3 reasons to invest in good technical writing
by Danny Naylor
The origin of technical writing is, to be honest, rather contentious. Many suggest it was born out of World War I and World War II, when ordinary men and women needed to be trained – and trained quickly – on how to use cutting-edge, new inventions such as tanks, radar and the first computer systems. However, it can also be argued that technical writing goes back much further than this. Proto-technical manuals were being produced throughout the Renaissance period, and some even as far back as the Roman Empire (see our article on ‘a brief history of technical writing‘).
Technical writing takes many forms; from good old-fashioned paper manuals, all the way to integrated user interface help and API documentation. Although technical writing has evolved over the years, its purpose has essentially stayed the same – to make complexity clear. But as we all know, technical writing isn’t always good, and that can lead to some very frustrating user experiences.
So why should you invest in not just technical writing, but good technical writing? In this article, I’ll put forward three reasons why, whatever form it takes, good technical writing is a worthwhile investment.
Picture the scene. It’s the 23rd of September 1999 and the NASA control room is in a state of complete shock. The control room personnel have just watched as their Mars Orbiter, a project which the control room had been guiding into the orbit of Mars for just under nine months, carrying an array of cutting-edge scientific equipment, in a project that cost an estimated 326 million dollars, smashes into the surface of the red planet.
Horrified scientists and engineers spend the next two months pouring over data, flight logs and specifications to find out what went so disastrously wrong. When they release the report that explains why this catastrophic event happened, it all comes down to one small detail that was overlooked – the difference between the unit of measurement used by a supplier called Lockheed Martin, and by NASA’s own software. You see, Lockheed Martin had supplied the software used by ground control to calculate the orbiting trajectory. That software was used in conjunction with NASA’s own software that controlled the thruster timings that manoeuvred the Mars Orbiter. Lockheed Martin’s software used United States customary units, which are an imperial system of measurements. However, NASA’s software that calculated the thruster timings used the newton second – a metric measurement. The resulting mismatch of measurements pushed the Orbiter’s thrust calculation out by a factor of 4.45.This was more than enough to seal the tiny spacecraft’s fate.
Without wishing to sound too dramatic, this is exactly the kind of mistake that good technical documentation is designed to eliminate. Clear and concise technical writing that has been checked by subject matter experts stops your customers, partners and staff getting the wrong information about how to use your products and services, and prevents many headaches further down the line. As you can see, clear information can be the difference between a successful outcome and a serious failure.
And what’s more, a natural consequence of providing your users with clear information is that it helps them get the most from your products and services. For example, it can tell them about best practices, inform them of functionalities or features that they may not know about and, at the very least, stop users from injuring themselves.
So good technical writing ensures that not only will your end users use your products and services correctly and safely, they will get the most utility from them too.
Good technical writing puts the user in control. So what does that mean? Well firstly, having good documentation that is easy to navigate means that your users are able to ‘self-serve’, or to those of you not fluent in customer service jargon, answer their own questions. If you have an online help portal or product manual that offers well-designed content, your customers are able to find the answers to their questions without needing to contact you. This means they won’t need to call your customer support teams, saving both your users, and your support teams, valuable time.
Secondly, when you have an accessible online help portal or product manual, you give users the power to not only find the information they need, but when they need it. Have you ever got home late after a long day at the office and decided to blow off steam by trying out your new high-tech exercise mirror? Or have you perhaps needed to replace a vacuum cleaner part after a messy spill at a dinner party you hosted? Or maybe you have woken up in the middle of the night and felt the need to steam some hay? Admittedly, that last one might just be me, but the point remains true – good technical writing means the information needed to use your product or service is available whenever your users need it.
So, good technical documentation puts your end users in control by empowering them to access the information they need, when and where they need it.
It may seem obvious, but good technical writing makes you look good. Let me explain that a little further. Have you ever bought something, waited patiently for it to arrive, unwrapped it excitedly, but then had the wind taken out of your sails trying to decipher badly written and poorly designed documentation? Recently, I purchased a board game for my long-suffering partner, based on one of her favourite 80s films. It looked fantastic when it arrived – the artwork and pieces were extremely detailed, and the overall presentation was impressive. However, actually trying to play the game took three adults almost six hours, two of which were spent trying to find online video tutorials on how to play the game because the game rules and instructions were so unclear. Needless to say, this board game will probably be relegated to the back of the cupboard, gathering dust, and never be played again.
Nothing can kill enthusiasm for your products and services quite like poor technical writing. And it’s not just frustrating for your current customers – potential customers can be put off by bad technical writing too. As we’ve covered in previous posts, your documentation can be key when it comes to your marketing efforts. In fact, a survey by D2 Worldwide showed that over 73% of customers found documentation to be more helpful than videos, packaging or salespeople when making a purchasing decision. So that means poor documentation can actually put customers off at the research stage of the buying cycle.
So, not only does your technical writing impact how your customers perceive your products and services, but can determine whether potential customers become actual customers.
I hope this article has been informative and helped demonstrate how good technical writing is a solid investment; how it can stop costly mistakes and help users get the most from your products, how it puts your end user in control by giving them access to information when and where they need it, and lastly, how good technical writing reflects well on your products and services. Good technical writing is an investment, but ask yourself this – can you afford not to?
One bonus point we should mention here – investing in good technical writing means that, should you decide to increase your market share by expanding internationally, your documentation will be easier to both translate and localize… but that is another article entirely!
Working as a Marketing Manager, Danny thrives on thinking of novel ways to reach customers, as well as creating and running campaigns over digital channels. Away from the office, Danny relaxes by obsessing over films and music, annoying his neighbours with his guitar collection and shouting at the England rugby team.