- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

Writer Joe Kraynak, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Computer Basics," is no idiot, of course; nor does he think buyers of his softcover volume outlining the basics of computer literacy are idiots.
What he does think as do writers of many other instructional guides is that consumers often are right to criticize, or avoid altogether, the manuals that accompany many of today's high-tech products. Such materials too often are poorly or confusingly written.
Technical writers and communicators those unsung heroes of the digital age whose job is to prevent this from happening know only too well that as product functions become more complex, the challenge of writing clear, concise directions becomes increasingly difficult.
Graphics help solve some of the confusion, especially on overseas products for which the instructions have to be translated from the original, but drawings, however clear, can't answer every question in a consumer's mind.
"There is wide variation in some of the consumer-product manuals," Mr. Kraynak says, pointing out that Dell, for one, even has included color coding to help the consumer set up the hardware. "I think the company figures it is less expensive to put out a good manual than have people manning technical support lines," he says.
The profession of technical communicator requires people skills as well as writing and analytical ability, says Bethesda-based independent consultant Janice "Ginny" Redish, who holds a doctorate in linguistics from Harvard. Her company, Redish & Associates Inc., does document design and "usability" consulting for government agencies and blue-chip corporations.
She defines usability as "making sure that whatever the product is works for its users and is worth their time." She says the profession has grown "from technical writers working with engineers to making sure real people can use a product. There always is a question of who is the user and what the user is trying to do. A lot of [the job] is interviewing and negotiating."
Membership in the Arlington-based Society for Technical Communication (STC), a nonprofit trade association, has grown from 15,073 in 1990 to 23,884 today and embraces the work of Web designers as well as writers, editors, illustrators and translators. Forty-two percent of STC members have college degrees in English compared to 23 percent in technical communication and 19 percent in science or engineering.
Many, if not most, in the writing trade toil anonymously out of the public eye, translating engineering terms and concepts into plain English. In spite of this, Joseph Callow, a principal technical writer and editor for Hughes Network Systems in Germantown, managed once to insert his own name as a sample user in DirecTV digital satellite receiver's 103-page bilingual set of operating instructions, which he helped write but only friends, family and colleagues would realize it.
Mr. Callow is an electrical engineer by training and was encouraged in the late 1970s to take up technical writing professionally by now-Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, the instructor in his required English class at Montgomery College.
"I liked the precision of it," he says of his adopted trade. He works with several engineering specifications at a time, ideally months ahead of a publishing date, and may have two major projects under way simultaneously, plus smaller jobs. Results are assessed in collegial fashion under the eye (and computer) of Sylvia Simpson, the company's director of technical documentation.
"A lot of the time it's like working one of those all-white jigsaw puzzles when you don't even know you are missing a part until you get to the end," Mr. Callow says of his daily routine. "You are trying to pull all these pieces together, and it's especially difficult in a large company with so many diverse products to consider." Hughes describes itself as the world's leading network solutions provider and a leader in broadband technology.
By contrast, Mr. Kraynak a former editor with a publisher of advanced vocational training manuals free-lances out of his home in Indianapolis. A graduate of Purdue University with a degree in creative writing and philosophy, he says he always had a fondness for engineering but that liberal arts training helped teach him how to "entertain and educate" at the same time, as his books are meant to do.
"I try to put myself in the shoes of a new user, to think of somebody I know, like my wife or kids," he says. "My wife is anti-technology, and we don't let our kids get hung up on it.
"I still like paper, too," Mr. Kraynak says. "I write everything on screen and then print it out because I can find more errors [that way] and get more of a sense of how a user will approach it on paper."
Richard Adix of Sioux City, S.D., who won this year's Best of Show award for technical communications in STC's annual international competition for instructions accompanying Gateway's Solo 9500/9550 computer is an agricultural engineer with a master's degree in English.
His wife "gets so frustrated" with him as a consumer, he says, "because I'm one of few people who sits down and reads a manual from cover to cover and analyzes and edits before I turn it on." When he works with a product in the office, he says, "I tear it down to base level and get intimate with the software."
A lot of companies, Mr. Adix says, see documentation as a way of saving cost by streamlining material or putting it on the Web. He would rather include a large amount of paper information in a manual so a consumer rarely will have to go to online help.
"It's always a problem to get people to read" the information, he concedes. As a result, he says his company "has gone from line art to photographs toward a more warm and fuzzy-feeling approach and basically gives [customers] all they need to know."
Increasingly, the writer influences the field in a number of ways, says STC member and educator Bill Gribbons, director of the Human Factors and Information Design Program at Bentley College, a private institution that teaches technical and scientific communication in Waltham, Mass. (Mr. Gribbons explains the term "human factors" as meaning simply "making technology easier for people to use.")
"Standing between the engineering team and the consumer, he can identify shortcomings in a product and often compensate for a bad system design," Mr. Gribbons says. If the engineer and writer fail, the product fails, he says.
Early microwave ovens required programming power
levels that reflected the mind of an engineer, but to the average consumer, that didn't make any sense, Mr. Gribbons says. "As a result, people used it in limited ways. Now you buy a microwave with a pad identifying what people do most with the oven [warm, defrost, etc.]. The engineer thinks about what is easier and cheaper to build where. The writer, as technical communicator, thinks in terms of needs and requirements."
A company with a high-end entertainment product he prefers not to name it that cost $1,500 eight years ago presented the consumer with a 75-page user guide "full of torturous information. The company's technical writing team realized that much of what they had to write was unnecessary and simply shoring up a bad system." Today, that same product comes with a top-of-the-box poster and a series of pictures with just a small user guide.
"Engineers may say, 'Those dumb, lazy users,' but we are dealing with a very competitive marketplace," Mr. Gribbons says. "Technology has invaded all our lives, and all of it has to be explained and learned. Products may be using more explanatory graphics, but the need for documentation is not going away. Systems have enough complexity so that we always need them."
Handling that complexity is one of the writer's main challenges.
"People measure complexity by how it is presented," says Kenneth Keiser, a free-lance technical writer for 20 years and a teacher in the University of Maryland's professional writing program at the College Park campus.
The program, which has been in place for 22 years under the English Department, has a staff of 52 this semester and focuses "on the kinds of writing people will do after they leave the academy," director Michael Marcuse says.
All upper-level students at the university are required to take a professional writing course before graduation. Graduate students take courses preparing them to be technical-writing teachers; one of the courses is taught by the department's senior professor of rhetoric.
Mr. Keiser, whose clients have included IBM and other mainstream corporations as well as government and nonprofit agencies, suggests that the quality of some documentation has leveled off.
"Companies still don't pay enough attention to their audience what the audience is likely to know or not know," he says. "There is an assumption that the consumer knows more than he does, and there is too much jargon words like 'drivers' and 'serial ports' used too freely. It's a one-size-fits-all approach that suggests some awkward compromises between what the reader needs and what the writer can provide."
The kinds of general questions technical writers need to answer about any product, Mr. Keiser says, are: "Will the product fulfill a consumer's needs? Where is the product to be used? The physical context affects use, and there may be warnings you need to provide in preparation. What is it for for use once a year or every day?"
None of the cellular phone instructions examined as a comparison test in one of his classes met the mark, Mr. Keiser says: "Some that looked comprehensive also looked daunting. The language was in the active voice, telling you what you were going to do, and prepared people for new experience saying what you were going to do and why but it was very dense. Many of the booklets are small, with tightly packed pages of text and images that suggest complexity and require the reader to work hard to distinguish details and features of the device."
Consumers need to speak out when they are dissatisfied, he urges.
"Take it back, write a letter say this [manual] does not explain things well enough," Mr. Keiser says.

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