Vesa Purho
Research Analyst, Information Design, Nokia Networks

Wouldn’t it be nice if products were so usable that we didn’t need documentation? “What?” I hear you crying. “What would I do then for work?” You could start designing user interfaces based on how the user interacts with the product (Human-Computer Interaction, HCI). You wouldn’t need to know how to write code to implement the interfaces, just like you don’t need to know how to write good English to design good documentation structure. But you may need to learn new skills like visual design and usability evaluation methodology if you haven’t already.

Before we decide we don’t need any documentation, though, we need to define what documentation is. Are the field names and menu items documentation? What about wizards or embedded user assistance? If those pieces are considered documentation and thus the domain of a technical writer, then your job is safe. However, some companies could consider those pieces the domain of the software designer and the programmer. Then you either need to reposition yourself into that domain or find some other work.

But how likely is it that documentation, in the sense of information separate from the user interface, is not needed? Will the products be free of all usability problems and bugs so that troubleshooting information is not needed? Will the hardware products be disposable so that maintenance and repair instructions are not needed? (There are plans for a mobile phone made out of paper.)

I guess the future doesn’t look so perfect, at least during the next ten years, that we will actually not need documentation. However, if we design more usable products, we could drastically reduce the amount of documentation related to the use of the product. I think that technical communicators could really help design more usable products because we are used to thinking from the user’s point of view and gathering and analysing information based on that view. We are also used to eliciting information from different kinds of persons. We could use those skills to gather information about our users, arrange and document usability evaluations, and structure the information to produce a usable product design.

I haven’t yet seen a paperless office; although, I first heard the phrase mentioned in the mid 1980s, and I don’t expect to see documentless products (except very simple ones) for a while. However, if you want to keep your skill sets up-to-date, don’t forget to include usability and HCI studies into your curriculum.

This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia Networks.