Lots of companies hire a technical writer when they need a documentation consultant. The results are often a stressed tech writer, a dissatisfied customer base, and a vague feeling that there must be a better way.
What do technical writers do?
Technical writers write, and often design, pieces of documentation. By its nature, tech writing tends to attract people who are detail-oriented and focused on small-scale issues. These are very important traits for technical writers, but when it comes to stepping back a few paces and looking at the big picture, they can also be stumbling blocks.
What do documentation consultants do?
Documentation consultants look at larger issues like:
- Where are communication breakdowns currently occurring between users and the company?
- How do our users currently consume their entertainment and educational material?
- What media should we use to document our product for users?
- Which feedback is important to us, and how can we gather it?
- Is our current documentation suite meeting the needs of our users?
- Do we need to completely rethink our documentation strategy?
- How accessible is our documentation?
- Is our documentation production process Agile? Why or why not?
- What tools can we use to quickly produce documentation for our users?
Is a documentation consultant like an information architect?
Not really. ‘Information architect’ is an unfortunately vague term these days that means different things to different people. Generally, though, in IT circles, an information architect designs the underlying structures of technical documents.
If we liken software documentation to building construction:
- The documentation consultant helps you work out the requirements for the building, like whether it should be multi-storey or residential-zoned.
- The information architect draws up plans for the building.
- The technical writer(s) construct the building.
Which should I hire?
Generally speaking, the answer will be: both. Bring in a documentation consultant to look at your overall strategy and re-jig it, then hire a technical writer once you know exactly what you want and how you want to achieve it. End result: less stress for everyone, no wasted time chasing inappropriate documentation methods, and happier users.