The Key Elements in Technical Communication

In a lot of online conversation threads these days, I read people discuss their profiles evolve into information designers. Although this is a topic that deserves such discussions, I feel that it depends on how we “define” things. I say “define” because a definition itself is subjective to one’s interpretations.

Meanwhile, I continue to admire the relationship between information, design, and comprehension. The interconnection between any two of the important elements, not just information and design, is a clear indicator of how effective your technical communication is in terms of comprehension and action.

I say comprehension AND action because both these results are critically important. For this post, I put forward my understanding of the key elements in technical communication – or information design, as many of them like to call it these days.

What is Information Design?

Wait, but what is Information?

Information is a processed collection of data or facts, which helps us estimate outcomes (and make quicker decisions). But, we must not confuse information with data, which is an unprocessed recording of fact; or, with a fact, which is a countable, known bit.

And, what is Design?

The design is a conceptual, structured (mostly graphical), and logical schema, which has an underlying indicative purpose and flow. Therefore, I can use it as a reference or guide; for example, interior designs can be used as references for decorating home and office interiors.

So, what is Information Design? It is a philosophy of communication, which has a definite style, purpose, and timeline – just like technical communication. Information design is an action-oriented design philosophy, which focuses on two important aspects of technical communication: information, which in turn focuses on the technicalities; and delivery, which focuses on the graphical aspects.

For me, Information Design has more to do with the graphical delivery of the underlying message than to with the artistic perspective, such as the choice between 2D and 3D graphics. But, in the discussions that I’ve come across on the internet, most of us think that information design has only to do with the visual elements of communication, while technical communication is about the “text.”

But why divert from technical communication?

It’s simple – First because it is “technical.” Obviously, for most of us, the word is scarier than it looks. I know a lot of those who want to stay away from user manuals as long as possible. Second, because it is “communication,” which sounds a lot more formal and textual. “And, who reads this stuff, anyway.” one of my colleagues remarked the other day. He continued, “Do you expect me to READ 15 pages when I’ve got a lot of other important things to do?”

Information design focuses on communicating the underlying messages using graphics. These days, the time we devote to each task has considerably reduced. And, if I don’t have enough time to make things work, chances are I will choose experimentation over reading. But, if the user manual is graphical, has a lot lesser content, and can give me the “feeling” of how it’s done, I may follow it.

So, the bent towards information design is on account of its applicability – A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. The use of graphics minimizes the use of content. Rather, it squeezes the underlying message of the content into a graphics. Despite the usually observed bent of mind, I believe that the key elements of Information Design and Technical Communication are the same. Here’s how…

Keeping it TIDY

I see the following common elements that constitute technical communication – or information design. I call it the TIDY model, which I use to edit not just the regular documentation, but even presentations. Consider these elements in the light of the following indicative release note for the Fixed Issues section:

When properties in the ItemSpec tab of the Item Settings form were imported using Import Workbench Specialist (IWS), an error similar to the following was reported, and the import was terminated: “There is no row in table 1.” Now, the business logic is enhanced to import data correctly.

Technicality. This element talks about the underlying logic. In this example, we are talking about the business logic of using the IWS to import properties and display the required data. See how the technical information is mapped to the everyday business logic to improve customers’ (or readers’) understanding.

Information. This element, as discussed previously, focuses on processing the data or facts. So, when I say that the import was terminated on account of the reported error, I help my readers process the information by establishing a flow.

Design. The design philosophy is to supply the user with a reference. Although mostly graphical, it is the design that helps equate the cause with its effect. We know that telling only what the product does for the readers is not enough; we must show them how it is done. The readers can now map their understanding with that of the release note, and resolve similar issues with other reports.

Yield. This is perhaps the most important element, yet often the most understated one. We have seen that including the interconnection with the business logic improves the understanding of the underlying flow of information. In the release note, see how I connect the readers’ issues using the following text: “Now, the business logic is enhanced to import the data correctly.” Basically, in this element, I highlight the business benefit introduced by the feature or fix.

As I understand, the goal of any technical communication project is to not just communicate how things are done, but to help readers do it that way (“comprehension AND action,” as stated in the beginning). So, it doesn’t really matter if I call it Information Design or Technical Communication; the key elements still remain the same. The only difference lies in the approach. But, this is one person’s opinion. I’ll be happy to read about your understanding of the concept.

Happy writing.

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