Documentation - Competitive Edge or Necessary Evil?

An ironic, personal status report on technical communicators in Norway

Kanskje fortsatt på

I used this same title for a one day conference in Oslo in 1996. The evaluation forms praised the conference (among the speakers: a member of parliament and a Xerox research manager), but complained that the title question was never even discussed. So what!? It lured 90 people into attending. And part of a TC's challenge is to sell something - like poor functionality and user-hostile GUI.

This conference was the first event arranged by the User Documentation Forum (FOBDOK) in Norway. We wanted to try to breathe some social life into this profession, since the Norwegian branch of Intecom (of which we were hardly aware), had been slumbering for some time. Apart from FOBDOK, Tove's work on the Intecom board, Nils Petter's illustrations in this publication, and their respective agencies ComText and KlarTekst, there's not a lot going on in terms of an organized TC community in Norway. Just across the border, however, the Swedish FTI society is thriving.

Introvert Vikings

Why such a difference? Given the number of Norwegian software and other high-tech companies, there should be quite a few technical writers in Norway. Why don't they cooperate and join a (professional) community?

There are probably a number of reasons. The most tempting one to elaborate on is the Norwegian isolationist character. Nicknamed "the Different Country" by some of us natives, Norway has rejected membership in the European Union twice, if only by a tiny margin.

And we have a long tradition of being isolationist, even when we're abroad. When the Vikings travelled the high seas from Canada to the Holy Land, (500 years before the American Indians discovered Columbus,) we usually stuck to ourselves. For instance, while Danish Vikings settled in villages in Great Britain, the Norwegians settlers usually built their own farm, at a distance from the next farm.

Undocumented Perfection

Yet they were as technically proficient 1,000 years ago as they are today. The Viking ships constituted a climax of shipbuilding, based on oral technical documentation! This oral craftsman tradition has continued until our time. And in 1997, Norwegian newspapers carried a story claiming that a European Union directive made it illegal to build vessels without technical documentation and drawings. A typical anti-EU story. I found it very interesting, and eventually got hold of the directive - that is, the legal documentation. I only had to read Chapter 1, Article 1 to learn that the directive did in fact not apply to traditional boats and replicas. But, as usual, no one had bothered to read the documentation! And the less facts you know, the stronger your opinion.

This attitude - and the inconsistency - was demonstrated in an open discussion in the first Yggdrasil TC/GUI design conference in Norway last year. Some speakers concluded that

* technical documentation is usually poorly written, and
* no one reads technical documentation.

It's a bit like the old joke:

"The food here is terrible!"

"Yes, and the helpings are so small!"

Oral Documentation in the Iron(ic) Age

My experience as an archaeologist has made me impressed with oral technical documentation and the innovative skills of our ancestors. For instance the production of the original hardware: iron.

More than one thousand years ago, someone made the not-too-intuitive discovery of how to produce iron:

With a bit of luck, you'll eventually be left with a chunk of iron, to be used for swords, axes, plows and what not.

They didn't need technical documentation; the complex procedure was taught by father to son, and probably from one country to the next. The excavations of the Viking settlement on Newfoundland have proven that they produced iron there in this manner. But they seem to have said "Been there, done that", and left. Had the Norwegian Vikings taught the native Americans how to produce iron, the world may have looked a little different today.

Which brings us back to technical communicators in Norway, and the lack of a community. Since no universities or colleges teach technical writing as such (they do in Sweden), the technical communicators have quite different backgrounds, don't know too many other TC's, and their work is often underrated in their company. Many are professional translators of technical material (a three-year education), whose motivation for technical writing may be to write better than the stuff they initially had to translate. Although there must be quite a few TCs around, it seems that the lack of a professional community leads to a "Been there, done that" attitude in the profession. They concentrate on the T or the C, and move on to "real" jobs like product developers, project leaders, marketing people, or housewives.

The final irony is that the initial User Documentation Forum board - expect myself, being the last to jump ship - resigned this summer, since none of us work with user documentation any longer.

Learning through laughing - a challenge to you all

In our business, we've seen quite a lot of bad documentation and software through the years. But we usually try to ignore (or improve) it. I'll be making an edutaining presentation at the Yggdrasil conference in March, called "Learning from other people's mistakes".

If you happen to have samples of ...ahem... unfortunate documentation or software design lying about, could you please send me a mail? I'll be collecting my own share, too. If I end up with a sufficient number, I'll post the collection (with educational comments) on a web site, or make hard copies and send them to the contributors. No names will be mentioned - unless you specifically ask me to.

Thanks in advance!