TechWhirl (TECHWR-L) is a resource for technical writing and technical communications professionals of all experience levels and in all industries to share their experiences and acquire information.
For two decades, technical communicators have turned to TechWhirl to ask and answer questions about the always-changing world of technical communications, such as tools, skills, career paths, methodologies, and emerging industries. The TechWhirl Archives and magazine, created for, by and about technical writers, offer a wealth of knowledge to everyone with an interest in any aspect of technical communications.
It seems to me, however, that there are large scale blind trends in the
computer industry that seem to play out over and over as changes come
Main-frames were always user hostile in a lot of ways, and still are unless
you are really into some brand of JCL (Job Control Lang) or deep into
programming. But for "end-users" = unsophisticated users, say students at
a university, they are still user-hostile. One could make a case for the
fact that main-frames which have major number-crunching, packet-passing
functions stayed so user hostile (and expensive) that they spawned the PC
industry so lots of people could have computers at work -- and at home.
You could think of the attempt to make computers "end-user" friendly died
out in the main-frame industry or got buried in establishment concrete --
the "Jimmy Hoffa Treatment." The attempt somehow got abandoned.
So along came PCs. At first they were user-hostile but you could get at
them. And if the manuals were no help at least you could play with the
keyboard until something happened.
Now the PC manuals have gotten only slightly beyond the point of being
technical treatises aimed at specialists, for all the reasons we know:
information too late to writers, schedules too tight, management pursuing
whatever they pursue.
Hence the hostile, frustrated, irritated, critial audiences. The Wall
Street Journal had a recent article: "Befuddled PC Users Swamp Help Lines."
I think that manuals as we know them are on the way out. Management never
liked them in the first place (= didn't provide enough resources, support
for manuals to get it done right the first time). The users don't like
them or the Help Line wouldn't be swamped. So management is not going to
fix this -- just as management never made main-frames user friendly.
Manuals are going to be abandoned. They are going to be replaced by
On-Line Help with Hypertext and we can just ship it all on diskette with
the product. And talk about how much paper we save. And printing costs
we save. Or we may even continue to print the manuals, because the competition
does, but it's just a sop to end-users. It's throwaway money. The real
stuff is the On-Line Help which the competition also has.
The problems we have encountered in producing manuals are just going to shift
over to On-Line help. Microsoft has proved this in Winword. You get the
manual AND the On-Line Help and you still cannot find the answers you look for
at least not in the place where you look for them and not without a very
You can see the transition taking shape as developers struggle with hypertext
and agonize over how to make the manuals match the On-line Help. (They won't.
The media are different.) Look in on WINHLP-L for details.
So does mean Techwriters will be out of work? Probably not, but the work
is going to change, drastically in some areas. But maybe the manuals will
still be required -- after all ISO 9000 is slaying a lot of trees these days.
But what happens when the manuals finally (if ever?) go away? I'll put
some ideas out for discussion in my next post.