Home/Publications/CIDM eNews/CIDM eNews 09.18/The Many Hats of the Technical Communicator

Kathy Madison, Comtech Services

Addressing the many skills required today to meet the information demands of our customers, while maintaining head count, budgets, and writer limitations can be a difficult balancing act. Information development teams typically might need someone performing writing, editing, graphic design, formatting, stylesheet development, videography, instructional design, UX design, information architecture, tools support, project management, strategic planning and even product testing.  During the August CIDM roundtable discussion, members shared their strategies for managing these many roles, or hats, within their organizations.

For many organizations, team members must perform all these roles or at least have some skills in the area. However, as teams grow, role specialization tends to be the optimal approach, especially with the unique skills required for videography, stylesheets development, information architecture and tools administration.  Often a team will consist of at least one dedicated resource who performs some of these specializations or they will outsource, either internally or externally to accomplish the task. However, most of the tasks become part-time jobs for individual writers; very few on the roundtable call said that their team members have the luxury of only wearing one hat.

Choosing which part-time jobs to assign to which writers can be tricky. For example, asking a writer to be an illustrator can be problematic but asking them to edit or become an information architect seems to naturally grow out or their writing skills. Who should take on the role of illustrator, especially when having poor graphics may lead to a perception that the content isn’t’ good either? Ideally, the members on the call agreed, if there isn’t enough work or budget for a full-time illustrator on your team, you should try and have a shared resource who is dedicated to creating illustrations for all the departments. What about the role of Videographer? Should everyone know how to do this, is it only those that have an existing skill or do you cross-train to help build the skill set. It appears that our members are doing all of these options. Most expect their writers to use tools like Camtasia to capture screen videos for basic tutorials and product how-tos. One member said creating videos is uncomfortable for some of their writers, but they do have resources who can help, allowing the writers to get the job done.

Being able to collaborate with other departments is not always easy, for example, training departments often have their own point of view making tapping into their resources a challenge. On the flip side, members are being asked more often to help with creating marketing materials and there’s a recent trend in our industry for the information development departments to be in charge of the text in the User Interface (UI). Though only 2 companies (5%) stated in the 2017 CIDM Organizational Structure Survey that they own the text string development, 40% indicated they are contributors to the design of content within the UI. It was noted that UI teams are happy with this trend since UI folks are really good at the design aspects but not so good with the words; they like to pass the text responsibility on to someone else. A few members said their teams are also being invited to participate in customer related projects, such as, working with technical experts to discover the root cause of a customer concern, helping with creating customer interview questions, and listening in on “whisper room” sessions where customers come and talk about future product enhancements.

We wondered if the size of the documentation team made a difference on collaboration with other departments. Interestingly, in the same Organization Structure Survey, we saw that the two information development teams who own the UI content, were both small teams of less than 10 people. And, only small teams (less than 10) and very large teams (greater than 100) said they collaborate with their marketing departments on a daily basis. In addition, these same size teams were the only ones to indicate that they had individuals performing the role of UX designer.

Regardless of the how many hats a writer wears, members are just starting to figure out how the multi-functional aspects of the job should influence salary and hiring practices. Some are driving specialization from the bottom-up, allowing writers to choose the roles that best fit their existing or hidden potential. Some are starting to hire for people with specialized skills like videography, while others are still considering those skills as nice-to-have but not required as part of the job description. Once a writer takes on a specialization there appears to be a bit of a gap in how to properly train them. It’s easy to send them to a workshop on Camtasia or DITA, but how do you train them on what makes a good video or how to architect the content?

All in all, the session probably raised more questions than answered but members were glad to know they weren’t alone in trying to address the struggle of how their writers need to evolve to keep up with today’s customer demands. Someone even said the roundtable discussions are like a group counseling session; there’s value in bringing everyone together regardless of if we get answers to our problems.

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