Why use a technical author?
You may be wondering why anyone needs to use a technical author when most people can write English, and the person who develops a technical system or process (e.g. a programmer, financier or engineer) must know it better than anyone else.
'Translating' complex technical information
One way of looking at it is to see the technical author as a translator. They take the technical information, in whatever form (notes, technical specifications or even directly from the developer) and translate it into terms that are meaningful to the intended audience. For example, a functional specification is of little help to the end user of the software – the user needs to know how to use the software to achieve the desired results, not how or why the software works. Also, in many situations different users need different information. For example, a machine operator needs to know how to operate the equipment, but their supervisor may also need to know how to set up the equipment and what sort of results to expect.
Including only necessary information
Often the developers are too close to the subject to see what other people need to know. This means that they include too much or too little information. Some go down the road of including absolutely everything that they know; others make assumptions about the existing knowledge of the end users and don’t include enough basic information. A good technical author can see what knowledge is essential to using a product successfully, and what is not. They are not afraid to ask stupid or embarrassing questions that would never occur to an expert, such as: Why does it do this?; What happens if I do this instead?; Why do I need to fill in these fields? I don’t understand why I need to do this step? This doesn’t do what it says it should do in the functional spec, which one is right?. The answers to these can add incalculable value to the content of a document, and sometimes to the usability of a product.
Writing clearly, consistently and quickly
This point is one that is rarely recognised by people outside the industry – not everyone can write information down in a way that is easy for others to follow and understand. Despite the general assumption that 'Everyone can write', it’s not as easy as it seems. Good technical writing is not just a matter of sticking to the rules of grammar and good usage. It is also about finding the right tone for an audience, making sure information is presented consistently in a logical order, is easy to find, and nicely presented. And all this without labouring for hours over each paragraph.
Testing usability – a free extra
As a bonus, a good author can also be a source of free usability testing for your product. Most authors will (if asked), point out any problems they notice in using or trying to describe the product.
My thanks to Lois Wakeman for her permission to adapt the ideas from her website, http://communicationarts.co.uk.