Friday, June 22, 2007

Call Me Tina--
Apologies to Holly Harkness for the pun on her blog title. I was chatting it up over wine with my mentor and friend Carol Barnum last night at an alumni social and happened to mention that after my varied career in a number of aspects of user-centered design (usability, training, performance support, UX design) I was happy to be back in the core field of technical writing and user assistance in particular. Carol seemed surprised at that, and given all of the buzz over the last couple of years about how we are so much more than technical writers and how we are moving on to sexier roles, I guess I am somewhat of an anomaly. I was making it in the big city and chose to move back to the farm. We talked a little bit about why.

Putting on the Sneakers
At the heart of it, I suppose, is that I like to write and I am trained to write. Information design and writing are my core skills. So I am glad to be back in my sweet spot. As a UX designer, I was always behind the professional power curve of the likes of, say, a Luke Wroblewski, or in usability trying to keep up with such luminaries as Jared and Jacob--not to mention Carol. Technical writing might not be the biggest pond, but it is one in which I know how to fish pretty well, and there is comfort and reward in that.

The less obvious but maybe more compelling reason is somewhat counter-intuitive: In spite of all of the obituaries on technical writing, it has the greatest job security of all of the fields related to user-centered design. In spite of its being often maligned, Help and other product documentation are must-haves, check-off points in the the product bill of material. Companies don't want to spend a lot on it, but no product manager is going to say, "Let's not offer Help with this application." Companies whose products lack usability can still believe they have it. Not true of documentation. If you don't have it, you don't have it.

The down-side, of course is that companies don't want it to cost a lot, so documentation departments get downsized a lot or doc gets off-shored. For one, I think the off-shoring of customer-facing documentation is a short-lived experiment that shows many signs of failing or at least stabilizing due to supply-demand equilibrium.

Well, what about cutbacks and layoffs? It reminds of the story about the two guys running from the bear. One stops to put on his running shoes (sneakers if you are from the South and older than 50), and his friend says, "Those won't make you faster than the bear." The guy counters, "I don't have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you."

The point is (yes, please, Mike, what is the point?) although good writers get laid off, they don't get driven out of the business. Keep actively pursuing excellence through education and professional development and you will stay ahead of those who don't. Those are the ones the bear gets.


Holly said...

No apology necessary!

Interesting that you are going back to your roots.

The wailing and moaning about the end of our profession has some basis in truth, but it's over the top.

The worst days were several years ago, but it wasn't just bad for tech writers. Programmers, project managers, network operations people, hardware geeks, business analysts, QA folks, — in short, everyone — was having a hard time getting work after the dot com bust.

Al Hood said...

Is that why we always seem to be so out of breath? We are always trying to outrun the other writers? Wow, that explains a lot!

Seriously, I agree with your contention. As long as we have technology, there will always be the need for talented technical writers. And technology is here to stay.

For instance, I just bought a new truck the other day. I have read the entire owners manual. And I love it. Trucks used to be very simple. You got in them, you drove them, you hauled stuff. Not any more. Trucks now have satellite radio, garage door opener buttons, GPS devices, and on and on! Without that owners manual, I would have been lost! Thank you technical writers!