you will find that they have customized an environment with their own acronyms, business terms, and priorities.

Asking a participant to guide you through their use of an application, even if it seems like it would be a strict template, can give you amazing insights. A good example is a Guided Tour through using the bells and whistles in their car. Just when you think just about everything is the same, you learn that there are some fantastic differences, and as a designer you learn that there are cool things that users wish they had that you could easily accommodate – and that, my friends, is where the magic happens! So use your observation skills, your enormous brain, and your determination to make that magic.

Deliver the goods

All of this is of course oversimplified for a blog post, but I know everyone who reads my brilliant prose is clever enough to extrapolate how it’s done.

Ask a participant to walk you through their reality and their wish list. Pay attention to how they dress up their product, their application, and their home environment. You will learn more than you thought possible about not only how they use what they have, but what they wish they could add to it – and you will likely find that you can help them alleviate that pain. You’ll be their hero when you can deliver that solution. (Trust me, gang, I’ve done it more than once!)

Write the architecture, organize the structure, and deliver the new wireframe or design. Often, the biggest roadblock is getting started.

Did you ever open the garage door on a sunny Saturday afternoon, having decided that today is the day you are going to finally clean that sucker out, get it all organized and be able to park your SUV in there at last? Sure you have! But then you realize that your daughter’s ice skates from her single 1982 figure skating season are in there, along with your husband’s college t-shirt collection because you once had a neighbor who made quilts out of those, and you agreed to store your mother in law’s dog crate. Besides, the holiday decorations still need to be taken to the thrift donation place, and…

Photo by Alex Rhee on Unsplash

I digress. You have to buy shelves and bins, and that is a lot to take on in one day. There’s a better way to – start. Maybe have a Guided Tour with the participants? Get an idea of how to use the space. Conduct this exercise with your users and determine where to house the skates, whether to hire the quilt lady, and so on.

Once you harness how everyone applies it, you will have drafted the shelves, and you can build an excellent user guide to the garage. A dazzling application, thrilling API for searching sports equipment in garage 2.0.

Namaste.

You got the “D”?

Photo by Mark Claus on Unsplash

No matter what size your company is, or how well-known, I can assure you, every opportunity grasped or missed is the direct, straight-line result of a decision made or a decision delayed.

At lots of companies, decisions get stuck in a pipeline of waiting, approval, hemming and hawing, and sometimes they just die on a vine of withering that is just plain sad to see. Call it bureaucracy, call it checks and balances, call it whatever you like, but it is the companies that are agile, that pivot quickly (stop me if I venture too far into buzz words here, but they caught on for a reason) that survive and even thrive to defeat the others.

Making good decisions, and making them quickly, are the shining coins of successful businesses.

So why is a tech writer posting anything about them? I thought you’d never ask! You see, technical writing has ventured into the deep, lush forest of what now has the lovely, shiny name of “Product Operations” at some of those agile, savvy businesses. Those smart folks took a look around and figured out that the smart folks typing away were…wait for it…learning.

Yes, indeed. And they were right.

We writers have been busy doing, you guessed it, reading. We actually read the stuff we write, believe it or not, and some of it seeps in and we understand it. So when it came time to clear the bottlenecks of business, it sort of made sense to turn to the technical writers who’ve been sitting there reading and writing everything from user guides to employee handbooks all these years and ask them for some insight.

Some of us agreed to offer an opinion or two, and Product Operations was born.

One of the repeated mantras, week in and week out, that I offered to my teams in this process was:

If you oppose, you must propose.

Yep – learn it, commit it to memory. Take it to your teams. Feel free to swipe it. I think I stole it from someone else, and I’m not giving them credit here, so you don’t even have to say you nicked it from me, you can just take it and use it and hog all the credit. (See if it gets you a bit of a promotion or a raise. That’d be nice.)

What it means is, you can point out where something goes wrong – a process, a system, a way of doing things. Go ahead and say it doesn’t work. But then – you have to pony up a way to fix it. We may not use that way, but we won’t ditch it right out of the gate. The most important thing is, you can’t just complain. If you don’t have some sort of solution in mind, even a solution that, in the end, doesn’t fit, you have to keep your trap shut. Don’t point out the flaw until you’ve conjured up a workaround. Even a bad workaround.

A less-than-great decision executed quickly is usually better than no decision executed, or a good decision executed slowly. I mean, a bad decision is going to be a bad decision no matter what. But if you have a brilliant idea but it takes you five years to execute on it, do you really think it was worth it? You can tweak and modify as you go if you just get out of the gate. This is not cutting your bangs we’re talking about here, and even if it was, they’ll grow back. Usually we are talking about developing a new software program or implementing meeting-free Tuesdays. Start building Rome right away. By the time you get the blueprints made, you’ll find the perfect bricklayer, I assure you.

Start mixing mortar.

Right there, that’s the trick. Pick up a stick, or a shovel, or whatever the implement is, and choose. It’s just mortar. You can’t stir it once it dries. So, begin making decisions on a small scale in order to bring about success. As my grandmother once told me, everything can be fixed except death.

I think she might have been exaggerating a bit, so I don’t take it quite that far, but I have determined as a writer that until I hit “send” or “publish,” that I can just decide to write, I can move words around, I can float ideas and concepts, and that to do so is never bad.

In the mode of Product Operations, I started looking at things like information architecture, content strategy, and the blend of systems as a necessary way to get decisions made.

Lo and behold, it worked.

My team began to look at the gaps in our processes and realized that although we each knew what to do when there was a software outage, we each knew what to do when we had to deliver “less than positive” news to a partner or affiliate, we had never concretized that anywhere. So, off we went to create an “Incident Management Guide.”

Similarly, although we had our system down cold for how to manage time and processes in-house, we realized that if a significant part of our team left by, say, taking new opportunities with other companies, the knowledge vacuum would be fierce. The amount of just “stuff” we carried around in our brains about the day-to-day that kept the job pleasant and smooth was astonishing. So we set out to make it a thing. This was despite our tendency as a crew to just be renegade in our approach to daily office behavior, where a meeting was just as likely to be over coffee as it was to be in a conference room. Suddenly, processes and procedures were born.

Some decisions matter, some don’t.

All of this is to say, throughout my years (and they are numerous) I have found that there’s a certain transition from small operation to large, from laid back attitude to not, and back again, that says you somehow gotta put some stuff in writing even when you are pretty sure you don’t. It just makes life easier when you deputize people to have The “D” and to turnaround that decision more easily because they know they can. To build a team with that mojo because it says in a manual (online or in print, with chill or without – you do you) that they can. We built a very nifty team of people, and then we were really able to get stuff done on a big scale by saying, “here’s how we get stuff done.”

I’m just pointing out that it makes life easier if you know:

Do you got the “D”?

A Beginner’s Guide to Technical Writing

Okay, so I admit I put this aside for nearly a whole year because I thought I wasn’t really going to speak much to the topic any more. I shifted my focus into Product Operations with a cool company. I moved from one city to another. My youngest graduated from high school and I was on to other projects. I finished a book and started looking for agents. Frankly, I was too cool for school and I thought maybe I would just let this thing go the way of the dinosaur and that was okay by me.

Product Ops was, in a way, a bit cooler than Doc Ops anyway, and I thought I didn’t have time to focus on tech writing. To be fair, my new job was taking up a whole bunch of my time. (I know, that is a whole laundry list of excuses, right there.) I forgot that I actually enjoy tech writing and all that comes with it, and I had no crystal ball that would tell me that in the wake of a pesky little virus, my company would see Product Operations as, well…expendable.

So I am in my home office, a cozy little spot, thinking again about the demand for technical writers, and surmising that there is indeed a demand in the increase for technical products, and that even as the curve begins to flatten out, we’ll see an uptick in the need for folks like me (and presumably you) to explain all of this stuff to laypersons.

According to Venturebeat, Zoom, the online meeting tool that allows users to hear and see their meeting mates in realtime, daily users “ballooned” from 10 million to 200 million in April alone.

Talk about a tech explosion, and that is a simple use-case. The users in that example are an average group – teachers, friends, regular Joe offices. These are not high-tech examples, and the technology behind Zoom was already in place, no major infrastructure had to be spun up. So…yeah…

If we try to imagine the future just a little bit, and we know from previous models that any time there is a world-changing event (think 911), things will most certainly not go back to they way they were, we will see a host of new changes, new technologies emerging.

Want an example?

Let’s stick with 911 – after that horrific event, we had the need for new scanning devices at every airport in America. All of those came with installation manuals and both digital and print guides. Tech writers. We had body imaging tools – tech manuals. We had risk mitigation manuals – tech writers. We had procedurals, process manuals, new technical guides on airplanes, FAA guides, you name it. A veritable cornucopia of writing.

In the wake of this virus, the same will happen. There are protocols, articles, tools, procedures, styles, guidelines, materials, but there is software, hardware, programs, – you get where I am going.

So how does all of this matter to the new technical writer? Why did I title this piece “A Beginner’s Guide to Technical Writing?” I did not just have a fit of memory loss.

Growing Demand

Employment growth in this field will exceed estimates due to continuing increases in products and procedures. It simply has to.

Technical writers have to be lifelong learners. If you happen to be the kind of person who has ever said, “Wow, I wish I could just go to school for the rest of my life.” I suggest you might want to be a tech writer. I get to learn stuff every day. It’s pretty sweet. I have the pleasure of learning, teaching, writing, disseminating. And I learn about really cool things.

There Are Few Limits

Okay, if you are all, “But I don’t want to write about software. Yawn” I hear that. I mean, software makes my heart go pitter-pat, but if that isn’t your jam, I get it. But hear this: technical writing gets into transportation, energy, television, academia, publishing, and…yeah, health (wasn’t I just talking about viruses?). So if you are all scienc-ey, or if you’re all about jets or planes or something, get in there.

It’s also about planning. If you don’t fancy yourself the kind of person who can just sit down and write about a topic, that’s fine. I am never that person. I have note cards or post-its, or now I have files in my computer, y’know, fancy programs and roadmaps, but you do you. I plan stuff. I plan it quickly now that I am a grown up, but still. It’s not unlike a semester where I had fifteen weeks to think through a project and execute on it. Project planning is a key thing. I am half project manager and half writer. I know my stuff before I pull out the keyboard, and what I don’t know – I learn. Woot!

It’s Partly UX, Which Is Super Fun.

I already have too many (is there such a thing as too many?) degrees, but if I didn’t I’d go back and get another one in UX. A big part of this career is user testing, user interface. Man, is it fun. You get to figure out how the people who interact with what you write actually use what you write, and whether or not you did it well. Does the reader understand what you said and follow the directions? Did they miss a step? Did you anticipate their initial reactions and questions, or are you so familiar with the product/concept/tooling that you missed it? It’s like a game where you play it out before you write and determine who they are, what they need, where they will be when they read, why they are reading it in the first place, how they will read it (on a phone, on a tablet, in a car…), why they will read it (is something broken, are they installing, is there a question), when they will read it (are they at work, did they just open the box)…and it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book. You can create maps and endings based on various outcomes, except you have to be careful because if you create too many variable endings you’ll have a 5,000 page user manual and that is ludicrous!

You Are a Mapmaker

Just like planning various endings, you create treasure maps. You can create wireframes for websites, but you can do this with words, with tables of contents, with document maps. Learn to do it well, and you will be great at your job, and people will come to you for advice. At my company, I always felt great when colleagues came to me to ask where they should house documents, where it seemed “right” to put new information.

I often talked with teams about how Information Architecture was a lot like organizing a brand-new house. If you go into a housing development, many of the houses have the same footprint, or similar. The kitchens are “kind of” the same, but each one will be organized a little differently. You can bet that in them, if you look, the glasses are kept in one cupboard, and the plates in another; you won’t find things strewn all over.

But each kitchen will have its own personality. Its own flavor.

The garages, though? Oh dear. Those houses, and those garages. They are probably a storm of a mess.

So what I do is come in and provide some structure for those garages. I provide organization, shelves and bins and labels to all of that information. That is a great part of being a technical writer. The organization of all of those words and labels and ideas. You make the map of all of the information, sometimes in small chunks, and sometimes for the whole organization.

Start Out

If all of this seems like a lot, and perhaps a bit disjointed, welcome to the life of a technical writer. If all of this seems like fun and intriguing, and like a cool way to spend your day, welcome to the life of a technical writer.

Start trolling LinkedIn for some entry level positions because there will continue to be a tech-driven economy, and a need for more people who are willing to understand the language to explain the code and the machinery and the science.

If that’s you, and yet you enjoy the writing and the grammar and the syntax, the next 20 years are yours.

Namaste.