Technical Communication

In the second millennium, ‘technical’ and ‘communication’ undeniably go hand in hand. Computers, mobile telecommunications, and the Internet in particular, have dramatically influenced how we communicate. Many people now use these open and easily accessible communication channels to share their thoughts and ideas: at home, at work, and increasingly while traveling.

modern Web publishing and New Media create new communication channels

Wikipedia is a classic example of the marriage of modern practices and one age-old practice: information technology (IT) and communication (before the widespread use of computers). The opening sentence of the Wikipedia entry for Communication defines communication as:

The process of transferring information from one source to another

the Internet facilitates information transfer, but does not necessarily make communication transparent

Information transfer is indeed the essence of Wikipedia. In the meantime, Wikipedia has 3,146,417 entries (figure from January 3, 2010) in English alone – and still counting (compare with 2,893,284 entries on May 26, 2009). The means by which this information is transferred and published is the Internet and a Wiki platform (MediaWiki) respectively. The difficult question to answer is: where does all this information come from?

online information transfer often resembles a game of telephone

The easy answer is ‘user-generated content’ (UGC). But take the Wikipedia entry for communication: It goes on to cite a possible definition of communication from another online source. Interestingly, the definition originates from yet another online source that, you guessed it, taps other Web sites for information. Admittedly these sources are fairly reliable, but what about the other millions of sources? How reliable are they?

information is plentiful – good content is not so plentiful

Information is plentiful – just waiting to be found, digested, and applied. Some people argue that the abundance of information available on the Internet is potentially dangerous: Just because something is published online does not necessarily mean that it represents the truth. But putting aside the moral issues related to the Internet: Readers do need to know that the information they consume is accurate, complete, unbiased, and targeted at their requirements. In a nutshell, they need good content – and good content is not so plentiful.

technical communication processes turn information into meaningful content

The technical aspect of technical communication is not just related to how information is communicated, but also the technical nature of the information that is communicated. Technical communication is an umbrella term for the processes used to:

  • collect technical information and gain practical knowledge
  • create clear and accurate content with the target readers in mind
  • structure content so that information is easy to find and reuse
  • distribute and publish technical information using an appropriate medium
  • manage technical information using IT-supported tools and processes
  • sustain high quality through compliance with standards and quality measures
  • promote knowledge transfer through information exchange and collaboration
professional technical communication optimizes information transfer

Process optimization is the main goal of most corporate activities, no less so in technical communication. How else can documentation deliverables (content) be delivered on time and within budget? Plus, how else can small, medium, and large companies alike gain that competitive advantage. Consider these two questions:

  • Do readers think that the content is credible because the company is credible?
  • Do readers think that the company is credible because the content is credible?

In a perfect world, the answers to both questions is ‘yes’. But for companies that are less well known or are breaking into new markets, the answer to the second question must be ‘yes’. Because good content, that is, good technical communication, is a strategic asset that no company can afford to neglect.

About Helen Fawcett:

In a nutshell, I optimize user interface text such as control labels and create on-screen instructions and help documentation for developers & customers. | Helen works as a user assistance lead at SAP SE.
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