A professor once told me, “If you want things to stay the same, there will have to be some changes.” Technology isn’t mentioned in that phrase, but it hardly has to be. It’s one of many pithy quotes about technology’s ongoing change. We’ve come to expect that, but fewer of us get excited about it.
It’s not new for excitement to be replaced by something less, even boredom. That change comes from novelty, and it’s been part of technology since the first human became excited about a gadget, probably something for digging. Moving forward a few million years, the rapid changes in computer technology has included novelty, but computers will never be able to leave novelty behind, like some amazing new feature.
The power of computers is impressive, but it can’t compare to the power of novelty. Computers have existed for decades. Novelty has existed for millennia. Computers affect the technology in our life. Novelty affects our psychology, which is nearly all of our life. From this perspective, novelty has influenced us for much longer than computers and in more ways. It is also a part of technology that has not changed and probably never will.
That’s one part of technology that has not changed, but there are others. We still like technology that shows up in fun advertisements, that comes with pretty packaging, and that has clear instructions. All of those can be paper or electronic, and most of them rely on novelty, except clear instructions.
Since this blog is about technical writing, I’ll elaborate on the value of clear instructions and how novelty affects them. Technical writers and users have valued clear instructions since they first showed up, which was probably soon after the first written languages emerged. Unfortunately, the idea still struggles against the power of novelty.
Serious or established companies often understand the value of clear instructions. However, this is one issue where those companies are in the minority, as shown in online discussions. Discussion boards about new features have countless comments. Discussion boards about improvements for clear instructions are relegated to a tiny group of technical communicators. Of course, there are active discussions where users ask and give help, and some give generously. Unfortunately, it’s a case of getting what you pay for. Help in online discussions is free, but the quality is sporadic at best.
We could consider this as another case of novelty winning the day and that nothing can be done, but something can. When you notice that online help is relegated to an online discussion, contact the company. It could be as simple as, “I like your product, but your online help seems to rely on web discussions. Could you create some carefully written help?”
Business owners have told me that they notice those notes, and after getting a few, they hired me or another technical writer. With this little effort, instructions could improve, and we could use them to get more from our technology.