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Pith and Vinegar: What Do You Do for a Living?
2006, Q3 (February 19, 2007)
By Michael Harvey, Carolina Chapter Past President

Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey

We need to revise our job descriptions. Rather than authoring printed manuals and on-line help panels, we should be involved in or leading projects that make them unnecessary. Why? Because consumers increasingly demand intuitive interfaces to the products they use. Users and administrators of more complex products expect interfaces that guide them through decisions rather than require them to read details. We must stay ahead of this trend, rather than allow ourselves to be flattened by it.

Examples of intuitive interfaces to technology abound on the Internet. Who isn't familiar with Amazon.com? The site will create your store and update the information it displays based on your previous searches and purchases. After you buy something, Amazon easily lets you track your purchase as it makes its way to you. You don't need documentation to use the site effectively.

But Amazon.com hires technical writers. I found this job description on their careers site:
Amazon.com is looking for an exceptional technical writer to join our Voices team, a group dedicated to drive platform improvements based on community feedback and involvement. We help to ensure that the experience of Amazon's partners is smooth and problem-free. As a technical writer on this team, you will lead initiatives to develop documentation and training that (users) will depend on to help them quickly and efficiently launch and manage their stores on Amazon's website. You will also design and write documentation (for those who) interact with our clients on a daily basis, to help them through all phases of the client lifecycle: from sales, through the development and data integration process, and on into operational maintenance of the Web site solutions we provide them.

Look at the emphasis here: "drive platform improvements," "ensure the experience is smooth and problem free," "lead initiatives," "(help users) quickly and efficiently launch and manage their stores." Not your traditional job description, is it?

And here's a qualification for that same job that you don't see every day.
You should have a demonstrated affinity for technology and software and a genuine desire to consolidate and streamline workflow.

I thought only managers desired to consolidate and streamline workflow. It shows you how things are changing.

Now consider www.pandora.com. Created by the Music Genome Project, Pandora asks you questions and customizes an Internet radio station based on your responses. When I started out, Pandora asked me the name of a group or a song. I responded "The Beatles." So it played a tune from the first Beatles LP, "Please Please Me." I gave that song a "thumbs up." Pandora next played something by the Who. I gave that song a "thumbs up." The next song played got a "thumbs down," and so on. The site also gave me an opportunity to tune my preferences — naming another group or another song I liked.

The engineers at Pandora analyzed hundreds of thousands of songs and tagged them with attributes, which they then stored in a database. For example, that Who song I liked, "Glittering Girl," has these attributes:
  • basic rock song structures
  • a subtle use of vocal harmony
  • mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation
  • major key tonality
  • a dynamic male vocalist
  • romantic lyrics

When I responded to a song, Pandora referred to its database and offered me a choice with similar attributes, refining the mix each time. The site, as the New York Times puts it, provides a stream of music with similar DNA, micro-tailored to each user's tastes. I needed no documentation to use Pandora — I simply interacted with the site and got results. Can you see how similar technology and analysis could yield a site providing a stream of relevant information micro-tailored to your needs as you use a software application or attempt to install a client or a server?

I certainly can. Last year my company rolled out something similar to, but not as sophisticated as Pandora — the first phase of "user personalized documents." Now EMC users can visit a company website, choose among several system characteristics, and receive a customized document based on those choices. Customized documents comprise XML chunks stored in a database and rendered into PDF format.

Writers at my company were involved with chunking material and writing the rules combining chunks. Still, as I've suggested, the trend is toward having a user rely on documents like these only when stuck or when attempting to do something complex or extraordinary. Otherwise, why bother? The interface should step me through the process.

I'm not suggesting that the need for printed documents and help panels will vanish. I do foresee these products becoming a commodity, and their production being shipped to lower cost workers. We'll continue to write, but our value will be in designing interactive scripts or shaping the repositories of information tapped when using sites like Amazon, Pandora, or my company's UPD. We'll be doing more developing content re-use and single-sourcing strategies and less employing various authoring and desktop publishing tools to produce printed or electronic publications and integrated online help systems. And that's fine with me — learning and doing new things should be second nature to anyone whose career is in technology.

"The New Tastemakers," by Jeff Leeds. The New York Times, September 3, 2006

Michael can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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