JoAnn Hackos answers the question “How technical should a technical communicator be?”

Technical communicators must be capable of becoming product subject-matter experts, at least to the extent that they can adequately represent the interests of the users of the product. If the users are technical experts, the communicators must learn about the users’ experience in the field, their agendas in using the product and its support information, and their goals in the specific implementation of the product. If the communicators cannot conduct a meaningful conversation with the users about the subject matter, then they cannot represent their needs sufficiently for the information they impart to be useful.

In many cases, technical communicators spend far too much time on the technology of publication. Instead of becoming experts in the user experience, they concentrate on becoming experts in desktop publishing software. While technology skills are useful to speed the information-development process, they do not substitute for the ability to impart useful and usable content. Too often, technical communicators simply describe the product interface rather than explain to the users how they can best meet their business and technical goals using the product. Too often, technical communicators rely on software developers or product engineers for content, even though these individuals are usually equally ignorant about the users and their goals and agendas.

The extent of technical knowledge required is dependent upon the type of product on which the technical communicators work. If the software product handles accounting, the communicator must become very knowledgeable about accounting. If the software product is about microchip design, then the communicator must become knowledgeable about microchip design. Without a sound level of expertise, the communicator cannot hope to represent the interests of the users.

At the same time, the communicator must be capable of contributing to the design of a usable product and usable information. To make a useful contribution, the communicator must also develop expertise in computer-human interface design and the design of usable information. A truly valuable contributor will focus on a study that involves both the subject matter with which he or she works and the field of information and product design. Quite clearly, a communicator has a great deal to learn. However, too frequently, communicators simply concentrate on the clerical skills associated with publishing, learning more about MS Word or FrameMaker than they know about their users, their products, and the domain of usable design. To be viewed as a communication professional, a technical communicator must learn the genuine content of the profession, not the clerical skills that can be handled by anyone. To be viewed as a valued contributor to product development and customer support, the technical communicator must become an expert in the user experience and an expert in the usable design of the product and the information.