How the Writing in Technical Writing Should Evolve

How the Writing in Technical Writing Should Evolve

Technical Writers are responsible for effectively communicating information for a particular purpose. The output should be clear, concise, and consistent. Above all else, Technical Writers know they must create content that meets their audience needs.

Today, technical writing must account for two driving forces that impact consumer context:

  1. The subscription economy – Consumers have more choice and control in their purchasing decisions. Content has become a business-critical aspect of positive customer experience throughout the customer lifecycle, including customer acquisition, onboarding, and retention.
  2. New types of interactions – Consumers engage with content across increasingly diverse user interfaces. Scalable content must accommodate omnichannel experiences that satisfy customer expectations for the device(s) they are using.

Things to do more

To support our audience’s new context for how they consume information, we need to go beyond effective documentation. Successful technical communication contributes to decreased customer effort and increased customer value realization.

Technical Writers should:

  • Understand user intent and needs. Orient your perspective based on user needs, rather than product functionality. Research published by Google details “six canonical consumer needs: Surprise Me, Help Me, Reassure Me, Educate Me, Impress Me, and Thrill Me. Each need state is made up of a combination of emotional, social, and functional needs.” 
Six canonical consumer needs: Surprise Me, Help Me, Reassure Me, Educate Me, Impress Me, and Thrill Me
  • Use their words. Improve findability for both search and embedded content interactions with word choices that are meaningful to your users. Leverage search logs, customer feedback channels, or Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS) methodology to operationalize how you incorporate relevant language.
  • Align to their priorities. Customers expect the knowledge they are seeking at the time and place they are looking for it. Organize information for efficient interactions (consider the inverted pyramid journalism technique) and adjust workflows to enable publishing as close to real-time as possible.
Inverted pyramid for writing
  • Incorporate content analytics for ongoing data-driven optimization. First, content must be measurable (web-based) and atomized to enable useful data collection. Then, connect content interactions to positive or negative outcomes to measure success and find actionable insights to improve.

Things to do less

To support extensibility across divergent modalities, technical content must be as adaptable as possible. Delivery mechanisms may be unable to support particular media types, layouts, or other dependencies. Writing that is flexible enough for various types of interactions and user interfaces may need to discontinue approaches that used to suffice.

Technical Writers should try to avoid:

  • Mentally coupling content with format. Instead, create scalable technical content that is flexible enough to be effective without format dependencies. Try to let go of associations to manuals, documents, or any particular deliverable output. Think about content as ‘knowledge objects’ that more closely resemble database objects. DITA is a method to create format-free content, but DITA only has positive ROI for particular use cases. Practice distilling the content (message or information) from format (media or publishing method).
No alt text provided for this image
Image credit: Stéphanie Walter
  • References to order of operations or context that could change. Instead, strive to author the smallest snippets possible that can live independently from each other. You may be surprised how often technical writing includes linear or deliverable references. Verbiage examples include: above/below, previous/next, article/page, document/guide.
  • Subjective or relative phrases. Instead, because content interactions occur across a wider scope of the customer journey, do not assume context in technical content. Avoid delineating based on arbitrary levels of competency (beginner/advanced) or complexity (easy/difficult) that can vary based on expectations or experience. Avoid relative time or location references that can be interpreted differently based on perspective (usual, regular, often, occasional, fast, slow). Rewrite to either avoid relative words or be more specific.
  • Words or constructions that hinder translation quality. Instead, assume that any content is available to a global audience. Write in a way that reduces human translation costs and enables more accurate machine translation. Follow the Mailchimp Content Style Guide for Writing for Translation.

Customer-focused delivery

Of course, not all of these recommendations are fully achievable 100% of the time.

Compliance requirements may dictate particular delivery formats that are not measurable. Your customer’s word choice could include subjective or relative phrases. Some jargon that doesn’t translate well may be necessary in your industry. Branding, product functionality, resource limitations, or cuz-your-boss-said-so could all limit your choices.

Use your experience and cross-functional collaboration to do the next best thing you can to continually evolve your content closer to your audience needs. Create content that is as meaningful and relevant as possible for YOUR users.


Cheers to Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf for his collaboration on this topic. Listen to us chat on the Cherryleaf Podcast!


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