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Career Technical Writing

Software technical writing is a dying career (but here’s what writers can do to stay in the software game)

By Jim Grey (about)

I had lunch recently with a fellow I worked for several years ago. He gave me my last job as a technical writer and my first job as a software tester. He’s currently leading product development at a different software company. “Times have changed,” he said. “I don’t have any technical writers anymore. These days, I want the UX to be good enough that documentation isn’t needed.”

A few days later I had a drink with another former boss. I managed testers and technical writers while I worked for him. Since then, he’s started his own consulting company. “Technical writing is dying off,” he said. “It’s all about clean, engaging UX now. I have talked to more than a hundred startup and small software companies as I’ve built my business. Almost none of them have technical writers, and almost all of them have UX designers.”

Wild
Smart tech writers see the writing on the wall.

It’s clear: companies are leaning into good user-interface design and stepping away from online Help systems and printed/PDF documentation.

It’s a relief. Nobody wants to have to read something to learn how to use a software product. When usage falls right to hand, users are happier and more likely to use the product more. Good UX really can reduce the documentation burden.

My last company had mighty good UI design. One technical writer worked for me, and she kept up with about ten developers. In past companies with lesser UIs, I needed one writer for every four or five developers. It took more words to explain those products’ cumbersome usage.

Admittedly, the latent technical writer in me wants to holler, “Users need instructions for even the best designed products!” Some interactions are incredibly hard to design well enough to forego usage instructions. And users will always need usage reminders for seldom-executed tasks.

But the writing is on the wall. If you’re not finding fewer technical writing job openings yet, you will soon. Fortunately, your skills transfer to other jobs in software development organizations. You will need to build some new skills for many of these jobs, but you might be able to land that first new job without them and build them as you work.

Tester or quality assurance engineer

Testers explore software systems looking for bugs. In some shops, they write and execute detailed test cases; in others, they explore based on high-level test charters. The goal is to report, usually by writing bug reports, on the level of quality the developers have delivered so that decisions can be made about when to ship.

Technical writers routinely find product bugs. At my last company, my lone writer routinely found really important bugs. The VP of Engineering even noticed: “She finds outstanding bugs,” he said. “It must be because she thinks like a user.”

When I shifted into testing 15 years ago, I designed my tests in much the same way I designed online help: by first asking what tasks users would perform in the system. Then I set about making sure those tasks worked. You can do this too. You’ll have plenty more to learn about testing, but this is a great place to start.

Existing skills you will use: Creating and articulating mental models of software systems. Exploring software to discover how it works. A basic understanding of how software is built and delivered. Writing.

But build these skills: Database skills, especially writing queries. Light coding or scripting, to help you automate tests. System administration, to help you better understand and manipulate the environments the software lives in. (Don’t be daunted. I’ve seen many writers surprise themselves when they quickly start to learn these things. It’s as if they soaked up technical abilities by osmosis, just by being around lots of people who have them.)

Product owner, product manager, or business analyst

All of these jobs involve understanding customer needs and translating them into user stories, specifications, or requirements that the developers and testers use to build software. They may involve building a vision for what a product needs to be to meet its market’s needs. These people usually work closely with developers and testers to make sure the vision is realized, and to resolve implementation challenges.

Existing skills you will use: Understanding of customer needs. Creating and articulating mental models of software systems (though, in this case, often systems that have not been built yet). Writing. A basic understanding of how software is built and delivered.

But build these skills: Negotiation, as you might need to manage expectations of customers, the development team, and sometimes even management. Estimation and project management, as you might have to participate in sizing work and projecting delivery dates.

Various UX roles

The UX field includes a number of jobs that, together, create the way the software works and feels for the user. Typical titles include UX Designer, Information Architect, Visual Designer, Interaction Designer, and Content Specialist. These roles involve work such as creating wireframes of screens, designing user workflows, performing usability testing of prototypes, interviewing users and sometimes even shadowing them as they work, writing field labels and error messages, and choosing typography.

This might seem like a real stretch for a technical writer. But my experience is that writers often have innate insight into bad UX: if it’s hard to write about, then it’s hard to use. I find that technical writers can often extemporaneously evaluate product usability and give very useful ideas on how to improve UX.

Existing skills you will use: Interviewing. Understanding of customer needs. Creating and articulating mental models of software systems. Writing.

But build these skills: This depends heavily on the role, but: Design, in general. Graphic design. Usability testing. Prototyping.

These jobs crackle with career growth. But if you’d rather stay true to writing, you can shift into marketing communications, instructional design, or even good old-fashioned business writing (policies and procedures, disaster recovery plans, and the like). My town’s biggest employer is a pharmaceutical manufacturer; lots of software writers here have shifted into validation writing, which is an FDA compliance activity. You might even be able to move into writing technology articles and books; I’ve done a little of that. And some software technical writing jobs will likely always remain in regulated industries, and on government contracts, and for highly technical products.

Nostalgia for my former technical-writing career makes this a sad passage for me. But I think this trend toward effective UX is better for the user, and gives writers good paths for growth.

Categories
The Business of Software

Much ado about Flickr

By Jim Grey (about)

I was shocked when I logged into Flickr last week and found an entirely new interface.

I'm staying right here at Flickr
My Flickr homepage.

My shock turned to disappointment and sadness that some of my contacts were super angry about the change, left strongly worded comments on their photostreams, and immediately moved their photos to other services.

make software products for a living; I’ve seen firsthand how interface changes can alienate users. They become comfortable with a product’s features and usage, even when they’re flawed. They don’t want to learn anything new (which often masks a fear that they can’t learn something new).

At the same time, Flickr (and Facebook and any other thing you do on the Web) is a product, built by a company that is trying to make money in an ever-changing landscape.

I’ve seen it often, and it’s happened at companies where I’ve worked: A company builds a good product that takes off. Success causes the company to grow or to be sold to a larger company. And then some scrappy startup company builds a product in an overlapping market that becomes a new darling. By then, the big company is so invested in what it’s always done that it struggles to adapt to the shifting market.

From where I sit, it looks like all of this happened to Flickr. Founded in 2004, Flickr quickly became arguably the king of the hill among photo-sharing sites. Web giant Yahoo! quickly noticed and, in 2006, bought the fledgling company. Success!

But consider all that’s happened in photography and on the Web since 2006. Most people had just discarded their film cameras for digital cameras. Soon cameras in phones became good enough for casual, everyday use; many of them are now very good. Users found it easy to share their photos across any number of the social networks that had emerged – primarily Facebook, which was founded in 2004, too, but also on upstart Instagram. Today, the three cameras that take the most photos uploaded to Flickr are all iPhones.

The market has shifted. It was a matter of time before Flickr either responded or became a niche product of ever decreasing importance. This new interface is its bid to stay relevant. I’m impressed with Yahoo! for moving Flickr so boldly.

I think that if people give the new interface a chance, it will work for most of them. I’ve heard complaints about slowness; I advise patience as Yahoo! would be foolish not to address legitimate performance problems. I’ve heard complaints about how crowded the interface feels; I’m also sure Yahoo! will tweak the new interface over time for better usability.

Another source of uproar is that advertising now adorns Flickr pages. I hate Web ads too, but really, they are the major way many Web products make money.

I sympathize a little with one complaint: all of us who bought Flickr Pro accounts for unlimited photo uploads now feel kind of let down, given that everybody gets a terabyte of storage now. That much storage might as well be unlimited; you could upload one photo a day for the rest of your life and never run out of space. But Flickr is letting us cancel our Pro accounts with a pro-rated refund, or keep Pro at its rate of $25 per year and never see an ad. Anybody who doesn’t have Pro already will have to pay $50 per year for that same privilege. I think this is a reasonable trade.

Flickr’s real mistake might be in underestimating how attached its users were to the old interface. But if my experience is any indication, perhaps that mistake won’t be fatal. Of my contacts, about five percent of them have moved to other services. I’ll miss seeing their photos. I wonder if they’ll soon miss the rest of the Flickr community.

Cross-posted from my personal blog, Down the Road.