Simplified Technical English-Quality Assurance and
Standardization for Technical Documentation, and Many Other Benefits in the Field of Content Management and Translations
Caller: “Can you give me the telephone number for Jack?”
Operator: “I’m sorry sir, I don’t understand who you are talking about.”
Caller: “On page 1, section 5, of the user guide it clearly states that I need to unplug the fax machine from the AC wall socket and telephone Jack before cleaning. Now, can you give me the number for Jack?”
Operator: “I think you mean the telephone plug-in point on the wall.”
At an airport, an airplane had to abort the landing after the pilots realized there was a vehicle on the runway. The vehicle was a snow plough. The operator had been told by the tower to “clear the runway” for the arrival of the aircraft.
Although the two examples above show the humorous aspect of ambiguous communication (and there are many more), the next example shows disastrous consequences, of which there are also many examples. In 1977 at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, heavy accents and improper terminology among a Dutch KLM crew, an American PanAm crew, and a Spanish air traffic controller led to the worst aviation disaster in history in which 583 passengers perished.
These samples identify a problem that has been around for many years, and in today’s world in which products are becoming more complex and are increasingly used around the globe, a solution is needed more than ever.
One conclusion is that people can easily be confused by the multiple meanings and synonyms that words can have, as well as by complex sentence structures. But if we look closer at the users of technical information, we can also conclude that in today’s world of globalization, our audience has changed and we need to learn to adapt.
English is the main language used for technical documentation, but we are often required to provide the documentation in the native language of the countries to which we export. But if the English (which is very often used as a source language for translations) is difficult to understand and sometimes ambiguous, we can’t expect the translations to be perfect either. They are bound to contain errors, ambiguity, and misinterpretations due to the issues in the original.
Therefore, in order to avoid confused and frustrated consumers, but more importantly to avoid the risk of dangerous situations, damage, and sometimes even product liability claims, we need to provide our audience with information
- in his/her language
- at his/her educational level
- using unambiguous terminology that he/she understands.
To do so, a company needs to standardize its general vocabulary as well as its terminology. Many words that were used in the past will become non-approved. To help writers find the right words, approved words can be linked as synonyms to non-approved words.
In addition to writers avoiding the use of ambiguous words, they should also use short and simple sentences, give information that is precise, and make people responsible for their actions, to name but a few “good writing practice” rules.
- Gain access to blade.
- After removing old blade, new cutting part may be fitted by proceeding in reverse order, using gloves to avoid injuries by teeth of blade.
- Before you attempt any of the above, the power should have been switched off.
- Make sure that the on/off switch is in the OFF position
- Remove the blade cover from the machine
- Warning: wear gloves when you touch the blade
- Remove the old blade
- Install the new blade
- Install the blade cover
One can imagine the dangers the operator would be subject to by not fully understanding the first example? But there are more negative consequences of ambiguous communication besides the safety risks:
damage during operation or maintenance
- liability claims
- high translation/localization costs
- unsatisfactory translations
- higher training support costs
- ineffective customer service
- confused and frustrated readers
- unanticipated costs as a result of miscommunication (such as recall costs)
In the example we use consistent terminology, write only one thought per sentence, and provide the user with clear instructions. These actions result in the following benefits, which apply to translations as well:
- quality assurance
- standardized terminology and authoring
- improved safety
- reduced damage and costs
- reduced time to market
- improved customer service
How Controlled Authoring Facilitates XML, Content Management, and Translations
As today’s authoring environment changes to structured XML and content management, it would only make sense to also adopt controlled terminology and good writing practice rules to further improve reusability and create additional cost savings.
Doing so will not only standardize the content, it will standardize content management in general, create efficiency, and further increase the many benefits content management already offers. Reusability is the key word here, which applies both to the English content as well as to the translations. Reusing can reduce content by up to 30 percent and at the same time save translation costs up to 40 percent per language. Apart from translations, clear and unambiguous communication helps you and your customers save costs in creating and using your documentation. Most importantly, your customers will understand what you are telling them, which is a further enhancement to your product.
Simplified Technical English
There are guidelines and corporate style guides available when you decide to implement a controlled language for your technical publications. We believe that the best guide you can base your controlled authoring needs on is a standard called Simplified Technical English.
The Simplified Technical English specification was initially designed to create clear and understandable technical English in the aerospace and military industries (the specification is called ASD-STE100), especially for non-native speakers. It is based on the following key principles:
- restricted grammar rules
- a controlled dictionary that tells writers which words they can and cannot use
Due to its success (it developed into an industry-wide standard and has become required by the S1000D Specification, among others, which is DITA’s equivalent in the aerospace and defense industries), other industries also became interested. The specification proved to be easily adoptable and industries such as automotive, telecommunication, medical, software, and semiconductor have implemented the use of a controlled language for their technical publications, resulting in the benefits mentioned above.
Choosing the Simplified Technical English specification as a basis vs. other style guides offers many benefits:
- Simplified Technical English is derived from an aerospace and defense standard, which applies to almost all standards that we know today, because these industries are subject to the highest levels of quality and safety and involve technology from most industries
- Simplified Technical English is an international standard, designed by companies worldwide to make technical text easy to understand by both native and non-native English speakers (other style guides will allow the use of ambiguous words, as long as they are being used consistently)
- Because Simplified Technical English is based on aerospace and defense standards, it is strict by nature with 57 writing rules and a limited vocabulary of approximately 900 approved words and approximately 2,000 non-approved words with assigned synonyms. This is good news for companies in any industry, because they can use a well-maintained standard and will not have to ‘reinvent the wheel.’ Instead, they can be more flexible, according to their requirements.
How to Implement Simplified Technical English
To implement the use of Simplified Technical English, it is necessary to take the following steps:
- develop a dictionary
- train technical writers
- use checker software
Dictionary development: Standardize company-specific terminology
The first step in Simplified Technical English implementation is to standardize the general vocabulary for company technical publications. A company eliminates different technical terms that have the same meaning and creates a dictionary that contains approved words as well as unapproved synonyms.
Technical writers, engineers, and editors need training to write in Simplified Technical English. In addition to avoiding the use of ambiguous words, they should use short and simple sentences, give information that is precise, and make people responsible for their actions (use the active voice).
The use of checker software
A checker tool is necessary to help writers and editors check text for compliance with the rules of Simplified Technical English. Violations are easily overlooked. In addition, checker tools can take away many of the mechanical aspects of checking and facilitate quality assurance on technical content.
One of our customers is an American manufacturer of computer network security products.
- to standardize its documentation by using consistent terminology and a controlled vocabulary
- to enhance the readability of its manuals, thereby improving the quality
- to reduce translation costs, as the company translates its technical documentation into various Asian and European languages
Within weeks, Tedopres developed a dictionary containing company and industry-specific terminology. Next, training was given to teach technical writers the rules to write clear and concise technical manuals. As part of the implementation process, the company uses HyperSTE, our checker software, to ensure that all manuals comply with Simplified Technical English, including unambiguous and consistent terminology.
Implementing Simplified Technical English and HyperSTE yielded the following results:
- overall improved quality of the manuals, resulting in customer satisfaction
- volume reduction of 10-30 percent per manual. The originally projected word count for a particular manual was estimated at 500,000. Thanks to the use of Simplified Technical English and HyperSTE the word count turned out to be 375,000 (25 percent volume reduction).
- reusability of text increased to 25 percent, thanks to the standardization of terminology and writing style
- translation costs decreased by 40 percent. The use of a translation memory normally recognizes 30 percent of the text. Simplified Technical English not only resulted in less volume to be translated but increased the translation memory to 40 percent. This resulted in an initial saving of $35,000 for the first manual in Simplified Technical English.
Simplified Technical English is a long-term and comprehensive initiative designed to standardize the way technical publications are written. It facilitates document structuring by specifications like DITA and S1000D in a reliable, cost-effective, and efficient way, and facilitates content management through optimum reusability.
In addition, the use of Simplified Technical English can help you save translation costs of up to 40 percent per language. Cheaper translations are one aspect, but avoiding costs as a result of clear and unambiguous communication to your customers can be tremendous. However, it is the overall result that often convinces companies to switch to Simplified Technical English—readers understand what they are reading.
About the Author
Tedopres International, Inc.
Berry Braster is the Director of Tedopres North American operations, which is based in Austin, Texas. Berry holds a BA in International Marketing Management from the University of Amsterdam and has a background in international business and marketing. Before joining Tedopres, Berry was the Marketing Director for an organization specialized in quality assurance and regulatory affairs in Washington, DC. He has been with Tedopres for 7 years, during which he has been involved with the implementation of controlled authoring with numerous companies in various industries.