August 2018

Only Miss the Sun When It Starts to Snow: Is Technical Communication a Necessary Evil or a Valued Partner?

CIDMIconNewsletter Dawn Stevens

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph starts with a meeting of Bad-Anon, the support group for villains in video games. The meeting concludes with the Bad Guys’ Affirmation: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

Aside from the amusing turns of parallel structure and the interplay of the words “good” and “bad”, this scene perfectly demonstrates the idea of a necessary evil: something unpleasant that must be accepted to achieve a desired result. In addition, it lays the groundwork for the rest of the movie in that viewers and the characters must ask themselves whether anyone can know what “good” is if there is no “bad”. The absence of Ralph from his video game when a player comes to use the console results in pandemonium and threatens to undo the existence of all the inhabitants of the game. Ralph plays a vital role in the game, something he knows intellectually at the beginning of the film, but must come to embrace by the end, navigating the five stages of grief along the way.

While this is an increasing trope within media, there are larger lessons to gain from understanding the role of the necessary evil in your life, and there are many you interact with every day.

Our engagement with necessary evils starts the moment we wake up to the beeping sound of an alarm clock. On the one hand, this piece of machinery screams us into alertness and takes us away from the comfort of our pillows and the hazy nothingness of sleep. On the other, not everyone has a strong internal clock mechanism that tells them to get up on-time, and without the alarm clock, we run late for work or miss appointments, and those situations have further consequences we’d probably prefer to avoid, such as being fired or considered unreliable.

If we continue through a typical day, one of the first things most of us do is check our phones for emails, social media updates, and maybe even read the news. Each of those three things could be a necessary evil in its own right, but it is far and away the cell phone itself that is the greater danger. Increasing numbers of studies show that our cell phone use is bad for us. The blue light from the screen can throw off sleep patterns, and staring down at the screen so much can have a permanent impact on the alignment of the spine, especially in the neck. Yet, cell phones do so much to help us keep in touch, do a quick search on the go, capture a moment when we wouldn’t otherwise have a camera, and even provide access to books, music, and games, eliminating many of the items we used to have to stock for a road trip or a jaunt to the DMV.

If we look beyond a typical day, necessary evils begin to get a little more daunting, even if they are less common. Spiders, for one. I understand that spiders eat many other bugs that might otherwise get into my house, but they are freaky little critters with too many legs and eyes and they get their webs everywhere. They’re just unpleasant in and of themselves, and they don’t even pay rent, nor do they, happily for them, pay taxes. I probably don’t even need to mention how taxes are a necessary evil—they take part of your paycheck away from you so that everyone can have roads and education and a criminal justice system. We might not like having to pay the government when we have worked so hard to earn that money, but without paying the taxes, even getting to work would become a challenge.

All of these necessary evils are outside elements that we interact with; however, necessary evils can also be more nebulous and even internal, such as the act of failing. Failure stings. It hurts deep and may even result in gut-churning nausea and lost sleep. The wound to our pride is not one that we want to accept. No one likes to fall on their own sword when it means admitting to messing up, but if we never experience this humbling of character, there are two direct consequences that can lead to even greater troubles down the road. One, we become more likely to let success go to our heads and we take things for granted too often. Two, we never get the chance to try again or, if that’s not possible, to improve upon the next experience based on the failings of the last.

I have failed many times, and it doesn’t get any easier, but I do see the value in the failure. It is what has helped me understand why necessary evils are, in fact, necessary. It also means that sometimes we, as bosses, technical communicators, or even just people, must be a necessary evil.

I don’t like to think of myself as evil despite how much I enjoy Disney villains. Although, my office is decorated in Maleficent as a constant threat to my employees that I might at any time turn into a bad-tempered, unreasonable, witch, deep down I really want to think that I’m influencing the world for the better. As a parent, I always wanted to be a friend to my children. Nevertheless, if one of them colored on the walls or threw silver spoons in the garbage or told her sister that bananas are made of moldy spider legs, I had to be the mother and dole out appropriate discipline. It was often gutting to be this force of “evil” in their lives, but they had to learn these lessons for their own development into functional and independent young women.

The same principle holds true in my job as a technical communicator. For many, technical writing is the necessary evil of the product development process. No one reads the documentation unless something has gone horribly wrong and the answer can’t be found anywhere else. It’s a last resort and can often be an indicator that something is wrong with the product itself—otherwise the user wouldn’t need it. However, consumers continue to expect that sufficient documentation accompanies the product. Companies are forced to invest money into developing, editing, and updating content, rather than spending that money on developing revenue-generating products. Most companies can’t effectively sell their documentation as its own product, which means the documentation department is often seen as a money pit that takes more than it returns.

Fortunately, leading companies in content development have helped turn this mindset, demonstrating that good documentation is highly valued by the consumer, with some surveys indicating that it contributes up to a third of the overall value of the product. It is frequently used in the pre-sale of a product, greatly influencing the purchase decision and, of course, good documentation can result in decreased support costs as users are able to find the answers they need on their own.

This balancing act of finding the good in what we do as technical communicators when the rest of the company sees us as a necessary evil is the subject of this year’s Best Practices conference. Speakers will explore strategies and tactics to build your department’s brand and reputation within your organization. Through interactive sessions and presentations from some of the best in the industry, you’ll learn to develop your story, create a documentation fan base, and not only justify your existence, but make the case for increased support. You’ll leave with a sales tool kit, equipped to increase your visibility and your reputation.

We hope to see you September 10 – 12, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. In the meantime, I leave you with my own adaptation of the Bad Guys’ Affirmation: “Tech writing is part of the product development life cycle, and that’s good. It will never be glamorous, but that’s not bad. There’s no other department that can do what we do.” CIDMIconNewsletter