Is Technical Writing Dead?

“I can’t believe you are still doing that. Technical writing’s dead, get into e-learning.” Not my words, but the words of a former technical writer who moved on to work in information design. Usually, comments like this are like water off a duck’s back, but this time something jarred with me. So I decided to ask some learning professionals about their take on technical writers and where we could possibly fit in the world of e-learning. What did they have to say? Read on to find out.

1. Will e-learning mean an end to technical writers – Is there still a need for reference material?

Dustin Bauman, founder of iApproach – I don’t believe that tech-writing is out. If anything, I think that there is a very real marriage with the two skills. Technical writers make very good IDs or team members on an E-Learning team. [Their] thought process brings something to the team that is usually missing (well defined instruction). If you think about the purpose of E-Learning, which is to instruct or teach others what, how or why to do something, you will see the relevance. The second point I would make, centers around the assets that technical writers bring to the table. In any E-Learning course, the person takes the course and usually doesn’t come back to it (in theory, it is meant as reference material, however, most developers don’t design them this way). What I have done and continue to recommend, is leaving behind downloadable materials (tools) for the users. This allows users (leadership, safety, manufacturing, driving, etc.) to have a toolbox of forms, reference guides, tables, calculations, videos, etc., for use offline and on-demand. This continues learning and provides individuals a standard in which to work from. Many companies, still today, don’t understand the benefit this plays. Finally, E-Learning is a vehicle, it is a delivery mechanism in which to get the information to the user, much like classroom training has been for years. [How or what] you create (ID vs. Tech writer), is still dependent on the subject and how best to deliver the training or materials.

Mohammed Yaseen Kassam, Learning and Development Technologist, De Montfort University – Probably not ‘end’ but certainly disrupt; as we’ve seen with many other crafts and industries disrupted by technology. But hasn’t this disruption of technology gone on since antiquity…i.e. industrial revolution replaces much of the manual labour, TV replaces radio, Internet replaces TV, etc etc…people retrain, reskill and diversify. So if this is/should happen in your field it would be important for TWs to have at least the will to ride the change and see it through – otherwise risk being left behind.

2. Can technical writers help improve E-Learning?

Dustin Bauman – Technical writers, in my opinion have a different writing style than a creative or Instruction Designer. They have an ability to seek the what, why, where, when and how and put that into instructions that make sense and have a flow. E-Learning compliments that, as it allows a very linear and programmatic design in which to deliver the materials in a motion based instruction (tell me, show me, try me) type of teaching and interaction/simulation. You really need the two skills to create the best learning for technical training, simulations, and interactions (teaching technical instructions). Think about one scenario, the food service industry – there is a certain amount of ingredients and/or portion that you want in each item, there is a certain method to preparing these items, there is the delivery of these items, the cleanup, etc., these are ideal jobs for technical writers. Manufacturing , medical devices, computers, networking (routers, switches, etc.), and so on.

Mohammed Yaseen Kassam – Well there are some examples of good e-Learning and many bad examples of bad e-Learning and TWs can help here. I think that the skills TWs have of arranging text, instruction, charts, etc., is not dissimilar to what good e-Learning developers would do with interactive materials. TWs may output to a static format (paper-based/PDF manuals) whereas e-Learning Developers to something more interactive, but I think the skills could easily be transferred over. I would imagine a good TW to have the skills to bring order, structure, and a logical route for any reader, and those types of skills are something so badly needed in the e-Learning development industry – it’s not just about fancy pretty pictures whizzing past on the screen!

3. What makes an effective E-Learning experience?

Dustin Bauman – Engagement, ensuring you are writing appropriately for the audience that is taking the training. Ensure you are effective with the delivery, tell and show them what they need to get out of it (unlike Beyond Bullet Points, book), reinforce the learning with knowledge checks, interactions, games, or practical excercises. Keep things moving, switch out pictures, characters, hosts, videos, etc.. Follow the “tell me, show me, try me” philosophy. Get to the point and stay on track, analogies are good and this really comes back to knowing your audience. Use voice over as much as possible, allow the user to turn it off, they control (to a degree) how they are learning. Switch up or have multiple narrators (male and female), ensuring you are reaching all genders. Use professional talent for voice overs. As stated above, let the professionals do their job. Voice talent is an area where all developers or companies try to save money, doing voice in-house. It not only doesn’t save money, it sounds like crap. Voice talent knows how to bring meaning to the narration, they have the setup and environment to create high quality audio, they are less expensive than one would think, they are very fast and usually only require one take. I have spent years working with internal voices and external, I promise you it is worth every penny hiring it out and not trying to spend the time doing voice internally. I have seen not only a quicker turnaround, higher quality, but, a major reduction in cost.

Mohammed Yaseen Kassam – Where a user comes away having learnt something that will help improve themselves or apply to their work. Evaluation of the learning afterwards is key to determine the value of the experience.

Technical Writing is Still Alive and Kicking…and Won’t be Going Anywhere Soon

It is interesting to see that both Dustin and Mohammed believe that technical writers can help improve e-learning content. Mohammed’s comment about bringing “order” and “structure” really relate to the ‘user journey’, something us technical writers have to think about in pretty much every aspect of our work. It also reminds me of a situation I once had where I was asked to edit some training material – the content was all there, but the flow, tone and order were not right. We do have skills that some trainers, and seemingly e-learning developers, don’t seem to have. And the good news is that they recognise that.

Technical writing and training have co-existed for decades, and I see no reason for that situation to change. If anything, it is traditional, classroom trainers who face the biggest challenge from e-learning. So relax! People still need reference information, and technical writers are best suited to delivering that, (although the type of content we develop will surely become more interactive…like E-learning).

Can a Technical Writer Move Into E-Learning?

Absolutely, yes. I know people who have made this cross-over permanently and others who switch between the two as and when required. But that’s not to say that if you are a technical author you can just make that switch without learning some new skills – when has life ever been that simple? As Dustin and Mohammed point out, there are different requirements for e-learning, and the ‘tell me, show me, try me’ philosophy is a key part of that. The key skills and approaches in both professions are similar, but not the same, and I intend to cover some of those in later posts.

Of course, if you are going to be creating a different type of information product, you can bet your life you are going to have to learn a whole bunch of software tools too. I asked both Dustin and Mohammed about the tools of choice for today’s e-learning specialists:

Dustin Bauman – You need to have the set of tools that allow you to create the learning and courses desired. For instance, you would like to capture and create a course on how to use email. There are (again, my opinion) a couple of tools that I would grab to accomplish this. Camtasia is always a first tool (cheap, very easy to use, good quality and compression is awesome). Camtasia does a great job capturing the screen, full motion video, captures sound and is very easy to edit. Adobe Captivate is another tool (captures full motion video as well as screen shots in series to be able to edit later), not as easy to use as Camtasia for full motion and not a full motion editor, however, it does what Camtasia can’t and that is, allows you to record screens and from those screens create the “try me”. So between both of these tools you have tell, show and try. Now with both of these, I would not use them as my packaging tool, meaning that are all good for the specific things you are working with but, they are only creating individual assets, not the whole course. Neither one produces good output for LMS systems (especially for streaming in low bandwidth locations). I usually turn to iSpring for the packaging and building the core courses and plug the output of Captivate and Camtasia into specific places in the course. Another very good product is Articulate Storyline (not great on HTML 5 output yet, but, they are getting there). Storyline is more advanced than iSpring with triggers and other aspects, again, picking the right tool for the job. There are other tools as well: Adobe Creative Cloud (Photoshop and Audition are key, dreamweaver), PavTube video converter, levelator, Microsoft Office, FlipPDF, FileRenamer, are primarily the tools I use constantly.

Mohammed Yaseen Kassam -In e-Learning Development even Microsoft Word has capabilities to embed images and audio, and when a bit of content is added and uploaded straight on to the web using it, the output can technically be called e-Learning – whether it will succeed in the learner learning or being engaged is another thing. Alot of people use Captivate, which in my estimation, is OK for certain types of ‘simulations’, however the fact that developers use only one single tool for all e-Learning…to me it is like the nutcracker/sledgehammer adage.

I’m the ‘Horses for courses’ type. Observing industry experts and influencers in the recent years, it would seem that to build e-Learning a person has to become multi-disciplined; not necessarily know every single tool but have a ‘toolbox’ of applications with them. So a bit of graphics design software, some interactive authoring tools, audio/video editing applications, a little knowledge of fundamental design principles, fonts/typeface, accessibility (building with the disabled in mind), usability (building with user friendliness in mind) etc goes much towards creating attractive, engaging, effective e-Learning resources. I realise that most developers don’t have the liberty, nor time and money to buy all the resources, but there is a lot on the internet by way of community support and open source software.

I used to use the Adobe Creative Suite especially Flash, but diversified to Articulate Studio when Apple stopped support for Flash on their iPhones – I saw this as the death knell for Flash – it was. I suggest you look at Articulate and read Tom Khulmann’s excellent ‘Rapid e-Learning’ blog and Commoncraft by Lee Lefever.

(I’ll be posting more about Lee Lefever later this year, as he has written a very interesting book on the art of explanation).

Special thanks :

Dustin Bauman
Founder/Owner at iApproach
iApproach provides E-Learning development (PowerPoint/iSpring/Articulate Storyline/Camtasia/Captivate/video and audio training and conversion services), assessments (pre and post), LMS implementation and strategic planning.

Mohamed Yaseen Kassam
Learning & Development Technologist
People and Organisational Development

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