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Key Content: The Wonder of Words
2005, Q2 (October 24, 2008)
By Bill Albing, Past President Carolina Chapter

Bill Albing
Bill Albing


Words Solve Pictorial Ambiguity

Pictures are not the solution for all types of technical communication. Even though they are sometimes more universal than words and can represent a lot of information for quick comprehension, pictures can also be ambiguous and hide details required for technical work.

If the layout of an interface or the assembly of a piece of equipment can best be shown in a picture or diagram, then the technical communicator should choose this as the solution. But if the amount of information necessary requires a list of specifications or an unambiguous description of several aspects of a particular parameter, words are the proper tool and units larger than words are probably necessary.

We all have heard that the nature of technical communication is changing. We know with new forms of media and more ways of interacting with that media, there is seemingly no limit to the ability to communicate. And we know that our audience is global, with users speaking any of a myriad of languages. With networked technology, wherever you are in the enterprise, you can instantly communicate with anyone else about critical business information. But while the cell phone vendor commercials would have us believe that all our problems are over, and while Bill Horton and other consultants would have us believe that we can do away with text-based documentation completely, let us remind ourselves of some of the crucial aspects of technical communication that are being ignored in these oversimplifications. For me the real issue is the loss of technical detail in the name of simplifying the interface and the documentation.

One of the key tenets of our profession is that we help enterprises communicate technical information. This may include simple how-to instructions, which may be replaced with a line-art representation of personnel performing the procedure. And this may include end-user documentation, which may be replaced with real-time conversation with virtual support personnel. But these are small parts.

There is also the really difficult information that requires detail at a level that can, for now, only be represented in words (and sometimes numbers). The users may be parties that need to find agreement and can only find agreement when those details are spelled out. There are activities such as negotiating contracts, reporting detailed test results, and articulating technical specifications —all of which require the level of detail that is best handled with words and often with more than a few words. Technical communicators must not shy away from using words where words are critical.


When I say that words are better than pictures in some situations, I'm not suggesting that the single word is the best unit of communication. Consider the trend today toward making text searchable. No longer is organization of the information, or navigation aids, or indexing needed, they say, because we can simply put a search engine on the information and you can type in a word or phrase to locate the information.

This highlights another limitation of pictures—their ability to be found as we move more information to the searchable Web. It would be difficult for users to find figures using a standard search engine, because the search is text based. Unless a word or phrase is associated with the figure as alternate text or put explicitly in an index, there may be no way for users to browse to that figure.

On the other hand, because the search engine itself can be limiting, I oppose all documentation becoming one big ocean of words. These modules of information are endangered of being boiled down into too discrete units. This reminds me that I have never liked the title of "wordsmith".

As technical communicators, we are not just word-smiths. Rather we are "ideasmiths", in the sense that an idea is the basic unit of communication, not "word". In order to be agreed upon by more than one person, an idea should be articulated and find expression in some medium, whether word or picture or both. We are developers of communication, and there is no clear atomized unit for communication, though people say "word" is the unit. We can only hope they are not being too literal.

Finally, let us also remember that the medium may have as much impact as the words we choose—how interactive we make the interface may determine how much material the users read and how well they absorb the ideas. Online discussion forums are great for conversations, but are not good for keeping information in a formalized way. Blogs are fun and quick to make but will they last and are they maintainable? Are these new ways of communicating on the Web an efficient way to access answers for large amounts of structured information? Wikis are great for public collaboration but will they work for corporate owned intellectual property?

All these are ways of using the Web to communicate and they all involve words. As easy as it is to post pictures on the Web, the majority of information on the Web is still conveyed in words.

We are far from reaching a limit of what we can do with words.

The Answer Is

There is much left to be done with words. I think the trend toward more graphical interfaces will continue, but so will the complexity of the technology we develop. So there will always be a need for communication experts to figure out the best wording for the details involved in that technology. Finding the best way to articulate ideas and communicate information for making decisions will continue to be our bread and butter. We will see who has the last word.

Bill Albing is a past president of STC Carolina. He can be reached at bill dot albing at keycontent dot org. End of article.

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