It’s an odd feeling to be declared obsolete. I had been getting increasingly less relevant for a while, but after the dot coms went down, the high-tech world turned on its ear. Venture capital disappeared and so did the start-ups that had been my bread and butter.
Tech writers were replaced by automated systems that generate “documentation” from embedded engineering notes. For years, no one cared if the material these systems generated was useful or readable. As long as “something” was included with the product, it was “good enough.”
Intelligent, human-based technical support had already been exported. Now, the same thinking was applied to documentation.
Need help? Call tech support on the other side of the world. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected. Finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will provide incorrect information. Never provide a call back number, so if the solution doesn’t work — and mostly, it won’t — make them go through the whole thing again.
What could go wrong with this?
Who needs a manual?
A lot has gone wrong with this approach. Pretty much everything, really. Belatedly, a wide range of companies seem to have discovered that having horrible customer service and no documentation is affecting business! Imagine that. Industry-wide rethinking came too late for my career, but it’s nice to see respect for customers seeping back into service. Better late than never. It turns out that customers who buy expensive gear do want documentation. The more expensive the equipment, the better service they apparently expect. Who’d have guessed? I’m sure industry execs were shocked to discover people want manuals. Good ones. Written in a language they understand.
The whole “call tech support” thing got old really fast.
I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer. You know. An author. Novels. Literature. I eventually wrote a lot of books, all of them explaining how to do something obscurely technical and computer-related. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra and never took a physics or chemistry course, I picked up a lot along the way. I rode the high-tech wave until that fateful day when I was informed “no one reads manuals.”
The world keeps turning. I’m seeing “help wanted” ads for tech writers again. It was a long drought. At last, written (not generated) documentation is making a comeback. I’ve lived long enough to see the full cycle, to watch an industry — and my profession — come 360 degrees back to where it all began.