Repositioned global technical writers for prominent new role

Late 1990s Technical writing community



Traditionally, software tech writing (user assistance development) covered: printed user manuals and online help. Half a donut, if you will. The other half, in Pradeep Henry’s view, covered user interface labels and messages that the software displayed. Both halves are informational and need the same basic skills: writing from user perspective. Back in the 80s/90s though, messages were written by techies, user interface labels were improved by usability experts, printed manuals were written by tech writers, and online materials such as Help were often developed (or supervised) by usability experts. The result: missing information, repeating information, and inconsistent information. There was a more fundamental problem with the traditional practice. The goal pursued was: better document quality. In summary, both the goal and the role of the practitioner needed to change.

Innovation

Henry’s exposure to user interface (UI) design came at an unexpected time – when he was a tech writer! His first exposure was in 1989. A large software product developed by his employer TCS for IBM Nordic Lab, Sweden was tested for usability. The usability test was conducted by IBM human factors experts at TCS’ office in Chennai, India – and Henry was engaged in it. Although done with a temporary make-shift “lab,” this was most likely India’s first software usability test. Henry's second big exposure to UI design came in 1994-95, when he was at IBM San Jose Programming Lab, rewriting online help, messages, and user interface labels. During that time, he attended a usability course at University of California, Berkeley (Extn).

That was a lot of user interface design exposure for a tech writing expert! The result? Henry changed the tech writing approach. He changed the goal from “better document quality” to “better software usability.” He moved message writing and label writing into the realm of tech writing as they needed the same writing skills. As the approach was usability- or user-centric, he called it user-centered information design or UCID. Only recently did he give it a catchy name, whole-donut approach.

A top technology trend American Library Association
(Henry's 1998 book on technical writing) advocates a view that gives the technical writer a more prominent role in life cycle activities ... Technical writers educated in the model (described in the book) would be valued members of a development team. R. L. Upchurch, ACM Computing Reviews

Challenges

The software development project for IBM Sweden was the first where Henry used a precursor of UCID. And at TCS, he set up a tech writing practice that had the UCID approach. How can Henry take the new approach to the world? Describing the method in a book published in the US can reach the world-wide audience, Henry figured.

He faced some challenges. India is known for “learn-and-apply,” not for innovating. If so, will a global audience listen to a new approach from Henry? The US influences the world and therefore publishing in the US would be the best way to reach the world, but will US publishers “buy” a book on writing authored by a person of Indian origin (although many Indians speak good English)? Also, producing book-length work is hard work that could take a couple of years and Henry was anyway leaving the tech writing discipline for user interface design. Why bother the effort and time needed to write a book on a discipline he was quitting?

Yet, Henry sent proposals to half a dozen publishers in the US. A few rejected, a few did not respond, one accepted, and Henry was on his way.

The book


Published by Artech House, USA in 1998. Read favorable reviews.

Impact

When Henry’s book on UCID was published in 1998, it garnered interest in the United States.

UNISYS, USA taught UCID to its technical writing staff. They created a course based on Henry’s book and asked him to provide a video introduction.

ACM, IEEE, and American Library Association gave favorable reviews. ALA in fact listed UCID in “The Top Technology Trends.” (Read favorable reviews.) EE|Times analyzed UCID. Society for Technical Communication and another publisher asked Henry to write articles on UCID. Henry also received invitations from conference organizers. That included an invite to speak at the world’s premier technical writing conference in Seattle, which Henry unfortunately could not honor.

All of these may have helped spread the UCID method. But we have only one piece of information that might support that guess: The tagline of technical writing’s premier professional association WritersUA says exactly what the title of the UCID book says (in a catchier way, thankfully). See picture.