06 June 2011

The right tool for the job

The array of tools (applications/programs) available to us as technical communicators is vast. It can actually get very confusing at times, with the boundaries between what the different tools can do getting increasingly blurred. We can spend a lot of time working out which ones to use for a particular job – it isn’t always as straightforward as choosing the one designed for the purpose. Compromises have to be made, balancing the needs of the writers/editors, the clients and, of course, the readers.
  • If I choose this one, am I preventing my clients from updating the documentation themselves?
  • Is this one flexible enough to provide outputs in all likely formats, even though my client only wants PDF ‘for now’?
  • Do I know other people with enough expertise in this application to be able to pick up the work if I‘m hit by the flu virus tomorrow?
  • How expensive are the licences for that one? If everyone at my client’s business needs one, does the cost become prohibitive?

After a lot of head-scratching, we make our decision – sometimes trading off a really nifty feature for overall compatability ... but it shouldn’t stop there. If we regularly pick up and use different tools, we will be aware of their uses (and limitations) but we do need to update our knowledge. Making a decision that FrameMaker (for example) is unsuitable to use for a particular project may have been valid for FrameMaker 7, but do the new features in FrameMaker 10 make a difference?

I personally believe that the value and contribution of good technical authors isn’t defined by their skill in a particular tool – or even in several – but in their ability to communicate in a way that their audience can understand and relate to. Having said that, I would expect anyone engaging in a craft for which they are being paid to be at ease with their tools. No matter how gifted the artist, I would expect some understanding of the properties of the different types of paint available, even though the talent lies in producing a breathtaking picture. The sense of awe and wonder wouldn’t last long if the paint all started to run down the canvas as soon as you hung it on your wall!

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