3. Information Utilization

A good technical communicator___

  1. knows his/her document’s exact purpose (primary factor);
  2. never forgets his/her readership or their original reasons for wanting the document;
  3. gathers as much knowledge as possible about his/her audience – where they will use the document, and any unique considerations (physical environment, emergency usage only, etc.);
  4. is familiar with earlier or related versions;
  5. prioritizes results and can identify and effectively describe the most efficient means of attaining them;
  6. orders, gathers, and, if necessary, disassembles and restructures information into logical elements, and sequences these intelligently;
  7. appreciates how diagrams and illustrations enrich text and support comprehensibility;
  8. knows the relevant terminology and is conversant with the concepts they relate;
  9. knows what information to omit;
  10. can perceive and lead the reader to ‘the big picture’;
  11. has as much firsthand knowledge or exposure to the subject matter as possible; and
  12. applies a set of (ideally proven and academically robust) evaluation criteria to measure his/her document’s efficacy and suitability.

Studies, such as that by De Jong and Lenz (1996), suggest technical writers often lack knowledge about their audiences and thus predict few of the problems that users encounter. To produce reader-centred design (1. to 7.), good technical communicators implement the findings of thorough investigation into reader needs.

Hackos & Reddish (1998) maintain that to be usable (reader-centred), documents must incorporate:

  • familiar or comfortable workflows;
  • support for user learning styles;
  • compatibility with users’ working environments;
  • familiar design;
  • consistency in presentation (for reliability and easy usage); and
  • familiar or easily learned language and illustrations.

Feed forward was introduced in the preceding section, but I will argue here that it is a document’s purpose, more than any other factor, that determines the major aspects of design and content. All considerations are dependent on this primary factor; design and writing preferences are therefore contributory, not pivotal, issues and valid only if they effectively augment the document’s purpose.

Clear comprehension of purpose is axiomatic to efficient information conveyance. Audience-analysis, while important, is of lesser interest to the technical communicator;[1] ascertaining document purpose is a higher priority, as audience can be largely deduced from purpose, but the converse (purpose from audience) is less reliable, despite obvious interrelatedness. Moreover, a good technical communicator prioritizes both purpose and audience throughout the entire documentation procedure, tailoring each feature of the document and eliminating superfluities to maximal effect.
Accurate contextual (10.) and detailed knowledge of the subject matter (11.) informs the technical communicator about where to look for audience information and other helpful data. It also provides terminology (8.), comparable documentation (4.), quakity benchmarks, and design cues for usability and situational suitability (such as selecting laminated pages or spiral bindings, etc.).

Informational organization deserves mention. According to Knowledge Representation (KR) theory, the placement of information is critical to the problem-solving process.[2] In practice, this means that content should be carefully selected (or excluded), purposefully ordered, and logically robust.

The technical communicator needs to stay mindful of his document’s signal to noise ratio.[3] Omission (9.) is, in many cases, as crucial as inclusion (perhaps more so where cost factors are a concern). This does not imply that the technical editor should inflict minimalist absurdities; it has implications far beyond mere editing (and the bounds of this article). Wright (1988) argued the need for theories of not reading – to promote development of strategies for accessing key points with minimal interference[4], and Kress (1997) cites pictorial elements as often superior to words in communicating meaning. [5]

If time, cost, and other constraints permit, documents should, prior to release, be inspected against an academically or institutionally sanctioned set of usability criteria (12.), such as Sless’s ‘Attributes that encourage reading’ (2004). Such criteria would furnish the communicator with analytical tools to help him/her refine the document, gauge its appropriateness, and identify any pretermissions or functional shortcomings. 

[1] As they share a common objective, namely effective documentation, differences between the two are a question of perception and approach rather than practical diversity in terms of findings.

[2] A notion that informatics expands on in great detail.

[3] A term used originally in electrical engineering and later in Shannon’s Information Theory. In digital age usage, it usually refers to the proportion of useful information relative to false, incorrect, or irrelevant information, and appears predominantly in online discussion of technical issues.  

[4] Schriver et al (1997) reported that 15% of users read manuals from cover to cover, 46% scan, 35% read as reference, and 4% read nothing.

[5] I speculate that the comic book format, which, when done well, coalesces both above-mentioned notions, is an extremely effective information-delivery medium. Instructions for home appliances sold in Japan, South Korea, and (more recently) China commonly employ this format. However, there may be cultural obstacles to the same being commuted to European or other language-speaking countries.