Jared Spool on tech writers’ demise

Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering was interviewed by Carolyn Snyder at one of the STC Summit conference sessions. Spool recently had some interesting things to say on his blog about technical writers including, “the art of writing manuals is going the way of blacksmiths and radio operators.”

While I agree our profession is changing, I don’t see paper manuals going away any time soon. Every time a new technology is unleashed, the demand for manuals increases. The term Ajax (for asynchronous javaScript and XML) was first publicly used in February 2005. A mere two years later, O’Reilly lists 158 books on the subject. Who is writing these?

O’Reilly is actually soliciting writers on their site.

We’re always looking for new authors and new book ideas. Our ideal author has real technical competence and a passion for explaining things clearly. We’re happy to work with first time authors, and encourage inquiries about virtually any topic. However, it helps if you know that we tend to publish “high end” books rather than books for dummies, and generally don’t want yet another book on a topic that’s already well covered.

At the same time as you might say that our books are written “by and for smart people,” they also have a down to earth quality. We like straight talk that goes right to the heart of what people need to know.

And that’s just one publisher of computer books. A search for paperback computer books on Barnes&Noble.com retrieved 72,929 items. (That’s compared to only about 56,000 books on dieting.) Hardly a dying art.

What about hardware? Imagine selling a computer, router, printer, scanner, MP3 player, or cell phone without a printed manual or at least a quick reference. Not to mention swingsets, workout equipment, bird feeders, garage door openers, track lighting systems, Ikea furniture, bike racks for cars, garbage disposals, gas grills, and thousands of other consumer goods with “some assembly required.”

So why is Jared Spool, who is otherwise a pretty clever and with-it guy, making these statements?

I think that when you look at the most progressive software development teams today, it is probably true that the technical writer has been jettisoned, is hanging on with his or her claws, or has morphed into a user experience professional or information architect. The entire team would scoff at the idea of writing a manual because they are focused on making a product than won’t need a manual or even online help.

User experience work, information architecture and information design are growing professions that many of today’s technical communicators can easily transition into. But I think a “manual-less existence” is a long way off.

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3 Responses to Jared Spool on tech writers’ demise

  1. [...] via Holly Harness’s “Don’t Call Me Tina target=”_blank”” blog, which also has some interesting counterpoints to Jared’s [...]

  2. [...] and articles lately about “where has technical writing gone” (including a nice reaction countering the manual-less existence Jared Spool perceives) and “woe is technical writing.” Okay, I made the last one [...]

  3. [...] we set up our new appliances and began to learn how to use them, I was reminded of my earlier defense of the manual and the ongoing need for good user documentation for mechanical things. I figured I’d better [...]

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