Features May/June 2020

Identity Disruption and the Technical Communicator

By Dr. Liz Herman | STC Associate Fellow

 Earlier this year, three organizations in the Washington, DC, area held events that were ideal for technical communicators, although only one was specifically oriented toward a technical communications audience. The first event, in January, was sponsored by the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC). It was a workshop for those interested in customer experience (CX) to understand terms and governance around CX while also hearing from those immersed in the process. Terms like human-centered design (HCD), user experience (UX), journey mapping, and customer satisfaction were used. The second event, held in early March, was the Citizen Engagement Summit, sponsored by Federal Computer Week (FCW). It included panel discussions from people with titles like chief content officer, customer experience lead, and chief digital strategy officer. The third event was sponsored by STC’s Washington, DC/Baltimore community. It was an informal networking dinner, where one attendee specifically came to find and hire a technical communicator with a very specific skill set. Why were these three events ideal for technical communicators? They showcased why it’s an amazing time to be a technical communicator—our talents, skills, and smarts are needed—while also calling attention to the way we have identified ourselves for the past several decades. We need to prepare for an identity disruption.

Our Time Is Now

At the first two events, multiple speakers listed the problems facing agencies that want to do better for their customers. They spoke of federal government websites that reflect the agencies’ internal organizational structure rather than tasks and actions that customers expect to see and need to complete. For example, VA.gov previously prominently displayed the FY19 budget submission on its homepage. Veterans aren’t accessing VA.gov to read through a budget submission; they’re accessing VA.gov for benefit information, like healthcare and education. One speaker emphasized that the agencies do not have the same audiences, and what works at VA.gov does not necessarily work for USDA.gov, for example. It’s the structure underneath, he said, that are the customer goals and that makes a difference. Stated goals included more self-service for customers, less wait time, and consistent, reliable UX. Think about the type of people who can address these problems and help organizations meet these goals—it’s the technical communicator.

Technical communicators have been thinking about audience and personas, communication, content, design, and digital experiences for quite some time. Others have finally caught on. It’s quite posh now to think about how a customer uses a website or interacts with content, and federal agencies are spending real money on these issues. Agencies and contractors alike are hiring people who can help—people like us, but with titles more reflective of the work (or, at least, more reflective of current industry vernacular), such as UX specialist, HCD lead, CX analyst, and content strategist. Perhaps the term “technical communicator” is no longer serving us.

Identity Disruption

Agencies seem to be moving away from the term “technical communication” as we know it and, by association, away from technical communicators. There remains pervasive confusion and misunderstanding about what technical communicators do and how we add value. This is born out in Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt’s recent study published in Technical Communication and Saul Carliner and Yuan Chen’s recent technical communication census work published in Intercom.

Rosselot-Merritt’s study did the following:

  • It confirmed an outdated perception of the field of technical communication and the role of the technical communicator.
  • It highlighted a lack of interest by organizations to hire technical communicators.
  • It illustrated continued challenges to the legitimization of the field.

When asked what technical communication is, participants listed user guides, repair manuals, parts guides, and operator instructions. Yes, of course, we create these types of documentation, but where is the acute understanding of an audience and its needs? Where is the critical design thinking that enables a high level of customer satisfaction? Where is the strategic thinking, leadership, and collaboration to coalesce around an organization’s message? The terms technical communication and technical communicator just aren’t taking us anywhere any more.

Although he was working with a small number of participants in what he termed a pilot study, Rosselot-Merritt found that organizations were largely not planning to hire technical communicators. Instead, they were looking to hire program managers or to add technical communication processes to other roles. Lurking in the responses seems to be the rhetorical question, “Why would we need a (or another) technical communicator?” If the perception is repair manuals and parts guides, then the answer is—possibly quite rightly—that they don’t.

If, on a random day, Indeed.com has 4,000 more job openings in the United States for a UX designer than for a technical communicator, why do UX specialists represent just 0.8% of Carliner and Chen’s participants in the technical communication census? Yes, we skew older, female, and white, but UX isn’t solely a younger person’s playground. Even though user guides still rank first in the products that census participants had produced in the prior 12 months, knowledge bases, user interfaces, social media content, and even chatbots showed up on the list. Chatbots! How “now!” Our time is now, but we need to pivot and start infusing new words, language, and concepts into the way we see ourselves contributing to the digital and project economy, instead of trying to fight against outdated perceptions of technical communication.

On the Precipice

The Project Management Institute (PMI) annually surveys practitioners and publishes a Pulse of the Profession report intended to share trends in project management. This year’s theme is a future-focused culture. According to the report, technology advancements and digitalization were top of mind and were where many agencies planned to direct investments. As far as investments in people, the top traits were technical proficiency, leadership acumen, business strategy, and digital skills. Disruption, customer value, and design thinking were also mentioned. Who better to fill these needs than technical communicators?

We know this path better than most. Technology advancements? So many of us learn new technologies on our own to stay current, often with minimal support from our organizations. We know how to learn new technologies, we know how to train others, and, even more valuable, we understand how the technology serves as an enabler to a bigger mission—like CX.

Digitalization and digital skills? Twenty years ago, we were publishing websites, coding our own HTML, and thinking about how to make them work and look better for our audiences. We conquered online help and haven’t looked back. We have always been on the digital frontier.

Technical proficiency, leadership acumen, and business strategy? Check, check, and check. We’re also generally lifelong learners. Most of us, per the technical communication census, didn’t even start as technical communicators, but we learned and grew into those roles. We can learn and grow into new roles as well. We might need to shed our old identities to move forward. Let our skill set, experience, talent, and concept of being a technical communicator be our foundation and our guide. Let us embrace being on the precipice of this new reality, where others are finally coming to the table asking for help—our help—in the way they manage their audiences. Their perception of technical communication is outdated and distorted, which is why they’re not looking for technical communicators—but they definitely need our design thinking, content strategy, collaboration, communication, and leadership skills.

Career Transition

From a career transition perspective, this is not so much a transition as it is an adoption of new perceptions of ourselves as technical communicators. This is an exciting time to be a technical communicator, because our skill set clearly is in high demand. The role for which organizations are hiring simply goes by other names now. Perhaps this article seems geographically biased, because the three events were all in the Washington, DC, area, where federal agencies are working to tackle customer problems and where UX, HCD, and CX jobs seem plentiful. Indeed.com proves otherwise, as there are positions available throughout the United States.

We will have some of the same challenges we have always had:

  • Positions paying too little for the required experience
  • Hiring managers favoring knowledge of a specific technology over strategic competencies
  • Agencies resisting remote work—although at the time of this writing, perhaps COVID-19 will have managed to temper that resistance somewhat
  • An arduous hiring process to work in the federal government

Even with those challenges, technical communicators and the field of technical communication should prepare for disruption.

Dr. Liz Herman (liz@lizherman.com) is an STC Associate Fellow and was recently elected to the STC Nominating Committee. She writes, speaks, and teaches on technical communication, project management, and knowledge management topics.

 

References

Carliner, Saul and Yuan Chen. 2018. “What Technical Communicators Do.” Intercom 65, no. 8 (December): 13–16.
https://www.stc.org/intercom/2019/01/what-technical-communicators-do.

Carliner, Saul and Yuan Chen. 2018. “Who Technical Communicators Are: A Summary of Demographics, Backgrounds, and Employment.” Intercom 65, no. 8 (December): 8–12. https://www.stc.org/intercom/2019/01/who-technical-communicators-are-a-summary-of-demographics-backgrounds-and-employment.

Project Management Institute. 2020. “Pulse of the Profession 2020.” February 2020. https://www.pmi.org/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/pulse-of-the-profession-2020.

Rosselot-Merritt, Jeremy. “Fertile Grounds: What Interviews of Working Professionals Can Tell Us about Perceptions of Technical Communication and the Viability of Technical Communication as a Field.” Technical Communication 67, no. 1 (February): 38–62. https://www.stc.org/techcomm/2020/03/05/fertile-grounds-what-interviews-of-working-professionals-can-tell-us-about-perceptions-of-technical-communication-and-the-viability-of-technical-communication-as-a-field.

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