Part of the “Whose profession is it anyway?” special section from ACM <interactions>, May/June 2005.
By Fred Sampson
Senior Member STC, Past President of STC Silicon Valley
Long ago, in a universe far away, technical writing consisted of secretaries (before they became administrative assistants) transcribing and typing the scribbled notes of the engineers who designed hardware and software. Some of the more gray among us can still recall when computer documentation was stored in long rows of dusty binders, impenetrable, unusable by any who had not been initiated into the curious and Byzantine depths of the books’ organization.
Those days are, thankfully, long gone. Technical communication is now performed by professionals, trained in the many facets of the field, with a wide range of experience and education in much more than writing.
Technical communication has gone through several stages of development, from the days of typewritten engineers’ notes to the days of word processors, when anyone could produce an attractive, page-numbered and spell-checked document (regardless of the value of its content) to the discovery of user-centered design, when we finally graduated to acknowledging that what users needed to know in order to accomplish their goals might differ from what the developers wanted to tell them about their wonderful product.
Leading, representing, and training technical communicators for over 50 years has been the goal of the Society for Technical Communication (STC).
Today, technical communication is entering a new stage of development, when some documentation is being offshored, and when the skills of technical communicators involve much more than interviewing and writing skills. Today’s highly-valued technical communicator is intimately involved in developing user personas and scenarios, in testing prototypes, in working cooperatively with professionals in human factors and usability and graphic design to develop usable products. We focus on providing the information (not just documentation) that the user needs, where and when the user needs it. STC is committed to leading its members into this new stage of directly adding value to our clients’ products.
While STC maintains relationships with other professional and academic organizations in related fields, its members engage in cross-organizational and cross-functional endeavors. STC’s members, chapters, and SIGs actively support and involve themselves in other organizations’ conferences. For instance, STC was a cooperating society for the inaugural Designing for User Experiences conference (DUX2003), and the Silicon Valley chapter provides representation in BayDUX, the San Francisco Bay Area incarnation of UXnet, to promote and organize cross-organization events.
Many STC members maintain membership in other related organizations, such as the Usability Professionals Association (UPA), the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA), ACM’s SIG for the Design of Communication (SIGDOC) and its SIG for Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI), among others. These memberships result in a constant cross-pollination and transfer of ideas, techniques, and tools, and energize our meetings, conferences, and publications.
STC chapter meetings generally include informative presentations by knowledgeable presenters. Most popular are the tool talks (a presentation on Adobe FrameMaker is guaranteed to draw a crowd). But recent appearances by notable speakers, such as web-usability celebrity Jared Spool, have pulled in large numbers of meeting attendees. Our members recognize that their craft is much more than just tools, and that their future depends on expanding their skill sets to include user experience capabilities.
STC members include professionals with a wide range of titles and roles in an equally wide range of industries: technical writer, technical communicator, information developer, technical editor, illustrator, information designer, information architect, usability professional; in computer software and hardware, financial, insurance, government, military, biotechnology and medical fields. Our roles continue to expand as our employers continue to demand more value from employees. It is no longer enough to just write well; we have to demonstrate that customers find value in our contributions.
Who is STC?
STC is an international organization, with geographic communities (chapters) in many countries besides the U.S., and with virtual communities (SIGs) with members from around the world. STC recognizes that the way we communicate as an organization and the way our members congregate into communities has changed over the past decade, and the society is transforming to meet that change. We are now more than ever focused on supporting our communities, both geographic and virtual, to ensure that STC provides value to its members and that its members in turn bring value to our employers, institutions, students, customers, and users.
Who are members of STC? Let’s look at a few.
Andrea Ames, STC President, is a technical communicator with more than 20 years’ experience, who began her career in technical communication in college. Besides leading STC’s ongoing transformation, Andrea teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Extension program, where her classes focus on user-centered information design. She currently leads innovative information development initiatives in IBM’s Information Management User Technology group. Andrea recently earned recognition as a Senior Technical Staff Member at IBM, a position rarely achieved by an information developer.
Janice (Ginny) Redish is a well-known and respected usability author and teacher, and a fellow of STC. Ginny presents regularly at the annual STC conference and at UPA, and teaches at universities and commercial usability conferences. Ginny was also instrumental in the creation and growth of one of STC’s most popular SIGs, the Usability and User Experience (UUX) Community. She is, of course, active in other organizations, notably UPA.
“I belong to STC, UPA, and CHI. I have been to the IA Summit. I also belong to the technical communication SIGs of both IEEE and ACM (IEEE Professional Communication Society and ACM SIGDOC). All of these communities are important to me. I am perhaps most active in STC, where we have more than 20,000 technical communicators and a virtual community within that of several thousand people who focus on usability and user experience (STC UUX). Technical communicators have always focused on audience (on users) and on what users do (on users’ realities and users’ tasks). They are naturally inclined to be usability specialists.
Communication is critical to all aspects of creating a successful user experience — from communication within the team creating the product to the words in the product itself. STC is probably the largest organization among the user experience communities. It has a superb infrastructure with local geographic communities around the globe, 21 communities of practice, and annual and regional conferences. It has a research journal and a monthly magazine with substantial articles, many of which focus on UX. All of that gives us lots of opportunities to share information both face-to-face and virtually.
One of the great values of STC to me is that as I have expanded my expertise and my work — from documents to software to web, from writing to usability to user experience — STC has grown with me, welcoming these new topics and welcoming people who can help foster cross-discipline knowledge within the community.”
Whitney Quesenbery, current president of UPA, is another long-time STC member and founder of the UUX Community. Whitney also presents regularly at the STC and UPA conferences, and is a prolific author. She is a user interface designer and usability specialist with a passion for clear communication. She is president of UPA and was appointed to a committee for the US Election Assistance Commission, where she works to ensure the usability of voting systems.
In an article originally published in the proceedings of Tekom, Whitney says of technical communication:
“User experience is ultimately about communication. The design (in all its aspects) translates a concept into action, the creators communicating through it to those who use the product. In the 1980s and 1990s as the software industry grew, it was easy to think that technical communication was just a synonym for help authoring. But user interfaces, especially on the web, are filled with text as sites reach out to create a conversation with users. Even one of the most basic navigation elements in the web a link is based on words. The effective use of language to make the interface easier to understand is a critical factor for success in today’s web and application design. Technical communication is an important skill for improving the usability of the electronic tools that surround us at work, home and play.” (http://www.wqusability.com/articles/language-usability-tekom.html)
Dana Chisnell, principle of Usability Works, is an Associate Fellow of STC and an active member of UPA, who also presents at CHI conferences. Dana says of her transition from technical writing to usability:
“I first learned about user-centered design in a session at an STC conference. It was an epiphany for me. It wasn’t that I hadn’t taken my audience into account before. Rather, hearing this presentation empowered me to go to the users to really understand their work and their tasks, so I could serve my audience better.”
Karen Bachmann, another leader in the STC UUX community, says that:
“The related discipline and cross-disciplinary nature of STC is a benefit to all members, regardless of professional focus. I learned about UX as well as other related disciplines and specializations through STC. The interaction between the professions is mutually beneficial. UUX aims to provide the bridge and facilitate the sharing of expertise between the groups.”
Fred Sampson is a past-president of the Silicon Valley chapter of STC, a co-chair of BayDUX, webmaster for two CHI conferences as well as DUX2003, and an information developer at IBM. Fred has made a point of engaging with multiple user experience organizations, working to ensure that STC members are exposed to the field and understand how expanding their skill sets to include user experience can bring value to their work.
STC and its members and communities work to maintain and cultivate relationships in the user experience community. It is our goal to ensure that the users of the products for which we provide information are successful in meeting their goals, and we recognize that we can achieve that vision only in partnership with other user experience practitioners.
About the Author
Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, www.baydux.org, a member of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at email@example.com.
The following URLs were referenced in this article:
Society for Technical Communication (STC)
Whitney Quesenbery’s Tekom article
© ACM 2005. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in <interactions>, Volume XII.3, ISSN 1072-5520 (May/June 2005) http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1060189.1060215.