The most popular answer when you ask a technical writer what they do is that they “simplify complexity.” Technical writers find out user goals and create clear guidance about how users can achieve the goals in complex systems (supporting multiple activities, choices, functions, and information). The ability to simplify information in complex structures is the technical writer’s most valuable asset.
However, despite all of the discussion about simplifying complexity, there isn’t much information available about how to do it. How do you make complicated processes and definitions easy to understand? How do you assist users in achieving their objectives in the face of complex, confusing applications and code? It’s a good start to explain concepts in plain language and to use task-based measures, but it’s not the whole picture. Technical writers should focus on what users find difficult and use all of the resources at their disposal to increase the convenience factor in ways that bring real value to organizations.
The thought that a technical writer’s central value is to assist users in making sense of complex structures fascinates me. We should focus our efforts on the user’s biggest issue because that’s where we can provide the most value and also where the room is most interesting. We don’t add value by recording plain, obvious instructions or by providing instructions for well-designed and intuitive interfaces and workflows. We add value by defining what users struggle with the most, their point of greatest difficulty and frustration, and then focusing our efforts on that whirlpool.
In the world of developer and API documentation, the job of simplifying complexity is much more challenging. Developers have a broader range of technological skills and knowledge than most technical authors. Despite this, technical writers can still help developers by simplifying knowledge in ways that are critical to their success.
I always believe that by learning the proper strategies and methods, we will be able to do a better job. In our positions, we will add more value. We will go beyond simply being seen as editors, authors, or publishers if we simplify ambiguity in deep ways. In information spaces, we become knowledge developers and usability experts.