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It Depends…

By Michelle Corbin | STC Fellow

In Editing Matters, Michelle Corbin covers matters (topics) about editing that matter (are of consequence) to communicators of all kinds. Watch this space to understand more about editing and what you can do to improve the quality of your content. To suggest a topic or ask a question, contact Michelle at michelle.l.corbin@gmail.com.

“Can I use this acronym or abbreviation in this label?” It depends.

“Can I use passive voice in an FAQ document?” It depends.

“Can I use different colors for my headings and my body text?” It depends.

“Can I use sentence fragments in error messages?” It depends.

“Can I ask too many rhetorical questions at the start of my article?” It depends.

One of my technical writers joked that he was going to get me a t-shirt with my “It depends” catch phrase on it. He was bemused and befuddled that a technical editor would utter that phrase so frequently.

Some might think that the answers to these editorial questions would be “It depends on the style guide,” or “It depends on the design guide,” but the answer is almost always, “It depends on the users.” Ultimately, every decision that a technical editor makes when editing technical content must be based on a complete understanding of the users and their tasks.

When I say a complete understanding of your users, I mean a complete understanding, including their age, gender, education, experience, spoken language, culture, and so on. The decision that a technical editor makes for an older female college graduate whose native language is English will be different from the decision made for a younger male high school dropout whose native language is Spanish. User characteristics influence word choice (whether or when to use an acronym), sentence structure (short, simple sentences only), color choices (avoiding certain colors due to color-blindness), quantity of content (less is more), the type of content (educational, troubleshooting, etc.), and the organization or location of that content (in the UI, on the Web, in a printed card, etc.).

Obviously, most products have a broader range of users for which we must provide documentation. That’s when we rely on personas, or the “typical users” of the product. After researching and talking with a variety of users about your product, you create and review personas that you then use to make your decisions (you can read more about the 10 steps to creating personas on the Interaction Design Foundation website or the latest research on personas from the Nielsen Norman Group—see References).

Technical editors must layer this deep understanding of the users and their tasks on top of their understanding of the company style guide (which is layered on top of their understanding of the rules and conventions of grammar, style, and usage) in order to make decisions about the questions they are asked and about the changes that they are proposing to the technical content that they are editing.

While all members of an information development team should have a complete understanding of the users and their tasks, technical editors cannot be successful without this understanding. While technical editors might present answers to questions in a more definitive manner, in the back of their minds will always be the default response, “It depends.”

References

Dam, Rikke, and Teo Siang. “Personas – A Simple Introduction.” Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved 5 August 2018. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/personas-why-and-how-you-should-use-them.

Nielsen Norman Group. “Topic: Personas.” Nielsen Norman Group website. Retrieved 5 August 2018. https://www.nngroup.com/topic/personas/.

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