On the value of technical communication (long)

Subject: On the value of technical communication (long)
From: Steven Jong <SteveFJong -at- comcast -dot- net>
To: TECHWR-L Digest <TECHWR-L -at- LISTS -dot- TECHWR-L -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 26 Dec 2008 20:15:18 -0500

Happy holidays! Earlier this year I asked for anecdotes on the value
of technical communication. Thanks to those of you who responded! I
said I'd summarize for the list.

Technical communicators bring value to an organization. The proof is
in our paychecks--we get hired. However, not everyone hires us, so not
everyone recognizes, or can realize, our value. It behooves us to
establish and market our value. So, what is it?

Our value comes in two varieties: what we bring to the table, and what
an organization risks by NOT employing us. Both are worth exploring.


The value of having us around is manifest in several areas. One is
that accurate and clear documentation reduces customer-support costs,
by amounts up to about 50%. This is an established fact, documented by
STC-sponsored studies in the early 1990s. If an organization treats
support as a cost, it should have technical communicators on staff to
reduce that cost.

Since support-cost reduction was established, other areas have emerged
where we also add value: legal/regulatory compliance, warranty-cost
reduction, and translation costs.

Foods, drugs, cosmetics, biologics, radiation-emitting electronic
products, and medical devices are regulated by the US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) under Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations
(CFR). Documentation (including posters, tags, pamphlets, circulars,
booklets, brochures, instruction books, direction sheets, fillers,
etc.) are controlled by the regulations; thus, documentation is a
legal requirement for these product areas. Similarly, electrical
medical device documentation is subject to compliance with IEC 60101-1
in the US, the EU, Japan, and elsewhere.

Hardware products are legally required to include safety warnings;
docs must use international symbols as specified by IEEE. Each book's
preface must explain the difference between Cautions (damage to HW,
SW, or networks) and Warnings (may cause injury or death to people).
A draft of the Installation Guide (or Quick Install Guide) for each
hardware product -- with the explicit model number of the product --
is needed by the company's Regulatory Requirements team early in the
Underwriters Laboratory (UL) certification. This draft doc "proves"
that the product comes with Installation instructions. Certification
must be obtained before the product can be sold in the requiring

Warranty cost is the cost of repairing and replacing defective
products. This is a bottom-line cost, and obviously anything that
reduces warranty costs increases the bottom line. Recent studies of
consumer electronics shows that the majority of all returned products
work properly; the consumer didn't know how to use them. Better
documentation will directly lower these warranty costs (and increase
customer satisfaction.)

As companies sell in multiple markets, translation costs have
increased. Many companies try to cheap out by marketing products in
other countries without translated documentation, but note the legal
requirements mentioned above. There is a well-known methodology to
creating technical documentation that is easier (that is, cheaper) to


Again, anecdotal evidence exists for these statements, but they have
not been authoritatively confirmed.

Increasingly, there are legal liabilities for incorrect technical
documentation. Documentation has been found to constitute a legally
binding contract describing the function of a product; incorrect
documentation can have legal implications. Numerous changes to the law
in the US, the EU, and elsewhere have only increased the
responsibility of companies to adequately and accurately document not
only its products but also its procedures. Failure to comply carries
legal implications and penalties that can affect a company's bottom
line and even result in jail for its officers.

There are many anecdotes about how badly written procedures can cause
expensive errors. My favorite was the maintenance procedure for an
F-22 that left off the last step, resulting in a locking pin being
sucked into the engine, destroying it.

-- Steve

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