Life Personal development technical writing

Documentation, Disrupted

Just came across this great presentation by Google tech writer Riona MacNamara at WriteTheDocs recent Portland conference (May 19, 2015).

The subject area is technical documentation, and is very interesting on that score. But it’s about so much more – most importantly, what you can achieve by being audacious (but not reckless), focused (but open and generous), and unafraid.

I love the subtle qualifications that make all the difference – audacious, but not reckless, for example. Though note that there is no qualification for unafraid: you’ve just got to be unafraid (or, maybe as likely, feel the fear – and do it anyway. There’s also a lot of good stuff on happiness, work and making a difference.

Now looking at ways to get to the WriteTheDocs conference in Prague.

Anyway, enjoy – and one thought to take away:

“Authority and influence don’t derive from your resumé, but from action and impact.” Riona MacNamara

Books Language technical writing


By chance caught a wonderful programme on the radio today, on the way back from a seminar on LinkedIn given by Paul Tansey of Intergage (who, incidentally, has a neat way of lodging his name in your brain – he tells an anecdote about transposing the initial letters, which gives you: Taul Pansey).

This digression, by happy coincidence, is not entirely off topic because the radio programme was about the French experimental literary group Oulipo, who create work by imposing restrictions on the way a text will be produced.

Oulipo, standing for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais in reaction to the Surrealist movement, to which Quennau had previously belonged. Instead of following the whims of the subconscious, Oulipians deliberately introduce constraints.

According to Queneau, Oulipians are ‘rats, who build the labyrinth from which they will escape’. Queneau’s works included Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes, or 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, in which each page contains a 14-line sonnet, split into 14 strips, which can be separated and re-combined in any order. He estimated that it would take 190,258,751 years for someone to read every combination.

The most famous example of ‘constrained’ literature is Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which avoids using the letter ‘e’. It is ingeniously translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void – again without using the letter ‘e’. Think about it – no ‘he’, ‘we’, ‘they’. Or ‘choose’, ‘delight’ or ‘delirious’. But you can have ‘avid’. And ‘vivid’….

Simplified Technical English, which I use for writing for translation, pares down vocabulary and sentence structure to provide the clearest expression of technical instructions.

In Simplified English, each word is precisely defined; there is only one approved word for a concept, and each approved word can have only one meaning. This eliminates ambiguity, improving precision and clarity (especially for non-native speakers of English). It also reduces the cost of translation (if translation is needed).

And Eunoia? It’s the shortest word in English containing all five vowels. From the Greek word εύνοια. It means ‘Beautiful thinking‘.

The programme, presented by Ben Schott (of Miscellany fame) is well worth a listen. You have six days left to catch it on iplayer here.

Business development technical writing Work life

Adding value through technical communications

Those within technical communications have long argued that product documentation provides significant value in terms of customer satisfaction and ongoing savings in customer support and service.

A new investigation, by leading US business researchers The Aberdeen Group, gives strong support to this view, and those who tend to view documentation simply as a cost centre are likely to be losing out to competitors.

Aberdeen’s analysis of data gathered from 165 participating companies demonstrates that the contribution of good product documentation and technical communications to enterprise profitability is far more significant than many realise and, when leveraged effectively, stands to contribute as much as a 42% increase in customer satisfaction and an associated 45% increase in product revenue.

Aberdeen’s research found that as a result of their simultaneous focus on operational efficiency and documentation quality, Best-in-Class companies were able to realize significant customer-facing value through technical communications, including:

  • 41% decrease in volume of inbound calls to customer support
  • 42% decrease in time to resolution with customer support
  • 41% increase in customer satisfaction score

Aberdeen’s data clearly indicates that Best-in-Class performers have found the means to leverage technical communications to influence customers’ experiences with a marked impact on business profitability, and that whilst all too often regarded as a cost centre, technical communications and documentation are actually key profit generators.

The report identifies key factors used by the ‘Best-in-Class’ companies to maximise the performance of technical communications, such as:

  • Commit to reusing content
  • Measure the operational performance of technical communications
  • Capture customer feedback
  • Increase the personalization of documentation, customizing documentation to specific customer orders and needs
  • Engage and educate customers with rich media – for example, interactivity to enable the customer to control progress through training or documentation

Factors which I suspect this blog will be returning to in the future.

‘Technical Communications as a Profit Center’, David Houlihan, The Aberdeen Group, September 2009, Boston, Ma.

Free access to the report is available via this link to Technical Communications as a Profit Center (until 27 November 2009).