You may have seen the video this week of CNN reporter Ivan Watson covering UN aid workers distributing food in Haiti. Some people in the crowd started shouting that the biscuits were no good because the packaging had a 2008 date on it. Turns out, 2008 was when the biscuits were manufactured. The expiration date was November 2010.
When your users are starving people in desperate need of food, and they’re afraid to eat the food because they’re confusing the manufacturing date with the expiration date, you’ve got a serious usability problem. The packaging is customer-facing information—it should contain only information that customers need.
This is one of the most important ways that technical communicators can contribute to the documentation process. Subject matter experts (SMEs) are often too close to the material to recognize what’s critical information for the customer and what’s extraneous. If you’re documenting a task, and the procedure contains information that seems unrelated, question it. Maybe you’ll learn why the material is pertinent (which will make you a more valuable member of the team, due to your increased knowledge) or maybe the SMEs will realize that the material can be cut (which will make you a more valuable member of the team, because you’ve helped streamline the documentation).
One of the roles of a technical communicator is that of user advocate. Lean documentation is good for the customer and good for the company. Yes, some SMEs may have trouble letting go of material they’ve put time into developing. Others may fall back on the standby argument, “But we’ve always done it this way!” The technical communicator’s job is to gently explain why the old way of doing things served its purpose at the time, but now, we have other considerations (like costly translation) that force us to include only material that our customers need at the moment they’re performing the task.
Providing the right information at the right time is especially important when writing for customers in a potentially high-risk situation. We can’t expect people under stress to read carefully. We must strip down the message to its essentials. What do customers need to know to avert disaster? In a critical moment, that’s the only information they want. Everything else is noise.