Technical Writing, Documentation, and Training

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According to Wikipedia, a subject matter expert (SME) is a person “who is an authority in a particular area or topic.” When a company engages a technical writer, in addition to working with the actual product he or she is documenting, the writer must rely on the SME as the source of all knowledge, the one person who can explain how the system works and, perhaps more importantly, why it works that way.

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Recently, a prospect called us about a training guide he needed written for a new enterprise application his company had recently purchased and was trying to implement. Unfortunately, he had already paid the company that developed the application to create training materials but found, once he had a chance to review the materials, that they were not only impenetrable and useless from a user’s point of view but mostly incorrect as well. A complete waste of money. Alas.

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Do a little research and the prevailing opinion expressed by those who write and those who want documentation is that it’s not done because (as I’ve written in a prior blog  — see http://www.shoap.com/why-bother-writing-technical-documentation/):

• It costs money.
• No one wants to do it.
• No one uses it.
While those facts remain true, the more important issue – what kind of documentation do companies actually need? – rarely gets addressed. Perhaps it’s time to talk about that issue.

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From touch screens of various sizes, to Microsoft Kinect™, Google Glass, Fitbit, and Square, we’re seeing a panoply of new devices that broaden both what technology can do and how we interact with it. This explosion of new interaction technologies has even created a bit of a hiring frenzy for interaction, user experience designers, and human computer interaction specialists whose job it is to design how exactly we are going to get all these new toys to do what they are supposed to. Dreaming up fantastic new ways to interact with all this fancy technology is one thing, but how do those dreams become applications, and how do people know how to use them once they get them?

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For additional information regarding Waterfall/Agile development and how it impacts technical writing, please refer to previous blog posts written by Eric Sedor and Shaun Kelly.

Moving a product out the door to capitalize on market demand is a necessity – it’s simple economics! Consumers demand constant product improvements. This “out with the old, in with the new” mentality has led many successful companies to switch from Waterfall development  to Agile. What does this mean exactly? For the uninitiated, use this simple analogy. Waterfall development can be compared to a marathon. All software features are built in one long process and then errors are fixed. Agile development is more like a series of sprints. Software is released in a series of small iterations. Each release includes a few added features, and errors are corrected along the way rather than at the end. As you can imagine, the switch to Agile development completely shatters the status quo and roles of people associated with the development teams. This led us to wonder: Specifically, how does the switch to Agile impact the role of technical writers?

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When clients tell me that they can write their own user manuals because, after all, they say, they already know how to write, I’m reminded of a quip from an old friend, frustrated by his software developers’ inability to complete a payment application on time: “Why does it take so long? It’s just typing.” Sadly, I sometimes think, people think the same about technical writing: It’s just typing. Which got me thinking: What does a good technical writer have to know to be a good, dare I say, great technical writer?

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These days, business speak surrounds us. It doesn’t discriminate against company size or position status. College interns and CEOs alike find themselves dropping buzz words in conversation. But to what end? When is enough, enough? The next time you want to move forward, deliver, or buy-in by all means go for it. But don’t expect people to know what you’re talking about. The more time your employees spend guessing the meaning behind your jargon, the less productive they are. Ben Franklin sums it up best:  “Time is money.”

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In an earlier article (http://www.shoap.com/rfp-responses-go-technical), we discussed the importance of responding to RFPs with correct, easy to read and understand responses. Several of our readers wondered if there were any tools that could help them address the arduous task of responding to RFPs. This article is for them.

Unquestionably, there are more onerous tasks than responding to a big, fat request for proposal (RFP). Unfortunately, I just can’t think of anything. People who have to do this for a living spend countless (and thankless) hours, ensuring the response is correct and flawless. These responses can go for hundreds of pages, require inputs from various and sundry departments within the organization, and are under tremendous time constraints. It’s stressful just thinking about it. Many companies, however, are facing this nightmare head-on by investing in software that automates the process. Leave the copy/paste method behind.

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After an eighteen year career in technology, I have one thing in common with many of my colleagues: we have children. Eating lunch or grabbing a coffee I am frequently asked “What should my child do to get a job in technology” and “What did you major in?” and “I heard about a computer camp where kids make games. Is this a good idea?”
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eBooks

At some point, you’ve probably developed documentation to attract clients, educate customers, or provide instruction on the products or services you offer. Considering the effort put into creating the material, as well as the pool of expertise behind it, you might think about re-working some of your content to produce a general release eBook.
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