What is Technical Communication?

Tina M. Kister

April 24, 2017

When most people think of technical communication, they think of technical documents such as software user manuals or operating guides for appliances. However, technical communication is everywhere, and is increasingly important as consumers look for content that is meaningful and useful, rather than purely promotional.

(One indication of this trend is the use of ad-blocking software, which, according to some sources, has increased 41% in the past year, and is one driving factor in content marketing, or using substantive content to reach customers.)

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) defines technical communication as:

…a broad field and includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

This definition, however is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, this definition means that, essentially, all communication is technical communication – in today’s world, nearly all communication involves “using technology.” Poetry, for example, can be communicated “using technology.” However, poetry is not technical communication. 

Second, this definition is too long. A persistent issue in the field of technical communication is (ironically) our inability to communicate succinctly and persuasively about what technical communication is and the value it provides. We need to borrow and learn from fields that do this well, such as marketing and advertising, and start to present technical communication in new ways that are appealing and more accessible. To do that, we need to be able to succinctly and accurately define what technical communication is.

Finally, it uses the term "specialized topics" without defining what those are. While it includes the examples "computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations," it does not explicitly define what specialized topics are. In addition, communication about “technical or specialized topics” can be persuasive and even fictional; one of my favorite genres is historical fiction, particularly regarding the rule of King Henry XII and his daughter, Elizabeth – this is a “specialized topic,” but the fictional accounts that I prefer are not necessarily technical communication.

I’d suggest a definition more along the lines of:

Technical communication is a style of communication in which the highest priority is providing the reader/user with accurate, relevant information that is easy to find and easy to use.

Technical information can help a user make a decision or complete a task, and can be proved or disproved. This definition rules out other types of information, such as poetry, fiction, and marketing copy. While marketing copy can sometimes be verified, it is often persuasive, and relies on implications rather than fact. Non-technical types of information are perfectly legitimate and have an important place in communication.

This definition is broad enough to encompass all that is described in STC’s definition, and also helps distinguish what technical communication is not. Poetry is not technical communication. Fiction is not technical communication. A billboard showing a mug of beer is not technical communication. Any type of communication that is designed simply to persuade or entertain, rather than empower, is not technical communication. The defining characteristic of technical communication is that it can be used to make a decision or accomplish a task. It exists to help people succeed.

Why does it matter?

Having a succinct, precise definition can help us communicate about technical communication more effectively, which is an important step toward raising awareness and demonstrating value. It can also lead to fundamental improvements in the communication that we encounter every day. Using this definition, we can consider different types of communication and decide if they are technical or not, or decide if they might benefit from applying best practices from technical communication.

Best practices in technical communication include a complex mix of writing, visual design, user experience, content strategy, and other conventions. At the heart of technical communication is the concept that information should enable users to be successful. The principles that provide the foundation for technical communication (and all communication in general) can be summarized as the “Seven Cs of Communication,” which are easily found on websites such as MindTools.

Technical Communication is Everywhere!

Technical communication is a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. At its best, we don’t even realize it is technical communication. Done well, the information and the design of the information become nearly invisible, serving us as we accomplish tasks and make decisions. At its worst, it impedes our ability to act, and makes us work harder.

Consider the following types of technical communication, in which the accuracy and verifiability are essential:

Product Information

Business-Related Email

User Interfaces

Signs

Online Help

Clothing Labels

Packaging

Conclusion

This definition is broad enough to encompass all that is described in STC’s definition, and also helps distinguish what technical communication is not. Any type of communication that is designed simply to persuade or entertain, rather than inform and empower, is not technical communication. An essential characteristic of technical communication is that it can be used to make a decision or accomplish a task. It exists to help people succeed.

There are many specialized areas in which professional communicators work, such as corporate communication, education, scientific communication, marketing, public relations, and more. Within each of these specialized areas, the principles that guide technical communication can be applied to improve the quality of information and the user experience. As the many specialized areas share information, the definition of technical communication can be refined further.

References

Ingram, Mathew. 2015. Publishers Only Have Themselves to Blame for the Ad-Blocking Apocalypse. Fortune. Accessed August 23, 2015.

Jackson, Keith. No Date. The 7 Cs of Communication: A Checklist for Clear Communication. Mind Tools. Accessed August 23, 2015.

Society for Technical Communication. No Date. Defining Technical Communication. Accessed August 24, 2015.

Comments

If you would like to contribute to the discussion about defining technical communication, please send me a message using the Contact page, and I will include your comments here.

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