Handling Information Laziness

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Like most people, I ‘fell’ into the world of Technical Communications. I didn’t choose this career, and like many I didn’t study anything that remotely involved writing. But then, who really knows what they want to be when they are choosing what to study at university.

So, after spending a few years learning about Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and largely finding the entire experience boring, I packed that in and somehow found myself working as a Technical Administrator for a small local software firm. My Mother had spotted the job advert in the local paper and the rest, as they say, has passed under the bridge…

Having spent some time helping out at a local community centre, creating flyers and brochures for local charities and organisations, starting work as a Technical Author was a departure into a new ‘technical’ world. I learned a lot of things in that first job but the most important things can be easily summarised and stated that as “how NOT to be a good Technical Author”. Still, no-one can say I don’t learn from my mistakes.

Fast forward many years and I find myself in the position of knowing enough about my profession to understand how it can best help the company for which I’m currently working, and being comfortable enough about the processes involved with being a Technical Author that I don’t need to worry about them on a daily basis. I can quite happily paddle along, with nary a ripple cast in my wake. Of course I strive keep up-to-date with the latest fads and fashions in the world of information access and creation, technologies and methods which are constantly on the move, but the changes to the prevalent methodologies within the Technical Communications industry (the draft and review process for example) evolve rather slowly, and I have to admit that the lack of speed of progress in these areas is a concern.

Anyone involved with the software industry will have felt the varying effects of the internet, good and bad, as it has ripped across many different areas of technology, massively changing how people think about information. We, as Technical Authors/Writers/Communicators now work with a commodity which continues to rise in value as more and more people create and manipulate, publish and expose it for everyone to use. It’s no revelation to state that the internet has brought about an ‘information boom’ and this boom means that, for those of us working in the software industry, we need to rise and meet one simple expectation.

I want it now. No, I don’t want to look it up. No, I don’t want to have to read anything. No, I’m not that interested in anything else other than solving my current problem. Now. Please. Thank You.

Not even 10 years ago the expectation was different. The expectation had some built-in tolerance, an acceptance that information may need to be found, or at least filtered, from at least one source. Maybe that expectation was taken advantage of, maybe that expectation gave us an excuse to produce a level of product documentation that was ‘good enough’, as opposed to ‘better than expected’. Maybe not.

The field of Technical Communications prides itself on making information usable. Yes, there is a focus on making sure that information is complete, and accurate, but after that there is little point in having information if what the reader wants to find is hidden away behind some weird structure or methodology with which they are unfamiliar. There are a number of ways to presenting information to the user, and some consistent methods such as a Table of Contents, or an Index being the most common. However these all require some effort and in the age of instant access I’d humbly suggest that there is one growing universal truth by which all information must abide: If I can’t Google for it, why would I bother?

Of course it’s not all bad, one technological advantage of the “Google-age” is the relative lack of work required to make your information available to the mighty search engine. Put your PDFs, web pages, or even Word documents on a website and Google will find it. Simple enough.

However, to fully leverage the advantage and properly embrace the webcentric view so many people now have of the information world, we, as a profession, need to add another string to our bow, we need to master the skill of search engine optimisation (SEO). This is no small task but, naturally, the internet is brimming with information that can help, with plenty of hints and tips to get you started.

The world of information, both creation and usage, continues to change, I wonder what other skills we will need to develop?