Embracing Social Media

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It’s safe to say that I’m fully hooked into the Web 2.0 world. I manage my email, calendar and task list online, as well as write and share the occasional document. I blog (in three places), I twitter, and I follow a wide swathe of information via RSS feeds. If the internet disappeared overnight I’d be lost, for any time I think ‘information’ I think internet, I don’t think book, or library, or even online help. I think internet.

This is even more prevalent when I’m looking for a solution, an answer to my current burning issue. At that point I’m looking for information from my peers, from other users or anyone else who has had, and solved, a similar problem, and nine times out of ten I’ll turn to the internet to search for that information.

Whilst such answers can be hard to track down, it feels productive to be searching for the specific answer to my specific issue, even if that takes some time and effort on my part. Once I’ve found an answer I’ll usually do a little bit of double checking – perhaps others have added a comment to say that it worked for them – and then I’m happy to accept that it is correct, knowing that if it’s not I can always head back to Google and start again. Caveats apply here, of course, depending on the severity of the issue I’m dealing with.

My point is that I freely trust the information I find based on some cursory checks, I am fully hooked into the Web 2.0 world and believe in the wisdom of the crowd (thankfully I have evidence of this as well, it’s not all hearsay).

Providing information and answers is a key part of our job as technical communicators but I am concerned that my view of the information world and how I use it may be tainting my thoughts. Do the people who use the information we produce really want to ‘just google’ for information? Am I projecting the way I think and work onto the people who use our documentation?

The obvious answer is to ask those people, and I’m in the fairly lucky position that I can do just that. A large portion of our documentation is used by our own staff, so I have direct access to my audience. So, obviously, I should just ask them: “How would you like to access the documentation?”

But I think that’s the wrong question.

Whilst it will be useful to hear the answers to that question, it is far too open ended and, to repeat an old adage, ‘the customer doesn’t always know what the customer wants’. Instead I need to figure out what the most common usage scenario is and work from that, before presenting a limited set of choices from which the audience can make an informed decision.

One thing is certain, the way I access information, the way I think about how information is structured and presented, from my professional background and my knowledge of some of the information design theories that are in use, is very different from the way I use information in my day to day life. The more I find myself leaning towards more ad-hoc, random and casual sources of information, the more I begin to wonder if the world of the professionally written and presented technical communications needs to change tack and find a comfortable middle ground, embracing all that is good about the web 2.0 internet.

Social media works because it is based on people and the availability of information (and metadata about that information). It seems all too obvious that the world of technical communications needs to make bigger strides in that direction. Many technical writers have started that journey, and whilst it means yet another set of skills that you’ll need to learn, ultimately it means that the technical information you produce will be more valuable in the longer term.