by Mark Ace
To paraphrase Jakob Nielsen, a leading consultant in user interface design: Usability on the Web is not a luxury, it's a necessity. It takes a diverse team to produce an effective Web experience: engineers, designers, writers, as well as leaders who can keep the team focused on meeting the site's business objectives. In addition, there is increasing recognition of the value of getting the user experience right the first time.
The Web is about information and user experience. Successful websites have several characteristics: readability, relevant content, easy access to information, and intuitive navigation. Professional technical writers have the skills and experience to make strong contributions in all of those categories.
As important as content is to the Web, it is surprising how easily it can be neglected. In the rush to get code working, the actual words on the screen may seem less urgent. One paradox of writing is that most people think it's easy to do. In reality, writing for a Web audience requires special attention to a number of communication techniques that have a large impact on usability.
Good writing is a cornerstone of highly usable sites. Brevity is the goal, yet how often are you required to read through screens of information to find what you are looking for? The best-written text is unambiguous and closely tuned to the audience's need.
In addition, well-written websites maximize the potential of hyperlinking. Making logical and meaningful hyperlinks between related portions of the site is an area for which writers are well prepared.
Many start-up companies or prototype Web development efforts cannot afford the expense of UI or usability consultants. That's another area where the writers come in. For a competent and cost-effective input into UI and usability issues, technical writers have experience that contributes to successful website implementations. Writers who have worked side by side with software engineers are especially well tuned to the fast pace and unique requirements of communicating via software interfaces.
Most software development environments already have access to seasoned writers. Technical writers make valuable contributions to Web development projects in more ways than just writing good copy. For example:
Usability. Technical writers constantly think about their audience. They naturally examine the user interface with their audience in mind. They ask questions on behalf of the target audience: What information is most sought after? How can I find it quickly and easily? Writers with software development experience readily challenge assumptions and push for more meaningful user interfaces.
Information Design One of the original challenges in Web design is deciding how to categorize, prioritize, and organize the massive amounts of information the Web can present. Whether on paper, in Windows-based help, or on the Web, information must be chunked into easily navigable structures. Organizing information, also known as "making order from chaos," is central to a technical writer's job. In fact, most senior writers in technical environments have found their role has evolved from writer to the much more multidisciplinary "Information Architect."
Titles and keywording. It is well known that effective use of metatags, keywords, and descriptions are crucial to effective placement in search engines and Web directories. Yet, often this critical task is left to people with no training in writing. Building an effective keyword list is similar to building an effective index. Writers, who are trained to think like the reader, will craft a set of synonyms and related terms that may not be obvious to the application developers. In addition, technical writers will use those terms throughout the website, which increases search engine-generated hits.
Labels and navigation.This is where the technical writer yields immediate, tangible benefits. Multiple engineers collaborating on a single Web application may not be consistent in their naming and placement of their labels, buttons, and links. A competent writer will scrub that interface, promote consistency across various functions, and suggest concise, efficient labels. More skilled writers can go further, and recommend and implement an integrated online or embedded help approach.
Even in this age of knowledge bases with powerful underlying database engines and intelligent search capabilities, the role of the technical writer is essential.
There are numerous UI design and usability sites on the Web. One of the best is Jakob Nielsen's Use It site at http://www.useit.com. The Society for Technical Communication (STC), the international organization to which many technical writers belong, has also published research on Web usability in its journal Technical Communication at http://www.techcomm-online.org/.
Mark Ace is the owner of Ace Communications, Inc.,
a company devoted to staffing, training, and technical communication project services. The company provides on-site and off-site temporary contractors, employee
search services, and contract-to-hire placements of technical communicators
primarily to high-technology companies. In addition, the Ace Communications,
Inc. staff includes skilled writers, editors, Web developers, and other
professionals who provide outsourced services to clients nationally. Formed in
1992 in Portland, Oregon, Ace Communications is Portland's largest agency
dedicated to technical communications.
Revised: January 2001
STC Home Page Newsletter Contents